The Innovation Fight

Thursday was one of the worst days of work I’ve had in a long, long time. John and I had major problems arise on three different projects that we’re working on, and it seemed like the entire day was taking up with fights. It was absolutely exhausting, and by the time I got home, I was discouraged.

All three were related to different innovations that we’re working on. In two cases, we were fighting bureaucratic rules – the systems almost built to prevent new ideas from getting implemented. It was frustrating in the extreme.

In the afternoon, I went for a walk to clear my head and I ran across Mark. He said “running into problems like this is a sign that you’re actually doing something.” He’s right. And it’s a fight that all innovators end up having. If they’re in big organisations, they have to fight the rules, and the entrenched interests. If they’re on their own, they have to fight to get someone to listen to them.

It’s easy to be glib about breaking connections to get your ideas to spread, or about creative destruction. But the impacts of both are real. That’s why there’s always resistance to new ideas. This is another reason why having a great idea simply isn’t enough. If you’re going to innovate, you have to be ready to fight. You have to persuade. You have to change minds.

Thursday was a lousy day, but it’s good to be reminded of these things periodically. It makes it that much better when you have a breakthrough. Now that I’ve had a couple of days to rest and reflect (and to work on fixing things!), I’m ready for another fight. I better be – I’ve had a few more ideas, and now I have to figure out how to get them to spread!

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

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6 thoughts on “The Innovation Fight

  1. That’s so true, Tim!

    I’ve been facing similar situations several times, too – fully convinced to have a beneficial idea for the company. At the end, it was refused, not even thoroughly understood.

    This was quite frustrating, but my learning has been in two directions:
    – We have to carefully think about how to “sell” an idea. As already discussed, an idea is a “proposal” that needs to be adopted by the organization. The more the idea deviates from what the organization and people are currently doing and are used to, the more challenging the implementation will become. Innovation always questions the status quo, therefore raising resistance against change. I think, it more and more becomes one of the innovator’s core skills to be capable of “fighting” with those reactions.
    – Implementation of ideas requires unlearning, breaking existing connections, changing minds. And that needs time – usually, more time than expected (and sometimes available). On the other hand, we’re facing the requirement of an increasing innovation frequency. I am wondering how companies are going to manage this trade-off in the future.

    In my opinion, the capability of adopting new ideas and of dealing with change will be increasingly crucial for organizations. A company culture thus needs to be properly based on a basic understanding what people drives, fears and prevents from re-inventing themselves.

    Looking forward to your comm.


  2. There’s not much to add to your comment Ralph – I think you’re correct in both of your main pionts.

    The last point about having the capacity to adopt new ideas is also critical. It is definitely important, but it’s so hard to build. The resistance to change is often enormous, and I still haven’t found a good way around it. Mostly I just keep pushing for change wherever I’m working, using all of the diplomatic skills I have at my disposal. Of course, one of the problems on Thursday was a failure of diplomacy, so it doesn’t always work…

  3. Tim, you and Ralph are right about the difficulty of getting people to adopt change. But what fascinates me is- sometimes it’s easy. Whenever the environment around you changes – I mean by this not so much the physical environment (though it can be that, too) but the cultural environment, and primarily the environment of expectations- change becomes not only possible but so easy you don’t even notice it. It becomes hard NOT to change.

    Although I had the good fortune to watch the changes in Eastern Europe- specifically Hungary and then Czechoslovakia- close up, those aren’t the changes that first come to mind when I think of major, painful shifts made easy. What I think of is smoking. Millions of people were able to wean themselves off one of the most addictive substances on earth. Many more learned to limit their use so that it became a quiet, quick, fairly private activity- like going to the bathroom. No longer a big part of their social lives.

    So I keep thinking, with change of all sorts, what can we learn from this? What are the factors in an environment that support an easy shift? How do we go about creating an environment that facilitates the kind of changes we want to see?

    Some of the factors- like the successful legal challenges to smoking in the workplace- are way beyond the scope of a person or group pushing for changes. But one thing that can, perhaps, be replicated on a smaller scale is using ‘social proof’– people are most likely to be resistant to changes suggested by a single person. They do not generally want to risk finding themselves outside the herd. If they begin to hear the same thing- or versions of the same- from different sources, that’s when they are likely to begin to take it seriously.

    I have no real clue how to bring about this ‘easy’ change- but perhaps there might be some way to collect examples of similar changes to what you have in mind and then ‘seed’ them over a period of months- through articles, talks, perhaps inviting a successful innovator to speak- so that the idea would seem already familiar when suggested.

  4. That’s a really good point Sarah. From a complex systems standpoint I tend to think of these sorts of changes as being analogous to information cascades. That explains the suddenness of some of these shifts (and it’s almost certainly the source of the math/model that underlies ‘tipping points’…).

    That said, I’m not entirely sure how to trigger one. I suppose if I knew, and I could teach it, I’d be in pretty good shape!

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