Why letting go of ‘shoulds’ is a key step to innovation

In a fast-changing world our old assumptions are increasingly no longer holding true.

There are eight common ways in which this is happening. And the second of these is the word ‘should’.

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

If you want to avoid the danger this can bring it is worth spending 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. “You should vote for me.” “You should buy this book.” “You should feel angry about this situation.” All these are strong statements but none of them explains why you should do these things.

To decide our best way forward we need to understand whether the recommended action will lead to the outcome we want. And to do that we need to ask why: “Why should I do that? Why should I think that? Why should things be done that way?”

Sometimes we will get back an ‘output’ answer: “Because then the outcome is likely to be X” or “Because doing this will bring the outcome we want.” 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’ve always done…” 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 way the world is now.

Once we become aware of it then the word ‘should’ it becomes a very useful ally for us. It becomes a clear and very visible red warning flag that tells us to pause, look more closely, and ask ourselves whether we agree. Should we do what is being recommended? Or is an unconscious assumption taking place — perhaps even a deliberate manipulation?

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 we let go of our ideas about how the world should be, the more we become able to imagine new ideas for how the world could be.

This helps create 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? Was the ‘should’ really your best way forward?


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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