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The Value of Humility to Innovation

In 1997, Gary Kasparov, the reigning, undisputed world champion of chess, a man considered by many to be the greatest chess player of all time, lost a match to a computer, IBM's "Deep Blue." At the time, Kasparov was virtually unbeatable among mere humans. This first-ever victory of machine over man was thought to end the sport of chess as it had come to be known (we'll save the argument about whether chess is really a sport for another time. least it doesn't have judges assigning subjective points for artistic merit).

As with most predictions of catastrophic demise, those forecasting the death of chess were mistaken. In fact, the rise of these powerful computer programs provided for an innovation opportunity: freestyle chess, in which human players are free to use computer programs to assist them in making their moves. This innovation has led to what chess enthusiasts have called the most beautiful games ever played.

Although the point that doom-and-gloomers are usually bested by innovators is a good lesson, it's not the one your humble author would like to make. At least not in this posting!

Who is really the best and the brightest?

The point here could be that the brilliance and creativity of chess was raised to new heights when the highest-rated players played with the highest-rated programs, with a recommendation to go out and hire the smartest people and buy the fanciest software.

Only it didn't happen that way.

Indeed, the level of play really has risen to heights previously unseen in the chess world. Freestyle play has proven to be superior to that of humans alone or that of machines alone. But as Tyler Cowen points out in his book Average is Over, the best freestyle chess players were not always the strongest human players. Instead, they were strong players with a large dose of humility in their psyche. Those players were able to beat significantly stronger human opponents who lacked such humility, even as both teams had access to the same software.

How can that be?

Cowen suggests the answer is simple. The more humble humans were less likely to override the machine’s suggestions, while still adding an element of judgment that the computers lacked. The higher-rated, but more arrogant players would believe that their skills and intuition were stronger than the software. Until, of course, defeat proved them wrong.

Powerful Innovation Skills

These winning freestyle players are demonstrating powerful innovation skills that can be helpful to anyone looking to improve their organization’s innovation capabilities:

  1. They are able to accept expert input that may or may not agree with their own thoughts, and make good decisions based on all of the inputs, not just those that confirm their own bias. They are able to abandon their pet plans in favor of superior alternatives.

  2. They can direct the experts to look down particular paths, before selecting the one they believe to be best. Rather than have the computers search every possible variation, they narrow the field of exploration to improve where the computer searches, making more efficient use of the precious resource of time. Effective time management is obviously critical when launching a new product or service, and the best freestyle players, like the best innovators, know both how to focus the analysis, and when to stop the analysis and make the move.

  3. They seek out multiple opinions, knowing that the points where expert opinions diverge present the opportuities for brilliance. Those are the places that the insightful innovators can contribute the most with their own expertise and judgment. Strong innovation leaders will encourage healthy disagreement in their team of experts. They help the team avoid groupthink. They form teams that are able to express disagreement, candidly share their perspectives, but continue to move forward together once a decision is made.

These are important lessons to innovators, and especially so for those in leadership positions. Leverage the expertise of your team – both internal and external resources – and act as the humble coordinator that keeps things moving in the best possible direction, with an open mind and consideration for multiple perspectives.

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