How Innovation Becomes Infectious
If you are like me, a person who is interested in innovation, you’ve probably experienced the following scenario. A meeting is called, where an executive announces that he or she wants more innovation. Other heads nod sagely, having seen this play before. The executive directs attention to the innovation facilitator, advocate or consultant in the room. At that moment, time freezes, as the shields go up and everyone searches your face to determine what wild party trick you have up your sleeve. It’s clear from that moment on that it’s “us” versus “them”, and while great outcomes are expected, they’ll happen on another person’s watch.
Having lived my life as an innovation consultant, I’m familiar with the unintentional cold shoulder, the lack of belief and the patient settling in, waiting for the party trick to emerge. That’s my business, so I’ve learned to lower expectations about immediate outcomes and hopefully build consensus for change. But what about an internal innovation advocate? Must they constantly be the virus that seeks to infect corporate cells that simply don’t have receptors? How does an organization become truly “infected” with innovation when most of them have anti-bodies actively pursuing and eliminating any wayward innovation viruses?
Since we are talking about infections, let’s start at the cell level. At the cell level, receptors are located on cells and receive instructions for the cell to do something. There are two types of chemicals that work with receptors, interestingly called agonists and antagonists. An agonist is a drug or chemical that binds with a receptor to help it do its work and engage the cell. An antagonist is a drug or chemical that blocks or binds the action of another chemical or drug, blocking the receptor.
In most organizations, the receptors are attuned to short term gains, maintaining business as usual and slowly, steadily growing the company. Antibodies or “antagonists” act against ideas or actors that suggest concepts that would conflict with these receptors. Innovation is often a foreign element that seeks to enter the corporate cell, but finds few receptors and most of those are blocked by antagonists who seek to maintain the existing order, protect business as usual. Innovation is viewed by the corporate body as an invading virus, bent on destruction rather than as a positive force with beneficial outcomes.
To overcome these corporate barriers we need to do three things: reduce antagonists, create more receptors and make innovation less of a foreign substance and more familiar to the cellular structure. To accomplish these goals, corporate bodies need to do the following:
- Reduce antagonists. In the cellular world, antagonists block messages or disable receptors so cells can’t or don’t do what they should. In the corporate world, antagonists are represented by corporate culture, which dissuades people from taking actions, compensation, which encourages consistency over change, history and perspectives, fear of risk and uncertainty. Until these antagonists are removed through changes in corporate culture, communication, compensation and reward structures, innovation will always be viewed as an invading virus rather than a beneficial cell.
- Increase receptors. The more receptors available for a specific signal, the more likely the signal is to be recognized and enacted. If only a few receptors exist and antagonists are plentiful, the messages don’t get through. In a corporate world, we need more people in management roles who are willing to try out innovation initiatives and programs. These can be existing people, newly motivated and directed to be more open to innovation, or new people hired for their perspectives and attitudes toward innovation. Good ideas that aren’t received and aren’t supported aren’t useful.
- Make innovation familiar. Going beyond the cellular level into the DNA level, our DNA for years has baffled scientists, who at one time claimed that over 95% of DNA was “junk”. Now, scientists are realizing that our DNA have incorporated many different types of information, which allowed us to evolve. These “junk” DNA may not control our destiny but help us adapt. In a corporate setting, we need to add innovation into corporate “DNA” to make it more familiar to business as usual and to help the organization adapt. As long as innovation is seen as an external intruder or virus, we will resist it and create antibodies to suppress it. Once it becomes part of the DNA we’ll develop receptors and agonists for it.
So the next time I’m in a meeting and getting the feeling I’m the virus and the executives around the table are antagonists (in the receptor sense) I’ll try to introduce some agonists or seek to introduce more receptors in the room, with the ultimate goal of introducing innovation into the DNA, so innovation is seen in a positive light as opposed to being viewed as a virus.
As innovators, we need to find ways to make innovation infectious. That means innovation needs to seem more valuable, more effective and less risky than the existing state of affairs. It also means reducing the antibodies and inoculations against innovation in the team you are trying to convince. Learning from nature is important here as well. Some of the most infectious diseases are spread by 1) fun activities or 2) by many carriers or 3) being easy to transmit. New ideas and the methods and tools to realize them, to become infectious, must be fun to do, or at least more fun and interesting than existing work, supported by many people, who can transmit the ideas easily. The ideas need a short incubation period, to take root and grow quickly. The ideas need to be resistant to inoculations, like “we’re not innovative” or “that’s too risky”.
In short, we innovators could learn a lot from infectious diseases.
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.