Innovation and Truth

By Vijay Govindarajan and Hylke Faber

“The undercurrent of business is filled with widely held, rarely examined truths. These are not truths, they are just sayings.”
Andrew Blum, CEO and Managing Partner, The Trium Group

“A business leader who leads to truth is willing to question any assumption, and to start from not taking reality as given, but as something to be examined carefully, from multiple angles. That is when innovation happens.” says Andrew Blum, CEO and Managing Partner, The Trium Group. We sat down with him recently to talk about the power of truth and innovation.

Inquiry as a Process to Discover Truth

Inquiry into truth is central to Blum’s life and work. Working with leaders over the past 30 years, Blum has found that “business executives tend to have a hard time with truth because that can only be felt from a very deep and conscious place.” That’s a place many leaders don’t usually choose to go.

Innovation leaders consciously let go of limiting beliefs to discover new aspects of reality about their business and customers. It helps them manage and innovate in their present operations and create the future they desire. Innovation leaders balance three kinds of activities:

  • Preserve the abundant opportunities of the present through optimizing and innovating the performance of the current business model (Box 1).
  • Destroy the obsolete, unproductive vestiges of the past, creating space for new possibilities to emerge (Box 2).
  • Create promising sources of future value through launching new business models (Box 3).

We call this the Three Box Solution. To manage all three boxes successfully requires clear discernment: What to maintain? What to cut? And what to create? Inquiry into truth is a powerful instrument of discernment. The question is, how to discern effectively? Blum shares his unique perspective, and his thoughts on the meaning of truth itself.

What Does it Mean to be Truthful?

“The truth always has a very clear feeling associated with it,” says Blum;  “it feels more neutral, more mature, and it has less emotional energy. When you start to be familiar with what truth feels like, it’s very clear when things are true or not.”

He shares a simple experiment to illustrate. “Ask yourself: How old am I? Answer the question truthfully.” Blum repeats the question, this time with a twist, “now try it again, and this time lie about your age.” He pauses here for effect, “You notice you feel a difference. There is always a slight charge with the untruth. That is how lie detectors work; there is an electrical charge associated with lying that’s different from the electrical charge associated with truth. The truth is the truth and it always feels the same. Lies, equivocations, and intellectualizations often feel a lot like lies.” What do you notice in your experience when you tell a truth versus a half-, or non-truth?

Box 3 Innovation: Inquiring into the Limits of Growth

“When people are trying to innovate, they’re often doing it without an awareness of the limiting beliefs they have created about the situation. These need to be examined one by one. It’s a process of challenging obstacles. It’s not about attacking the limiting beliefs; it’s about questioning their validity to find the truth that’s underneath” says Blum.

To discover what is true, Blum uses a four-question inquiry process called The Work, developed by speaker and author, Byron Katie. Blum has partnered with Katie on a number of client projects to explore truth. The four questions are:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
  3. How do you react when you believe that thought?
  4. Who would you be without the thought?

After having considered these questions, Blum suggests we do a “turnaround” on the limiting belief we started with. He works through an example to illustrate. “If you were to ask me, ‘What is one of the greatest challenges of growing a very high-end boutique firm, like Trium, where you really need incredibly skilled people?’ I’d tell you it’s hard to find good people.” Consider for yourself; most people may agree with that thought.

Starting with question one: ‘is it true?’ Blum reflects, “Is it true that it is hard to find good people? The first time I ask it, you’ll probably agree with me.” This is where many may stop with their line of questioning; Blum is just warming up. He continues with question two: “Can you absolutely know that it is hard to find good people?” Many may feel a bit unsettled by this question. “Well, I have found a lot of good people in big firms,” he continues with a quality of unhurried curiosity, “It’s not absolutely true that it is hard to find good people.” Sometimes he challenges his clients multiple times with, “Can you absolutely know that it’s true?” before they start seeing that their original belief wasn’t 100 percent true.

Blum continues the inquiry with question three: “How do I react when I believe that thought—in this case, that it’s hard to find good people?” He leans back and reflects, “Well, I get despondent. I feel sort of hopeless. I start to settle for people that maybe are not a great fit. I feel a bit powerless. I feel resigned, let down. I feel a little angry. You know, when I share with people that it is hard to find good people, I get a lot of agreement and some sympathy. I get to feel a little bit like a victim. With the thought ‘It’s hard to find good people,’ I have a resigned and negative experience.” Blum’s openness and willingness to examine all aspects of his experience without judgment is striking.

“Next, I go to question four,” he continues, leaning in again, “which is: How would l react, if I didn’t believe that ‘it is hard to find good people’?”  There is a quality of inquisitiveness and lightness in his voice, “Well, I’d be much more open. I’d be carefully looking at everyone without so many prejudgments. And I’d be much more neutral about the process of recruiting.”

The last step in the inquiry process is called the “turnaround.” Blum explores the belief “it’s hard to find good people” systematically from multiple perspectives and turns it on its head. He visibly softens as the belief he started with starts to lose its weight, “Well, I don’t know that I even have a clear picture of what I am actually looking for in finding good people. So is it hard to find good people, or is it hard for me to find them? It feels like it’s harder for me to find them.” He continues, “What’s another turnaround? A lot of people, I didn’t have to work that hard to find them; I met them once or twice, and they are great. So it’s also true that it’s easy to find good people.”

Blum pauses again before continuing with a smile, “Here is a mind-blowing turnaround: It’s hard for good people to find me. So from that turnaround, the option set is blown open. I can do a million things to make it easy for good people to find us.” Relaxing this time back into his chair once again, Blum has come full circle on the thought ‘it’s hard to find good people’, this time with a host of ideas and a sense of possibility.

True Innovation Starts with Ourselves

In his work, Blum challenges widely held beliefs and helps transform them into new views of reality that help leaders and their organizations thrive. This approach is especially powerful for discerning action in Box 2-letting-go-of-the-past and Box 3-creating-the-future where decisions often have far-reaching and transformative impact.

Blum suggests that innovation starts with understanding ourselves first. He says, “Colluding with other leaders and holding onto untested beliefs often gives me nothing but negativity and despair. If I go in search of the truth, everything opens. My journey has been a lot about challenging largely agreed-to beliefs. There are many aspects of reality that are unconsciously agreed to that we collude around. The undercurrent of business is filled with widely held, rarely examined truths. These are not truths, these are just sayings.”

Put it to the test for yourself. Reflect on a challenge you’re facing and consider a potentially limiting belief you may be unconsciously holding about the situation. Limiting beliefs often include language like, “It’s hard,” “I can’t,” “It’s always,” “They…,” and “should.” Ask yourself: Is it true? Can I know it is absolutely true? How do I react when I believe that thought? Do I feel expansive and optimistic, or limited and resigned, or …? Who would I be without the thought? What becomes possible for you and your organization when you courageously and playfully question the truth and take action?

True innovation starts with examining and letting go of half-truths and limiting beliefs. These are doorways to new possibilities for freedom, connection, and prosperity.


Vijay Govindarajan is the Coxe Distinguished Professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and a Marvin Bower Fellow at Harvard Business School. He is a WSJ and NYT best-selling author, and author of Three Box Solution: A Strategy for Leading Innovation, HBR Press, April 2016. Watch the book trailer. Twitter: @vgovindarajan.

Hylke Faber is CEO of the Growth Leaders Network, a non-profit supporting a global community of leaders committed to self-growth and selfless service, and is Managing Partner of the culture and leadership consultancy Constancee. Hylke also directs the Leading as Coach programs at the Columbia Business School Executive Education program.

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