One On One

NYU Entrepreneurship Professor Luke Williams On How To Fight ‘Innovation Fatigue’

What could possibly be left to say about disruption? For one thing, according to innovation professor Luke Williams: 'We’re far too obsessed with problem-solving in America.’

Luke Williams is an expert on disruption and innovation, and he knows people are sick of both things. “I sense a lot of what I call ‘innovation fatigue’ out there,” said Williams, executive director of the W.R. Berkley Innovation Lab at NYU’s Stern School of Business and the author of a book called — you guessed it — Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business. “People are sick of being told that they’ve got to disrupt everything they’re doing and replace it with something new. They just don’t see the point.”

WILLIAMS HS
Luke Williams

But that doesn’t change the facts that people also want to grow their organizations, innovation is the best way to grow, and disruption is the most direct way to innovate. Williams will explain how during “Pitching Disruptive Ideas,” a Main Stage presentation that combines straight lecture and small-group workshops at PCMA Education Conference 2017 in New York City next month. “If you’re motivated to grow, you also have to be motivated to lead innovation, because it’s not just another transient management fad,” Williams told Convene in a recent interview. “It’s actually what draws economic growth. If you don’t innovate, you can’t grow.”

Are there hard and fast rules for disruption — for looking at an organization or a system, and deciding if and how it needs to be disrupted?

I think so. I often use a cooking metaphor: Growth occurs whenever people take ingredients, like resources, and rearrange them into recipes, like ideas, that make them more valuable. Once people understand that — that innovation is nothing more than taking the ingredients you have available and seeking a new arrangement of those ingredients that makes them more valuable — that’s empowering. Everyone goes, “Oh, well, I can do that. If this isn’t about inventing something new, if this is just about taking the resources I have available and rearranging them to create a new recipe, I can have a go at that.”

But the perception seems to be that to be disruptive, you’ve got to rip some-thing down and then rebuild it.

Exactly right. There is far too much emphasis on destruction or revolution. It’s just not needed at the end of the day. Another big part of my work is, we’re far too obsessed with problem-solving in America. Ninety-eight percent of every-one’s job is spent solving problems, putting out fires as fast as they can put them out, making decisions as quickly as possible so they can get on to the next thing on their to-do list.

What I often talk about is, the problem with problems is they’re seductively clear. They’re screaming for attention, which typically means in an organization, the problems are the only things getting any thinking attention. The richest areas for growth and innovation are the seemingly unbroken aspects of the situation — the areas where absolutely nothing appears to be wrong. It’s precisely because nothing is wrong that these areas aren’t getting any attention. So innovation is not necessarily about destruction, it’s not necessarily about solving problems. It’s often nothing more than a willingness to just pay attention to what’s normally ignored, or pay attention to things that aren’t obvious.

Is there one takeaway you’d like your audience at PCMA to go home with?

At the conference, we’re tackling some-thing pretty specific. I’m not giving my normal spiel about all this stuff. We’re really just focusing on the pitch part: How do you actually convince others to adopt the new idea you’ve come up with?

I break it down into three parts. The first is that you have to create empathy. Your audience is thinking, Why should I care about this? This is the point of orientation for the audience. Your objective is to spark their empathy by first establishing the inadequacy of the status quo. You’re explaining why this is an issue, and how this is frustrating a target customer.

The second part is that you need to build curiosity through introducing some tension. What I mean by tension is that this middle part of the presentation is a point of surprise and intrigue for your audience. Your objective is to introduce them to something that they don’t know, and then provide a sense of how this new knowledge could actually be used in a familiar example, to help them understand the potential.

The final part is building belief, making them believe. This is the audience’s reward for having paid attention, because now they get to understand what your solution is. Your objective is to build a belief in the answers — the opportunity, the motivation — for customers and stakeholders to make the change you’re suggesting.

The whole point of this pitch is to move them from why to how. So, the pre-presentation: “Why should I care about this?” The mid-presentation: “I’m curious to see where this is going.” 

The post-presentation: “Hey, this is great. How do we implement it?” 

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso is executive editor of Convene.