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Disruptive Innovation and ‘Lazy Meat’

In my last post I took a shot at executive complacency. Granted, it was a bit of a shock-jock tactic to grab attention but the sentiment is worthy. Change and innovation are being stymied by complacency. If we are going to discuss ways of improving innovation at the national level, we must start at the personal level. The buck must stop with someone and in most challenges in a democracy, it must stop with the individual. As Pogo said of our environmental challenges, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Complacency is about being satisfied with myself or the way things are. If I’ve got a nice job, steady income, a supportive team and I’m rewarded to align with corporate objectives, then why rock the boat? Besides, I’m too busy and stressed with execution in my domain to worry about things that are “not my job.” On top of that, I can point to activities that prove I am helping to change things for the better.

So when hints of disruption (disruptive innovation) arise from any corner, I don’t want to deal with it until I have no other choice. I linger in denial of both the crisis and the opportunity.

IconoclastThat denial is largely unconscious. It is also a matter of genetic predisposition as described by Dr. Gregory Berns in his book Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently. Berns describes the brain as a “lazy piece of meat” because it draws on past experiences to make perception easier. Such “patterned thinking”, often distorted by the fear of repeating painful experiences, impedes innovation. You could say humans are naturally complacent, lazy and apathetic. It’s not hard to imagine that survival in human prehistory was often dependent on not rocking the boat or challenging the alpha males. Today, winners are those that overcome their fears (mostly of rejection) and do it anyway.

A colleague, discussing resistance to adoption of Cloud storage and applications, recently expressed the thought that IT departments generally resist such innovation because they usually take the fall when things go badly. Well, what does that say about the management of such companies? They nurture a culture of fear? They’re more afraid of errors of commission than errors of omission? Such thinking does have painful results. Companies slow to move to the Cloud are losing fortunes in lost operational savings and market share to competitors.

The truth about their thinking is probably closer to ‘they didn’t really think about it much at all’. Their lazy piece of meat simply remembered a pattern – people get fired for errors of commission immediately; if they get fired at all for errors of omission, it will be in the distant future.

Real thinking is, in fact, hard work requiring time and energy for learning. Long before money and other resources are invested in innovation, the first investment must be personal time and energy. In a culture biased towards action, how many executives will actually give themselves or their delegates serious time to think and learn?

Executives today cost their companies too much money to let them think too much. If someone is making hundreds of dollars an hour, we certainly don’t want to see them learning on the job.

But I’m thinking that this is the heart of the innovation gap problem. We really need quantitatively more thinking and learning. And two $100,000 a year executives can certainly think and learn a lot more than one $200,000 a year executive. Perhaps that is a good place to start if we really want to improve innovation. It would certainly help improve the problems we have with both national employment figures and the growing income gap. And it would dilute a lot of the fear hobbling significant innovation.

Innovation today invariably raises issues of great complexity that require solutions that can come only from deep learning across disciplines and domains. If you want the fantastic rewards of operational disruption, which requires systemic or radical innovation, then you need more people with the time to fearlessly study ideas that high-priced lazy meat dismisses as cockamamie.