Thursday, May 25, 2023

Identifying and overcoming the innovation resistance

 All good stories need a protagonist and an antagonist, the "good' character and the not so good character to develop tension.  Eventually, in any story, the tension is resolved - the protagonist wins (in the happy ending stories) or the antagonist changes sided, or the antagonist wins (unhappy resolution).  Every story with any meaning or tension has these two opposing forces. 

So, it seems strange to suggest that there are innovation protagonists, and innovation antagonists.  We are led to believe that "everyone" wants innovation.  Everyone likes new things, new ideas, new experiences.  But with every new creation, something or someone is put at risk.  Even people who claim to like and appreciate innovation can become resistant or antagonists to innovation when new ideas threaten their cherished products or positions.

Why innovation is like Star Wars

I grew up with Star Wars, with Luke and Darth Vader as the key actors.  I guess it's not strange that Luke is always shown wearing a white shirt and Darth is always depicted as wearing a black cape.  Much like the old westerns where the good guy wore a white hat, and the bad guy a black hat.  

The strange thing about innovation is that there are Lukes - people who really believe in the power of the innovation force, as a means for good, and people who, mostly in the moment, see innovation as a threat, or a force to be managed or turned to their own devices.

I don't think anyone sets out to be a Darth Vader for innovation intentionally, but many people play the role of Darth when innovation threatens the projects, products or positions that are important to them. Let's consider why, and when, innovation becomes a force that will create resistance and Darth-like characters may emerge.

What causes the rise of the Dark Lord of innovation?

Innovation seems to be a very positive force, creating value and opportunity, creating new products and services that most consumers want and need.  Like ice cream and puppies, it's kind of hard to imagine that anyone would resist innovation, and I suspect that even the people or teams who do resist innovation often find themselves in an uncomfortable situation - resisting a force that they know is meant for good, but in the moment appears as a threat.

There are at least three instances where innovation resistance will arise, and it will arise mostly within a company (although sometimes from external actors) and mostly will arise as a reaction to a perceived threat. 

The "locked in" people and products

You've encountered this before.  Some people are resistant to change, even when you can show them a better and brighter future.  They resist change, and its uncertainty, not necessarily the idea or solution itself.  To these individuals or teams, change itself is the enemy, and innovation is simply another attempt to create change that they will have to deal with.  The language of these folks is:  "if it ain't broke, don't fix it".  Change of any form creates challenges and uncertainty.  These individuals revere the past glory of their product or company, and are very concerned about the future.

The leaders of products put at risk by innovation

In the zero sum game of most corporate budgeting, a new product needs to get funded, and those funds almost inevitably come from an existing product.  Rather than recognize that all products go through a life cycle, some product managers become affixed to their products, and seek to defend them from all new opportunities and ideas.  While these individuals aren't afraid of change and are in fact often open to innovation, innovation that threatens their sacred cows will be fought on all fronts.  The language of these people is:  yes, let's innovate, but not at the expense of my product.  In another setting, these resistors can be innovation champions.

The bean counters

Another segment of the population that will rise to fight off innovation are the people who wield the letters R-O-I like a light sabre.  If an idea cannot guarantee a specific return on investment in a ludicrously short time frame, the idea must be rejected.  These individuals evaluated nascent ideas on impossibly stringent metrics, that they often don't hold even existing projects and products to.  Their language is about investment and risk, while they miss projects and products that have enormous sunk costs.

Defeating the innovation resistance

It's crucial to anticipate each of these dark forces arising to do battle with your ideas, and to understand who will attack your ideas and how to either win them over or to defeat them.  The most difficult to win over are the people who simply resist change, because these individuals often aren't fighting fair.  Like Sith Lords, they show up in multiple disguises and with unusual weapons, but their ultimate resistance is in their lethargy, their foot-dragging and their disdain for change.  The simple fact is that a corporate bureaucracy will not change if it does not want to, unless it is forced to, or the bureaucracy is changed.

The most difficult battle will be with the product or project leader who feels threatened in the moment by a specific innovation project.  In these instances, the individual or team whose product is threatened by a new innovation will literally "go to the mat" to save their product or project, resisting innovations that make sense.  In this instance, the only way to win is to bring in bigger guns - the executives who will make decisions and prioritize projects.  

The most subtle battle is with the funders - the accountants and financial people who will want to understand the potential return of the investment in innovation versus continuing to invest in a proven commodity that exists.  Here, you will need to turn their tools against them, to do your homework to demonstrate that your idea has financial merit, that the investment pays off in a reasonable timeframe, and that alternative investments aren't as good as yours.  Which means you'll need to get one of them on your side, because you'll need to bring an accountant or financial manager to a finance fight.

There's no Death Star

Unlike Star Wars, the innovation resistance doesn't have a Death Star and isn't really seeking to destroy the concept of innovation.  Instead, the battle is really more of a thousand cuts, constantly questioning the value, the direction, the focus, the support or the need for innovation.  Instead of one climatic meeting, innovators have to be ready with all their tools all the time to meet and overcome the resistance.  Or, be ready with a lot of Jedi mind tricks to get the management team to play along.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:46 AM


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