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Insights | By Howard Tiersky

Is Innovation In Your Genes?

Working for over 20 years with large brands executing innovative transformation has taught us one seemingly universal truth:

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  • Learn the three patterns of all successful digital brands (including companies like Apple, Netflix and Uber).
  • Understand why many great new products fail, and the formula for building products that won’t.
  • Discover the key reasons companies resist change and how to overcome them.
Get FREE access to the first chapter of FROM's
Wall Street Journal Best Selling Book


  • Learn the three patterns of all successful digital brands (including companies like Apple, Netflix and Uber).
  • Understand why many great new products fail, and the formula for building products that won’t.
  • Discover the key reasons companies resist change and how to overcome them.

People resist change.

Not all people, but most people — the vast majority of people — resist change at some significant level. We’ve been fascinated over the years to see the extremes of energy and creativity that can go into resisting change in corporate environments: backroom politics designed to tank a project, brand alignment presentations that imply new directions not consistent with the current branding, competing projects that pop up to dilute efforts and create internal conflict, sudden budget cuts that require innovative projects to give back much of their funding. It’s actually quite inspiring, in a way, to see the creative thinking and strategic skill that gets poured into this attempt to maintain the status quo!

But it’s also counterproductive. Change is often necessary for a business to grow, or in some cases, just to maintain its position in a changing market. If only we could harness all that individual and organizational resourcefulness that’s being applied to resisting change into, instead, embracing the innovation and making it successful! Innovation Jujitsu? Is it possible? In our experience, yes! To figure out how, let’s first take a step back.

Why do so many people resist change, anyway? No doubt there are many reason, rational or irrational. Understanding the core of this resistance is very helpful in trying to harness its energy for innovation. Evolutionary psychology uses a model we find very enlightening: If you go back to the era in which our brains evolved, before modern society, you find a dangerous world of primitive people, the absence of modern technology, and no civilization to speak of, where you either learned to survive or you died. In that world, if you found a plain where you could reliably kill antelope, you didn’t give it up. If you found a patch of berry bushes, you made sure to keep that information to yourself. And if circumstances beyond your control caused your situation to change — say, drastic weather that caused the antelope to migrate north — you would consider this very bad news. Once you figured out how to survive in that world, you did whatever you could to avoid messing with your “recipe for success.” In that world, change = risk. Not the risks we face in business today, but more drastic risks, like death by starvation, or being eaten by some prehistoric beast!

So it’s useful to recognize, when trying to inspire change, you are, in a way, swimming upstream against the way our brains have evolved. And just like certain innate fears, like loud noises and high places, this pre-programmed fear of change exists for an evolutionary reason that was, at the time, quite appropriate. While this fear may no longer be as relevant, it’s hard wired into our DNA and, as a result, we can’t just choose to switch it off so easily.

Here’s the other side of that coin: evolutionary psychology teaches us that our brains evolved to support two key priorities. One is survival (hence our strong reactions to changes that threaten our survival.) But what’s the other one? Procreation! The drive to procreate is actually able to, somehow, override the drive for survival and resistance to change. And truthfully, what bigger change is there in life than having a child? If you think about it, there are many ways in which having a child actually decreases an individual’s likelihood of survival in a primitive world. For a woman in that world, childbirth was extremely dangerous. Furthermore, the process of raising a child requires more resources. Those resources are needed to support the child for a long period of time, during which it’s taking from the family’s (possibly scarce) resources, but isn’t able to contribute in return. So why would we do this dangerous thing? Well, our genes are wired so that the desire to procreate — both the sex drive and the drive to nurture and provide for our children — is at least equal to, and in some cases strong than, the commitment to survival. This pre-wired commitment to ensuring the future of the human race is a characteristic we can leverage when looking to influence people’s receptiveness to change.

See, there’s a second half to the axiom we presented at the beginning. It’s one I’m guessing you’ve experience yourself.

People resist change


People support the change that they create.

You’ve probably all seen teams, departments, or whole companies who seem to resist any new ideas that “NIH” (not invented here). And you’ve probably also seen cases where individuals or teams who fall in love with their own ideas, and promote them no matter what evidence might appear to the contrary.

Interestingly, it turns out that the evolutionary programming that encourages people to support their offspringalso applies to their ideas. Many people will make seemingly irrational sacrifices in the name of commitment to seeing their own ideas flourish.

Ok, so how is this useful? If you have an idea for an innovation, it’s your idea. The problem is that you need the support of a group of people to take it to the next level. The African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child”, often applies to ideas, as well. For example, an innovative new product is more likely to thrive in an environment where finance is behind its business case, marketing is thinking about the brand and positioning, product designers are enthusiastic, manufacturing is researching the most efficient method of production, channel partners are ready to stock and sell, etc.

But your idea isn’t their idea, so they have no reason to support it. At least, the genetic drive to support it as their own idea isn’t triggered.

What we’ve often seen and helped successful leaders do is take an idea and turn it into the child of the group as a whole, to give them a sense of ownership of the idea. Or, even better, a sense of “creatorship” for the idea, i.e. the feeling and belief that they helped create invent it. There are various tactics to accomplish this. One that we utilize frequently is conducting workshops to bring together groups of for the purpose of ideation, prioritization and action planning. In thinking about who to invite to something like a two-day ideation summit, we consider not only the people who will have the best ideas, but also the people whose support will be needed to make the initiative successful.

Then, in the session, it’s sometimes useful to take a few steps back from the “solution.” In the ideal scenario, you may already believe you have the right answer. However, by bringing together a group with the right background information and key artifacts of inspiration, you may find you can get that group of people to ideate something very similar to the initial concept, to “rebirth” your idea in a collective fashion, so to speak. In fact, you may find that the right team, provided the key information and context in which your idea was created, will invent an evenbetter version of your idea, which is superior not only on the merits, but will have more support in the long run because the group will all feel ownership and want to help support its success. When this can be accomplished, it’s a very powerful tool that can be used to get the “village” genetically committed to the success of the idea.

Now there may be cases where you’d say, “But’s too late! That ship has sailed. We already announced that we intend to launch product XYZ. We can’t go back and ask people to re-invent it, they’ll see right through that.” In such a scenario, you may be able to benefit from a concept we utilize called “telescoping innovation”. The key concept behind TI is that the success of a given innovation isn’t really one idea, it’s a chain of ideas. The first idea might be the recognition of a previously unseen customer need. The second link in the chain might be a concept for a new product to address that need. The third link might be a business model for bringing it to market, and the fourth, it’s naming or packaging. And on it goes! A successful initiative, especially one that breaks new ground in a significant way, often needs a series of new ideas. Each round of these new ides is an opportunity to bring together a new team of people and ask them to invent the ideas that will solve for the next layer.