I think Newton left out a law when he devised his three laws of nature. You know the laws I’m speaking of – objects at rest tend to stay at rest. Every forced is opposed by an equal and opposite force. And so on.
But one important one that he missed is what we’ll call the Phillips corollary – objects (and corporations, and people) tend to seek their specific level of desired comfort and then resist any change that threatens their comfort. This is true in life as it is in business. But it’s impact is probably felt most keenly in innovation settings.
Think about it. From your earliest days people have been concerned about your comfort. As a young child your parents did everything they could to make you comfortable. When you visit family and friends they want to make you comfortable with the accomodations. When you encountered problematic or difficult decisions, it is common to ask – Are you comfortable with this? Because discomfort signals a problem, and if people believe a problem exists then they cannot regain their expected level of comfort. And we’ll move heaven and earth to regain comfort if at all possible.
Innovation threatens comfort
Now let’s turn our attention to something sure to create some dissonance in the comfort arena – innovation. By its very nature innovation should create some discomfort. Innovation introduces change, which is likely to move many people from their comfortable positions or perches, and it introduces risk and uncertainty. Innovation changes the natural order, and forces people to consider their strategic goals and options in a manner in which they are unaccustomed to doing. Once an organization has reached its level of comfort, innovation can be a difficult and frankly dangerous force. Increasingly, however, many organizations have no choice. No matter how comfortable they area in their processes, products and markets, they have to innovate to grow and thrive, which means they must sacrifice comfort. The interesting concept is that many firms believe they will simply shift from one level and position of comfort pre-innovation to another position of comfort post-innovation, like electrons moving in orbit around a nucleus. They can’t wait until things are as they used to be. But it doesn’t work that way.
We’ve introduced the idea that for many firms innovation causes change and discomfort. There are really only two options, both of which require change. Either the senior team needs to force discomfort onto a complacent and comfortable organization, to shock it into realizing the need for innovation and to shake off its inertia, or the organization must grow comfortable with the concept of innovation.
The shock and awe strategy works to kick-start a complacent organization and engage it short term and periodically, if the executive team can create enough of a burning platform. But at the end of the exercise, the firm will revert back to its desired level of comfort and complacency, having done just enough innovation to survive, but not sustaining innovation to thrive. This is why many innovation activities aren’t seen as successful – they don’t have a long lasting impact. The organization simply reverts to the way things were, as much as possible, enduring the discomfort of innovation for the short run.
The other option, the one that requires more investment in skills and a sustained focus, is simply to create an organization that is comfortable with innovation. If we can create an organization that is comfortable with change, and risk, and uncertainty, if we can create a culture that thrives on innovation and sustains it, then innovation isn’t uncomfortable, it is expected. And when it is expected, it can be more easily repeated. In this case innovation isn’t viewed as a short term intrusion but a long term commitment to growth and change.
Organizational level of comfort and complacency
What’s your organization’s desired level of comfort and complacency? If you have an organization and culture that strives to maintain its comfort and avoids change, innovation is exceptionally difficult without a significant event or “burning platform” and the organization will revert to that context as quickly as possible after the innovation activity. To sustain innovation over the long term, you must create a culture where risk, uncertainty and change are embraced as part of the expectation and the “comfort” level. This requires changes to attitudes, compensation, skills and processes. In other words, comfort is a cultural phenomenon, and can only be changed through sudden shifts that cause disruptions or through longer term consistent investments. The good news is that you get to choose how you react.
Will you have to force and prod your organization out of its comfort zone each time innovation is deemed necessary? In other words, will innovation remain an uncomfortable activity that requires a burning platform? Or, will you build the attitudes, skills and awareness to build a new level of comfort that includes sustained innovation?
image credit: business relax image from bigstock
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Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of Relentless Innovation and the blog Innovate on Purpose.