The enemies of innovation

Innovation can be a nasty business. It requires energy and creativity, resources such as people’s budgets and time, as well as the need to manage the stress and actions of those that don’t want change. Staff don’t like it as it can threaten their job security, perks, status and even their remuneration. However it’s a necessary evil because organisations that stand still will always die. A favourite author/economist of mine, Paul Ormerod calls it the only sustainable competitive advantage.

From what I can see, there are two types of people trying to block innovation within organisations.

Passive blockers

Firstly the passive types. Their arguments against innovation include:

  • “We’ve tried that before and it didn’t work.” Read – I think you’re wasting your time.
  • “Others are already doing it.” Read – I think you’re wasting your time and haven’t done your research properly.
  • “Glad you have got the energy, I really think you should look at this instead.” A misdirection.
  • “Okay, I will look into it.” The do nothing strategy.
  • “Okay, I will help you with this.” Then they do nothing. The more insidious version of the do nothing strategy.

To deal with them seems to take a couple of strategies:

1. The fear strategy – gain sponsorship from higher up, to undermine their birthright to block you, then go heavy on the documentation of what you are doing so that every conversation is recorded and they are aware they will be held accountable.
2. The greed strategy – get sponsorship from higher up, then get them on board so that they can see they can derive kudos, new opportunities and new financial rewards from a supporting innovation program.

Of course, a mixture of both, carrot and stick, works too.

Active blockers

The active blockers will put real energy into trying to stop innovation. Their arguments to stop innovation occurring normally follow a flawed pattern such as:

  • Focusing on the little picture, not the big picture and ignoring externalities, eg. Not showing market data in a historical context or not overlaying current trends is a usual tactic.
  • Use today’s economics, not future economics. If a carbon surcharge is likely to be added onto the manufacturing cost of an item into the future, this alternative should also be included when analysing options.
  • No comparing apples with apples. For instance the cost of energy generated from coal is normally calculated without the sunk costs of infrastructure, however the cost of alternate energy sources always has its infrastructure amortised in.
  • Highlighting risk of innovation as compared to maintaining the status quo. This argument always treats the current situation “because it is what it is” as a zero risk option. In fact this couldn’t be further from the truth. In both biology and economics, everything eventually fails unless there is innovation.

The strategy here is twofold:

1. You must have the data to support your argument, but keep your powder dry. Be ready to present simple visualisations of the data to support any counterargument you wish to make.
2. You need to use the same strategies that you use to deal with the passive blockers. Get sponsorship from higher up, make the blocker clearly accountable and finally, offer them opportunities.

This isn’t of course a complete list, however it is complete list of innovation blocking I have seen in action.

Accept the fact that innovation is a nasty business and will generate you enemies. But as I was told when I studied to be an Army Officer, if you haven’t pissed someone off, you’re probably pandering to minority groups and therefore not being a good leader.

Brendan Lewis is a serial technology entrepreneur having founded: Ideas Lighting, Carradale Media, Edion, Verve IT, The Churchill Club and Flinders Pacific. He has set up businesses for others in Romania, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Vietnam and is the sole Australian representative of the City of London for Foreign Direct Investment. Qualified in IT and Accounting, he has also spent time running an Advertising agency and as a Cavalry Officer with the Australian Army Reserve.



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