Defeating the Corporate Antibodies

Change is frightening to many elements inside the typical organization. Change threatens people’s power, their status, their egos, and, in some situations, even their jobs. Change can make someone’s expertise obsolete and thereby make them obsolete as well. Because people are afraid of change, innovation efforts often cause the eruption of corporate antibodies that fight to kill innovation and maintain the status quo.

The factors that cause angst within a closed system of innovation may prove to be even more threatening when a company shifts toward open innovation. Executives and managers may feel they can control the degree of change and shape it to their own needs as long as everything is happening within the organization. But start to bring outside forces in and it’s a whole new ballgame. One reason is that change related to open innovation impacts the whole company. It is not just driven from R&D or the innovation guys. If you want to succeed in open innovation you have to make changes in business functions such as sales, supply chain, production, and others to accommodate your new external partners. This can be scary to many people.

If you want to succeed in open innovation you have to make changes in business functions such as sales, supply chain, production, and others to accommodate your new external partners.

Detecting Antibodies

The signs that corporate antibodies are at work can be heard in statements such as:

  • “We already tried that and couldn’t make it work.”
  • “What we’re doing has worked fine for years; there is no need to change.”
  • “Our current product is still profitable; I don’t see why we need to spend money on something new that might not even work out.”
  • “We already explored that idea years ago but decided against it.”
  • “If that were a good idea, we’d already have thought of it. After all, we are the experts on this.” (Said about an idea coming from the outside.)
  • “Let me just play devil’s advocate here….”
  • “Of course, I support innovation, but I just don’t think this is the right time to make a big change. The market isn’t ready.”

People who are making these types of statements may truly believe that what they’re doing is best for the company. Or they may be putting their personal interests ahead of company loyalty. Some people also become antibodies because they don’t feel their opinions are given enough weight. Such feelings can cause people to continuously take the negative side or play devil’s advocate. The phrase “I hate to bring this up, but…” comes from them a lot, followed by a boatload of negativity.

This is not to say that anyone who questions the need for change or the direction that change is taking is an antibody. Sound feedback is needed from many quarters for real innovation to occur. But what I’m talking about is not constructive criticism. Rather it is the relentless negativity, foot dragging, and throwing up of needless roadblocks that pose a true threat to innovation ever becoming a reality.

Here’s how the corporate antibodies often play out during the three stages of innovation:

Discovery

Often in this early phase, people will appear to be sceptics but will generally still be open-minded. Antibodies are often not yet a real problem.

Incubation

This can be where the big battles occur as people begin to understand how the proposed innovation might put their status or influence at risk. Most will be inclined to see change as a threat, not as an opportunity. So you’ll become locked in power battles as people decide that they want to block you instead of back you.

Acceleration

In this final phase, you’ll have to deal with corporate politics at its toughest. When it becomes clear that the innovation is going forward, some people will even fight to own it and control it, even if they fought against the innovation at every step of the way up to this point.

Some Solutions

Recognizing that corporate antibodies are likely to show up at some point in your innovation process and having strategies in place to deal with them should help you derail some of the people who want to impede change and maintain the status quo. Here are some potential solutions:

Make people backers rather than blockers.

It’s never too early to start this. By being proactive rather than reactive, you can sometimes co-opt the antibodies into the process in a way that satisfies their egos and makes them feel their ideas and authority are being appropriately recognized. The key is to make them feel they can play a valuable role in shaping the company’s future, including their own destiny. Bring people together to facilitate knowledge-sharing and the building of new relationships that broaden everyone’s perspectives. Keep people involved in the innovation process.

Stay below the radar.

In some situations, the best choice is to stay below the radar as long as possible. Don’t become too interesting too early. This will help you avoid people who want to own the idea or process, or who want to apply standard corporate processes to the project even though this can kill it.

Have frameworks and processes in place.

Many internal innovation debacles can partly be avoided by setting internal rules on how to bring innovation projects forward. With a framework and process in place, it becomes easier to move projects forward without having them get hung up in destructive internal warfare. This, however, can be difficult in organizations where the executives do not have a good understanding of how innovation works. This is one more reason to make sure you educate top leaders about innovation.

Provide high autonomy.

Having innovation groups with high autonomy or units with their own assigned budgets and goals are other ways to get around the damage that can be done by corporate antibodies. Such structures help shelter new ideas against situations where executives are not willing to spend their political capital in supporting innovation or when they believe the change will impact their own career negatively.

In general, you also need to become better at stakeholder management. I will share some of my perspectives on this soon.

By Stefan Lindegaard

About the author


Stefan Lindegaard is a Copenhagen-based author, speaker and strategic advisor. His focus on corporate transformation and innovation management based on leadership, the work force and organizational structures has propelled him into being a trusted source of inspiration to many large corporations, government organizations and smaller companies. He believes business today requires an open and global perspective and he has given talks and worked with companies in Europe, North America, South America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
In his role as a strategic advisor and coach, Stefan Lindegaard provides external perspectives and practical advice for executives and corporate transformation and innovation teams. He is a widely respected writer and he has written several books including The Open Innovation Revolution published globally. You can follow his work on LinkedIn Pulse.

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