One of the most perplexing features of these troubled times is that so many capable people in so many fields look so lost and ineffective. Whether it’s the stubborn inefficiencies of the health-care system¸ the ever-rising costs of the higher-education system¸ even the slow-motion collapse of the US postal system¸ leaders with unrivaled expertise and decades of experience can’t seem to develop creative solutions to dire problems.
Why are so many smart executives so ineffective?
One answer may be that all this experience is itself a problem. In her underappreciated book¸ The Innovation Killer¸ Cynthia Barton Rabe¸ a former innovation strategist at Intel¸ explains how “what we know limits what we can imagine.” Many organizations¸ she argues¸ struggle with a “paradox of expertise” in which deep knowledge of what exists in a marketplace or a product category makes it harder to consider what-if strategies that challenge long-held assumptions. “When it comes to innovation¸” she writes¸ “the same hard-won experience¸ best practice¸ and processes that are the cornerstones of an organization’s success may be more like millstones that threaten to sink it.”
Her answer to the paradox is to populate organizations with “zero-gravity thinkers”: innovators “who are not weighed down by the expertise of a team¸ its politics¸ or ‘the way things have always been done.'” In Rabe’s formula¸ zero-gravity thinkers come from outside the corporate mainstream and work deep within the ranks of the organization. They are designers¸ ethnographers¸ anthropologists¸ and other creative types who get immersed in a project or a team¸ contribute their unique points of view¸ and then move on to the next change-the-game assignment. Ideal zero-gravity thinkers¸ she explains¸ have “psychological distance” from the setting in which they work¸ “renaissance tendencies” that draw on a range of interests and influences¸ and “related expertise” that allows them to find the points where blue-sky ideas intersect with real-world opportunities.