Dealing with Resistance to Innovation

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A noble heritage is a great thing to have. It opens doors. In fact, looking at organisations like News International Plc, L’Oreal, Mars and Wal-Mart, we realise that one of the easiest ways to gain access to the Boardroom is to be a member of the clan. Of course, it is more than just being a clan member, but chances are that a member with a decent head on their shoulders has a very good chance of making it to the Boardroom. However, this privilege comes with huge responsibilities. The responsibility to take the kind of decisions that will perpetuate the business and the family name. One man who knows all about this kind of responsibility is William (Bill) Clay Ford Jr., current Executive Chairman and former President, Chief Executive Officer and Chief Operating Officer of global automobile behemoth, Ford Motor Company.

Bill, the great-grandson of Henry Ford, founder of Ford joined the Board of the company in 1988 with the aim of building a more environmentally sustainable Ford and bridging the gap between the company and the environmental protection advocacy community. This innovative idea met with stiff resistance from the rank of file of the company. At that time, the relationship between corporations and the advocacy community was one of suspicion and mistrust. It is not much better these days, but it certainly was worse back then. Nobody in the company thought there was a need to be more sustainable, and the frosty relationship between the advocacy community and corporations at the time didn’t help matters.

Resistance to innovation is not new. The more transformational the innovation, the more resistance is expected. Sometimes, the resistance is grounded in reason and sometimes it is just people being afraid of change. One of the more reasonable drivers of resistance to change is a lack of clear communication of the innovation and what it entails (vision and outcomes). This creates a ‘we versus them’ situation, where the innovation process is seen as the agenda of the executive management or in the worst-case scenario, the agenda of the Chief Executive. Sometimes, the support structure to help the organisational ecosystem is either faulty or absent, leading to uncontrollable changes in work processes. It could also be the case that the innovation driver (usually the Chief Executive Officer, Chief Innovation Officer or Chief Strategy Officer) does not have the confidence of the employees. These are realities in some organisations.

In our experience consulting for a service company (we were tasked with the responsibility of developing a new business model for a division of the business, in response to changes in the regulatory environment), we could feel the palpable uncertainty in our interaction with staff who worked in Departments that were more vulnerable to the regulatory changes.

Employees do not need to see impending job losses to be uncertain. Change in job description and job scheduling can be a source of worry. These are expected, and if it is generally accepted that the fundamentals of business are in more flux these days than they have ever been (leading to more pressure to innovate), there is a need companies to create innovation-support mechanisms.

Faced with this kind of opposition, Bill Ford chose to stick to what he saw – the big picture. He knew that if Ford could build a competitive advantage in sustainability, it could significantly improve its financial performance and corporate reputation. With this clear vision, he was able to convince the dissenting voices. In a 2009 interview with McKinsey Quarterly, Bill highlights communication, action, commitment, and a concerted effort as some of the guiding principles he deployed to change the view of sustainability in the organisation. These essentially form the ingredients needed to manage resistance to innovation.


Winning Over the Sceptics

From our experience managing innovation projects in organisations, the following principles make what is usually a very difficult task a lot easier to manage.

  • Build Innovation Capability: Innovation capability is a measure of the relative ease (for want of a better term) with which an organisation’s people can innovate. This will involve the adaptability of the company’s processes, policies and systems to support the changes that are necessary. This might involve change in the structure and reporting process and some aspects of the organisational culture. It is usually a bit difficult at the early stages, but with strategic and well planned communication, it is achievable. One of the best ways to build this capability is for management to lead by example.
  • Communicate: Without candour, successful innovation is almost impossible. The foundation of successful communication is an effective stakeholder mapping process, which delineates stakeholders according to their communication needs. When this is done, there is a need to create key messages for every stakeholder group, in line with their communication needs. Repetition is a key element of the communication strategy. There is a need for communication to be multidimensional, involving vertical (top-down and down-up) and horizontal (side-ways) interactions. What this does is to create a common vision and direction for the innovation.
  • Be Flexible: One of the benefits of candid interaction is that it gives the Innovation Champion (usually the Chief Executive Officer, Chief Innovation Officer or Chief Strategy Officer) an opportunity to get feedback and adjust the process accordingly. There is no use sticking to the original plan when there are better (efficient and effective) options. Leaders have to be humble and open enough to concede when necessary.
  • Create Quick Wins: Results matter and they provide some of the most important inputs for communication. The phasing of the project should be done in such a way that quick wins can be used to create momentum for other stages of the project.


Stay Patient

Trust is a necessary ingredient in innovation management and building it takes time.

Innovation is not a project with a life-cycle. It is supposed to be at the core of the organisation. It has to be an embedded cultural element of the organisation. This is the only way it can offer a competitive advantage to any organisation. For this to be possible, these principles provide a structural framework that will always prove useful.

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