Innovation and the Bystander Effect

by Scott Bowden

Innovation and the Bystander EffectAre our colleagues susceptible to the Bystander Effect when working on innovation initiatives? In the field of social psychology, the Bystander Effect refers to the phenomenon in which a person in a crowd is less likely to take direct action in a difficult situation than would be the case if that same person were to encounter the situation alone or in a much smaller group.

Researchers Bibb Latane and John Darley observe that the impetus to action for an individual confronting such a situation varies based on the number of observers in the room. In other words, the greater the number of people present to witness an incident, the lower the likelihood that that someone will help a person in distress. Presumably, this is due to the fact that each individual assumes that some other person will come to the aid of the person in need, so he or she can continue on without taking the time to become involved in the situation.

Researchers refer to this phenomenon as the diffusion of responsibility. The most infamous example of this is the murder of Kitty Genovese in Brooklyn in 1964, in which initial police reports suggested that dozens of neighbors heard her cries for help but no one intervened to help, though subsequent analysis of the case suggests that these reports of dozens of witnesses were exaggerated.

In the field of innovation, the Bystander Effect is of interest in the context of a large-scale innovation effort, such as an enterprise-wide, web-based collaborative innovation session. In this type of session, employees are invited to propose innovative ideas around particular themes or problem areas, such as finding ways to improve operational efficiencies or coming up with new product offerings. The innovation session lasts for a distinct period of time, usually just a few days, with intense participation and interaction requested of the employees. Some individuals perform amazingly well in this type of engagement, offering up new ideas as they are able to unleash their inner creativity and share their thoughts with a broader audience than their typical interactions around the proverbial office water cooler. These interactive sessions can yield a large number of actionable ideas, and are often a great way to inspire many employees to become more involved in improving the performance of their company.

Participation rates in these large innovation exercises vary by company, as some employees prove eager to express their ideas while others remain more introverted or find their work schedules to be misaligned to the short duration of the web session. An innovation leader seeking to improve the participation rate for an innovation program should consider the Bystander Effect in setting up such an initiative. Just as the individual walking along a crowded street is less likely to intervene to help a person needing assistance, so, too, could the typical employee be less likely to intervene in an innovation session when he or she sees that dozens of others are offering up ideas and participating intensively in the web session. Rather than the expected outcome where peer pressure, in the form of seeing lots of colleagues present their ideas in the session, the diffusion of responsibility may lead some employees to forego participation, seeing that others are already engaged. Likewise, some individuals may prefer to avoid the spotlight of publicity, particularly on a controversial, but nonetheless valuable, idea. An argument could be made that it does not make sense to force anyone to participate who does not want to be involved in the effort, but one of the key precepts of innovation is that new and creative thinking requires consideration of a broad range of ideas, and the more diverse the population of participants in an innovation effort, the wider the range of ideas that will be injected into the discussion.

To accomplish this objective, we may want to consider a corollary to the company-wide innovation sessions. Running alongside the enterprise web innovation session, we should consider the introduction of innovation pods, in which a smaller group of individuals (perhaps as small as two to three people) is tasked with delivering new thinking to the larger group. By allowing participation at the pod level, we inspire innovation in several ways.

First, we provide relative anonymity to the participants by grouping the ideas of several individuals and presenting them under a single moniker. We can still trace the ideas back to the originating team, which is important for following up on topics, but we also engender more freedom in expression on the part of the team members.

Second, we break down the diffusion of responsibility because the pod members realize that they must contribute something to the conversation as a way of representing their pod. The effect of the pod would be to grab the bystander and pull that person into the situation, rather than letting the person walk on by the scene. Finally, the use of a small group simplifies the dynamics of interaction. For some employees, sharing ideas will be easier in a group of three to four people than it would be presenting an idea to be viewed and possibly scrutinized by thousands of colleagues.

By understanding the potential impact of the Bystander Effect on large-scale innovation efforts, and innovation program leader can maximize the input of all types of employees in identifying new solutions to challenging problems.

Sources: John Darley and Bibb Latané, “Bystander ‘apathy,’” American Scientist (57-1969), pp. 244-268,, image credit: busweek

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Scott BowdenScott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.

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  1. Dear Scott

    Interesting article. I am fairly new to the innovation domain, but I recently published a blog post on our company webpage ( where I tried to express a similar thought. I never heard of the Bystander Effect before, so I referred to some people’s inertia in terms of “fear of (public) failure”. But I guess both concepts are closely related. My estimate, or rather my hope, is that several people stand by because they are afraid of sticking out their neck, more than that they don’t act “because someone else is/will”. But I guess it could be both.

    Bert Réveil

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