“Innovation” is one of the biggest buzzwords of twenty-first century business vernacular. Phil McKinney, author of the new book, “Beyond The Obvious: Killer Questions That Spark Game-Changing Innovation,” presents an in-depth account of what it takes to be truly innovative. He admits that innovation is hard work; and no organization gets it 100 percent right. But, with a disciplined approach, anyone can become more innovative.
McKinney provides a set of Killer Questions that any company can use to hone their innovative mindset. Before you can use those questions, he says you must address your industry and company assumptions, manage the inevitable jolts and neutralize the corporate antibodies. Here, the focus is corporate antibodies.
Corporate antibodies are analogous to the antibodies in our immune system, which attack and destroy possibly harmful foreign objects. “Antibodies” in your organization identify and neutralize forces that threaten to destabilize a company. Much like an organism’s antibodies can damage the very thing they seek to protect (i.e. when they cause the body to reject a transplanted organ); corporate antibodies can stunt a company’s growth by squelching fresh ideas and badly needed unconventional thinkers. McKinney defines four types of corporate antibodies:
1. The Ego Response.
- “Oh, I already thought of that a long time ago.”
- “I have something better.”
To get their support, you need to appeal to their ego and solidify their need for personal validation. The key is to show you’re not challenging them. Put their suggestions to work in your idea and pitch. Acknowledge that those suggestions came from them. You’re now giving them a sense of ownership in the concept; and they’ll be more inclined to support your idea.
2. The Fatigued Response.
- “You’ll never get approval.”
- “We tried that before.”
- “It won’t fit our operation.”
This corporate antibody may have pitched ideas of their own, only to have them dismissed. They’re burned out and only half listen to new ideas. As you describe your idea, his biases automatically appear, drawing connections between your new concept and old ideas that didn’t work.
You need to draw out their biases, understand what old experiences they remember; and devise a way to demonstrate that those things aren’t applicable to your new idea. Keep the dialogue going. Ask questions and engage them in your idea by asking their opinions.
Every question you can ask draws the corporate antibody closer to supporting you. They may not realize it, but they’re slowly becoming invested in your idea. You’ll discover an opportunity for a direct question about the viability of your idea. One acknowledgement from them that there is an opportunity that didn’t exist before and you’re ally-bound.
3. The No-Risk Response.
- “Not enough return on investment.”
- “We can’t afford that.”
This corporate antibody response understands that doing nothing might not advance their career or company status, but it also avoids any downside risks. “No-risk” is stagnancy that can be hard to diffuse.
The most effective way to gain support is to demonstrate that there is less risk than they think. Explain that supporting the first step of your idea will be low-risk, low-cost and doesn’t commit them to moving on to a bigger investment. Determine how you get people comfortable with risk. Present your concept in small steps. Asking for a few thousand dollars to prove that your customer really needs the product will garner a yes faster than asking for the full budget (and full risk) all at once.
McKinney highlights a subtle truth about innovation. “Sometimes there is no other way around a “no-risk” corporate antibody than a slightly cunning interpretation of the rules, or selective hearing when you’re told no.” He doesn’t advocate lying or deceit, but he says, you’ll find more people who feel empowered to say no than people who feel they’re empowered to say yes. “Don’t lie, but don’t always wait for permission, either. If you believe in your idea and you’re willing to take a risk, put your plan in motion. You can always ask for forgiveness later.”
4. The Comfort Response.
- “We’ve always done it this way.”
- “Our customers like it this way.”
- “Don’t rock the boat.”
Corporate antibodies that stubbornly believe change isn’t desirable or feasible may be confined to outdated thinking about what success looks like. It’s important to understand that while your core mission may stay the same, the way you define success in achieving it may change.
McKinney concludes that corporate antibodies believe that they’re working in the best interest of their employer and customers. They believe they’re serving as a gatekeeper- the last line of defense against people or ideas that might damage the organization. To become allies, you need to convince them that you aren’t a threat and that your idea actually aligns with, and complements their ideals.
He also says “nearly all great ideas require nerve, vision, and guts to get in motion.” If you can’t develop the skills to work around your in-house adversaries, you’ll struggle to ever get your ideas and innovations launched.
Lastly, if you’re constantly shot down by corporate antibodies, you’ll need to decide if being held back by these people is acceptable, or, do you make a bold move to an organization that will support your ideas.
For a list of the World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies, as ranked by Fast Company, visit: http://www.fastcompany.com/most-innovative-companies/2012/full-list.