Does Early Success Inhibit Innovative Thinking?

February 27, 2015

by Dave Rochlin

I’ve helped run at least two dozen innovation tournaments here at UC Berkeley-Haas, as part of various applied innovation courses (including ten simultaneous ones we recently fielded during our MBA Mid Program Academic Review Course.

The goal of the tournaments is to demonstrate to students the power of iterative thinking and experimentation, as a tool for more impactful and innovative solutions. This is consistent with our overall “diverge/converge model”, which encourages broad exploration of both insights and ideas, before settling on either the problem to solve or the possible solutions.


The tournament format is designed to encourage this: We assign a client challenge (such as “how to accelerate smart home adoption” or “how to get more fans to attend football games”) to a group of 4 to 8 competing student teams, which each typically gather data for several weeks prior to the tournament. At the actual event, the teams present ideas for both problem frames and solutions to their client over the course of 8-12 rapid iteration rounds, modifying and elaborating after each round of client feedback. In many cases, we actually score the students after each around, on variables ranging from a clear problem frame, to the value proposition underlying the proposed solution.

An interesting pattern has emerged among teams that win these tournaments: Those teams that start the strongest tend to improve only marginally though the rounds of feedback (see team one, below), while a winning profile typically resembles the trajectory of team two. Teams that have a rockier and perhaps slower start peak at the right time, and usually prevail. Based on feedback patterns in the early rounds, I can now usually identify by the half way point which team will ultimately be selected by the client.


What are we to make of this?  There are few lessons that would explain this team/data pattern:

The danger of converging too soon.   Rather than explore the range of possibilities, a team that defines and solves the problem immediately will naturally come up with a better initial solution. But they have created a box that limits further exploration and iteration. This behavior is common among real world business teams, which inadvertently focus on executing against good but not great solutions, or develop the right solution to the wrong problem.

Internal focus.  Teams that solve quickly often use an inside out rather than outside in approach. This is often a mistake among novice design thinkers, who believe that a group of smart people can close themselves in a room with a stack of post it notes and solve for anything. Problem frames and solutions need to be evaluated constantly against the outside world.

Lack of urgency. Success breeds complacency. Groups with variable feedback and lower scores tend to have some added urgency that drives them to work harder and take chances.  This same drive is often missing from groups who feel that they have “cracked the case” early.


Tips for leaders in search of more innovative problem solving

When a more innovative approach/solution is desired, leaders need to push their teams to diverge broadly during both the problem definition and problem solving phases. This includes seeking out feedback throughout the process, avoiding faulty processes – such as the urge to pull together a single meeting to solve open ended problems – and exploring multiple solutions rather than going all-in once a “good” solution is developed.  Not all issues and challenges are appropriate for this approach, but when more innovative thinking is the goal, finding the answer too quickly can be the enemy.