Friday, August 08, 2014

The cognitive dissonance of innovation

Thanks to psychology, we have a term that defines what most corporate innovators face on a daily basis:  cognitive dissonance.  As our good friends at Wikipedia define it, cognitive dissonance is " the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time"  Why are innovators subject the cognitive dissonance, and why do they appear so disjointed and harried all the time?  Well, let's turn to the definition.

Mental Stress

Innovators are people who are constantly frustrated by the inadequate solutions they are offered or force to offer to customers.  Good innovators see a thousand ways to improve offerings or solutions, and have a strong desire to improve the status quo or offer better or improved products or services.  However, they are constantly faced with the constraints of their business, fear of risk, inertia and a thousand other reasons why they should simply shut up and keep offering the same mediocre solutions to their customers.  This unsolvable dilemma creates mental anxiety and stress, because it's difficult to be true to your energy and passions when you are forced to serve up products and services you know aren't what you want to offer, and what don't adequately solve customer needs.

Contradictory beliefs

It's not impossible to hold two contradictory ideas simultaneously.  Most innovators will tell you that good ideas and inventions often spring from the ability to try to resolve what appears to be unresolvable.  In fact contemplating the insolvable is what many innovators want to do.  But they don't simply want to contemplate - they desire the ability to act on their insights and ideas.  This is where the truly contradictory beliefs exist in large corporations.  Executives want ideas, but don't want the risk or uncertainty that are part of an innovation program.  Asking people for great new ideas without removing the anxiety or uncertainty of risk creates contradictory beliefs.

In the old Soviet Union, the people had a saying:  you pretend to pay us and we'll pretend to work.  This is a signal of complete cynicism matched with utter resignation.  The problem that real innovators have is that they simply can't lapse into utter resignation.  They can imagine good ideas and are frequently stymied by corporate culture and decision making processes.  It's this cognitive dissonance that makes it so hard to sustain life for long periods of time as a corporate innovator.


No executive is going to state for the record that they don't want innovation.  Quite the contrary, they all want the BENEFITS of innovation, but are frequently concerned about the potential downsides or risks.  In our current financial climate, it's much safer to repeat existing processes and achieve mediocre results without taking big risks rather than making some interesting but speculative investments on the hope of much larger returns.  I was interviewed recently for an article in a leading journal, and the author asked me about the paucity of innovation.  His assertion was that innovation lacks funding.  No, I told him, money is cheap.  It's people that are expensive.  Innovators need more support, more bandwidth and more aircover to take interesting risks.  It's not about the money, it's about the potential for "failure".  Large corporations have lost their risk:reward tradeoffs and are slowly sinking into a defensive crouch, rather than taking more proactive steps to create new products and services.  It's deemed safer to be in the defensive crouch, which again points out the cognitive dissonance innovators face.  Innovators often only know one direction - forward - and can't stand to come in second place with an inferior product when they KNEW the needs and could have responded earlier.

The innovator's lament

Countless times you'll hear internal innovators say "we had that idea years ago" or complain that they presented concepts to their management teams years ago that are now gathering accolades from the market that their competitors have launched.  Executives, listen to your innovators.  Get engaged in the innovation discussions.  Create some room for experimentation.  Challenge your innovators.  Provide funding for them to test hypothesis and discover new ideas.  Get out of the defensive crouch before all your innovators need psychological counseling.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:52 AM


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