Today’s featured swipefile is super useful if you’ve ever found yourself facing resistance to your ideas (and I’m guessing, like pretty much everyone, you have!).
You know the feeling: you’ve got a great idea, you’ve even found a great way to talk about it, and still… nothing. For whatever reason, you don’t get the reaction—or action—you’re looking for.
Why is that? As we talk about quite a bit here, there’s a lot working against change, and most of it is intimately tied to human nature. Thanks to this article, though, you can understand a bit more about the four main reasons why people don’t act even on the best ideas.
So yeah, this article—and the book it’s about—is basically Tamsen catnip.
Author Talks: The forces working against innovation and how to overcome them
A bit of context: the article is part of a series called Author Talks, a series of author interviews that the consulting firm McKinsey publishes with some regularity. In this case, the author is David Schonthal, “professor of strategy, innovation, and entrepreneurship at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and former senior director of the design-thinking firm IDEO.” He’s the co-author of a new book called The Human Element: Overcoming the Resistance That Awaits New Ideas (Wiley, 2021).
And yes, I totally bought that book as soon as I read this interview.
- We start off with the classic, “Why do we need another book about _____?” question, in this case, “Why do we need another book about innovation?” Schonthal’s answer: Because the book isn’t really about innovation per se, it’s about what can make even quality innovation fail.
- Schonthal says are two sides to the “innovation equation.” For him, the key to getting new ideas to succeed is “not how to make an idea better or how to make a product more appealing; instead, it’s how to overcome the headwinds that stand in the way of that idea getting to market.”
- He also names a common misconception, which had me sitting up and saying, “PREACH, author man!”: “As innovators, our intuition is that in order to get people to say yes, all we have to do is make the idea better or describe it in a more compelling way.”
- Okay, you may be surprised that I was excited by that. After all, it’s literally my business to help people make their ideas better and describe them in a more compelling way. But I totally agree with Schonthal, because to describe your idea in a more compelling way you have to understand what makes something compelling or not in the first place. And that isn’t just about what you want to say about your idea, it’s about what people need to hear to overcome those headwinds that Schonthal talks about.
- As Schonthal says, “There are forces inside of human beings that make them resistant to new ideas. No matter how cool your idea is or how compelling your strategy is, unless you address this human element, unless you address some of these psychological barriers and forces, your innovation efforts will be stifled.” [yes yes yes yes YES]
- He goes on to describe the analogy that opens his book, which is really a question he and his co-author pose to expose “how people view innovation and change,”: “What makes a bullet fly?” The answer most people give is “gunpowder,” but that’s only part of the equation. [By the way, Schonthal is setting up a great Problem Pair here, where “gunpowder” is people’s current, but incomplete, perspective.]
- Once gunpowder has provided the force behind a bullet, Schonthal explains, it’s the aerodynamic design of the bullet that allows it to continue flying: “it has been designed in such a way to minimize the headwinds that work against it.” [BOOM. There’s the other part of the Problem Pair, the other part of the bigger picture that people don’t tend to see or focus on.]
- Schonthal restates that “gunpowder / good design” Problem Pair as a tension between “magnetic” and “aerodynamic”. Here’s how he puts it: when people think about innovation and change, “They focus on how to make an idea more magnetic, how to make it more powerful, how to make it more appealing. They don’t focus as much on how to make their idea more aerodynamic, in the sense of how to design your solution or your strategy in such a way that it minimizes the forces of drag and the headwinds that counteract it and act against it.”
- He even restates it a third way—as a tension between “fuel” (the strength of the idea) and “friction” (the headwinds in humans that work against it) so you know it’s the core shift in thinking his book represents.
What a setup, right? Aren’t you just dying to know what those forces of friction are now?! ME TOO.
So let’s go!
- There are four “headwinds” the authors focus on, the first of which is inertia, more officially defined as “status quo bias,” our very human bent to keep things just the way they are, thank you very much.
- Schonthal suggests that one of the first steps to take with your idea is to determine the “magnitude of change” your idea represents—significant or modest. The bigger the degree of change, the more inertia your idea will face.
- Unfortunately, Schonthal says, “We always underestimate … people’s desire to stick with what’s familiar.” If we don’t take that into account, however, “people’s bias will be to stick with what they know as opposed to adopting something new.” [This is, by the way, exactly why the Red Thread approach has you anchor your idea and message in what people already want, what they already believe, and as part of how they already see the issue at hand. It reduces the pain of change!]
- The second friction is effort, “How costly is the implementation of the change or the idea?” [For regular readers, this should be familiar as the “Is it worth it?” belief necessary for change to happen.]
- There are three kinds of effort Schonthal mentions: economic cost, the physical exertion required to “sustainability to adopt this new thing,” and the cognitive effort required to “figure out how to use it, or how to work with it, or how to integrate with it” [which is part of the “Is it possible for me” belief that precedes change from the previous link]. If people consider your idea to require too much effort, they won’t act on it, even if it’s a good idea.
- Emotion is the third friction. I love this: “Sometimes in our efforts to help people, we wind up causing them a lot more anxiety and intimidation than we think. How much anxiety, how much fear, how much trepidation does our new idea cause in our intended audience?” As I often say, pain is the enemy of long-term change. So, if your idea causes your audience mental or emotional pain—and particularly if it violates their need to be seen as smart, capable, and good—it’s again likely dead in the water.
- The authors’ fourth friction is reactance, which I’ve also talked about a good bit here [including in a previous favorite swipefile on the “Braveheart Effect,” another name for reactance]. Reactance is “people’s aversion to being changed by others,” and is almost always driven by a perceived loss of control.
- Money quote: “What we sometimes fail to recognize is that [reactance] usually isn’t resistance because of a lack or an absence of data. It’s resistance because people feel like they’re losing their autonomy to make decisions for themselves.”
- Schonthal suggests that you can gauge possible reactance by asking questions like, “How pressured does the audience feel to change? Have they had time to acclimatize to the idea? Do they feel like they participated in the development of the product or the strategy?”
- This last bit seems to be integral to the authors’ approach: anticipating in advance what kinds of frictions—and how much of them—your idea is likely to face with your audience. As Schonthal says, “Once we’re able to forecast what these frictions are, the easier it is to mitigate them and make our ideas and projects more successful.”
- The interviewer sticks with reactance for a bit, asking how to overcome it. Schonthal suggests moving the discussion away from a context where someone feels that lack of control to one where they do. “What you’re doing is taking them out of the context of feeling like they’ve lost autonomy in their own decision making and putting them into the seat of both engaging in a conversation about them personally and involving them in the design of the strategy about how they might get others to consider public-health initiatives.”
- And get ahold of this next line! “But one of the most effective ways we can persuade people is by inviting them to persuade themselves.” [LOVE. Also: sound familiar? A Red Thread, after all, is a story we tell ourselves to make things make sense.]
- The interview then swings a bit into additional tactics, namely asking “yes” questions (where people are guided along a path of continually answering “yes,” and then invited to explore further). As Schonthal notes, as much as this can be used with good intent, it can and has been used for much more evil purposes. [So, you know, use this only for good, ‘kay?]
- The next section is all about how “codesign”—working together to develop an idea or strategy—can be an effective approach to overcoming the four frictions. [This is why I take this approach in all my client work! There’s no “let me go away and come back with your message,” it’s all “let’s work together to find the best way to get your message across to your audience.” I learned the hard way after 10+ years in agencies and consulting firms that the other way Does. Not. Work long-term. It just doesn’t.]
- The final question from the interviewer is, “Does it help to make commitments public?” If you’ve ever read the work of Dr. Robert Cialdini you already know the answer is “yes,” [because we humans like to see ourselves as consistent creatures]. Here, Schonthal talks about not just making the commitments to new ideas public, but also the commitments to ground rules in sessions where you’re building and codesigning those new ideas. As he argues, “It gives people permission to act a little bit differently or act a little bit more bravely in conversations.”
How you could use it…
Good stuff, right? So how could you put it to use in your own work? Well, if your work is about influence, persuasion, communications, innovation, etc. you can just cite the authors’ four frictions as a helpful way of helping your audience understand what they have to work against when trying to innovate or change.
You could also learn from the authors’ use of analogy (“Why does a bullet fly?”) and lived experience (in the interview, Schonthal uses a conversation about vaccine skepticism to illustrate the concepts of reactance and how to overcome them). Both are ways to help make concepts come to life, by relating the new concepts to other concepts or experiences the audience is more familiar with.
But in a very meta way, I think it’s so helpful to shine this kind of light on the “enemies” of your own ideas and how you message them. I particularly like the authors’ approach of anticipating in advance which frictions are likely to get in your way. With that kind of forewarning, you can plan for them, both in your messaging and in your own expectations of success.
What struck me about these frictions as I read about them is that the Red Thread was built on the antidotes to each of these frictions (and I haven’t read the book yet so I have no idea if the authors talk about any of these, or even of antidotes at all).
Validation, which is an antidote to inertia. When you validate what someone already wants and already believes, as well as how they’re currently approaching a situation, and can anchor your idea in that current worldview, you can make even very new ideas feel familiar.
Utility, an antidote to effort. I also debated calling this “Operationalization,” but that’s silly long. What I’m getting at here is making an idea as actionable as possible—breaking it down into its component parts and steps, making sure it’s relevant and useful, etc. The more you can link your idea to what is useful to people—as well as be transparently clear about what’s required—you empower your audience to feel like they can put your idea to work, and that whatever effort you have will be worth it.
Cognitive empathy, an antidote to emotion. Cognitive empathy is understanding what someone else is thinking (where emotional empathy is understanding what someone else is feeling). Understanding what someone else is thinking is incredibly useful, because our feelings come from thoughts. So, if you understand someone’s thoughts, you can usually better understand why they feel the way they do.
Finally, Agency, which is 100% the antidote to reactance. The more you recognize, validate, and enable your audience—and their ability to control the outcome—the more you eliminate all the issues that create reactance in the first place.
Fair warning: this is the first time I’ve thought about any of this this way, so these may be a bit rough (and I may change what I call them in the future as a result!), but they are the big underlying tenets of my approach.
And, as it turns out, they’re also the big underlying tenets of me. I’ve mentioned before that my personal mantra is:
Be useful. Be thoughtful. Be passionate. Be kind.
And will you look at that? They line up:
Useful = utility
Thoughtful = cognitive empathy
Passionate = agency
Kind = validation
All that from a swipefile! Isn’t learning cool?
So, that’s how I used this article — to find a new way to think about why I do what I do the way that I do it. How will you put it to work? Email me and let me know!It's so helpful to shine light on the 'enemies' of your ideas and how you message them. Click To Tweet
Please note that many of the links are affiliate links, which means if you buy a thing I link to, I get a percentage of the cost, and then donate it to charity.
Like this content? Be the first to get it delivered directly to your inbox every week (along with a lot of other great content, including my #swipefiles). Yes, please send me the Red Thread newsletter, exclusive information, and updates.