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To Triumph in the Unknown, Don't Try Too Hard

To innovate, is to enter the unknown. Doing this induces anxiety, even among seasoned professionals. In most organisations—where failure is not an option—leaders have many fears. They fear what they do not know. They fear that competitors will outpace them. Most of all, they fear their inability to find success. This fear causes rational leaders with no permission to fail to resort to conservatism.

When faced with an option where outcomes are unknown, and only a small chance of success, their reasonable conclusion might be to do nothing. Victory requires action and effort. But brute force and elbow-grease are just not enough to get you there when innovating. We must let go if we’re to get a grip on success. To triumph in the unknown, we must try not to try too hard.

To triumph in the unknown, we must try not to try too hard.

This seems counterintuitive at first. Read on for three ways you can try the right way, and find out why it will help you win.

Just start somewhere

In Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers and Gamechangers, co-authors Dave Gray, Sunni Brown and James Macanufo explain the importance and mechanics of emergence. And, they provide lots methods and activities to get started. A principle of emergence is the idea that...

Innovation is a search for the new. It’s an exploration of the unknown. To fore-draw any conclusion—i.e. by doggedly pursuing a favourite idea—defeats the purpose of the exercise.

Explorers of old understood this. Christopher Columbus set out westward from Andalusia intending to reach the East Indies to establish a new trade route. Surprise! The New World interrupted their journey half way across the Atlantic Ocean.

Often, we don’t find exactly what we set out for, but something else of value is found along the way. Being unsure of exactly where you’re going, or precisely how you’ll get there can be a good thing. We can embrace these happy accidents by just starting somewhere, and keeping an open mind, but not an empty head.

Embrace failure

So easily said, yet seldom lived. This catch cry of the modern entrepreneur is so well trodden it has become trite. What does it mean to embrace failure? Let’s not celebrate failure. Rather, let’s make space for failure. Allow it. Expect it. Accept it. This letting go of winning may be the very thing that leads to triumph.

In ‘Trying not to Try’, Professor Edward Slingerland introduces the paradox that striving hard for a specific outcome, makes it more difficult to obtain. Just like a sports star who experiences performance anxiety right before a major event. They know they need to relax and be in the moment if they’re to perform at their best. Yet the harder they try, the more uptight they become. You're probably more familiar with the restless night before a big presentation. The curtains are shut, you’ve had a glass of warm milk, and you’re cosy and ready for a good night’s sleep. Yet sleep eludes you. The louder you shout to your restless brain to let you sleep, the more wired you feel.

In these moments, it feels like only when you loosen your resolve and let it go, do you finally achieve your goal. The same is true when exploring new opportunities. Being preoccupied by winning is a certain path to disappointment. Instead, stay loose and let it go. Try focussing on the exploration, not the outcome. What you learn could lead you down unexpected avenues to success in ways you can’t have foreseen.

Be spontaneous, be oblique

On first pass, ‘planned spontaneity’ seems like an oxymoron. How can one plan to have no plan? Being spontaneous creates unfiltered ideas and offers opportunities to try things without restraint. Teams can discover things they’d never have encountered had they been walking the line on a predetermined path. Jazz bands exploit this kind of improvisation to great effect. Unlike other performance styles, there is no sheet music or any rigid plan in jazz.

Performers are free to improvise. Musicians respond in the moment to what’s happening, and together create a tune that grooves.

A study by scientists at John Hopkins found that when musicians spontaneously improvise, an area of the the brain associated with planning and self-censoring - the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex - slows down and self-expression flows more freely. This may be true outside the creative arts too. Innovation is about finding the new. New ways to solve a known problem. New products that have never existed before. New technology that advances society. Spontaneity and improvisation enables us to explore and experiment freely.

Looking again to music, the famous musician and producer Brian Eno and his creative partner Peter Schmidt understood the power of obliquity. In mathematics, oblique means neither parallel nor perpendicular to a given line or surface. An oblique path is one that does not take a straight or direct line. In 1975, Eno and Schmidt published their collection of aphorisms called Oblique Strategies that break through creative deadlocks, dilemmas or blockers by encouraging lateral thinking. Musicians such as David Bowie, Phoenix, and Coldplay have used Oblique Strategies while creating some of the most successful recordings in history. While it’s origins are in creative expression, it can be applied in business too.

Successful innovators and entrepreneurs know that winning isn’t about luck or good timing. Hard work and effort are required. But the right kind of effort is essential. The best teams are comfortable with only a vague idea of where they’re heading. They keep an open mind and explore what emerges along the way. Trying too hard to achieve something specific can result in missed opportunities. Letting go could be the very thing that moves you victory.

Finally, we can learn from artists and musicians. Spontaneity and improvisation frees our minds to perform at their best. With this, combined with a willingness to deviate, we explore more freely, allowing new ideas and unfiltered opportunities to emerge.

Stay tuned for an upcoming article on the practical tools, methods and approaches to applying these principles next time you’re exploring new opportunities.