Research finds the biggest barrier to successful innovation may be our basic human instincts

Absolut Innovative by graells, Flickr

Almost every survey of the business factors that executives see as critical for growth lists innovation as a priority.  Yet many companies struggle with innovation as exemplified by the consistently high rate of new product failure.  Interestingly then, a new study has found that our basic instincts may be ‘programming’ managers to reject the level of originality their businesses need to innovate successfully.

The need to innovate everything

There are numerous factors driving the innovation imperative.  Here are a few.

Hyper competition:  Most industries and categories are now hyper competitive, with their players offering similar products and services in similar ways.  The need to stand out from the pack – in some way – has never been greater.

Technology:  The acceleration of web connected technology is constantly changing the way consumers can experience products and services.  The “internet of everything” now means that almost any product can be enhanced with an online dimension.  Brands are being rewarded for finding novel ways of adopting and adapting to these technical opportunities.

Digital communication channels:  The options for how, when and where brands can communicate and interact with customers have exploded.  In the last decade the channels and formats available for connecting with people has grown from the dozens to the hundreds.  The ease with which things can be shared digitally means that any aspect of a brand offers an opportunity to communicate if enough imagination can be applied to it.

Consumer expectations:  Brands are now having to deal with a generation of “digital natives”; people who have grown up with the internet and have never known a world without it.  This coupled with the shifts in consumer attitudes brought on by the GFC has raised consumer expectations to new heights.  Amongst other things, consumers are now looking for the products they pay for to: be good (not just ‘average’), offer real value, be available ‘now’, be personalised and/or be informative, entertaining, helpful, inspiring, etc.

The new media ‘firewall’:  Even as digital channels have created a plethora of new options for connecting with customers, new media has also made it more challenging to reach them.  The sheer volume of messages being thrown at people means that what a brand has to say, or how it says it, has to be original enough to get noticed by a significant number of people.

The anti-originality bias

Even as marketplace conditions are demanding greater innovation, it appears companies are becoming less innovative.  A recent Accenture survey of “519 companies across more than 12 industry sectors in France, the U.K. and the U.S.” found a decline in satisfaction with their innovation performance compared to the results of a similar study conducted in 2009.

According to the report, one reason for this is a counter-productive preference for low risk innovation rather than breakthrough ideas, with 64% of respondents saying “they are focused on product line extensions rather than big ideas” and 46% stating “their company had become more risk averse when considering new ideas”.

Now new research by organisational behaviourist Dr Caneel Joyce has shed some light on this conservatism.  It appears that the underlying problem for managers is that as humans we are ‘programmed’ to reject new ideas.

In an interview with challenger brand consultancy eatbigfish, Joyce outlines the findings of her doctoral thesis in which she investigated what psychologists call our “anti-originality bias”.  This bias is seen to have been embedded into our minds from a time when “we were all running around in loincloths” and when “being afraid of the new provided distinct advantages” because “the new might just bite your head off, or poison you”.

As a result, when faced with a range of equally good ideas, managers instinctively flinch at the truly innovative and lean towards the familiar.  This helps explain why so many companies end up with line extension level ideas rather than game changers.  And why so many brands are marketed in similar ways to their competitors as marketers end up defaulting to “category norms”.

Given that this is commonplace, Joyce sees that businesses that can “overcome the fear of being scared of new and original ideas” will be able to outpace their competition.

So, in practice, companies wanting to step change their brand performance need to openly recognise and use this bias to their advantage.

Rather than rely on pedantic decision making criteria, managers should be made aware of the anti-originality bias before they evaluate new ideas.

Rather than succumbing to the initial gut-level discomfort that is our typical reaction to the unfamiliar, they should be invited to embrace and explore the ideas that trigger it as ones that could create valuable competitive points of difference.

To succeed, open your brand up to innovation

In summary, there are now more market factors than ever that make innovation a business imperative.  At the same time, many of these factors dictate that almost everything a brand says and does offers opportunities for innovative initiatives.  But to seize these opportunities companies need to open up to new and breakthrough ideas.  This in turn requires their managers to be able to recognise and overcome their instinctive bias against original thinking.

Image Credit: Absolut Vodka, graells

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2 thoughts on “Research finds the biggest barrier to successful innovation may be our basic human instincts

  1. I work in commercialising high tech innovation. It seems to me that innovation and risk taking in Australian business has decreased dramatically since the GFC. I wonder if it has to do with job security and the worry that if a manager tries something that could be game changing but fails, the consequences are likely to be dire. Corporate cultures are often also biased in this way as are reward systems. Easier then to toe the line, accept the status quo and live with mediocre results.

  2. A fair observation Alison. Certainly the appetite for risk and failure (or ‘learning experiences’) is way down. But I think behind this most companies have been focused on simply protecting market share (rather than looking for growth) and on cost management (rather than investment). As such, managers at all levels have a clear priority on initiatives that generate short-term, ‘business as usual’ results and/or involve low cost ideas. At least in technology categories there is a competitive requirement to be constantly improving, so at a minimum they’re bringing ‘small i’ innovation to the market.

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