The prolific American innovator Charles F. Kettering once said: “The world hates change. Yet it is the only thing that has brought progress.” Innovation means change. Ergo, the world hates innovation, one might conclude. Let’s investigate Kettering’s statement to understand why, and what it means for us as innovators.
Innovation means progress
Let’s first take a look at the second part of Kettering’s message. Change means innovation, and innovation means meaningful changes that improve our lives and make the world a better place. So, innovation means progress.
What has brought humanity out of caves into comfortable homes full of appliances and modern technology? The accumulation of many innovations that unfolded in several waves over thousands of years. Would you go back to living in cold, damp, smoky cave? Maybe that’s too radical, so let’s make it easier: Would you give me your mobile phone and go back to having only landlines at home and at work and pay phones on the street? Or if this proposition is still too extreme, would you swap your smart phone for a dumb phone? You’re likely to decline these offers.
Clearly, Charles Kettering was right in saying that innovation or change is the only thing that has brought us progress. But what about the first part of the sentence?
The world hates innovation and change. Is this really true?
In 2005, Alan Deutschman wrote a fascinating article for Fast Company, titled “Change or Die”, on an interesting real-life decision scenario: What if you were given a choice by a well-informed, trusted and benevolent authority: You have to radically and enduringly change your life — or you have to die. Which option would you choose?
Clearly, almost all people say they would choose to make significant changes in their life to avoid death. But when we contrast this proclaimed intent with the actual number of people who follow through, nine out of ten people choose to die. Why?
The scenario relates to patients who had undergone heart bypass surgery and were told by their cardiologist to shift to a healthy lifestyle to avoid a relapse. Yet very few did. Statistics show that two years after surgery, 90% of the patients have not changed their lifestyle — and within a few years, they died after a new heart attack.
Why is it so difficult for most people to change?
People differ in their response to change because of their personality and their preferred cognitive styles. Few people have what Good to Great author Jim Collins calls “psycho- dynamic” minds, which relish or even drive change. However, many people have “psycho-static” minds that give them distaste change.
Why do most people hate change?
First, humans are creatures of habit. Many behaviors are ingrained into our brains, and because they served us well in the past (or did no noticeable harm), we are reluctant to do something radically new. People with psycho-static minds in particular relish their habits and cherish rules and traditions.
Second, most people are afraid of the unknown, and every change is a departure from the status quo. Third, when people do try something new, they run the risk of failure and —especially in some cultures— the related risk of losing face. Sticking with what’s familiar is a safer option.
Lastly, many people feel comfortable in their established ways, and some are really lazy. Every change means more work, new challenges, new learnings, and temporary discomforts. Why bother?
Change needs an impetus and a positive frame
Every change initiative needs a powerful motivation to succeed permanently. As the life coach Tony Robbins noted, people are motivated to make changes either by moving away from pain or moving towards pleasure. But isn’t the fear of death one of the most powerful motivator there is? Why then do nine out of ten people still choose death?
Alan Deutschman suggested that a powerful impetus to change alone might not be good enough, but the odds of success increase when we use a positive frame of reference. More bypass patients stick with healthier lifestyles when their doctors reframe the challenge from a negative (“change to avoid death”) to a positive frame (“change to enjoy life”). Moving towards pleasure seems to motivate more people to make lasting changes than moving away from pain.
In addition, humans need support groups and mechanisms as well as fast visible successes (“quick wins”) to stick with new behaviors long enough to embed new habits.
From “change or die” to “Innovate or die”
To recap: when confronted with the threat of early death, ten out of ten bypass patients say they’re ready to make healthy lifestyle changes, but only one in ten follows through. Isn’t this just like many executives in mature corporations with declining revenues and margins approach innovation? Everyone is talking the innovation talk, but few are walking their talk in earnest.
When roughly a decade ago, innovation started to become a hot topic in business, some innovation experts and consultants marketed their services using the “innovate or die”-frame. Truth be told, we all die eventually, and they should really say: “Innovate or die sooner”.
But why are more struggling corporations not motivated to avoid “sudden death” by making serious innovation efforts? Perhaps, just like the bypass patients, “innovate or die” doesn’t motivate enough people in an organization to make the necessary sacrifices for a creative change succeed.
So, use a positive frame (“Let’s change to lead innovation in our industry”) and move towards pleasure. Then, link this positive frame with a compelling vision of a bright future. Finally, carefully design the stages of creative change to give the people the support structures and wins needed to hang in and see it through to success.
Steve Jobs did this when he returned to Apple in 1997 and saved the company with a focused series of new computers (including the colorful iMacs) and his “Think Different” campaigns. More recently, Jeffrey Immelt renewed General Electric by stimulating new creative growth with a focus on clean and green technology through the “Ecomagination” initiative.
Conclusion: The world hates change indeed
Charles Kettering was right: although it brought so much progress that everyone enjoys and won’t want to live without, “the world hates change”, the world hates innovation. We can even quantify this uncomfortable truth. How many percent of people hate innovation or change? According to Everett Rogers’ “diffusion of innovation theory”, it’s 84 percent. Luckily for all, the remaining 16 percent of people have enough creativity, energy and guts to drive meaningful new innovations into the early majority, so that eventually, anyone who hates innovation can enjoy progress. Rogers calls these change drivers “innovators” and “early adopters”, and if you read these lines, chance are you’re one of them.
“The world hates innovation. This is why” is one of 64 sections of a new book that I am currently writing, The Executive’s Guide to Innovation (targeted for publication in 2H.2019). Understanding the various facets of change and innovation is also a key aspect we touch upon in “The C-(reative) Class. The Executive Innovation Brief”, Thinkergy’s innovation training for busy executives. Contact us if you’re interested to learn more about our trainings or my upcoming book.
© Dr. Detlef Reis 2017. This article was published in parallel in the Bangkok Post under the same title on 28 September 2017.