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Why innovators need thick skins


There is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to be a leader in the introduction of changes.  For he who innovates will have for enemies all those who are well off under the old order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new.

So said Niccolo Machiavelli a shade over 500 years ago in his masterpiece The Prince.  It underlines the difficulties inherent in proposing innovative ideas, and perhaps goes some way to explaining why so many organizations struggle with innovation today.  There have been various studies to provide a modern slant on Machiavelli’s tale.

A Wharton study a few years ago for instance found that people tended to perceive those innovative and creative souls in their midst as having less leadership ability than their less imaginative peers.  The study found this was particularly so in difficult economic times, when people valued leaders that provided security and stability rather than the uncertainty inherent within innovation.

A second study found that not only do we regard innovators as having less leadership potential, we also tend to frown upon the very idea of innovation (much as Machiavelli suggested all those years ago).  They found that new things can make us feel uncertain, and this uncertainty makes us feel uncomfortable, which of course makes us wary of innovation.

As a result people often reject new and innovative ideas in favour of ideas that are purely practical and have been tried before.  Familiarity is preferred to innovation.  Sadly no amount of objective evidence seems to change this mindset, and the bias is often so subtle that most of us aren’t aware that we even have it, and as we know, if you don’t know something exists you can’t set about changing it.

Uncertainty drives the search for and generation of creative ideas, but “uncertainty also makes us less able to recognize creativity, perhaps when we need it most,” the researchers wrote. “Revealing the existence and nature of a bias against creativity can help explain why people might reject creative ideas and stifle scientific advancements, even in the face of strong intentions to the contrary. … The field of creativity may need to shift its current focus from identifying how to generate more creative ideas to identify how to help innovative institutions recognize and accept creativity.”

Of course, being rejected is not always a bad thing, with researchers from Johns Hopkins University showing that certain types of people are at their most creative when they feel ostracized from the group.

It does, however, remind us of the cultural difficulties many of our organizations must overcome if they wish to become innovative, and the bravery required of people sticking their necks out and devising the innovative ideas.  It’s the duty therefore of managers to provide the kind of environment where such behaviours are encouraged and supported.

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