Switching innovation: Turning ‘corporate antibodies’ into corporate allies

Human nature’s resistance to change is well-known. We tend to cling to what is familiar … known … safe. The same is true within organisations.

After all, change management programmes exist for a reason. But, similarly, we all know the saying, “Insanity … doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Innovation, by its very nature, calls for new, different, fresh, and out-the-box thinking and practices. With futurists predicting more change in the next 20 years than the last 300, innovation has long been heralded as vital for organisational survival.

So how do we marry the two? How do we facilitate innovation, ingraining an innovative culture within organisations, on the back of human nature’s need to stick to what is known? While it’s key to balance the dynamic between too much resistance and too much enthusiasm, as vital to success is winning over ‘corporate antibodies’, which are described by the Harvard Business Review as “individuals that extinguish a new idea as soon as it begins to course through the organisation”.

Make no mistake though, ‘corporate antibodies’ have a meaningful role to play. Although it’s easy to simply discount them as ‘naysayers’, these are also the individuals who often, with the organisation’s best interests at heart, are in a position to truly evaluate and assess potential risks linked to any new initiative.

Yet, too much of anything is not always good. So, how do we work with ‘corporate antibodies’ in a positive and productive manner? Here’s my quick take.

Get buy-in and support from leadership

As with any new initiative, innovation is no different. Support from the upper ranks will always have a vital role to play, sending a clear message that this is top of the CEO’s agenda.

Identify and engage

Identify potential naysayers (antibodies) upfront and engage. Be clear, communicating the ‘idea’, its benefits and why you require their support. However, be mindful that it may often not be as easy as that. Be prepared to deal with a myriad of responses, ranging from “I thought of that already or it will never work” through to “we can’t afford it, who will do it, it won’t fit our company.”  To get them on board, you will need to make them understand that the new initiative is not a threat, is aligned to the organisation and its goals, and that they’re fundamental to its success.  Work with these individuals to evaluate and if relevant, then discount, the very risks they may give voice to.

Be sure to prioritise

“Why bother with new innovative, time wasting, initiatives when we are struggling to make target?” Though today’s revenue will always be a priority, there does need to be a careful balance between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’. Yes, targets need to be met and bottom lines driven. However, to build a truly sustainable company, organisations need to be looking beyond today and into tomorrow. Engage with potential cynics around how the world may look in five or ten years, what type of solutions will be required and what needs to be done today to be relevant in that world.

Loosen the reins

Organisational structures exist to guide, mentor, and manage. While vital in so many instances, it can also be controlling. Different management structures will need to be put in place. A manager that has managed his team for the last 10 to 20 years might very well be resistant to a new way of being. Take your team along with you on the journey, drawing senior executives and management into your confidence, involving them in the process. Select champions or power sponsors to drive the initiative, across the organisation.

Be mindful of strategy and execution

Connect any new programme into overall strategy and execution, with clearly defined roles and processes (a safe and happy place for many).

Less hype, more action

Innovation is about so much more than fancy titles or bouncy balls in the canteen. Naysayers may very well be wary of ‘bells and whistles’, and understandably so! Fun initiatives can go a long way to driving an innovative culture but be sure it’s the bonus and not the essence of what you are trying to achieve.

Keep assessing

Be sure to constantly review any new programme. Evaluate successes and risks, best practices and any changes that need to be made, engaging with all to ensure they continue to feel heard and part of the process.

Communicate. Communicate. Communicate!

Throughout every step of any process, constant communication is vital. Embed a clear communication plan into the very DNA of any new initiative. Clarity as to what is going on, what can be expected, and status updates, goes a long way to assuaging anxieties, keeping everyone travelling together on the journey with you.

Gugu Sithole-Tyali is an author for fintech company Switch Innovation. She is the founder of Sprout Creative PR. With over a decade of experience across promotions, television broadcasting, experiential marketing and PR under her belt, her talent for spreading the word has allowed her to steadily build a portfolio of high-profile brands including Audi, JSE, SABC, PepsiCo, and adidas.

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