The world hates innovation; this is why

The world hates innovation; this is why

The prolific American innovator Charles 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 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 and 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 a 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 work and pay phones on the street? You're likely to decline the offer.

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?

Does the world really hate innovation or change? In 2005, Alan Deutschman wrote a fascinating article for Fast Company, titled "Change or Die", on an interesting real-life 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 10 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% had 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 personalities and 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 a distaste for change.

Why do most people hate change? First, humans are creatures of habit. Many behaviours are ingrained into our brains, and because they served us well in the past (or did no noticeable harm), we're 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 learning, temporary discomfort. Why bother?

Change needs impetus and a positive frame. As the life coach Anthony 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 motivators there is? Why then do nine out of 10 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 heart bypass patients stick with healthier lifestyles when their doctors reframe the challenge from a negative ("change to avoid death") to a positive one ("change to enjoy life").

In addition, humans need support as well as fast, visible successes ("quick wins") to stick with new behaviours long enough to embed new habits.

Why are more struggling corporations not motivated to avoid "sudden death" by making serious innovation efforts? Perhaps, just as with bypass patients, "innovate or die" doesn't motivate enough people in an organisation to make the necessary sacrifices for a creative change to succeed.

So, use a positive frame ("Let's change to lead innovation in our industry") and choose moving 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 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 and his "Think Different" campaign. More recently, Jeffrey Immelt renewed General Electric by stimulating new creative growth with a focus on clean and green technology through the "Ecomagination" initiative.

Dr Detlef Reis is the founding director and chief ideator of Thinkergy Limited (, an innovation company in Asia. He is also an assistant professor at the Institute for Knowledge & Innovation-Southeast Asia (IKI-SEA), Bangkok University, and an adjunct associate professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University. He can be reached at

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