The dark side of innovation

Don’t be afraid of the dark side of innovation

Creativity and innovation is not only my profession, but also my passion. In particular, I love thinking about new and better ways for people to systematically and reliably produce better ideas and innovation results. Unfortunately, my quest to create more effective innovation methods and thinking tools made me realize a related dilemma: What if someone used my innovation know-how to work for “the dark side of innovation”?

What is the dark side of innovation?

Most things can be used for good and for bad purposes. Think of a knife. We use it to cut food, and some use it to stab someone else to death. Or think of a medical drug: We use it to cure a disease, and some use it to kill themselves by taking an overdose.

Likewise, every effective innovation method is a “neutral agent”: People can use it to create good and evil results. What do you get when you enter a good, worthy innovation case into such a “thinking machine”? Meaningful ideas that improve people’s lives and make the world a better place.

But what if people with ill intentions input a dark, evil innovation case into a potent innovation method? They may be able to produce “dark ideas” that worsen people’s life and world conditions; that’s the “dark side of innovation”. And of course, I don’t want to support “the dark side of the force” with any of my innovation methods; that’s the dilemma. So can we avoid the danger of  effective innovation methods being abused for an evil agenda?

An antidote against the dark side

This month, I have begun writing on my second innovation book, which will be titled “X-IDEA: The Structured Magic of Playful Innovation.” X-IDEA is an innovation process method and related toolbox that I created for my innovation company Thinkergy. It can reliably guide innovation teams and individuals through an innovation project case towards meaningful ideas and results. While writing on the book, I realized that there is one powerful ingredient that —thanks God— the dark side of innovation is missing and cannot acquire. Let me explain.

While working on an innovation case, X-IDEA invites you to adopt one archetypical role or mindset in each of its five stages. Each roles requires you to adopt a unique style of thinking that is needed in particular stage. The five mindsets differ greatly from each other. However, they have one common ingredient: Courage. Without courage, regardless how hard you work on an innovation case in each stage, your results will be suboptimal:

  • In the Xploration stage, step into the role of an Xplorer. Have the courage to travel into the unknown and look for new evidence that may disconfirm your cherished views. Have the courage to confront inconvenient truths, and to admit that your real challenge may be different from what you first thought.
  • In the Ideation stage, play for ideas in the role of a Child. Have the courage to suggest really bold ideas and wild ideas that are often the starting point of truly meaningful concepts.
  • In the Development stage, be an Alchemist. Have the courage to experiment, and trust your gut or intuition about how to best connect the dots to end up with meaningful concepts.
  • In the Evaluation stage, adopt the mindset of a Judge. Have the courage to speak up for an idea you believe in, even if this goes against the preferences of dominant team members or upsets the group’s harmony.
  • Finally in the Action stage, become a Champion who has the courage to “go through the pain period” (as Arnold Schwarzenegger put it) and master all the obstacles and hardships associated with turning an idea into a tangible innovation output.

If you want to become an authentic creative leader, courage is your starting point, too. You must learn to overcome your doubts, worries and fears to realize your creative potential.

What makes courage flourish?

Organisational environments that cultivate courage are libertarian cultures that are built on respect, trust, freedom, freedom of expression, freedom to be yourself, diversity, and passion for working for a worthy cause. You can find all or most of these cultural factors at work at companies that are widely known as innovation leaders.

In contrast, courage typically doesn’t show up in authoritarian environments characterized by power distance, politics, distrust, control, uniformity and sameness, (self-) censorship, and extrinsic motivation using a carrot-and-stick approach.

These factors do also matter for countries. What do countries high up in the innovation rankings (such as the Scandinavian countries, the US, Britain and Germany) have in common? These libertarian democracies encourage their citizens to  think and act courageously and express their opinions freely.

So what?

Now imagine you were part of an innovation team working on an evil project in an authoritarian organization or a dictatorial environment ruled by tight control, intimidation and fear.

Ask yourself: Would you have the courage to mention an inconvenient truth that no-one wants to hear? Would you have the courage to suggest really bold ideas — or would you rather play it safe? Would you have the courage to experiment and use your gut to design concepts — or would you rather follow a “logical, scientific” approach to justify your ideas? Would you be willing to speak up for an idea you believe in — or would you side with authority or the majority? Would you risk your career, your personal freedom, or even your life to create the best possible solution in this innovation project?

Conclusion: Let’s admit it: Innovation methods can be used to create meaningful innovations, but they can also be abused in ways that make the world a worse place. But even if a good innovation method ends up in bad hands, there is hope. The henchman working for “the dark side of the force” are unlikely to come up with ideas that can do too much damage. Why? Courage doesn’t blossom in dark environments ruled by control, intimidation and fear. Fortunately, to deliver truly outstanding ideas and innovations with an effective innovation method, we still need brave people with courage to think and act freely and the hearts to work on something they love and believe in.

Have you got interested to learn more about how X-IDEA may guide you successfully through a worthy innovation project? Tell us more about your innovation challenge.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2015. This article is published in parallel in the Bangkok Post under the same title on 3 September 2015.