One of the most unusual features of these challenging times is that so many capable people in so many fields look so lost and ineffective. Not least in Financial Services where profit seems to attract hatred and a lack of profit requiring a bailout affects everyone. Leaders with unrivaled expertise and decades of experience can’t seem to develop creative solutions to the dire problems.

Why are so many smart executives so ineffective?

One answer may be that all this experience is itself a problem. In her book, The Innovation Killer, Cynthia Barton Rabe, a former innovation strategist at Intel, explains how “what we know limits what we can imagine.” Many organizations, she argues, struggle with a “paradox of expertise” in which deep knowledge of what exists in a marketplace or a product category makes it harder to consider what-if strategies that challenge long-held assumptions. “When it comes to innovation,” she writes, “the same hard-won experience, best practice, and processes that are the cornerstones of an organization’s success may be more like millstones that threaten to sink it.”

Her answer to the paradox is to populate organizations with “zero-gravity thinkers”: innovators “who are not weighed down by the expertise of a team, its politics, or ‘the way things have always been done.’” In Rabe’s formula, zero-gravity thinkers come from outside the corporate mainstream and work deep within the ranks of the organization. They are designers, ethnographers, anthropologists, and other creative types who get immersed in a project or a team, contribute their unique points of view, and then move on to the next change-the-game assignment. Ideal zero-gravity thinkers, she explains, have “psychological distance” from the setting in which they work, “renaissance tendencies” that draw on a range of interests and influences, and “related expertise” that allows them to find the points where blue-sky ideas intersect with real-world opportunities.

Or, to put it differently, the most effective leaders demonstrate a capacity for being contrarian. We’re all familiar with the phrase experience counts whereby we marvel at how previous experience of a situation from one of our experienced team members shines a light on an unfamiliar situation and makes us feel less anxious and a little silly we couldn’t have immediately figured it out for ourselves. Well, being contrarian might be described as being the opposite-looking at a familiar situation (a field you’ve worked in for decades, products you’ve worked on for years) as if you’ve never seen it before, and, with that fresh line of sight, developing a distinctive point of view on the future. If you believe, as we do, that what you see shapes how you change, then the question for you as a change-minded leader becomes: How do you look at your organization and your field as if you are seeing them for the first time? It@‘ll bring vision, passion and energy to challenges but more importantly competitive edge.

So here’s our message: You can’t let what you know limit what you can imagine. As you try to do something special, exciting, important in your work, as you work hard to devise creative solutions to stubborn problems, don’t just look to other organizations in your field (or to your past successes) for ideas and practices. Look to great organisations and people in all sorts of unrelated fields to see what works for them-and how you can apply their ideas to your problems. Who are the most unlikely organizations from which you could learn? Do you have new ideas about where to look for new ideas? Who is being contrarian to succeed?

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