Entrepreneurs are venerated in the business world for good reason: They shatter the status quo by doing new things — or old things in new ways. The successful entrepreneur must incubate a new, value-adding idea and take it to market in a way that optimizes the startup’s success. At the same time, the entrepreneur must outsmart the brain’s bias against innovation.
All of the creative capabilities required for entrepreneurial innovation actually go against the wiring in our brains. In fact, many of our instincts hold us back when it comes to innovating. We’re descendants of risk-averse ancestors whose self-preservation instincts steered them away from unknown territory. We all have inherent Cognitive Biases that limit new ways of doing things. But, in today’s hypercompetitive world, startup success rests on an entrepreneur’s ability to overcome this ancestral DNA that limits breakthrough ideas.
Let’s examine a few of these Cognitive Biases programmed into our brains that stifle creative ideas and innovation:
Negativity Bias is among the greatest enemies of innovative thinking. We humans are conditioned to allow negative impressions to form more quickly than positives ones. This bias forces us to essentially kill off ideas before they can be fully aired. To turn the tables on Negativity Bias, successful entrepreneurs must consciously change their language to emphasize what they’re forwith any new idea. They need to recognize and overcome “yes, but…” thinking, and instead use “how might we” language that illuminates the potential within each idea.
Fortunately, because entrepreneurs are the ones who uncover and champion new ideas, they tend to be better at avoiding Negativity Bias. They don’t often say “yes, but” to others — or to themselves. Still, it can become an obstacle unless they stay attentive.
Curse of Knowledge represents another Cognitive Bias that can be lethal to startup success. Entrepreneurs know more about their startup than anyone, and are the expert in the rationale behind their idea. But when you become expert in something, it’s hard to go back to a place of simplicity when explaining their idea to someone. For example, when pitching the idea to a venture capitalist, Curse of Knowledge may cause them to omit some important feature that demonstrates its value. Such omissions can result in lack of support for an otherwise great idea.
Confirmation Bias is another behavior wired in our brains. It leads us to ignore information that doesn’t support our own point of view. In entrepreneurs, it can manifest when people who have a vision become so tied to it they operate with blinders on and can’t be swayed to consider any other way. To overcome it, entrepreneurs should enlist people they can trust, and who’ll speak out if new information can impact the direction they’re taking.
As humans, we can’t avoid believing that our way of seeing the world is the objective truth. This is why we need to pay attention to our Cognitive Bias regarding Framing. Ensuring that we’re really looking at the opportunity from the right angle could make or break an idea. A startup could have a great new innovation, but they could be solving the wrong problem. This can set them up for failure, even though they have something worthwhile to offer. For example, when thinking through what category their invention competes in, they could be thinking too narrowly (writing instruments), and miss out on a larger segment (communication mechanisms).
Simply becoming aware of the forces of our Cognitive Biases is an important first step. They’re instinctive — we’ll give in to them unless we’re vigilant. Given all that’s going against us, it’s fantastic that we’re able to do the amazing things that we do. Score one for the entrepreneurial spirit!
Beth Storz, President/Innovation Process Consultant at Ideas To Go, has a rich history of helping companies and brands to be more innovative. She received her MBA at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Together with Adam Hansen and Ed Harrington, she is co-author of the new book, Outsmart Your Instincts: How the Behavioral Innovation Approach Drives Your Company Forward (Forness Press). For more information, visit www.ideastogo.com.