When no one wants to change: 6 questions that lower the defenses to improving innovation

The reason change is difficult is because it

Why is change so hard? Most people will tell you that it’s because people naturally resist change. I really like Eli Goldratt’s response to this argument:  If a very wealthy person that you knew and trusted offered you a huge sum of money, say $50 million, with no strings attached, would you accept it?

Before you answer, consider how much that much money would change your life. If you doubt this, just look at the scores of reports on how lotto winners have messed up their lives. They always think it won’t change them, but it always does. Even knowing this, I’d wager the vast majority of us would still accept the money. Some might consult lawyers or accountants, but in the end, they would say yes.

The reason change is difficult is because it’s human nature to avoid threats to our security. That’s right, it’s not change we avoid, it’s the threat to our security that we perceive the changes could create. So to effectively implement change, we must work with the defenses that are naturally there to protect our security. This requires working with the all stakeholders to answer these simple questions about the change:

  1. Has the right problem been identified? (What must we change?)
  2. Is this solution leading us in the right direction? (What to change to?)
  3. Will the solution really solve the problem?
  4. What are the unintended consequences or negative side-effects, and how can we avoid them?
  5. What are the obstacles to implementation and how can we overcome them?
  6. Are we all really up to this? Is management committed to ongoing innovation improvement or is this just another program that will come and go?

You may recognize this as version of the questions Goldratt posed in Theory of Constraints. What to change? What to change to? And how to cause the change? 

Question 1 is the high leverage question. Have we found the bottleneck that is preventing our new product development from producing more and doing so in less time? We know from TOC that changes made anywhere other than the bottleneck do not improve throughput. There are usually three places we need to look for that bottleneck:

  • The process for finding unmet needs and good new product ideas
  • The process for developing simple cost effective solutions
  • The process for communicating and marketing valuable new product benefits

Once we understand where the bottleneck is, Question 2 asks what is constraining it and how can we change that? For example, if we are struggling to find new product ideas, are we getting development people out into the marketplace enough? Do we understand what creates value? Are we conducting effective customer interviews?

Question 3 is intended to get the team to evaluate whether the solution is going to have the effect that we really want. For instance, if you sell through distribution, you might decide to send people to talk with your distributors to listen to what kinds of problems they are hearing about. But the distributor doesn’t understand your technical capabilities as well as your own people do. They’ll naturally filter the responses and much can be lost in the translation. Instead, what are the options for getting face to face with your end users so you can hear and witness their problems firsthand?

Question 4 is a step we skip all too often. What could go wrong if we make this change? This is a great opportunity for the pessimists to add value as they help to identify potential problems and the steps needed to avoid them.

Question 5 is a critical question for planning any project. Again, the pessimists will be helpful here. But let’s ask everyone on the team: What are all of the potential obstacles that you can dream of to implementing the change and what do we have to do to overcome each obstacle. When connected together in a logical sequence this becomes the project plan for implementing the changes. But what’s different about this plan is that people have bought into it. They are a part owner in the plan and its outcome.

Question 6 may be the toughest question of all. I can’t think of a single change program I’ve seen where some skeptic didn’t remark that if you waited long enough, the winds of change would blow in another new program next month. Some people call this bright shiny object disease. Every sparkling new idea that comes along becomes a distraction for management. I’ve certainly suffered with this malady before. While this may be the toughest question, there is a simple way to deal with it. Always ask questions 1 and 2 to filter and protect the organization from low leverage activities. Are these changes focused on eliminating something that is constraining our bottleneck? Doing this will eliminate a large percentage of distractions, either because they aren’t focused on our leverage point (our bottleneck), or because they aren’t eliminating a constraint.

Conclusion

People don’t resist change, they resist perceived threats. If you want to drive improvements in your new product innovation, or any part of your organization, involve your team in answering these 6 questions and creating a solution they believe in. You’ll see team members begin to take ownership for the changes and most importantly for delivering the results.

Mike Dalton’s Guided Innovation Group works with companies that want more impact form new product innovation in less time. Prior to starting this firm, he had 24 years of experience growing new and existing businesses as a general management and business development executive for the industrial polymer division of the multi-billion dollar S.C. Johnson & Son family of companies. He’s also the author of the forthcoming book: Simplifying Innovation: More Profit with New Product Resources You Already Have.

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