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Changing Our Behaviour: The Role of Knowledge

To know is to do. This is an unspoken assumption behind much of what is written about change. If we know the risks, know the opportunities, have ideas about what to do, we will make change happen. But this isn’t true — at least, in its entirety. The latest Censemaking Innovation Podcast continues to look at what it means to create change and starts with a look at the bedrock of change-making: knowledge.

Knowledge is at the bedrock of behaviour change and innovation.

To innovate is to take knowledge, create something new and act on it — but what kind of knowledge are we talking about, how much, and what do we mean when talk about knowledge in the context of change?

Knowledge is the foundation for change. We rarely change without some sense that there might be a need to make a shift or without some kind of knowledge of what it is we need to change.

Putting Knowledge into Practice

It’s common to mistaking knowing for doing, but there are many examples where that simply isn’t true.

There are at present more than 1.3 billion people who smoke cigarettes and you would be hard-pressed to find a single person over the age of five that doesn’t know that cigarettes cause at least some harm to you. Of those that are smoke, half of them are likely to die from their behaviour over their lifetime if they continue. Eight million people die each year from smoking. Despite this, tobacco use is among the most studied substance in the world. We know a LOT about tobacco and its effects on human health and wellbeing. So knowledge isn’t all there is to guide behaviour.

As innovators we might know that we need to do research, market, improve our customer relations, network and so on — but we don’t do it. We might know what to do, but may struggle in how to do it. As it turns out, to know is not necessarily to do.

What does this mean for those interested in innovation and change?

There are three models of knowledge – rational, arational, and irrational and humans use them all.

Different Approaches To Knowledge

When you’re using evidence to inform your decisions — that is, seeing or being exposed to something, deliberating on that thing, and changing your mind because of it — you are using a cognitive rational approach to change.

Approaches that are cognitive rational are information and knowledge-driven. They are driven by an assumed information deficit. The idea is that once you gain information, you rationally consider it and then you change. These approaches are about getting the right information and weighing the costs, benefits, consequences of action (and inaction) and deriving a conclusion based on a rational consideration of what we have before us.

It’s a simple process and when it works, it creates clear mechanisms for change. When it doesn’t work, it causes us all kinds of issues and problems. Most approaches to change are based on this because they are simple and straightforward, even if they aren’t right.

Another issue is that we have non-rational issues. These are the kinds of things that are tied to emotions. We make decisions all the time based on emotions or sensations. These are not less than cognitive, they are part of what it means to be human. But, these are more difficult to manage for others because they are not tied to language. They are also based on things that are far less ‘specific’, but no less real. These are the memories of the past and the sensations associated with it.

These are the kind of decisions that are non-sensical — that is they are not tied to some kind of coherence between thought, feelings, or processes.

Knowledge Goldilocks’ Issue

The other issue we face with knowledge in innovation is that there is process knowledge (how to get things done), technical knowledge (specific knowledge about skills, tools, and their application), and content knowledge (knowledge about the topic that we’re trying to address). Praxis ties this all together.

If you have little idea about where to go and what to do, you might need to learn a little more. Innovation doesn’t require you know everything, but it does require you know something. For example, if you are looking to innovation in children’s mental health, you need to know a little about how children function and what services are already in place. This is where background research comes in.

In innovation contexts we are doing something new and therefore have, at best, a constrained amount of knowledge. We are learning as we go. The problem might be — and this was the case for my podcast adventure — is that we don’t always know where the limits of knowledge are. There is a point at which having too much knowledge about a topic can paralyze us.

When it came to developing a podcast, that came when I started reading books, listening to podcasts and getting any or all of the information I could. The problem was: it was too much. I was overwhelmed and didn’t know how to sort through it all.

It turns out — knowledge is like Goldilocks and her porridge: it has to be just right (in its quantity).

The Role of Expertise

One of the traps we find with knowledge in innovation is the idea that you have to be really smart or experienced to innovate.

I am a fan and staunch critic of much of what is written in blogs, books and journals and spoken about innovation on podcasts. In particular, my criticism comes from a large swath of innovation writers and academics who feel the need to highlight qualifications in talking about the work they are covering. This is what happens when these authors refer to their ‘brilliant’ colleague or student or something or how about a ‘Harvard MBA’ did something or why a particular study came out of Stanford University or something like that. It’s as if innovation knowledge is tied to Ivy League elite schools, advanced degrees, and other credentials.

It’s really a problem. This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with accomplishment or certain institutions, but it often gives the impression that one needs to be at a ‘great’ institution, be recognized and with lots of letters and highly accomplished.

You don’t.

In fact, as we will learn in future posts (and episodes of Censemaking: The Innovation Podcast) , confidence and the ability to deliver innovations is as much about how we think about ourselves and the mindsets we hold than the the talent, tools, resources you have. Great innovations leverage what there is to create something special.

So what have we learned today?

  1. Knowledge is important, but not sufficient for innovation
  2. You can have too much and too little.Too little knowledge can be remedied by doing some research. Too much knowledge comes from getting overwhelmed. If you’re lost and confused, you might have more knowledge than you need for the moment you’re in. Knowledge should help you to act, not prevent it.
  3. You might know more than you realize. There are three domains of knowledge that we need to innovate and these will come over time: process, technical, and content. Bring these together and you’ll be able to succeed. We learn and gain praxis knowledge by bringing these all together.

I hope you find success and learn a little more about how to know more.

Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash and Timothy Barlin on Unsplash

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