Monday, April 06, 2015

Innovation is like societal change

It occurred to me over the weekend that a lot of the sturm und drang around innovation is very similar to the resistance and issues that arise around social change.  As people we are, for the most part, conservative, willing to accept the established norms rather than face the uncertainty of change.  Is a major innovation in a technical setting all that different from a major societal change?  I think perhaps Gandhi could be a model for how we think about innovation and most importantly, how we anticipate the changes innovation introduces and how we adapt to them.

First they ignore you

Gandhi's most famous quote about creating change has to do with the response of those who could be most affected by the change.  He said, first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you and then you win.  Gandhi understood that the people who resist change would first ignore the need for change.  They prefer stability and certainty. New ideas might upset the established order.  They want to preserve and protect the established order.  Next, recognizing the change is still likely, they will "laugh" at those proposing change.  The established order wants to ridicule the proposed changes, causing those who propose change to lose heart, and those who might be open to the change to question their decisions.  Finally, when ignoring the potential change and ridiculing the change is no longer practical or feasible, the established order organizes itself to fight the change.  There's often enough at stake that the existing order will fight doggedly to sustain how things are currently done.  That's not because the people behind the existing order are irrational, but because they are conservative and happy with the existing order, and afraid that change will upset the status and certainty they enjoy.  Now Gandhi was talking about social or societal change, but all of these ideas apply directly to innovation in a technical or corporate sense as well.

It's the same in corporations

Think about all of the people who have good ideas in your organization.  Most of them can't manage to package and present their ideas, because managers are too busy doing the things that keep the corporation running day to day.  Changes that disrupt the existing efficient order are likely to be ignored, and for good reason:  anything that upsets or distracts from the efficient execution of existing processes and products is frowned on. It can be very difficult to gain the attention of managers or executives and help them see the potential of a new idea.  Even when you manage to gain the attention and discuss new ideas, the second reaction is inevitable.  They will ridicule new ideas because if they are truly new they don't "fit" within conventional models.  They don't align to existing business models.  Truly new and interesting ideas are by definition different, and the way many people respond to truly new or uncomfortable ideas is to ridicule them, rather than take them seriously.  So, it's inevitable that good ideas once they gain some awareness are likely to attract questions, objections and then ridicule.  It's only after the innovators have run the gauntlets of silence and ridicule that they have to be prepared to actually defend their ideas, because when it becomes likely that a new idea will be adopted, the "vested" interests will fight back.  Businesses view the world through a "zero sum" lens, meaning that an investment in a new idea by definition means that existing products or services must experience a cut.  Thus it is normal and natural that ideas and innovators must fight for resources with established and proven products and services. 

The unreasonable man

Who or what can fight their way through these barriers to create new ideas in a corporation or in the face of societal resistance?  Gandhi made it, but just barely.  Galileo, while scientifically correct, was forced to withdraw his conclusions.  George Bernard Shaw noted that all change is due to the "unreasonable" man, because reasonable men adapt to circumstances.  So successful innovators have to be people who can conceive, develop and defend unusual or unlikely ideas, and have enough passion and commitment to their ideas to become unreasonable in the eyes of the status quo.  Does your organization have any unreasonable men or women?  Anyone who can conceive new ideas, get past the fact that the corporation won't have time or energy for new ideas, and who can withstand the ridicule that's going to come, and who can organize facts and evidence to defend the idea when appropriate?  Without these unreasonable men and women, corporations will become complacent, will work to sustain business as usual and resist change, and will slowly wither and die.

The reason so many innovations come from startups or entrepreneurs is that they don't have to overcome the current success and existing investments of large corporations.  Their success doesn't threaten a sister division's product or potential budgets.  Entrepreneurs seek to disrupt or overturn industries and segments, while incumbents seek to sustain them and protect them.  But the old model is slowly getting turned on its head.  In the past it took decades to distribute a product and gain wide acceptance.  Even more recent technologies like the personal computer or cell phone took decades to achieve deep market penetration.  In contrast increasing globalization, distribution and awareness based on the internet and shifting consumer demands mean that ideas and products can be adopted far more quickly, and frankly can die far more quickly as well.  Once it took a long time and a large organization to scale up and get to profitability, at which point the firm protected and defended its market position and installed base.  Now, ideas and money are cheap and distribution channels are multiplying.  There are far more people who can be, and who by rights are, unreasonable men and women untethered to existing industry norms, willing to disrupt or overturn markets or industries that they don't have an investment in.  Big corporations must ask themselves how much of their budget should be set aside to harden and defend the existing industry norms and models, and how much time and effort should be set aside to innovate.  They'll find, to their surprise and chagrin, that far more time needs to be set aside for innovation, and that in many cases they aren't the leaders, but are lagging far in the rear.  And that's when they'll need to identify their unreasonable men and women, and stop laughing and get out of the way.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:00 AM


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