That’s a good idea, but…

Challenges to innovation acceptance within an organization 

I have worked within a large international technology for many years and collaborated with other folks — within and outside the company – on product innovation.  While there are many differences in products, cultures (corporate and societal), most of the people I met can all agree that internal innovation is a hard sell.

When I started out championing internal innovation 20 years ago I was naïve enough at the time to feel that innovation would be welcome.  Sure, some people in the company would have their noses out of joint – probably those that did not think about the idea or who’s products would be affected by the changes – but management and far seeing people would see the wisdom and support these projects.  And for all projects there *was* support from far seeing managers to get the innovation off the ground (sort of like internal angel investors), but rather than receiving roses at the end of the project it was always rocks and sticks.  I can be pretty stubborn by nature (reveal: my sport is long distance running) but after a few years the rejection was getting me down.

So I examined what experts had to say about innovation, to better understand the situation I was in.

Here is an insight on the problem from an old management consultant:

“It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to management than the creation of a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones.” 

The Prince, Nicolo Machiavelli 

And here are some other words of advice from the man that is said to have invented modern management

“It is not size that is an impediment to entrepreneurship and innovation; it is the existing operation itself, and especially the existing successful operation.” 

“Operating anything …. requires constant effort and unremitting attention.  The only thing that can be guaranteed in any kind of operation is the daily crisis. The daily crisis cannot be postponed, it has to be dealt with right away.  And the existing operation demands high priority and deserves it.  

The new always looks so small, so puny, so unpromising next to the size and performance of maturity. … The odds are heavily stacked against it succeeding.” 

Innovation and Entrepreneurship , Peter Drucker,  

Clearly I should have been expecting the bricks all the time.

But after some further reflection, there are some specific reasons why internal innovation in large companies is not welcome.

Negates investments in physical & personal capital

Silicon Valley’s hippy values ‘killing music industry’,

Paul McGuinness, U2 Manager (Guardian.co.uk, January 2008)

Experts like to stay experts since the perks that come with the job are quite good (salary, prestige). Someone coming with a new way to do something that removes the need for expertise – well they are not welcome.  Same is true for product managers – they don’t want to hear that their cash cow is dead with this new innovation.  Or the new servers we bought are now obsolete. Shooting the messenger is de rigueur in this situation.

Upsets the existing hierarchy and power base

“When Henry Ford made cheap, reliable cars people said, ‘Nah, what’s wrong with a horse?’ That was a huge bet he made, and it worked.”

Elon Musk. 

Mainframes vs PCs; CD/DVDs vs streaming; electric cars vs oil cars.  There are going to be winners and losers, and innovation is the catalyst for change.

It is a drain on resources

A company always has a crisis going on (usually several) and it needs all the good, talented people to help resolve the issues.  The last thing a manager handling the crisis wants to hear is that there is a skunk work project that is sucking up the people and resources they could use to solve the crisis.   And even if they project is “ring fenced” to prevent poaching, there will be constant comments in the management meetings that the company does not have the right “focus” on the crisis, since “out best people are not engaged”.

Is often an instrument of change

“People hate change because people hate change”

Tom Demarco, Peopleware

It sort is in the nature of innovation to introduce change.  And instinctively we resist change, for good and bad reasons.  Even changes that bring longer term benefit to most people have their resistors, even long after the change has been accomplished.  As of 2016, 13% of Americans do not use the internet.  And that level has not changed for 3 years.   And now vinyl records are making a comeback, which will make happy the folks that never embraced CDs.

And beside these reasons, all the innovator has to offer is (typically) an idea and possibly a proto-type with limited ability to make money for the organization in the next quarter.  Sort of like shark testing a baby lamb when you think about it.

But all is not lost.  In subsequent posts I will talk about some strategies to overcome the resistance and get an innovation to market within a large company.  Just don’t expect any flowers along the way.

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