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'One right way' - Is there such a thing?

Are you still looking for the ‘one right way’? - Or why education is in desperate need of innovation

I have a problem with widespread hunt for 'the one right way’.  How often do you hear, ‘So, what’s the right way of doing this?’ and how often do you see people delaying decisions and actions because they still have not found it? 

You may ask why I don't believe in it, and what might be so bad about it that the ‘one right way’ ended up on my hit list??  Well, let me explain.

It all started with my desire to understand better what causes the (in)famous resistance to change which is so often used as an argument as to why innovation is so difficult.  Many of you will be familiar with the famous quote by Nicolai Maciavelli (1469-1527) who said about 500 years ago: “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.” We know what we’ve got but don’t know what we might get which creates a bias for the status quo. Fair enough.

As someone who strongly believes in seeing and understanding things in context, I used to get quite irritated by the demand of MBA students to give them the ‘one right answer’ when teaching innovation management. If I generally do not believe that there are not many situations where there is only one right way, so most certainly not in the context of innovation. I started to ask myself where this obsession with the ‘one right answer’ came from. In my view it goes back to our early years of childhood, when we learn that certain things have certain uses, that there is right way to do certain things - we are learning the norms and rules of human interaction.  The notion of ‘one right way’ is further enforced when we start school. There is generally one right answer and we better get it, if we don't, if we question it, if we suggest an alternative the likely consequence is ridicule, or to be declared to be either ‘not very bright’ or ‘rather difficult’.  So we learn quickly that we better search, and find, the one right answer.  While in our early days of learning and understanding there might indeed have been right and wrong answers and a right and wrong way of doing things, we seem to have transferred that way of thinking to everything else in our lives (and business). 

This deeply embedded belief is creating another bias against innovation.  If I believe that there is one right way then, surely, if someone suggests a change to the way things are currently done, he or she implies that the way things are currently being done is wrong.  Naturally I will feel threatened in my professional credibility and professional honour and defend myself. I believe that the assumption that there is ‘one right way’ is so deeply engrained in us that we don't even notice when it is influencing our reactions and behaviour.  (By the way, the notion that there is ‘one right way’ is also embedded in the concept of ‘best practice’ that is so highly valued. Yet those who embrace best practice without ensuring it is appropriately 'translated' into their specific context are setting themselves up for failure.)

When thinking about it you will find that what we perceive to be the ‘one right way’ changes over time. 100 years ago most would have considered it to be the right  thing to do for women to stay at home and look after the children (there are probably still some of those around which I find not OK, whereas making a conscious choice about this definitely is). 50 years ago it would have been considered to be the ‘one right thing’ to seek a job for life.  25 years ago it was considered to be acceptable to smoke on airplanes. Not to stick to the 'right way of doing things' or complaining about it means to be considered a failure or at least to be ridiculed or rejected. Because of the slower pace of change in the past, what was the most appropriate way for a context felt like the only right one, so it was easy to accept this as truth. With the ever faster pace of change we experience today, and with different things changing at a different pace, I would argue that there is only ever something that is most appropriate, given a specific context, and a particular point in time.

If we can accept this we can let go of the fear that what we are doing is wrong and stop feeling criticised when someone suggests a change.  What is currently in place was probably the most appropriate way of doing things when it began.  It is no longer about 'right' or 'wrong', it is about 'most appropriate'.  Charles Darwin had figured that out a good 150 years ago: “ It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

Let me spin the story (and my ax to grind with education) a little further.  Having two teenage boys I am exposed to constant revisions and exams preparations. I am appalled how much of it is memorising for the exams rather than deeply understanding and internalising that creates an ability to transfer insights and learnings to different contexts.  In a world where we google the answer to almost any question with in seconds, do we really need to keep memorising?  Does this really help us to discern which of the thousands of hits we get on google are trustworthy, meaningful, and relevant?  That is something that I consider truly important in this time and age - especially as it is less and less likely that the first entries are the most trustworthy, reliable and relevant ones.  As we all know, you can pay your way to the top of the google ranking.  Everyone can post what they like:, even if it is noticed for being incorrect, speed of and access to the internet have the potential to spread false news wide and far before it is either corrected or taken down. Whether those who have read the fake news in the first place will be aware of it is another question. Since the Trump election, where highly manipulative fake news on social media reached an unprecedented high, there has been a flurry of articles and research into their effect and implications.  Yet already in 2014 an investigation of twitter posts revealed that about one quarter of them were not credible (the research was conducted over 96 days, looking at 60 million tweets on 1000 news events (New Scientist, 6th June 2015).  Perhaps we should not be surprised by the spike of and interest in fake news, it is big business.  According to a 2015 study by the Association of National Advertisers, advertisers would lose more than $7.2 billion globally due to botnet fraud, which is being described as “simply a flavour of “fake news.”To better adapt to the context of the 21st century education needs to change - not only for our children, also for us grown ups generally, and those of us who are influential decision makers in particular.


The wonderful thing about the ILF Wider Community is that there are always those among you who are leading examples on how to address the things I worry about.  I’d like to introduce four here: 

Eunika Mercier-Laurent - engineer, AI expert, educator - shares my concerns for the current state of education.  You can read an interview with her here.

I am delighted to be able to share three examples of (executive) education done differently, and in my view much more appropriately for the context of the 21st century, here as well.  The first is Inventours by and with Michelle Greenwald who, after an amazing career in corporate is now putting (part of) her energy into executive education, putting together a week-long immersive programme that takes executives on ‘safaris’ to highly innovative organisations. Her next program will run 18th to 23rd June in Barcelona.  You can read a review here. Three more things about Michelle: you can find an interview with Michelle on the ILF website, and if you are interested in finding more about Michelle’s thinking on innovation, there are her book,  Catalyzing Innovation, which describes 60 different types of innovation; finally, there is her TEDX talk in which she argues for engaging the entire organisation in the hunt for ideas 

The second are the programmes by the Future London Academy.  The people behind it have a background in the creative industries, which is reflect in those contributing as well as how the one-week immersive programmes structured and executed.  I had the opportunity to also conduct a brief interview with Ekaterina Solomeina, co-founder of the academy which will go up on the ILF website shortly.

My final course is asking a very profound and most urgent question: “Who Do We Choose To Be? – Reality, Leadership, Sanity".  The week-long course by Margaret Wheatley is based on her latest book of the same title which will be available in June. The course will run at the Schumacher College in Devon, UK, 22nd to 26th May and you can find out more on their website.

PS  By the way, I have written about education before, two blogs and a short piece in the Financial Times; if you are interested .... 


If you do not have the time to attend one of those executive programmes, perhaps you can find a little time to read (as usual, all from within our community!). Let’s start with some short ones:

The first three are unashamedly self-promoting. The first is 'Beyond the Horizon, the cover story of Roland Berger's 12/2016 edition of their Think Act magazines .

The second  is a short interview where I share my thoughts on why innovation is being misunderstood by businesses, and explain why creativity is not enough to foster change  

And the third is a white paper on five questions innovation leaders should ask I have recently written for Stylus, an innovation research and trends membership service.  You can access it here.

Then there is another article by Louis Bower, this one on "Digital Platforms and Innovation Management Theory" (first published in December 2016) which you can access here.

If you are interested in Open Innovation in particular, then perhaps a recent report “A profile of Open Innovation Managers in Multinational Companies" by the Open Innovation gurus Wim Vanhaverbeke and Henry Chesbrough with Jim Cheng is for you.  Accessible & downloadable here.

“Innovation Methods Mapping: De-mystifying 80+ Years of Innovation Process Design”, the latest book from Elizabeth Pastor, co-founder and director of Humantific, offers a view into the past and present of innovation methods, spanning an 80+ year time period and numerous communities of practice. For a preview click here

Looking at the shaping forces of today’s business environment, globalisation, the internet, political change and technology, Alastair Ross offers models, practices and methods to help transform business to match these conditions in his book “Sowing the seeds of business transformation”.

Get involved

Are you a student and researching in the field of ‘Leadership’? Then there is the opportunity to submit for the following two awards of the International Leadership Association (ILA):  

1. Kenneth E. Clark Student Research Award

Deadline: 1 MAY 2017 - Click here to find out more.


2. Fredric M. Jablin Doctoral Dissertation Award

Deadline: 1 MAY 2017 - Click here to find out more.

There is a prize of $1000 plus an opportunity to present at the ILA's 19th annual conference to be won (travel expenses are covered). The conference will take place 12th to 15th October in Brussels, Belgium.


Is your research around disruptive technologies and disruptive innovation? Then you might want to consider submitting to the UEM Congress DTDI-17, appropriately titled “Disruptive Technology and Disruptive Innovation --- A Renaissance of this Century” which will take place 16th to 18th August in Bangkok, Thailand. All manuscripts will be peer reviewed and should be submitted by April 30, 2017. You can download a pdf with the essential information here, or visit their website.

If you are based in Australia, or if you know awesome Australian entrepreneurs, start-ups, small businesses, corporate innovators or creative professionals down under you may want to submit them for the anthill smart 100 awards. Find out more on their website


Update from the Start Up Energy Transition Competition: you can check out the winners selected out of the over 500 submissions here.

More More More ... Innovation Events

IET Innovation Awards
Submission deadline: 7th July

Delivery of Things
24th & 25th April

7th to 9th May

World Class Customer Experience 2017
10th & 11th May

25th May

New Cities Summit
6th to 9th June
Incheon Songdo, South Korea
Security of Things World
12th & 13th June
Accelerating Innovation
14th & 15th June

Innovation in Education & Teaching
21st to 23rd June
Badajoz, Spain

Industrial Innovation Summit USA
18th & 19th April 

Open Innovation Summit
25th & 26th April 

Worktech17 New York
4th & 5th May 
New York

Chief Innovation Officer Summit
17th & 18th May
San Francisco

Work 2.0 - The Future of Work
25th & 26th May
University-Industry Interaction Conference
7th to 9th June
Dublin, Ireland

FEI Europe
13th to 15th June

ISPIM Innovation Conference
18th to 21st June

Insurance IoT Europe Summit
26th & 27th June

Connected Car Insurance Europe
19th & 20th April

Chief Innovation Officer Summit
25th & 26th April

Strategic People Analytics
17th & 18th May

HYPE Innovation Managers Forum
17th to 19th May
Bonn, Germany

IoT Tech Expo Europe
1st & 2nd June

Innovation Evolution Central
7th & 8th June
Autonomous Systems World
14th & 15th June

Inventours Barcelona 
18th to 23rd June

Design Thinkers Summer Bootcamp
26th to 30th June
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