By Marty Neumeier. If there are so many good reasons to innovate, why is innovation so rare? For the answer to that we need to go no further than Niccolo Machiavelli:
“Innovation makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old regime, and only lukewarm support is forthcoming from those who would prosper under the new. Their support is indifferent partly from fear and partly because they are generally incredulous, never really trusting new things unless they have tested them by experience.”
The picture Machiavelli paints is of an asymmetrical battle of wills. Those who have something to lose are 100 percent against change, and those who have something to gain are only 50 percent in favor of it. The missing 50 percent is equal parts fear and doubt. Machiavelli was actually a good guy, but history cast him as a villain on the basis of “The Prince,” a pamphlet he wrote as a young man during the Renaissance. He wrote it as a kind of resume designed to get a job with the Medici. It didn’t work.
But he was right about one thing: The forces against innovation are legion. They issue not only from external sources, such as competing companies, but also from internal sources, such as competing visions, competing agendas, and competing work styles. Let’s take them one at a time.
On the outside, the enemies are other organizations. Since every company in a given category is fighting for the same limited resources, the game can get pretty rough. While the other teams are not against innovation per se, they’re against your team using it. They’re highly motivated to keep the innovation ball in their own court. Therefore, they might try to block any innovation attempts using the force of law, either through legitimate patents or through sheer legal threats. They might use their considerable market power to intimidate new entrants. They might use a first-mover advantage to “own the playing field,” as Microsoft did with its operating platform. And they might simply build a charismatic brand, whose loyal customers dismiss the innovations of other companies as less than exciting, as Apple has done with dramatic effect.
Okay, fair enough. Since business is competitive by nature, we can understand one company’s desire to block another’s innovations. What’s harder to understand is why the forces against innovation are so strong inside companies. Why would a company sabotage it’s own ability to innovate, when its very survival depends on the flow of new ideas, products, services, and brands? There are eight basic reasons for this, most of them short-sighted but all of them human.
1. Unpredictability. The problem with innovation is that it requires a company to change in ways it can’t foresee. Businesses run more smoothly, at least in the short term, when change is kept to a minimum. A company that continually has its back to the wall will soon create a culture that discourages innovation. And a company that has a lock on a product niche is not as likely to try something new. The milk of invention doesn’t come from cash cows.
2. Personal fear. Those who’ve been exposed to the heat of innovation can develop a fear of getting burned. Traditional business cultures are risk-averse, and they tend to punish failure through public ridicule, financial disincentives, and loss of status. Even mild forms of these are enough to dampen an innovator’s enthusiasm.
3. Learning anxieties. Change requires the acquisition of new skills, which means people have to put effort into learning, with no guarantee of success. As organizational expert Ken Embley said, “Most people will only embrace change when survival anxiety is greater than learning anxiety.”
4. Turfiness. Innovation can be blocked by those with personal agendas, whether hidden or declared. “My job might be in jeopardy if this program takes hold.” “This idea will steal funding from my own project.” “I don’t like it because I didn’t think of it.” In Ken Musgrave’s first week as an executive in Dell’s design group, another executive told him that his job was unnecessary and he was personally lobbying to have it eliminated. Truly turfy.
5. Titles. Traditional organizational structures are built on positions instead of projects. They reward people for holding onto their jobs instead of creating valuable assets. In this way, people with positions are rewarded for being something, not for doing something. Title-based organizations foster a laissez-faire attitude toward progress. Vice president Dan Quayle once advised Americans not to worry—“The future will be better tomorrow.”
6. Mental models. These are ideas and beliefs that simplify complex realities so people can get their jobs done. The downside is that they can stop us from seeing what’s possible outside the model, especially if we’ve been using it successfully for many years. “The reason it takes technology 15-20 years to come in,” says inventor Dean Kamen, “is because 15 years is the time it takes a kid who saw it when he was young to become a functioning adult.”
7. The expectations market. Corporate managers have been taught to control and optimize for the sake of shareholders, not to lead and innovate for the sake of customers. Roger Martin, former dean of the Rotman School of Management, says, “We need to turn executives from the useless, vapid task of managing expectations to the psychologically rewarding business of creating value.” Until then, innovation will happen in isolated pockets.
8. Government support. In an effort to protect themselves against the innovation of others, many large companies become addicted to lobbying. The temptation is strong, since the economic policies of the state tend to support established, powerful enterprises over new, unproven ones. Old ideas have deep legislative roots. Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla decries this as “incumbency capitalism.” But there it is.
Now that you have a complete picture of why innovation is sabotaged, let’s look at how it’s sabotaged. Here are the six common tactics to watch out for:
1. Norms. We don’t do it like that here. Tell me one company that has succeeded with that idea. Well, at least you’re not afraid to try hare-brained solutions!
2. Sowing confusion. Isn’t that the same thing one of our competitors tried last year? I thought this was Margaret’s area of responsibility. I’m pretty sure the statistics don’t support that conclusion.
3. Raising the threat level. David attempted that two years ago and was moved into a different role. I hope you have a plan B for your career! What—are you crazy? They’ll fire you for even thinking like that.
4. Delay, delay, delay. I really wouldn’t go forward until we have better research. Can you wait two weeks until I get back from the trade show? I’d like to personally present this to the leaders, but first I need to get it on their calendars.
5. Argumentum ad hominem. I heard Jack can’t stay married for more than six months at a time, so I wouldn’t count on his follow-through. You know, Sylvia is new here. Ricardo has had a string of failed projects—you might want to keep your distance.
6. Black-hatting. It’s a great idea, but customers will never go for it. Okay, but from a legal standpoint this could be a nightmare! Let me just point out one tiny hitch in your otherwise perfect plan. The black-hat role is extremely popular, since the black-hatter always comes off as hip and avuncular—simultaneously smart and supportive. You expect to see a rakish eye-patch under the cool black hat.
All this begs the question: Considering how severely the deck is stacked against innovation, why does anyone bother? Why not just stick to the tried and true? Better yet, why not wait until someone else demonstrates success, then simply copy it in the longstanding tradition of business? Answer: Because innovative products, innovative business models, and innovative technologies can spawn whole new industries and create tremendous value for the originators, while their followers get only what’s left.
When a company gains a foothold in a new industry or category, it has a head start on competitors. Innovation is characterized by learning—so if the company keeps learning as it drives forward it becomes impossible for latecomers to catch up. This creates a virtuous circle of growth, success, and power as the company generates widespread wealth. “We as a society should favor the disruptors,” said intellectual property visionary Lawrence Lessig in The Future of Ideas. “They will produce movement toward a more efficient, prosperous economy.”