When You Can Ignore Feelings
Typically, the only time business innovation takes into account feelings is during the ideation phase. Brainstorming, for instance, prohibits the criticism of ideas because to do so might hurt brainstormers’ feelings and inhibit them from sharing more ideas. Although this belief is widely held and applied in numerous ideation processes, it has been demonstrated not to be true1. Criticism of ideas, followed by debate and discussion results in a higher level of creativity. Moreover, in my own experience, allowing criticism does not lead to hurt feelings. Rather it leads to in depth discussion of promising ideas.
Likewise, most on-line suggestion schemes, crowdsourcing tools and idea management tools include a voting system whereby participants can vote up ideas they like. However, unless these on-line tools specify criteria for voting (and I have yet to see a product which does so), voting is based on feelings. If you like an idea, if you feel good about an idea, you vote for it. However, on-line voting has been demonstrated to be useless at identifying particularly creative or even good ideas2.
When You Should Not Ignore Feelings
As I’ve written here in the past, people do not like creative ideas3. That seems to be because creative ideas mean change and that change is often outside the control of the people affected by the change. A classic example of this is Coca Cola’s infamous launch of New Coke in 19854. The people at Coca Cola researched people’s taste preferences thoroughly and used that information to change the recipe of their classic drinking product. In theory, this innovation should have worked fine. They had a product with massive global sales and they improved the flavour to make it even better. They even proved people preferred the new flavour in blind taste tests.
What the researchers neglected to do, however, was to take into account Coca Cola’s customers’ feelings about the original soft drink. Sure, in blind taste tests, such people might have preferred the new drink. But when they saw that the company had changed their favourite drinking product, people felt upset. They felt hurt. Moreover, this change was outside of their control. Initially, Coca Cola did not ask their customers if they wanted a new drink. They did not offer customers a choice. Customers had to drink the new Coke because the old one was not available.
As you probably know, this was a disaster. Customers were upset and they bought less Coke. Ironically, they bought cola drinks from other brands, even though that also would have tasted different from the original coke — further demonstration that this dislike of the changed product was about feelings and not taste.
Eventually, realised their mistake. They renamed the new drink “Coke II” and the original drink was reintroduced as “Coca Cola Classic”. People had a choice and they chose Classic. Indeed, Coke II eventually disappeared from the shop shelves. By finally offering their customers a choice, Coca Cola probably saved their company!
When you introduce a new product or change an existing product, your customers will have feelings about the new product. This will be based on the product itself as well as customers’ previous experience with your products and your reputation. Consider Facebook. Every time the company makes a change in how it works, users are in an uproar. They don’t like the change. The liked the older version better. They did not get a choice and that irritates them. Users feel that the new version of Facebook has been implemented on them against their will. As a result, they simply do not like it — at least until they get used to the new version. Then, they forget about the change until Facebook introduces another change. Suddenly, the same users are in an uproar all over again! Suddenly, they prefer the version of Facebook that they complained about a few months ago. I suspect that if Facebook were to revert users to a older version of Facebook, users would again be in an uproar. That’s because people are not complaining about the functionality or quality of the new version. It is the change, over which they have no control, that they do not like. People do not like change without control or choice over the change.
If customers dislike innovative new ideas that result in change, employees truly hate such ideas. If customers feel unhappy about your new product, they don’t buy it. When employees dislike the operational changes that result from an innovation, they cannot easily change job. They are stuck with the change.
This is why employees are often critical of new ideas that will change operations, particularly when those changes affect their own activities. Indeed, if you have ever sat in on a staff meeting when a manager announces a change, the initial reaction is almost always negative, even when the change theoretically makes employees’ work easier. The computerisation of processes, for example, usually speeds up processes — however, there is typically a learning curve that temporarily disrupts operations. In spite of the improvement in efficiency, you can be sure that employees will complain about the change. They do not have positive feelings towards change when they have no control over that change.
What Can You Do?
If your customers and your employees will dislike the change that results from your innovation, you might wonder why bother? What’s the point of innovating if no one likes the innovation. Unfortunately, if you intend to remain competitive in today’s hyper-competitive market, you need to out-innovate your competitors.
On a positive note, after a change has been implemented and people grow used to it, they soon forget their dislike. Facebook users quickly grow comfortable with the updates they hated a couple of months previously, readying them to complain about the next update!
Employees too soon grow used to change. Moreover, in view of high levels of unemployment, many employees have no choice but to accept change. But that does not mean they have to like it. And one danger you need to watch out for, when innovation changes operations, is employees who subconsciously sabotage change. For instance, a company is launching a new accounting system that will streamline billing and make it easier for customers to pay. However, it will result in substantial changes in operations in the accounting department. In order to initiate the system, the head of the accounting department needs to provide a report together with key information. She may postpone the report, believing she has more important things to do. Or she may present the key information in such a way that will make it more difficult to implement the new system. She is not doing this intentionally. Rather, she does not like it that a new accounting system is being thrust upon her and subconsciously she does what she can to impede the change.
Clearly, your innovation efforts need to take into account the feelings of customers and employees. When evaluating new ideas, do not just look at the metrics and the business analysis. Think about how those affected by the innovation might feel about it. If your customers love your product, they may hate any change. And if your customers hate your product (for instance, people everywhere seem to hate their telephony companies!), they will be suspicious of any change and hate it by default!
If you are lucky to have loved products, consider whether or not the new product retains enough of what our customers love about your old product while at the same time being a sufficient improvement to bring in new customers? If your customers hate you, ask if the change will make you seem like an even more heartless, evil organisation.
Importantly, bear in mind that the thing customers and employees feel worst about is having change thrust upon them in a way in which they feel they have no control. This is particularly true of employees. So, ask yourself, are there ways we can make employees feel they have control over this change? Can you involve them in the evaluation process, perhaps garnering feedback, so they feel they have some element of control in the implementation of a new idea? The danger here, of course, is that employees may provide only negative feedback, making it harder to implement your idea.
You can also communicate to employees, in a sympathetic way, the complete story of why you are making the change, the benefit to the company and, most importantly, the benefit to the employees. You can sympathise about the initial struggle to implement the change and show how once the change is fully implemented, it will be better for everyone. You can also use creativity. Run anticonventional thinking (ACT) or other creative ideation sessions to generate ideas about how employees can benefit from the change.
For instance, a consultant implementing change in a school system came to me recently. He explained that teachers were reluctant to change their ways, even though research had shown the new methods would be better for students. I asked him to think about how the change would benefit the teachers and suggested that he focuses some creative thinking on identifying teachers’ benefits.
Business Innovation Affects People
Business innovation affects people, lots of them: your employees, your customers, your suppliers and possibly even the general public. People have feelings. If you disregard those feelings, you put your innovative efforts into jeopardy. So, don’t disregard feelings. Make them a key issue in innovation.
- Matthew Feinberg, Charlan Nemeth (2008) “The ‘Rules’ of Brainstorming: An Impediment to Creativity?”, Institute for Research on Labor and Employment Working Paper Series (University of California, Berkeley) Paper iirwps-167-08; http://escholarship.org/uc/item/69j9g0cg
- Jeffrey Baumgartner (2010) “Voting in On-Line Suggestion Schemes” Report 103
- “Everyone Loves a Creative Idea — Unless It Applies to Them” (2103) Report 103
- “New Coke” Wikipedia
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Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a radical new approach to achieving goals through creativity — and an alternative to brainstorming.