Surely you’ve heard the plea from on high at your company: we want more innovation, from everyone at every level. Your boss might even agree with the sentiment — because, of course, who doesn’t like innovation? It’s good for everyone, right?
Yet when it comes to innovating at your job it might be better to lower your expectations — and then some. Your idea is far more likely to die on your boss’s desk than it is to reach the CEO.
Top managers want new ideas but the people around you are unlikely to bend toward change
It’s not that top managers don’t want new ideas. Rather, it’s the people around you — your colleagues, your manager — who are unlikely to bend toward change.
Ideas are the enemy
Today, big companies that don’t innovate face extinction. “Companies are almost forced to say that they are changing these days,” says Lynn Isabella, professor of organisational behaviour at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business in the US. “There is a bit of keeping up with the Joneses.” Yes, even companies succumb to social pressure.
But, “it’s not organisations that resist change; people resist,” says Isabella. “The people have to see what’s in it for them.”
None of this is to say you won’t get your new idea accepted, but the idea alone is almost less important than how you get people to buy into it, she explains. Put another way, how you frame the idea matters more.
It boils down to some key questions that the people whom you pitch your ideas to will ask themselves, Isabella says. For instance, what does this innovation mean for me personally? More precisely: will it be more challenging, or will it lead to more career opportunities? Second, what will it mean for my job? Will I get fired? More broadly, will it be worth it, or was it worth it? That last one is crucial, because we all know companies come with a history of ideas to make changes — and at least some of them did not work out so well.
The innovator makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old order
Unfortunately, too often the answers to these questions don’t stack up in favour of the innovation, Isabella says. Hence the people who need to buy in don’t push for change.
But then it gets worse, history tells us.
“The innovator makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old order, and only lukewarm support is forthcoming from those who would prosper under the new,” says Niccolo Machiavelli, advisor to the rich and powerful in 15th and 16th Century Italy. “Their support is lukewarm ... partly because men are generally incredulous, never really trusting new things unless they have tested them by experience.”
Now, now, now, not later
That’s a fairly broad — and still relevant — take on why new ideas get killed in almost any workplace. But there are some specific ones as well.
One typical problem usually arrives as a corporation grows.
“The focus of a business starts to shift from long-term thinking and the focus is on next-quarter earnings,” says George Deeb, managing partner at consulting company Red Rocket Ventures. “The moment you focus on short-term profits, and not long-term revenues, you put handcuffs on innovation.”
Imagine you have an incredible idea that would cost $10m to get going, but has the potential to generate $1bn in future profits The possible hundred-fold return might make it sound like a chance worth taking, but the immediate problem becomes explaining away the $10m shortfall in quarterly profits.
“The leaders don’t want to put that investment into play,” says Deeb. “They would rather focus their efforts on immediate revenues.”
He contrasts that attitude, which is commonplace, with Amazon’s modus operandi. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, has consistently managed investor expectations to focus away from quarterly earnings announcements and towards the longer term.
Deeb points out the massive changes that retail giant Amazon has gone through since starting as an online bookseller in the 1990s. It now offers cloud computing services, warehousing, as well as streaming content. “All those initiatives are being driven by the employees,” he says. “I don’t think Jeff Bezos is doing it all by himself.”
Perhaps even more telling is that Amazon was prepared to launch products that failed. Long gone experiments include its Fire phone, its Wallet, and its former daily deals site Amazon local. All are now history.
That litany of now-dead offerings shows a willingness to venture into uncertain projects where the outcome is far from certain. In other words, it means that Amazon accepts risk taking.
Innovators need not apply
But, there’s another issue — and it goes to some of the sameness you probably see around you at work.
Corporations … don’t hire risk takers. They hire folks who are like them
“Corporations hire bright folks, but they don’t hire risk takers,” says Joan Adams, founder of Pierian Consulting. “[They] hire folks who are like them.” So if a manager is not a risk-taker, he’s likely to hire another person who doesn’t take risks. “And his manager’s boss? Same story,” she says.
Then there are plain old politics at play.
“Sometimes people just fail to recognise good work because of political considerations,” says Steven Danley, co-author of the book Management Diseases and Disorders. “If someone isn’t liked within an organisation, [then] you know if you take it up to the top that the idea will be killed.”
How many managers would forward an idea that they know in advance will be shot down? So, even if your idea has game-changing potential, if you’re not liked somewhere up the chain — even for no good reason — your great idea gets killed.
Then there is the matter of competence. Some people are not smart enough or skilled enough to tell whether or not a new idea is a good one, says Danley. But beware, we are all guilty of that at times, especially when the innovation is simply too radical.
The less-stuck factor
However, there’s actually some good news in all of this innovation malaise.
“There is an entire industry made up of people who don’t think with a corporate mind-set,” says Pierian’s Adams. “Every year, high-priced consultants — like me — help companies become a little less stuck on doing the ‘same old, same old’ at great expense.”
So, it could be you’re just on the wrong side of the desk — innovation from the outside is lucrative, and from the success of consultancies like Pieran, much easier for the bosses to take on board.
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