How to Work with Innovation Killers


Although we live in an age that glorifies innovation, there is a big difference between theoretically advocating for it and being able (or willing) to actually implement it. None of this is really new. From Schumpeter’s classic definition of innovation as “creative destruction” to recent portrayals of innovators as disruptors or constructive nonconformist, we have known for years that the people and processes that enable innovation are often undesirable, not least because of the ubiquitous human fear of the unknown. As Slavoj Žižek points out, few things are as violent – psychologically speaking – as change, and the violence of change is what makes people cling to the familiar, even when they hypothetically embrace change. Indeed, whether the goal is to change oneself or one’s environment, most people don’t want to change – what they want is to have changed. “Take this pill and you’ll be smarter, slimmer, happier, richer” – everybody would sign up for that. Now if the deal is to follow a specific set of instructions that may or not, after a great deal of effort, suffering, and persistence, create the desired change, then the uptake will be rather smaller.

Traditionally, there have been three major levels of explanation to understand the determinants of change, including innovation (the implementation of original and useful ideas into new products, processes, and services that enhance organizational effectiveness). The first and most widely discussed is strategy and it concerns the business plan for innovation – hire MBAs or McKinsey consultants and they will help you pick a recipe from their innovation cookbook, with detailed instructions and a stepwise approach based on data-driven management theories. The second, more metaphysical, is culture, and, according to Peter Drucker, it “eats strategy for breakfast”. Culture comprises the explicit and implicit rules dictating the dynamics of social interaction in organizations. It includes the organization’s code of conduct and dictates what gets sanctioned and rewarded, or, to borrow Google’s expression, “how we do things around here”. While both strategy and culture are no doubt pivotal to predict and manage organizational innovation, they are actually the product of a third variable, namely talent. Indeed, strategy and culture don’t emerge out of the blue – they result from the leaders of the organization, and talented leaders are better at creating a culture and strategy to harness innovation, as opposed to destroying it.

Yet in every organization the main challenge for those interested in pushing forward an innovation agenda is to work with people who resist it. This is not only true for leaders – when they have to get buy-in from their executives and boards – but also employees. Regardless of how senior you are, and what role you occupy, you will only be able to contribute to innovation if you can overcome the barriers and hurdles put in place by those who are eager to maintain the status quo, and what makes this challenge so difficult is that these innovation killers are often utterly unaware of their resistance to change. It is always easier to fight a rational enemy, and delusion inhibits rationality.

Personality research provides a useful theoretical model for understanding innovation from a people perspective, and that includes a range of practical recommendations for dealing with anti-innovation personalities. Sadly, most writings in this area have focused on the qualities of individuals with great innovation potential (the bright side of innovation), and to a lesser degree on the problematic or undesirable characteristics of these creative personalities (the dark side of innovation). However, given that innovators are far less represented in organizations (and societies) than conformists, and that only a minority of organizations succeed in their innovation efforts, it makes sense to devote more attention to the profile of blockers than enablers of innovation.

So, what are these blockers typically like, and how should one deal with them? Here are four valuable lessons from science:

Threat-detection mode: One of the most common reasons for resisting innovation is the unconscious bias to attend to (and prioritize) potential threats over and above rewards. In contrast, innovation is a reward-seeking activity, as evidenced by the higher risk tolerance, optimism, and opportunism of successful entrepreneurs, who are naturally prone to distort reality so as to ignore the potential threats underlying change and disruption. As a result, innovators are often unable to enthuse threat-sensitive people with their ideas and ventures. It is as if they spoke a completely different language to innovation killers. Indeed, to tell someone who is on threat-detection mode that pursuing X or Y could be exciting, original, or innovative, is like trying to cheer up someone with depression; it is as ineffective as trying to persuade natural innovators that their plans are risky or unfeasible. Thus if you want to convince innovation killers of the need to innovate, you are better off using a threat-based strategy: “if we don’t innovate, we are going to shrink, lose market-share, or die”. Note that people are generally more worried about losing what they have than gaining something they don’t.

Passive resistance: Another common feature of innovation killers is that they are quite good at avoiding over conflict. Instead of confronting innovators, they specialize in passive avoidance or resistance, which results from their leisurely personality style (a dark side trait). This is why innovation killers may pretend to agree with your innovative ideas while being not just disinterested, but also appalled by them. Their polite and cordial fake attitude is an effective strategy for boycotting ideas behind your back, and they effectively play on the enthusiasm of innovators who are so enamored with their own ideas that are easily fooled into thinking that others are equally keen on them. Thus the best way to deal with innovation killers is to disbelief in their apparent cooperativeness and acceptance, and assume that they are just faking interest. But instead of challenging or confronting them so they reveal their true attitudes, make them agree, document their approval in writing, and they will be forced to carry on pretending that they are in favor. In short, instead of exposing their passive insubordination, force them to keep faking it, until your ideas are executed and implemented.

This article was originally published by Forbes on May 23, 2017, and it was authored by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic.