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How The Shoshin Approach To Business Can Spur Innovative Solutions

The Shoshin approach compares a student to an expert—while the expert is less open to new ideas and perspectives, the student has no preconceptions and is open to new methods, technologies and approaches.

shoshinIt sounds counterintuitive, but in a world where expertise and experience are highly valued, innovation also comes from thinking and solving without such baggage. It’s difficult to think about experience as “baggage,” and its importance can’t be downplayed, but traditional ways of approaching modern business challenges could well be slowing down enterprises.

This is where the concept of “Shoshin” or beginner’s mind comes in.

A quote from Zen master Shunryo Suzuki succinctly explains Shoshin: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind, there are few.” The Shoshin approach compares a student to an expert. An expert develops a set of skills and deep knowledge and over the years fine tunes a narrow, singular solution. While the expert is less open to new ideas and perspectives, the student has no preconceptions and is open to new methods, technologies and approaches.

Shoshin in business

Today, businesses are evolving fast and yesterday’s solutions may well be redundant. Disruptive changes in technologies, demographics and value systems require new ways of thinking. Several businesses and leaders have used Shoshin-like approaches in challenging established norms to unlock new opportunities. Consider:

  • Steve Jobs asked why computers and music could not be carried around
  • Commerce Bank asked why banks couldn’t stay open past 3 p.m.
  • “The Simpsons” creators questioned the notion that animations are only for kids

“In today’s era, when technologies become obsolete with exponential frequency, everyone is a newbie.”

Shoshin at LTI

Shortly after taking over as chief executive at LTI two years ago, I introduced the Shoshin approach to employees worldwide, and have been on a mission to be a “learning company.” Expertise is – and always has been – an essential element of success, but it’s not enough to lead. In today’s era, when technologies become obsolete with exponential frequency, everyone is a newbie. It is critical to be open to learning and to finding new solutions to problems. For instance:

  • Recruitment: When hiring, we consider “curiosity” of a candidate an important trait. When college education is not sufficient for an entire career, does the potential employee want to keep learning?
  • Job rotation: It is common for organizations to create job-rotation programs for mid-management level. LTI also instituted this at the senior level. This way, leaders bring a new approach to their functions.
  • Partnerships: We believe a strong ecosystem of partnerships is important to spur fresh thinking. For a manufacturing customer, we brought together different innovations from nearly 100 partners under a single umbrella.

Applying Shoshin to Solve Client Challenges:

A beginner’s mind has helped LTI solve several innovation challenges of our clients, including:

Automating processes for a bank: An African bank wanted to reduce turnaround time for its Bank Account opening process. Instead of improving the existing process, we questioned the previous approach and recommended an entirely new system featuring an automation-based robotic process. This eliminated several steps and reduced turnaround time by 30%.

Shoshin for digital transformation at oil & gas client: An oil & gas industry client wanted faster access to decades of Seismic and Well documents – what some would consider a mundane digitalization job – so it could reassess existing reservoirs. By enabling geo-referencing and depth referencing to the project, LTI created a more user-friendly data set which provides previously untapped value for their geo-scientists, and serves as  an interesting showcase of innovation in this industry.

We even use Shoshin in our RFP proposals, often engineering a completely different approach than one the potential client has suggested, just like a way a startup would. This way, we consistently surprise our clients with approaches they were not considering possible.

How to integrate Shoshin into your company culture:

Jumping into the deep end of the Shoshin pool isn’t for every company. But it has benefits, and chief executives should strive to implement at least some elements of “beginner’s mind” into their workplace. Here’s how to get started:

  • Challenge assumptions: Ask simple questions that are typically never challenged. For example, is bigger necessarily better?
  • Get a fresh perspective: Consult people from different industries – they have tackled similar problems in different ways. Perhaps that approach would work?
  • Practice humility: Be open to new ideas, even if they are crazy. Look for that nugget of genius.
  • Mix capabilities: Group smart people who know a lot with smart people who know little, and watch innovative approaches unroll.
  • Reward curiosity: Add inquisitiveness and imagination to employee competencies and make curiosity part of performance management.

Are we seeing a difference?

In less than two years, Shoshin has generated tremendous positive energy. Many a “How can we?” have converted to “This is how we can.” We now work with an open mind and a collaborative style. Ideas flow more freely. We listen more. In meetings, we don’t try to add value or win arguments every time. We begin each day with an intent to evolve new ways to solve both simple and complex challenges. And so, we keep learning.


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