Why is innovation resisted?

Written by
Paul Kirkham

16 Jun 2016

16 Jun 2016 • by Paul Kirkham

The history of innovation shows how hard striking this balance can be. Again and again advances have been met not just with scepticism but with resistance and even out-and-out defiance – often despite conspicuous proof of their benefits.

Such opposition often stems from the fact that innovation, especially when it’s radical, doesn’t always just add to existing practice: routinely it challenges, destroys or replaces it entirely. A constant source of tension is the conviction that if there is a gain somewhere there is likely to be a commensurate loss somewhere else.

We can highlight this point by looking at the history of innovation in a sphere of universal relevance: healthcare. What the following examples illustrate about the consequences of innovation and the “creative destruction” is that there will, sure enough, be both winners and losers – but usually more of the former.

Unhealthy reaction

Hungarian physician Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis saved numerous lives at Vienna General Hospital in the 1840s. Even so, many of his contemporaries were decidedly unimpressed.

Semmelweis observed a disparity between the puerperal fever mortality rates ­at the hospital’s two obstetric clinics. Some felt the fact that doctors and students staffed one clinic and midwives the other might be to blame - theory losing out to practice -  but Semmelweis realised the primary cause was that the first clinic also conducted autopsies.

His solution was straightforward enough: he ordered all doctors and students to wash their hands in a solution of chlorinated lime before examinations. In just a month mortality rates plunged from 18% to less than 3%.

In the eyes of some members of the medical establishment, though, this was insufficient justification for Semmelweis’s meddling with the status quo. Many echoed the outrage of esteemed American obstetrician Charles D Meigs, who incredulously protested: “But a gentleman’s hands are clean.”

“Well,” you might say, “those were different times.” Maybe. And yet if we fast-forward around a century and a half we find exactly the same reserves of stubbornness.

In 1980 the treatment of gastric ulcers and gastritis was the subject of a huge body of medical literature. Stress and spicy food were thought to be among the principal causes. Two Australian doctors, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, suspected a link between ulcers and the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, but their initial research was in the main ignored.

Opinion began to soften only after Marshall infected himself and effected a cure through antibiotics – a simple course of which is now the recommended treatment for more than 90% of duodenal ulcers and up to 80% of gastric ulcers. The vast literature pre-dating Marshall and Warren’s work is today virtually obsolete.

Doing things differently

Generally speaking, innovation falls into two broad categories: incremental and radical. The first proceeds gradually, developing and improving from within, while the second tends to be more abrupt, breaking new ground and importing novel techniques and knowledge. 

To put it another way: incremental innovation brings value by doing better, while radical innovation brings value by doing differently. The above examples fall into the latter category, which helps explain why they met with such blinkered intransigence.

But where are innovators to be found? At Nottingham University Business School we’ve carried out extensive research to determine if “vision” is something you either have or don’t have and whether it can be cultivated through education and training.

By way of continuing the healthcare theme, let me quickly tell you about a study that involved NHS staff. These employees, including HR professionals, took part in a two-day course that featured a mix of lessons, discussions and practical problem-solving exercises.

First they were asked to grade their own innovative abilities on a five-point scale; then they were challenged to list as many ideas as they could think of to improve effectiveness and working practices. The exercise was repeated at the end of the course, with a panel of innovation experts assessing progress or otherwise.

The result: more than three quarters of those who took part produced better-quality ideas at the second time of asking – and more than half were able to come up with a greater number of them. In short, they showed they were capable of making a valuable contribution that they themselves might otherwise have overlooked or considered impossible.

These findings support the belief that the ability to innovate is a skill that appropriate training can nurture in anyone. We all have a capacity for  creative vision: the key lies in fostering and channelling it to best effect.

To ignore the message that the people who might transform an organisation are already working within it is self-defeating. The enduring conceit that innovation has to come from somewhere or someone else, from meddlers, from geniuses, from troublemakers, from “them”, is ridiculous – as is the belief that “they” are somehow not to be trusted.

There will always be resistance to innovation, if only out of pure but understandable self-interest. But maybe one way to reduce this longstanding tension, to strike the required balance of which Sagan spoke, is to implement broad programmes that encourage innovation at every level – especially when there’s growing evidence that the engine of change might just be lurking much closer to home that is traditionally supposed.