Are good ideas flame retardant?

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If not, why don't they catch and spread like wildfire? I got to to thinking about this after listening to Malcolm Gladwell's podcast, Revisionist History: The Big Man Can't Shoot (season one, episode three). Gladwell, who is an amazing storyteller, explores why humans don't accept and adopt good ideas on their merit. The central theme of the story is why all basketball players don't take their free shots underhand, even though evidence has shown it is easier and more successful.

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I instantly drew the connection to the pursuit of innovation in the public sector, and frankly everywhere else. Why doesn't everyone peel the banana from the bottom? I know it is easier, and yet I don't do it myself.

As I have been told, somewhat annoyingly and also correctly, being right is not a strategy, even in innovation. It is always about the dynamics with the other humans around you.

Being a 30-ish woman, working to change the world, there is always the inevitable encounter of resistance to change. Some of this is the double bind women face in the workplace -- too much confidence, ambition or success correlates to dislike and rejection. But some of this is something else. As if one insurmountable, giant, harry gnarly barrier wasn't enough!

Richard Thaler, author of Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness

and Misbehaving: The Story Of Behavioral Economics

, is a pioneer in the field of behavioural economics, bridging the gap between pyschology and economics. In Misbehaving, he explores the concept of thresholds. And it made me think a lot about the age-old concept of peer pressure. How many people need to be on board with a change before the momentum tips in the innovator's favour?

Gladwell brings the question of why good ideas don't catch on to the discussion of thresholds. He posits that social influence can prevent us from doing things that are in our best interests, even at the cost of fame and fortune. It can also nudge us into taking risks we would never normally take, he says, like rioting after a Stanley Cup game or speeding while driving drunk.

As humans, we all have thresholds for accepting a new action or practice into our behaviours. Innovation, and managing change, is all about bringing people to the tipping point of these thresholds so that they can move forward.

How many people need to work on changing that light bulb before you want to change it too?

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In my experience, you can have a product or service that is more affordable to produce, would improve client satisfaction and can achieve your organizational objectives, and it can still be rejected by your peers, decision-makers and even your clients in lieu of negative results. Humans will accept high risks and forgo many rewards, all in an effort to keep normal being normal.

And thus, two seemingly insurmountable, giant, harry gnarly barriers to women in innovation. What to do?

  1. My first go-to is always the client. Rallying forces around a common vision for good is the best way to start. Use storytelling and empathy to create a compelling narrative for change and let everyone be a part of the tale.
  2. The second is to focus on relationships. Be the leader you are and create a community of change-agents. Keep people as close as you can to the change to support the transformation, with opportunities to influence and accept incremental decisions along the way. Be consistently open and transparent to build trust.
  3. Thirdly, stay steady. There will be noise, discouragement and counter-revolutions. Just keep your eye on the prize, execute your strategy and move ahead.
  4. And most importantly, enable as much leadership as you can around you. Enable your CEO, every boss that you have, your peers and the front line staff to be leaders in the change. You won't succeed until you have enough minions clamoring to change your light bulbs.

No matter what happens innovators, let's be the ones who are smart enough to shoot the ball granny style, regardless of what people say about us.

We all need to have courage to take those free throws. Failure is always a likely outcome in the pursuit of innovation, especially with so many organizational and external factors outside of our control. But when we take smart risks, we win in so many ways. It will be worth all the shots you take with the ball between your legs.


If this moves you, I invite you to join in on the conversation by posting a comment or sharing on social media.