Letting go of ‘shoulds’ is a key step to innovation

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

There are eight common ways that this can happen and the second of these is the word ‘should’. If you want to avoid its hidden influence it is worth spending the time to become aware of its power.

Should is a word that strongly urges us to do something but never quite explains why.

“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. “You should do this.” “You should buy my product.” “You should vote for me.” All of these are strong statements but none of them explains why.

Once we become aware of this, the word ‘should’ becomes a useful ally, a clear and very visible red flag: a warning sign for us to pause, look more closely, and ask ourselves whether or not we agree. Should we do this? Or is an unconscious assumption taking place or perhaps even a deliberate manipulation?

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: “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 supposedly ‘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 in the world as it is now.

In a time of change, even long-accepted business practices can become shoulds. “A hotel chain should own hotels.” “A taxi company should own cars and employ drivers.” It is only by letting go of these unconscious shoulds that we become able to find innovative solutions like Uber and Airbnb.

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

This is the innovation mindset that forms another step to antifragility.

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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