Innovation Killers: The Corporate Immune System Strikes Back!

Parallel Universes

Our immune system protects our health and defends us against threats entering our body.  It identifies intruding germs, isolates them from the surroundings and flushes them out of the system to prevent further harm. Our immune system also keeps track of intruders formerly identified to reject them even more effectively should they ever reappear.

Large organization consist of humans who tend to follow behavioral patterns not unlike their inner immune systems when it comes to evaluating new ideas brought forward by an aspiring intrapreneur. Especially, if a new idea comes with a ‘wishlist’ of demands is needed from us to make it happen; typically, time and money.

Joining the Dark Side

It’s our human nature: we approve ideas we like or that further our objectives while we tend to reject ideas that don’t match our liking, beliefs, commitments or that cause disruption to our equilibrium or budget. Disruptive ideas come with uncertainty and may require uncomfortable or additional efforts on our side. The outcome may appear risky, could waste precious resources or have other undesirable repercussions for us.  The fear of losing something is stronger than the incentive of gain. And often enough, we just don’t fully understand the idea or its implications, don’t take the time or find the impetus to look into its details, so it seems safe and convenient to reject it.

This way, as managers and coworkers, we act as a part of the organizational immune system. We become part of the reasons why mature organizations can’t innovate – we join the ‘dark side,’ so to speak.

Our body remembers a previous intruder in order to respond even faster the next time – and so do we. Interestingly, though, we tend to remember better who presented the idea that we rejected rather than what the idea was about. So when the ‘quirky guy’ shows up again after a while with the next idea, our suspicion is already kindled, and we more easily reject this next idea too.

Facing Defeat

For intrapreneurs it is crucial to avoid the “No,” because it is hard to turn it into a “Yes” again later on. This is why we teach How Intrapreneurs avoid “No!” at the School for Intrapreneurs: Lessons from a FORTUNE Global 500 company, a highly effective talent and leadership development program.

Too often an intrapreneur lets their enthusiasm take over and confronts us straight on with their ideas bundled with a request for resources of sorts. Most often, this discussion ends quickly with a “No,” when we perceive this ‘frontal attack’ as a threat to the status quo, the establishment, and the well-oiled machine that the manager runs; and so it triggers the ‘corporate immune system’ leading to rejection.

Stepping Stones to Success

So, just short of having “The Force” of a Jedi, how should an intrapreneur seek support for an idea from managers, potential sponsors or coworkers? While not ‘one-size-fits-all’ and there is no silver bullet, here is a selection of tried approaches for consideration:

  • Seek support: The trick is to ask in a ways that build support for driving the idea forward – and not necessarily for the whole implementation project at once. Even a small step is better than none. For example, supporting evidence can help to raise curiosity and deflate resistance. Find out if a similar approach worked out in another company or industry; it helps to emphasize validation elsewhere. It can help to frame and position your offer to a potential sponsor.
  • Build trust: Additional ‘selling tips’ I picked up from Gifford Pinchot III., the Grand-Master of intrapreneuring himself, suggest a more social approach that includes building a personal relationship first: It is much easier to connect from a position of mutual trust and openness to find support building the supportive network by asking for advice or references before you ask for resources.
  • Just a test: Cautious managers may open up when they hear the intrapreneur is not intending to change anything, just ‘trying something out,’ so not to threaten their established processes, investments or power-structures within the organization. Emphasizing the ‘experimental’ and non-threatening nature of the idea helps to prevent triggering the immune system at this early stage.
  • Gathering Insights: Successful intrapreneurs listen very closely to what the responses to learn from them. Rather than asking a closed question that puts them in a Yes-or-No cul-de-sac, it is much more insightful to carefully phrase questions in a way that the gate-keeper already solves the problem, or provides an answer or approach to the problem the intrapreneur is trying to solve.
  • Know the Goals: The larger a support network an intrapreneur can built for their idea, the better. Rather than the direct manager, it may be more informative to work with people who have insights into the goals and priorities of the organization, which may be sources of resistance. This way, the intrapreneur can learn about possible conflicting goals (for example, “do more with less” or “stability versus creativity”) that need to be known and understood in order to be addressed and dealt with constructively.
  • Show Gratitude: And finally, it is important for intrapreneurs to pay respect and express gratitude no matter what the outcome is of their conversation. A ‘thank you’ goes a long way and keeps the door open to talk more and possibly receive support in the future.

Author: Stephan Klaschka

Stephan Klaschka is an awarded innovation executive, C-level consultant, Intrapreneur, and serial entrepreneur with over 25 years of international work experience. He held various senior business operations, strategy, regulatory compliance and innovation roles with Boehringer Ingelheim, leaving as Director of Global Innovation Management and Strategy. In this first-of-its-kind position, Stephan's work was central to the new growth rejuvenation strategy as a catalyst to initiate and drive pivotal innovations, leadership development, and disruptive and digital transformation across the Boehringer Ingelheim group worldwide. He has recently served as CEO interim of the "German Institute for Telemedicine and Health Promotion" (DITG). Stephan holds Masters Degrees in Computer Science, Management, and Business Administration as well as advanced degrees in Strategy, Innovation, and Leadership from leading schools in Europe and the United States. PMP certified. He has published extensively and created award-winning workshops on topics including intrapreneurship, healthcare, pharma, and new technologies. Stephan currently consults independently out of New York.

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