Why is it that people say no to what are clearly good ideas? It’s a question that David Schonthal and Loran Nordgren, professors at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, have been asking for years.
And it’s one that confronts innovators, entrepreneurs and change makers alike — whether you’re trying to invest in new futures for an established corporate, or trying to partner with or sell into one.
Nordgren, a psychologist and Schonthal, an innovation and entrepreneurship expert with stints as a startup operator, consultant and VC, argue that corporate innovation is being held back because executives focus too much on making a new idea appealing, and not enough on overcoming the frictions that undermine change.
In The Human Element, their Wall Street Journal bestselling book, they present a framework of four frictions that operate against new ideas and innovation:
- Inertia — our overwhelming desire to stick with the status quo, even if we know it’s inadequate.
- Effort — the physical, mental or economic exertion (real or perceived) required to make change happen.
- Emotion — the unintended negative emotions created by new ideas, innovation and change.
- Reactance — people’s aversion to being changed by others.
Sifted spoke to Schonthal to find out how these frictions most commonly manifest, and — importantly — some of the practical remedies that innovators can adopt.
1. Make unfamiliar ideas feel more familiar
We tend to favour things that are familiar over things that are unfamiliar — and that’s a problem for innovators and entrepreneurs, because often what they’re trying to do is inherently unfamiliar.
“The more unfamiliar an idea is, the more resistance it typically faces from its audience,” says Schonthal. “The instinct of entrepreneurs and innovators is to talk to the power of the new, and by following this instinct, they inadvertently trigger this friction of inertia.”
Schonthal’s advice is to make unfamiliar ideas feel and appear more familiar.
The instinct of entrepreneurs and innovators is to talk to the power of the new.
“It’s not a coincidence that the homescreen [on a computer] is called a desktop, and on that desktop you create documents, that you store those documents in folders, and when you want to get rid of them you don’t delete them — you literally crumple them up and drag them into the trash.”
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2. Lather, rinse, repeat
Another remedy to the inertia or innovation fatigue that confounds organisations is repetition; the more you’re exposed to something, the more familiar it becomes.
“Typically, leadership teams will have been talking about an innovation strategy or a change strategy behind the closed doors of the executive suite for months,” says Schonthal. “And while they may have spent months getting used to an idea, they then drop that idea on the company in one big all-hands meeting, discussion or email blast. And while it’s a familiar idea to everybody who’s cooked it up, it’s unfamiliar to everybody else.”
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He repeatedly encounters leaders who are confused why their organisations don’t get on board with new ideas faster, simply because they haven’t had the time to warm-up to the idea.
Schonthal says the unveiling of a new innovation programme or investment shouldn’t feel like an afterthought.
“Without designing the intervention and designing the introduction, we run the risk of encountering a bunch of resistance.”
His advice is to put as much effort into how you talk to employees and other stakeholders about a new idea as you do making the commercial choices about whether or not to invest in that idea in the first place. And one of the most effective ways to do this, he says, is to involve your people in the design and the delivery of that message.
3. Make sure every idea has a roadmap to implementation
When introducing something new, make it clear to the team what’s in it for them — and what’s needed from them.
“Sometimes, in an effort to create lofty objectives around innovation and change,” says Schonthal, “leaders leave it so vague that people are paralysed with how to start in the first place.
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“The less clear an idea, a change or a new product — the less crystalised the roadmap is to get from where you are to where you’d like to go — the greater the cognitive load and the greater the perceived effort.”
He says it’s key to ensure that every new idea comes with a roadmap to help people to get through it.
4. The best briefs come with constraints
His next tip? Give your team clear guidelines around the kind of innovation you’re after.
“There’s this mythology that creative people and designers love unconstrained spaces, blank canvases,” he says. “The truth is that creatives and designers thrive off constraint.”
Frame problems and questions, he says. Woolly and en vogue initiatives have little chance of yielding real innovation or real results.
If you give me a challenge that has no constraints, that almost paralyses me with possibility.
Challenge your team in a very specific way — say, we need to prototype how to increase conversion while lowering customer acquisition costs and increasing lifetime value, in 10 weeks or less.
“Now you’ve given me lots of freedom but you’ve created a very defined space with some clear KPIs — and given me a much more focused place to channel my creativity and energy.
“If you give me a challenge that has no constraints, that almost paralyses me with possibility.”
5. Build your friction map
Not all ideas need selling harder — some ideas need roadblocks moving instead.
It’s the difference between preventative medicine and episodic care.
Schonthal suggests innovators think about what those sources of friction might be — and to proactively plan steps to mitigate or counteract that potential for resistance.
“We find frictions are better handled, less expensive and more manageable when they are forecasted, anticipated and mitigated up front, rather than when they present themselves and then need to be repaired,” he says.
“It’s the difference between preventative medicine and episodic care.”