by Michael Schrage

The Key to Innovation: Overcoming Resistance

Oct 15, 20056 mins

By far the most common question I get from CIOs and their direct reports is some heartfelt permutation of, “My IT group—our company—needs to become much more innovative. How can we do it? How should we do it? Help.”

Those questions are invariably followed by a tragic but true innovation tale: The well-meaning Jedi Knights of IT are thwarted by organizational Darth Vaders ruthlessly intent on crushing digitally enabled change enterprisewide.

I nod sympathetically and brace for what’s almost always said next: “Michael, I really need to come up with better ideas faster.”

Without hesitation, I say what I always say to these frustrated innovators: “No, you really don’t. Honest.”

Nothing in the business world is more overrated than a “good idea.” Nothing. I’ve never gone into an organization anywhere in the world that didn’t have—with a little prompting and encouragement—more good ideas than it could possibly use. Indeed, most firms enjoy a surplus—a glut—of good ideas. As a rule, a glut of something makes it less valuable, not more. Economics 101.

By contrast, I’ve never gone into an organization where the process of implementing good ideas was fast, cheap, easy and successful. There seems to be a terrible scarcity—a corporate famine—of good implementations.

Simply put, good ideas are cheap; good implementations aren’t. Experience teaches that aspiring IT innovators don’t need better ideas that make more sense. They need better implementations that make—or save—more money. If organizations can boost their “return on innovation” by investing more in good implementations than in good ideas, then that’s where their capital should go.

Despite the fervent hopes of bright people with brilliant ideas, successful innovation can’t be divorced from successful implementation.

The best insights into innovation cultures don’t come from the quantity and quality of its ideas but in the nature of the resistance to their successful implementation.

Grasping the essence of an innovation culture is astonishingly easy. Simply fill in the blank. Whenever a good idea is proposed, you’ll find the core values of an innovation culture in the words that follow this common phrase: “We can’t do that because…”

Whatever reasons, excuses and evasions people use to explain away why good ideas can’t be implemented is the organization’s innovation culture. Period. We can’t do that because…it’s too expensive, the boss won’t like it, the lawyers won’t let us, it’s not in the budget, we don’t think it will work, the vendor will charge us too much for changing the code, marketing will take it from us if it actually succeeds, the woman championing it is a credit-hog, IT shouldn’t be leading this kind of initiative, it distracts us from our main mission and so on.

It’s Human Nature to Resist

Sound familiar? Alas, these sources of resistance are the real “brand attributes” of an organization’s innovation culture. Listen to them, learn them and respect them. They are how organizations truly define innovation. Never fool yourself into thinking you’re just a good idea away from innovative success. Resistance, not ideas, is the most powerful lens for viewing innovation behavior.

Doubt that? Most people in the Western world are significantly overweight; maybe you’re one of them. Fortunately, there’s a proven algorithm—a very good idea—for successfully alleviating this condition: Eat less, exercise more. Alas, only a tiny fraction of the chunky population consistently implements this very good idea on a daily basis.

But, honestly, just how good of an idea is “eat less, exercise more” if so few people actually implement it? The economic value of a good idea—if it is, indeed, a good idea—lies more in its successful implementation than its clever articulation.

Just as actions speak louder than words, implementations are more compelling than ideas. The infinite varieties of how people cheat on their diets and exercise regimes is a microcosm of the organizational frictions that innovations can generate. After all, liposuction is one of the world’s fastest-growing surgical procedures for a reason. For a growing segment of the marketplace, it really is faster, cheaper, easier and more successful than “eat less, exercise more.”

Consequently, the innovation challenge is the challenge of diagnosing and overcoming organizational resistance. When you hear, We can’t do that because it’s too expensive, the serious innovator’s obligation is to demonstrate that, in fact, the proposed innovation is cheaper. Build a demo or simulation that makes the case. A better idea isn’t going to do it.

When the resistance is that the boss won’t like it, the serious innovator’s response is to determine if the boss’s boss is a better target market for the innovation proposal. Perhaps some other constituency can make the boss see the error of his ways. (For example, one Procter & Gamble brand manager sent prototypes to his boss’s wife for her advice as a target customer and turned her into the most influential internal ally the innovators could have ever hoped to have.)

Whether resistance is overcome by an act of persuasion, seduction, manipulation, intimidation or bribery, the fact is that it has to be overcome. In this context, the models, prototypes and simulations that IT builds are less mechanisms to solve problems than ways in which to surface the real reasons for resistance. Bitter experience affirms that individuals and organizations don’t hesitate to offer dishonest, misleading or ignorant reasons for not wanting to implement an idea.

At one bank, online marketing absolutely refused to allow a subtle yet important interface change to be tested on its consumer site. IT convinced the firm to adopt the change by making a similar change on the bank’s human resources intranet site and then quickly debugging the problems associated with the modification. Resistance was overcome by a cost-effective example.

The smartest thing innovation-savvy CIOs could do to boost their chances of success is to invest less time brainstorming and more thought targeting the sources of resistance to innovation implementation. Innovation initiatives should have explicit flowcharts and tactics explaining how internal resistance will be identified and finessed. Overcoming resistance should be the driving dynamic for implementing innovations within the enterprise.

Alas, even as I write this I can just see you muttering to yourself, “We can’t do that because…”