the status quo

From Seth Godin today:

The reason that they want you to fit in is that once you do, then they can ignore you.

This ends up being a major obstacle to innovation. We usually think of a corporate culture as a good thing, but if it places too much value on conformance, that’s bad. Adam Hartung recently wrote a piece for Forbes on why innovation efforts fail. His main point is that when we manage for efficiency, it is unlikely that we will end up coming up with genuinely new ideas. He also says that putting too much effort into defending our core business can also prevent innovation.

We all know we need to innovate. But we just can’t help ourselves. Everything we’ve been trained to do as business leaders is about staying on course–even when headed straight for disaster. Rather than do something different, we batten down the hatches and sail into calamity like Captain Ahab. Management is more comfortable putting everything at risk by doing what it has done before than sailing in a new, more hopeful direction. Ask anyone who has led General Motors in the last half century.

So again, get people to fit in, then ignore them.

The first new car I ever bought was a Saturn SL1. I obviously didn’t buy it for its lines – they were pretty ugly cars. One of my main motivations for getting a Saturn was that I wanted to support an effort to make cars in a completely new way – a completely new way for the US, at least. I figured that driving around in an ugly car was a small price to pay to support innovation. Actually, though, those early Saturns were so ugly, they didn’t fit in. So people were always asking me about it, and I could tell them why I thought it was a cool experiment. One of the big drivers of Saturn sales in the early days was word of mouth.

The Saturn brand was killed off last month. There’s a nice piece on what that means from the knowledge@Wharton people. The biggest problem for Saturn was that the entire operation didn’t fit in at GM. The manufacturing methods were new, the industrial relations were different, all of it seemed wrong. The first thing that GM did when they brought Saturn back in after cutting the division’s autonomous structure was to make all the Saturns look like every other GM car being built. Then sales plummeted. They killed off the novel supply chain and IR arrangements. GM made Saturn fit in. Then they ignored it to death.

New ideas are threatening. One of the biggest obstacles to innovation is the status quo. Even when our ideas are great, even when they are exciting, there are people that won’t like them. You have to fight for every new idea – the more radical the idea, the bigger the fight. That’s why to be innovative, execution is more important than ideas – it’s a lot harder to execute your ideas, because you always have to fight for them. So if you’re trying to be innovative, get ready to fight the status quo – and don’t let them make you fit in!

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.