Letting go of shoulds is a key step to innovation

Red warning flag

In a fast-changing world, our old assumptions might no longer be true.

There are eight common ways this can happen and the second of these is called ‘shoulds’.

Shoulds happen whenever we expect that something should be done in a particular way or should be a particular way.

Should is a powerful word. It strongly urges us to do something but never quite explains why. If you want to avoid its hidden influence in your life it is worth spending the time to become aware of its power.

“You should do that” is clearly an instruction that you ‘ought to’, ‘have to’, or ‘must’ do a thing. It implies a duty, an obligation, or perhaps even a ‘correct’ way of doing things. But whenever somebody says, “We should invest in that project,” “She should do it my way,” “He should be more careful” it is useful to realise that taking action based on these recommendations is a step into the unknown: all of them give a clear instruction but none explains why. All of them are risky.

Once we become aware of this, the word ‘should’ becomes a very useful red flag: a warning sign to pause, look more closely, and ask ourselves whether or not we agree.

Is an unconscious decision process or even a deliberate manipulation happening here? “You should do this…”, “You should buy this product…”, “You should vote for me…”

To decide our best way forward we need to understand whether the recommended action will lead to the outcome we want. We need to ask Why should I do that? Why should we think that? Why should it be like that?

Sometimes we will get back an ‘output’ answer: “Because then the outcome is likely to be X,” or “Because this project will bring the mix of risk and reward we are looking for.” If this happens we can keep asking “Why?” until we have created an unbroken link of understanding between the action we will take and the outcome we want to create.

But sometimes we will get back an ‘input’ answer — “Because the policy is…,” “Because the rules say…,” or “Because that’s what we always do…” If this happens, realise that these are just another set of ‘shoulds’. Policies, rules, and habits are rules of thumb that used to work in the past but might not work any more.

Standard business practices can also be shoulds. When we let go of them (“A taxi firm should be based in just one city,” “A hotel chain should own as many hotels of one type as possible,” “Music should be played on a special, dedicated device”) we enable ourselves to find innovative solutions like Uber, Airbnb, and Spotify.

If you want to develop an innovation mindset, the more let go of your old ideas about how the world should be, the more you will be able to imagine new ideas about how the world could be.

How often do you use the word ‘should’? How often do the people around you use it? If you dig deeper, asking why, what are you and they really saying?


Adapted from Inner Leadership: a framework and tools for building inspiration in times of change.

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Photo By Luke Hoagland via StockPholio.net

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