Resisting Change

Resisting Change: Overcoming impediments to creativity, by Mark Chussil

As human beings we are all familiar with the dig-in-our-heels sensation of resisting change.

We know deep inside when our resistance has nothing to do with the change itself. We may not admit it, but we don’t want the hassle. We are tired or busy. We don’t want William or Wanda to win the debate. We like things just fine as they are.

We also know deep inside when we resist out of conviction. We feel a passion, we sense danger, and we don’t want to fail personally, collectively, or corporately.

We know that resisting the idea of change is bad; not all change is bad. We know too that change is not good simply because it’s change; not all change is good.

Finally, we know that getting change right is enormously valuable in business, and elsewhere.

How do we know in which changes we ought to invest our time and treasure? It’s not so easy. There are false positives: changes that fail after being adopted by people who honestly thought they’d succeed. There are false negatives: changes that would have succeeded (or that succeed in someone else’s hands) after being rejected by people who honestly thought they’d fail.

Much of what I’ve written in what I call my career concerns the false positives that come from flawed analytic tools, overconfidence, and other decision-making pitfalls. (For instance, see my essay on “Champions and Lotteries”) I won’t discuss false positives further in this essay.

Let’s talk instead about the false negatives, the missed opportunities, the nothing-ever-changes frustrations. What does it take to open minds and get some action?

Be Creative!
Executives know that a creativity gap puts their company at a major competitive disadvantage. So, they:

  • Conduct brainstorming sessions and emphasize that there are no stupid questions or ideas.
  • Learn about creativity. They bring in motivational speakers, read books (for instance, How Would You Move Mount Fuji?, by William Poundstone), and build team trust.
  • Piggyback on others’ creativity through market research and competitive intelligence: find out what customers want and what competitors plan.
  • Protect their R&D and new products with patents, non-disclosure agreements, physical security, and lawsuits.
  • Import fresh perspectives by recruiting executives from outside the industry.

Many companies succeed., Apple, Dell, HBO, Honda, Intel, Motorola, Pixar, Starbucks, and Toyota have earned reputations for creativity in their products or competitive strategies. For every great Apple, though, there’s a bushel of turnips that settle for incremental improvements, copycat catching-up, or business-as-usual stasis.

Impediments to Creativity
One impediment to creativity is that common managerial tools may narrow thinking with trend lines, benchmarks, and standard operating procedures. Another is that making innovation the customer’s responsibility (“ask them what they want and give it to them”) delegates a critical task to people who, no matter how kind and helpful, usually have little vested interest in your success.

It’s possible to get insights and even breakthroughs by measuring the past and listening to customers. However, non-creative companies have access to the same pasts and customers as the creative companies. There must be deeper impediments.

One deeper impediment might be that we think we are being creative, or at least that we have been. We stop looking when we think we’ve found what we’re looking for or when we think we’ve hit the limit.

Yet other impediments come from the usual suspects — politics, pleasing the boss, risk-averse compensation plans, groupthink — that come with corporate cultural turf.

Many executives devote energy and resources to removing those impediments. Nonethe­less, many companies that genuinely value creativity still don’t get its benefits.

I suggest that the biggest impediment is the sincere belief that change (and hence creativity) is not necessary.

Necessity is the mother of invention, which might be one reason why upstarts are often more creative than incumbents. Upstarts know they have to be creative because incumbents hold all the conventional cards. (Viewed another way, there’s little reason to take on an incumbent if you’re not going to do something new.)

There’s real benefit to getting that feeling of necessity before it’s necessary: you have more options when you start early. You might even find a novel source of competitive advantage or avoid a potential problem altogether.

I’ve seen strategists notice necessity in advance via business war games like those my colleagues and I conduct.

Here’s the secret to a successful business war game: run two of them, one right after the other. Have teams develop strategies and show participants the results (round 1), and then roll back the clock to let them re-strategize (round 2).

In round 1, participants (especially those role-playing their own business) adopt fairly conventional thinking. We tell them to stretch, they often feel like they’re stretching, yet they usually tweak a strategy they’ve already discussed.

Then they get their wake-up call, the results of round 1. They watch their market share drop when they predicted it would rise. They watch their profits nosedive instead of skyrocket. They watch their competitors exploit their weaknesses.

The main purpose of round 1 is to get to round 2. It generates the necessity to change and to get creative. The war-game participants overcome the biggest impediment, the idea that change isn’t necessary. Then, believing it’s necessary, they rise to the occasion in round 2, they get creative, and they have time to act in real life before the necessity is real.

Business war games aren’t the only way to get people’s attention in advance. For instance, brainstorming or scenario planning can work well. Whatever process you use, the key thing is to give people a sense of competition. Tap their competitive spirit, their desire to win.

The final impediment to creativity might be people’s occasional discomfort with not knowing the destination before they begin their journey. Being creative requires letting go of the desire to control the answer or produce a specific conclusion. No one knows at the start of a business war game what the end result will be. It’s a creative process: you don’t know what you’ll discover or invent. You just know that you’ll find a new way to solve an important challenge.

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