New Ideas, From Near and Far

NPR ran a story recently on why we miss creative ideas that are right in front of us. Summarizing the research, people rate ideas that they believe came from far away as more creative than ideas they believe came from close by. As someone who has frequently tried to sell new ideas to coworkers and management, this seems pretty plausible as one of the many obstacles to change.

Resisting Innovation

Almost all companies, from the CEO to HR to the customer support group, say they support innovation in all areas of the company. Who doesn’t love new ideas?

Well, the truth is almost everyone fears and resists change. In our tech-driven culture, it’s become almost politically incorrect to suggest that disruptive innovation isn’t welcome, but that’s the reality. People like to do what they have always done. When a business is involved they will point to “what has always worked” and fight to maintain the status quo for fear that any changes will destroy the business.

So the first challenge you face is that despite the stated love for new ideas, most people will try to shut them down regardless of whether they came from near or far.

Not Invented Here

New ideas you may have picked up from some outside source can also run into the commonly observed “Not invented here” syndrome. This is resistance to ideas, products, or solutions that have come from outside the company because of the belief that the people in the company can do better (and a host of other reasons).

This seems to contradict the far and near research, but in the NPR story, Vedantam suggests one theory for the different reactions to a new idea is your frame of mind when considering it. Things nearby seem more concrete, leading you to think about things like implementation details which are more likely to lead you to shoot holes in the new idea. When you’re thinking about something that came from far away, however, you’re “in a more abstract frame of mind” which allows you to think about possibilities without getting bogged down in details.

Presenting solutions that involve tools (like software packages) or techniques from outside the company may quickly lead technical people to thinking about the concrete details, making them more likely to see all of the problems. So the “Not invented here” reaction could be inspired by the same dynamics as those demonstrated in the near and far research.

Ask the Expert

So what’s the answer? Just forget your new ideas?

One approach I’ve had success with is finding outside consultants to help sell a new idea and possibly help with implementation. Even if you are an expert in the topic and you know how to implement the idea yourself, bringing in outside consultants who believe in the idea as much as you do can be effective.

Consultants can push through resistance in two ways. They can provide the “idea from far away” that can help management think about the idea abstractly and see the possibilities. If you can find consultants from out of town who have to fly in or webex to help with the pitch, even better.

On the reverse side, if your consultants are well known experts in their fields–and they should be–they can help overcome some of the resistance from co-workers worried about implementation details. Consultants have the experience of having successfully implemented the idea before and your co-workers will likely get a kick out of working with experts in the field.

So consultants can provide the far away perspective to help the big picture selling of the idea and the real-world issues of implementing it. On top of that, your manager might just be thinking about all the work you aren’t going to be able to get done if you’re working on the new idea. Consultants don’t invoke the same sort of resistance. Using consultants for part of the implementation allows you to come up with a fixed cost that ends when the engagement is over.

Implementing change and getting buy-in on new ideas is a popular topic, so much so that there a whole industry around it including popular books. This is just one idea I’ve had success with. I’m not a consultant and don’t have any vested interest in promoting them, but the way they can act as agents of change can make them useful even when you already know what you want to do—maybe especially when you already know.

If you’re interested in more on the rise of consulting, the folks at Freakonomics did a podcast on it. Good luck with your new ideas!

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