The Path of Least Resistance Creates Mirages and Kills Innovation

July 19, 2011  

While at a skeptics convention last week in Vegas, one of the speakers talked about why mirages are the result of light taking the path of least resistance. Instead of light from the sky going straight to our eyes, it is actually easier for it to first go to the ground and then to our eyes. (here’s an article I just found on this concept in case you are interested)

This got me thinking…

What is the path of least resistance in an organization? And does this create mirages? Does this give us false information? Does this ultimately destroy innovation?

I was recently speaking with a client who has for quite some time been running an idea platform within their organization. Think of it as an electronic suggestion box where employees can contribute ideas they have that will help improve the business in some way.

The company decided that they wanted to move more towards a challenge-driven innovation model. With this approach, employees are asked to provide solutions to specific problems that are of importance to the organization.

They (correctly) believed that this would harness the collective energies of the people inside their organization. It would get them to focus on what matters most.

However, in spite of their efforts to drive people to the challenge, most of the activity remained on the idea platform.

They wondered why they could not get people focused on solving challenges, but employees had no problem providing suggestions and ideas.

The reason is the path of least resistance.

Imagine you are an innovator inside of a company. What is easier? Read a challenge, contemplate it, and formulate solutions? Or, simply barf your harebrained ideas into the suggestion box?

The answer is obvious. Ideas are easy. This is why they are plentiful. Everyone has an opinion or suggestion. But thinking about a problem deeply and providing meaningful insights takes time and energy.

Of course, all is not lost.

You can change the path of least resistance. You can either make it more difficult for ideas to be submitted or you can make it easier for challenges to be solved. You can diminish the perceived value of an idea contribution and over-emphasizing the contributions to your challenge efforts.  Of course you could temporarily (or event permanently) shut off the path to the idea platform.

Of course this “least resistance” concept applies to much more than just your challenge-driven efforts.

Where in your organization is the path of least resistance destroying innovation? Where is the path of least resistance creating mirages that make it seem like there is water in the desert when in fact all you have is dust?

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