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Innovation: Making the Unknown Known

Jeff DeGraff
Jeff DeGraff
Jeff DeGraff

In his magnum opus Critique of Pure Reason, the philosopher Immanuel Kant builds a bridge between what is known, what is unknown and what is unknowable. Innovation is a demonstration of his philosophy in as much as it is the only value proposition that becomes manifest in the future for which we have no data today. It is a creative venture into the unknown to discover what is knowable and how to us this new knowledge purposefully.

Progress pulls the future into the present and pushes the present into the past. This means the normative management techniques used to align organizational processes are of little use when trying to reach the future first. They attempt to stabilize that which by definition is dynamic. When looking forward into the unknown it is the unexpected event that becomes the norm. To navigate from the known to the unknown and beyond requires constant course corrections.

While there are no known maps to the undiscovered country, there are only trends and tendencies that provide some general direction: changes in demography, developing technologies, discoveries in medicine. The challenge is to overcome our present predisposition to make sense of what would otherwise be nonsensical. For example, even after four voyages to the New World, Columbus still believed he had landed in India and never realized the fortunes he had hoped to gain from a shorter route to the Far East.

We need to consider multiple perspectives if we are to look through our own blind spots so that we may see what others miss:

Create: This is radical, revolutionary thinking mastered by creative and artistic types of people. This perspective values new and different kinds of brainstorming.
Control: This is pragmatic thinking that values the reliability of systems and processes and high-scale production. This perspective values logic, order, and structure.
Collaborate: This is patient, participatory thinking practiced by people who come together in nurturing and empowering communities. This perspective values a long-term vision that will join individuals with shared ideals.
Compete: This is thinking that is driven by profits, speed, and the desire to come out on top. This perspective values fast-paced growth and quantifiable results.
Consider the trends and tendencies you might face in the future through each of these mindsets. Once you’ve done that, you can determine the probability and potential impact of all these drivers and design experiments based on those projections. It is crucial to run many experiments at once. This is what venture capitalists do: they diversify the array. Instead of picking just one project you think is going to work, design many small projects that you can test. This is how you will know which bridges to cross.

While you run those experiments, you need to be open to change: make adjustments as you go based on what’s working and what’s not working. Failure along the way is inevitable. The key is to fail during the experimental stage, when the stakes are low. Then you can learn from those failures and succeed when it really counts.

None of these strategies in preparing for the future will work if you don’t diversify your gene pool. This means assembling a team of the best and brightest. Remember that innovation is not amateur hour. The goal is not merely to be on par with the field but to lead the field. And the only way to be a leader is to be an expert. This doesn’t mean that you have to know everything yourself. Rather, this means that you need to surround yourself with people who know the things that you don’t. Everyone will have their own area of proficiency. Amassed together, your team will be experts in your chosen field.

Innovators understand that the unknown doesn’t have to remain unknown, but they need to be prudent about which bridges they cross for these will determine where and when they will arrive in the future and if their innovations are timely and valuable. So, be flexible as you consider and prepare for the possibilities that may await you on the other side. Leave many options open.

As Immanuel Kant’s observed, “Human reason is by nature architectonic”. Put another way, you must build your bridge to the unknown as you walk over it.