Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt as Barriers to Innovation
If you came of age during the great technology marketing wars of the 80s and 90s, you’ll recognize the acronym “FUD” – fear, uncertainty and doubt. Marketing’s goal in most cases was to create enough fear, uncertainty and doubt about a competitor’s products or services that the buyer remained loyal to his or her incumbent. IBM has been credited with making FUD a sales and marketing tactic, as in the statement “No one ever got fired for hiring IBM to do a job”.
Basically FUD argues that what’s known and experienced should have more weight in a decision process than what’s new or unknown. It argues that consistency in decision making and loyalty to the status quo are more valuable and more defensible than change. The problem with this line of thinking is that change occurs all around us, and remaining true to a vision, whether that’s our vision or a vendor’s vision, risks missing valuable information. FUD has been, and will remain, a valuable marketing tactic whenever there are gray areas about decision making.
Unfortunately FUD has permeated the way many executives make decisions about anything, and that attitude has permeated most organizations. If you could boil down all the arguments about innovation, for example, you’d find that most of the barriers could be reduced to fear, uncertainty and doubt. Let’s look at why these three factors are barriers and what your firm can do to change them.
Why are we afraid of innovation? Clearly, when done well innovation offers the promise of valuable new products and services that drive growth and profits. But innovation isn’t a given – we can’t promise that a new product or service will return what we hope it will return. And, since existing business processes and products seem relatively predictable, we allow our fear of change and risk to limit our innovation investments. Even when firms do attempt to innovate, they tweak the ideas to make them “safer” and easier to implement, but often with less reward.
Fear is a cultural phenomenon, brought on by the fact that one significant failure in a career is all you get. Most people understand that mediocrity is typically rewarded, but taking significant risks for big gains is fine as long as you succeed. We need to re-introduce to many cultures the concept of taking more risk for greater reward. As competition increases and global trade barriers fall, doing the same things and expecting even the same results is insanity.
To work in many large organizations today, you almost have to be a zen master to decode what’s said, and what’s meant. I think many executives are intentionally vague in their statements so that if a project is implemented and unsuccessful, they can point the blame somewhere else. When strategies and goals are uncertain, people do what they know best – maintain the status quo. To improve innovation outcomes and investments, we must eliminate uncertainty.
You can’t eliminate the uncertainty that surrounds whether or not a new product or service will be successful. The market drives that. But you can eliminate the uncertainty about the value of innovation, or who should be innovating, or what kinds of innovation would be valuable in your organization. Good strategic direction and consistent communication from executives in all levels will go a long way to reducing uncertainty.
Doubt is created when there is Fear, as described above, or when uncertainty exists, as described above, or when people don’t know the answers and aren’t willing to ask. Doubt arises when executives and leaders aren’t able or willing to provide leadership. In the absence of good leadership, people begin to doubt their own judgments and will, again, revert to the status quo. It’s amazing how easy it is to create doubt in an organization, and how difficult doubt is to overcome.
To overcome doubt, we need forceful, direct leadership, consistently communicating and in the forefront of the innovation effort. Not a disinterested bystander but an active participant. Generals for many centuries led from the front, to demonstrate what they wanted from their troops. We need more leadership from the front where innovation is concerned to dispel doubt.
Fear, uncertainty and doubt were tools used by marketers to remain an incumbent. Unfortunately these attributes have infiltrated the way many organizations manage their work and their teams. While FUD is great at maintaining a status quo environment, a circle the wagons mentality can’t create new, valuable products and services. What we need is a new mantra – Unafraid (rather than fear), Certainty and Leadership. While LUC doesn’t have quite the same ring as FUD, hopefully some of firms will start to embrace LUC and implement its concepts to embrace innovation.
Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.
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