Innovation and the Immune System

Lately I’ve had a number of requests for my speech “How to Use the Downturn to Rethink and Thrive”, which demonstrates a couple of things. First: the economy still isn’t out of the woods (no surprise). And second: more and more organizations realize that the past five years have seen fundamental shifts in business and society that will hinder their recovery even when better times return.

In short: The rising tide, when it comes, may not lift all boats—unless you’ve been upgrading your boat in the meantime.

Thus there’s a new openness among executives to learning about future tools and techniques. But then there’s usually also a question: how do we sell these new ways of working to our managers and staff? Just this month I’ve heard versions of that question from school administrators in the Midwest, convenience store operators in Atlanta and a major insurance brokerage in California.

My answer? Consider our bodies’ immune system. It’s a wonder of nature: a team of various agents, from macrophage to T-cells, highly evolved to attack bacteria, viruses, allergens, anything that looks like a foreign invader.

And just like the body, organizations have also developed immune systems--but these systems attack outside ideas. Long ago, that was probably generally a good thing. Business moved slowly, the world didn’t change much, and most new ideas were probably just going to waste time and money.

But now. too often, the corporate immune system attacks good ideas. Like the body’s immune system, there can be multiple agents in the corporate immune system. Sometimes it might be the lawyers. Corporate lawyers don’t usually get fired for saying “no.” In fact I once worked with one for whom I prefaced every idea with the plea “Please don’t say no until I finish talking.”

Or, more surprisingly, it can be the sales staff. Salespeople like to know their product, so they appreciate New and Improved! But they don’t necessarily like Altogether New. (Years ago the newspaper business learned that when they trained their print sales people to also sell online ads. But the print people were never fully comfortable with the online lingo--and thus online ads never seemed to come up in the sales calls.)

In fact, immune agents can be any job-title in your business, up to and including the board of directors. As a result, when you encounter resistance to new ideas, you first need to identify which part of the corporate immune system has switched on. Next—and here’s the hard part for true innovators--you need to make your new idea look as much as possible like something that’s already being done. And then, with some gentle urging, you can get that new idea past the corporate immune system and into practice.