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Roadblocks to innovation: are the WeBes winning?

While travelling, an American from LA gave me his battered and well-read copy of Time Magazine as we had been discussing American politics and the upcoming Presidential elections. The cover story was on Obama. I was interested. What caught my eye first however was an article called ‘New Energy’, which told the story of two people who had tried to change Government systems from within.

The two individuals were from the private sector and had become ‘civil servants’ (the Australian equivalent of ‘public servants’) and were given the specific task of re-energising underperforming ‘federal agencies’ (see Time 10 September 2012, page 12). The article highlighted how these change-agents were white-anted by long-serving ‘WeBes’ – as in ‘we be here, you be gone’.

The two people profiled in the article set out to change the systems committed to keeping everything the same. Their goal was to increase efficiencies and deliver better customer service. They sought new and effective ways to provide the services the agencies were designed to deliver for the common good.

What they experienced was endless opposition and systems designed to keep everything just as it ‘should’ be.

Eventually they were forced out of the public service and returned to the private sector. They are doing well. But what about the ‘common good’? The article ends . . . “it’s the country that will suffer the stay-the-course culture. As long as government chews up people who drive change, it will attract people who embrace the status quo”.

This example is a phyyric victory for the WeBes, as ultimately, it’s the public (including them) that misses out on the benefits the change-agents sought to deliver.

Its not just government that requires scrutiny here. Many corporations and not-for-profits embrace the status quo and resist meaningful change as part of their (often unacknowledged) cultural fabric.  From my experience this is particularly the case in faith-based not-for-profits where ‘staying-the-course’ is somehow a more central part of their culture than embracing new energy and innovation.

I would welcome the opportunity to be proven wrong.

I would be very interested to hear of any research under way or completed around the performance of faith-based not-for-profits in Australia, particularly with regard to innovation and change that provides their customers with more effective and sustainable solutions and outcomes.

Where are the workplace cultures that embed and provide clear pathways for innovation and different ways to find solutions to long-term social challenges in faith-based not-for-profits?

If you have some evidence that suggests that the WeBes are not winning, and that new energy is driving meaningful change so that we all benefit – please share your stories. The sector could benefit greatly from such learnings.


dayna hubenthal

Here is an excerpt from one of our journal papers on the topic of innovation.

One of the primary objectives of Structured Innovation (or TRIZ) is to overcome psychological inertia, which is the tendency to continue to think and behave as we have always thought and behaved. The use of the term “inertia” carries the full implications of Newton’s inertia as applied to mindset, psychology and social dynamics.

Inertia, of course, is the tendency of a body to maintain its state of uniform motion (or rest) unless acted upon by an external force. Objects have inertia. What many leaders do not to realize (and do not effectively leverage) is that companies and individuals have inertia, too.

Any new directive requires workers to significantly change habits, but there is too much momentum and inertia from the previous way. If this new directive is not ‘native’ or natural to current culture, employees will not believe the resolve behind the dictates; they are afraid for their established positions or anticipate the loss of understanding of how to work the system. Therefore, they resist.

In order for any initiative to survive, great external force is required – consistently applied over time. In today’s business world, the odds are in favor that management will give up before employee resistance is overcome. At the very least, change will not occur overnight – that is inertia, too.

As a general rule, directives passed down “from on-high” do not work when resistance is great. When initiatives are failing, leaders need to address the psychological inertia within the company in a methodical, structured manner. Yes, systematic innovation can be applied to change management (social/cultural) problems as well as technical issues.

My partner, Scott Burr, always says, “Inability to overcome psychological inertia, in its many forms, is at the root of every failed company initiative.”

Individuals, as well as companies, develop mindset momentum. We humans are adept at finding patterns that win. We like to use success patterns over and over again, repeating the familiar. One of the most important core competencies a company can develop is the ability to examine their own inertia.

This, of course, is one of the primary skills and disciplines of the innovator. The innovator constantly self-examines personal mindset and the inertia (prevailing mindsets) within the system/situation. This great skill sets breakthrough-problem-solvers apart from the rest of the engineers, scientists and leaders.

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