The Antibodies Sitting in the Innovation Petri Dish

For many years I’ve been fascinated by these ‘Corporate Antibodies’ that we find in that classic management pathology that instinctively rejects and refuses to alter its ways, so as to protect itself.  The internal immune system somehow identifies and neutralizes often far too many foreign objects, ideas, concepts or solutions. In the medical world the antibody is a protein produced to protect the body’s immune system when it detects harmful substances, called antigens. Innovation to be successful has to immune itself from many ‘antibodies’.

Last week I was remind of this. I attended a good, insightful conference (www.eic2011.com)  on open innovation and new business creation, along with 200 practitioners from large mostly European organizations. What struck me was the consistent reference to stopping the ‘culture’ of rejection; ‘killing off’ projects, the fear of not-invented here. I often felt some of the speakers themselves were actually reinforcing this antibody culture, yet they were leading the charge for more open innovation, the very force to eliminate this.

I will be completing some thoughts on the conference, not initially here in this blog but for the on-line magazine www.innovationmanagement.se in the coming weeks but let’s get back to this ‘strand’ of ‘antibodies’ and Petri dishes.

For starters, doesn’t this seem strange or what- a depiction of Antibodies and the Open Innovation Funnel?

Antibodies and Managing Open Innovation

Detecting Antibodies, Studying Organizations, Managing Innovation.

Innovation remains hard. People are the foot soldiers in the ability to bring innovation to life. They are the active ‘host’ within any organization for ensuring innovation succeeds or fails. People create a culture, the ‘culture to innovation’ but often we do not pay this aspect the sufficient attention required in the depth of understanding it needs to grow this often different culture.

This is where my Petri dish comes in for innovation.

The primary use of the Petri dish is to culture cells. It allows us to observe each step, perhaps the equivalent is in the innovation journey- insight, idea to commercialization. Innovation is often consistently placed under the microscope, constantly dissection and used for basic experimentation. We can see an idea grow or die- we could say these are the growth medium, often finicky organisms when they ‘introduce’ a new culture (idea, concept, open innovation result) and we need to nuture them so they are able to germinate.

The very ‘host’ for innovation, our internal people, somehow have these natural antibodies that detect and defend inbuilt internal perspectives however hard they try to reduce this natural ‘reaction’. The Petri Dish is your home turf actually, you often feel you need to stop contamination to allow innovation to grow and thrive internally as a positive culture and often this conflicts with current wisdom of more open innovation coming in to challenge conventional internal practice.

We do underestimate these antibodies within our organisations at peril

We do need to detect these ‘antibodies’ that stop innovation in multiple, sometimes subtle ways. A number of people have written about this. Stefan Lindegaard in his book “the Open Innovation Revolution” (http://amzn.to/9HCDGk ) devoted one, regretfully short chapter, to “defeating the corporate antibodies” yet does offer ways and observations to fight them. Andrea Meyer, a researcher and writer has written about this observation in different organizations in her blog  (http://www.workingknowledge.com/blog/).

Recently I came across an academic paper written by Gary Oster entitled “Listening to Luddites: Innovation Antibodies & Corporate Success” asserting that like biological antibodies in the human body, the work of innovation antibodies can be either positive or negative and suggests a revised innovation sequencing model. Henry Chesbrough and countless other knowledgeable experts on innovation have observed the antibodies at work within organisations, yet we still don’t yet know how to fully counteract them or provide the right conditions for the positive ones that stimulate and grow innovation.

The other ‘killer in our mist is the Not Invented Here Syndrome (NIH) or its close cousins.

To quote Wikapedia: “Not Invented Here (NIH) is a term used to describe persistent social, corporate or institutional culture that avoids using or buying already existing products, research or knowledge because of their external origins. This NIH definition seems to grow and fit many barriers we are quick to point out.  The reasons for not wanting to use the work of others are varied but can include fear through lack of understanding, an unwillingness to value the work of others, or forming part of a wider “turf war”. The opposite culture is sometimes denoted Proudly Found Elsewhere (PFE) or Invented Here.

Proudly Found Elesewhere or Invented Here (with pride) is an opposite of “Not Invented Here.” Again Wikepedia suggests this occurs often when management of an organisation is uncomfortable with innovation or development conducted in-house. Reasons why this might be the case are varied, and range from a lack of confidence in the staff within the organisation to a desire to have a third party to blame in the event that a project fails. One effect of this version of “Invented Here” is that detailed knowledge of the innovation or development never passes to permanent employees, resulting in recurring additional expenditure and a lack of goodwill and bankable experience by employees. One quotation that sums up the philosophy of Invented Here is “Gee, it can’t be worth much if someone local thought of it first”

By the way I saw this ‘badge’ of ‘proudly-found-elsewhere’ worn at the conference I attended last week. I totally understood the reason within an open innovation setting it is used but it can have negative consequences internally to sometimes allow the antibodies and resistence to kick in if this is not carefully managed.

Other distant Antibody cousins we need to watch for –can you recognise these within your organization?

  • The “I made it here” syndrome misdirects organizations to overvalue their internal creations and often undervalue superior, outside innovation.
  • Often cited and a common catch-all is “Business-as-usual” might have considerable deeper meaning of significant resistance within organizations and often needs greater enquiry .
  • The feeling of something being “forced down my throat” creates an unhappy person who will find a way to sabotage this going forward. You can spot these by the level of whining that can go on, the first to complain or the silent one in the meeting but vocal outside it.
  • The person who is genuinely willing to hurt his own company in order to prove his point by going to extremes to derail an initiative
  • We all can have that ‘instinctive’ reaction when (suddenly) presented with an idea that conflicts, clashes, undermines or challenges our possible existence or contribution to the organization.
  • The reaction we often get of “that won’t work” or the alternative “picking up with it”, jumping in and making it even more relevant and eventually successful.
  • The love of blaming a third party when something fails is another sort of antibody.
  • Those scouts that want to be the hero who found a great idea outside the organization and brought it into the company are then suddenly confronted with internal rejection and can’t figure out why- hello antibodies.
  • Reading about someone else’s work as better than ours is not easy to stay neutral, especially when the boss has asked for your comments
  • Admitting someone else is better at implementing than you are can be hard as well without making some ‘barbed’ comment.
  • The inside knowledge that thousands of dollars, time and effort have been invested, sometimes millions of dollars and you could have found the solution already out there, if you had bothered to look without your rose-tinted glasses on.
  • Reuse is often a holy grail to not thinking hard for yourself so you accept and embrace ideas, concepts and best practice by not putting that critical thinking in to frame what you are doing in your right context.
  • “Find the right dependences and eliminate them”. Other people’s contributions outside your own teams are just not good enough so you reject it. Equally being set up in competing teams might have some value but it can kill off much promising stuff if not managed well.
  • The sense of the rules, norms and metrics within organizations also offer us a clue to the chance of antibodies, the tolerances allowed. These give rise to the values, beliefs and assumptions.
  • The risk in using the Stage Gate process can be double edged. Many promising ideas or concepts get ‘killed off’ through lack of quantification, hard metrics or personal agendas due to limited funds and resources. Recognizing and guarding against this is often very hard to manage but these are often negative antibodies at work irrespective of what is sometimes presented.
  • The encouragement of devil advocates, the encouragement to rip it apart to validate it can also have lurking underneath this a powerful vested antibody.
  • Perhaps contentious but sometimes  built into organizations is a living breathing antibody called Six Sigma, bent on driving out waste, striving for efficiency and effectiveness, promoting the opposite to where innovation often naturally needs to thrive- being fluid, fuzzy and a resource burner in pursuit of a nascent idea .
  • The difficulty to admit something else, outside our knowledge is better for us than what we are presently doing is so hard to draw out and resolve, but we must.
  • Finally that stubborn, argumentative colleague that is really hiding their own inferiority complex and will ‘fight’ every way possible to reduce the positives in any ideas or innovations to reduce you to their level.

So what are the cures to all these aliments?

Firstly we have to see the problems around us, we have to open up more and admit to them, not just make a passing comment and everyone listening just nods in their exceptance. If we allow these antibodies to take hold or fester away, in the innovation Petri dish, they will constantly kill off the positives, sometimes slowly, sometimes in dramatic ways. We need to tackle these head on.

The therapeutics for spotting antibodies needs this greater recognition. Many antibodies hold innovation back in many different, often unseen ways. We need the concept of the Innovation Petri dish so we can view innovation in transparent ways under a dissection scope so we can recognize both the positive and negative growths going on inside and then ‘inject’ more of the positive innovation antibodies to enhance and promote organizational innovating success.

The answer can only come through recognition, acceptance and action to openly talk about and reduce the negatives. This does come from a more extensively trained, culturally orientated and highly skilled set of people being constantly invested in, who fully understand the importance of climate and cultures to allow positive innovation to grow. Often this is not given its rightful position of importance in everyday innovation so antibodies are allowed to grow, to feed off of indifference.

I feel it is a time we changed this with the need for developing the ‘antibodies’ detection kit. Yes, I’m working on it in my living innovation lab. I just need to evaluate a few more Innovation Petri dishes first to identify the different strains to then immunize them with a different culture.

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5 thoughts on “The Antibodies Sitting in the Innovation Petri Dish

  1. Great metaphor Paul. I only wish – as you said, “The answer can only come through recognition, acceptance and action to openly talk about and reduce the negatives” – was that easy. Unfortunately I don’t believe most organizations, especially larger ones, are capable of this action. Resistance to change and innovation is resisted on a micro level, within each individual of the firm. And I don’t think “change for the goal of change,” is adequate motivation.

    I believe that change or innovation can occur only if they are spillover benefits resulting from a larger goal. Hopefully then the participants will break free, if not only temporarily, from their antibody behavior. The more anti-antibody behavior, the more varied synaptic connections will result. Maybe then – future connections will be of “blazing new roads” rather “reinforcing existing ones.”

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    • We really do need to recognize these negatives, most probably this ‘holds back’ innovation inside organizations more than most things. We do need to train people to spot these antibodies and address these somehow, otherwise innovation will continue to underperform.

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