Is innovation always a good idea?

by Michael Hempseed – Managing Director, Employee Solution Service

On any given day when I open LinkedIn, I am inundated with articles telling me to innovate. The terms ‘innovate’ and ‘game changer’ are the buzz words of the 21st century. We live in a changing world where automation is increasing, so we need to innovate to stay relevant. 

In theory, this sounds like a great idea, but is innovation always the best way?

Recently I helped a company with a number of staffing challenges. They listened to the innovate mantra and brought in a new computer system for most of their day to day work. While it was much faster and more efficient, the transition did not go as planned. Eighteen months after the transition, people were still using the old system, even though the company tried removing it. Now that people were using two systems, important parts of the work were being missed.

The company forgot something that psychologists have known for decades; many people are resistant to change. 

Adam Grant found that 47% of first mover companies fail, whereas only 8% of improvers fail. Commentators have said first movers have to pay high costs to educate people about the new product, which is true. However there is also something else people forget; people are often resistant to new ideas. 

Something like 80% of company mergers fail! There are many reasons for this, but resistance to change both internally from staff and externally from customers, is one that is often overlooked.

Change in times of crisis is even worse The USA has never changed a first term president when there has been a war on - that’s probably how George Bush Jr got re-elected. 

Many people will say they like change and there are some who thrive on it, but sadly not everyone is open to change and some are highly resistant to it. 

Take the company above with the new computer system, there were about 100 staff that had to use it. Roughly 20-30% were excited and looking forward to the challenge. Maybe another 30-40% grumbled about it, but they got on with it. The rest were resistant and caused huge discord within the company.

The company announced to staff on a Monday morning that there is a new computer system and they expected everyone to be happy. Managers can often see the virtues of change, but suddenly springing it on people does not go down well. 

I’m not saying never innovate, if we never did, we would still be living in caves. What I’m saying is that companies need to think very carefully about how they bring in innovation and change. Even quite small changes, if introduced in the wrong way, can be met with fierce resistance. Springing change on people is likely to cause distress and many headaches, not just for employees but also for management. Instead, change needs to be slowly introduced. Staff and customers need plenty of time to adjust. If, for example you are bringing in a new computer system and you think it will take 10 hours for staff to learn, you should always allow 20-30 hours, as some people can take longer. People resist change the most when they feel unsupported and are not given enough warning.

The upside is that if companies think carefully about the way they implement change, then they can be innovative and thrive as we face a new and changing world.