Letting go of shoulds is a key step to innovation

Red warning flag

In a fast-changing world, our old assumptions may no longer hold true.

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

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 it is worth spending the time to become aware of its power in your life.

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

“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 it is important to realise that whenever anybody says, “We should invest in that project,” “She should do it my way,” “He should be more careful”, none of them is explaining why. This means that although all these recommendations give a clear instruction, all of them are risky. Taking action based on any of them would be a step into the unknown.

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

Is an unconscious decision process happening or even a deliberate manipulation? “You should buy this product…”, “You should do what I say…”, “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 then we can keep asking “Why?”, “Why?”, “Why?” until we have created an unbroken link of understanding between the action we ‘should’ take and the outcome we want to create.

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

Standard business practices can become shoulds. “A taxi firm should own as many cars as possible to raise its brand awareness.” “A hotel chain should own many hotels of just one type.” “Music should be played on a special, dedicated device.” It is when we let go of these shoulds that we enable ourselves to find innovative solutions like Uber, Airbnb, and Spotify.

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

When was the last time you heard someone use the word ‘should’? What did you or they really mean?


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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