The Politics of Innovation
So the Board and CEO of your company are drinking the Innovation Kool-Aid and the message to line managers is the organization must focus on generating innovative, disruptive ideas. Why is it that when you throw out a creative idea at a team meeting, you get the death stare instead of the gold star?
You perturb your boss; your teammates whisper under their breath; and one says out loud what the others are thinking: “Oh yeah, right! Like that will ever happen here.” You walk away bruised, disheartened, and wondering how on earth to introduce a new idea without it being rejected outright before even being considered.
There is much more to succeeding with an innovative concept than starting with a great, creative idea. It’s equally about managing the first impressions your colleagues have when your introducing your idea. This involves two components: how you position the idea; and how you address the first round of resistance that threatens to smother the conversation before it’s even begun.
Outright resistance is often personal. If you face opposition to an idea, particularly if teammates resist swiftly and forcefully, it most likely isn’t about the idea at all. Instead, you have probably triggered very personal discomfort for the people involved.
Passing judgment is one sure-fire way to spark resistance. When you floated your idea, did your tone imply that everything that’s been tried before was lacking? Did you make the mistake of starting a sentence with “When I worked at Awesome Incorporated…?” If so, you probably aroused feelings of inadequacy and elicited self-protective resistance.
Another way you might have triggered resistance was by making the idea sound too exotic or overly complex. While you were focused on making your idea sound compelling, your jargon-filled description only made it feel more foreign and intimidating to your teammates. Ideas that people don’t understand or can’t relate to will invoke fear of looking ignorant or anxiety about being perceived as not being fully competent. Shutting down the idea ensures they won’t risk being exposed as asleep at the wheel, i.e. why the heck didn’t you think of that?.
When introducing a new idea it’s best to assume that you are presenting to a resistant audience. Invest as much energy in what you say and how you say it as you did in coming up with the idea itself. Think about how the idea will reflect upon your audience more than you think about how it will reflect upon you.
These are proven strategies that will increase the likelihood that your idea will get a fair hearing:
Start by linking your idea to an existing strategy. Drawing one or two links can help in two ways. First, by relating your idea to existing strategies, it will seem less foreign and will reduce the likelihood of arousing the fear of the unknown. Second, by building on the existing strategy, you implicitly validate it. Here’s an example of the difference: Rather than saying “I think we need a whole new knowledge management software product line,” try “We’ve got a strategy of pursuing small privately owned firms and we’ve had particular success selling our accounting software into small professional services firms. Our account reps are telling us that clients are struggling to implement all the new regulatory reforms. What if we were to add a new knowledge management product line targeted specifically at their regulatory requirements?”
Describe hour your idea is analogous to existing products, services, or processes.Another way to reduce resistance to new or unfamiliar ideas is to associate them with things that are well understood. What successful model does your idea relate to? In the software company example, it might be “We already have the Shazam knowledge management tool for our large clients, this would be mini-Shazam for lawyers and accountants!” Alternatively, you can relate it to an example outside your organization, such as: “It’s like Wikipedia for lawyers.” The idea is to make the idea seem less scary and more achievable by relating it to a known quantity. (“Just please don’t compare your idea to Uber.”)
Explain how your idea will meet or exceed the needs of a key stakeholder.Sometimes you need to borrow someone’s clout to give your idea the extra oomph it needs to get over the threshold. Don’t claim that a senior leader is on board if she isn’t, but it’s totally acceptable (and quite strategic) to mention things that matter to your boss’ boss and to tie your idea back to them. For example: “At the conference in March, Aliya said that she thinks we already have all the great ideas we need, we just need to commercialize them in new ways and in new markets. I think she’d be really excited if we told her we had a huge unexploited market opportunity for our Shazam software.”
Even with your best efforts to sound non-judgemental and to connect your idea to existing frameworks and strategies, you’re still likely to face at least some resistance. Here are a few of the most common defensive reactions and how you can respond effectively without alienating your colleagues:
“That will never work.” If your idea is dismissed openly, calmly invite the person to share their concerns. “I’m interested in hearing what you think would be the show-stoppers.” If, in response, the team raises interesting or important issues, first validate their comments. “I hadn’t thought of the technical expertise required in the regulatory space. Good point.” Then keep the conversation moving forward. “Where might we access regulatory experts?” If, instead, the team can only come up with flimsy excuses, you can try “That sounds surmountable. How could we overcome that issue?” Both of these options keep the conversation positive, constructive, and moving toward action.
“Oh yeah, I’ll get right on that.” If your idea is met with sarcasm designed to shut you down, just smile and keep moving forward. Sarcasm is a very passive-aggressive form of resistance with very little meaningful content behind it. The only way a nasty one-liner works is if it silences you. If you ignore the slam and keep moving, the sarcastic person has shot their bolt. The best way to deal with passive-aggressiveness such as sarcasm is to meet it head on. “I’m all ears if you have concerns about my idea. What risks are you focused on?”
Silence, whispers, or eye-rolling. Many people won’t have the courage to disagree openly with your idea but that’s not to say their resistance won’t be completely obvious. It’s just as valid to point out body language as it is to address what someone has said. “Suddenly it’s become very quiet in here. How should I interpret the silence?” If the non-verbal behavior in the room is speaking volumes, call it out “Suddenly I’m seeing a few eye-rolls. What’s behind that reaction?”
Taking the time to improve the quality of your creative ideas by diligently validating your assumptions is just as important as the idea itself. You could even at least partially complete my Minimum Viable LEAN Canvas and use it to present your idea. Remember the best idea in the world doesn’t assure you of a fair hearing if the innovation disrupts your teammates’ sense of confidence, competence, or comfort. More energy invested in making your idea palatable will increase the likelihood that it gets a fair hearing and isn’t rejected based on the politics of how people perceive their role in the process and the likelihood that your success could also mean their success.
Greg Twemlow, Nov 2016
P.S. the story of the invention of the Kodak Box Brownie is well worth reading.