How to stop team politics from sidelining innovation


The ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, observed, “man is by nature a political animal.” By which he didn’t mean that Trump-like behavior will dominate politics, but rather politics trumps people’s behavior. For Aristotle, to be human is to be inseparable from a wider social context of wanting to influence (and be influenced by) others.

Over 2,000 years later science has confirmed Aristotle’s insight, when Harvard University researchers studied how people rated the attractiveness of faces while undergoing MRI brain scans. Not only did participants change their ratings to conform to those of their peers, but they also registered brain activity in the two regions associated with coding subjective value. In other words, we are hardwired to be susceptible to social influence.

Yet in the rush for innovation and growth, large organizations repeatedly overlook Aristotle’s counsel. As Ed Hoffman, the Chief Knowledge Officer at NASA, explained to me, “most organizations like to focus on the technical risk with innovation. But even with our projects, which involve the most complex engineering problems in the world, more important are the social and political risks of the relationship dynamics within and outside the core project team.” Obviously, “politics” is found within any large gathering of people; what is unique about innovation is that it is simultaneously the most political of all issues, while perceived as the least.

Innovation: Puppy Love or Lovebirds?

Asking a company how they pursue innovation is like asking someone to describe a wonderful first date; all you hear about is a long list of thrilling and dreamy qualities. Cutting-edge technology? Yes, it even comes from Silicon Valley. One of those cute creative work spaces? Of course, the zanier the better. An innovation team? Much nicer, we have a Chief Innovation Officer! Companies are willing to write seemingly endless checks for innovation because, like any early crush, the target of their affection appears completely non-threatening and all that can be imagined is a future of happiness and delight. Indeed, even the new CEO of United Airlines, which has been struggling with several well-publicized misfortunes, assured customers that “innovation” would now be one of the company’s top priorities.

True innovation, however, requires the sophisticated love of a long-term relationship that recognizes overcoming challenges is part of any serious commitment. As once you strip away the external trappings, innovation, at its heart, is about effecting change. Replacing an old way of doing things with a new approach that is believed to be more useful. Doing this in any large organization will unavoidably increase the social status of some and undermine that of others, which also generates strong incentives to think and act politically.

Thus, organizational politics will exist without innovation, but even the most innocuous innovation program cannot exist without politics. For example, “we felt pretty good after awarding a prize for our inaugural organization-wide innovation challenge,” recounted Declan Denehan to me, the Liquid Alternatives Business Head at BNY Mellon. “Upon returning to the office, however, I immediately received a call. A message of congratulations? Hardly, it was someone claiming that they had come up with the winning idea first. We learned quickly that how you do innovation programs is as essential as what you do.”

Startups tend to sidestep these issues due to their small size and limited history, but any large, organized group of humans — from Fortune 500 companies to government agencies — cannot avoid this dynamic. In fact, precisely the same undercurrents are found even at the national level. In their seminal book, Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson illustrate how those threatened by innovation have in some cases stunted economic development within countries over centuries. They write, “Technical innovation makes human societies prosperous, but also involves the… destruction of the economic privileges and political power of certain people.” The central question for innovation is then not how can we minimize politics, rather how might we manage it?

The Mapping, the Message and the Messenger

To successfully deliver innovation large companies need to consider how to engage, persuade and change their employees’ behavior to support these initiatives. Similar to any effective political campaign, it comes down to the 3 M’s:

  • Map: Refers to identifying who are the most influential people to reach, which can often be strikingly at odds with the expected order. To take an example from 16th century Spain, if you wanted to sway the king it was crucial to engage the Groom of the Stool, who was responsible for the royal toilet. While not having any formal power, the physical closeness to the King during these most intimate moments meant they were a person in whom much confidence was placed. Further, the increasing complexity of today’s systems is rendering traditional organizational hierarchies less and less relevant. An excellent place to start is General Stanley McChrystal’s Team of Teams, whose use of network theory is as applicable for mapping our businesses as it was for defeating Al Qaeda in Iraq.
  • Message: Once we know the audiences we want to reach, we need to create messages that resonate with them, not ourselves. This is difficult since we easily become enamored with our own creations, leading us to attribute malice — or stupidity — to those who might think differently. We must reflect on how others arrange their “mental furniture,” instead of assuming they would be right at home in our own minds. As the consummate political operator Barney Frank remarked, “just repeating initial enthusiasm and deepening it doesn’t help. You’ve got to think about ways to reach out to people who are initially indifferent, skeptical and maybe even mildly hostile.
  • Messenger: While we might say “opposites attract,” considerable scientific evidence has demonstrated the reverse — we prefer to date, hire and vote for people who we think are similar to us. Whoever says the message is therefore as consequential as what is said. Those championing innovation should have maximum credibility with their target audience, such as an engineer with technical staff or a compliance expert with the legal department.

Politics is commonly associated with the maneuvering of a Machiavelli, but, as Aristotle recognized, it is as natural as a newborn baby. What is required is approaching innovation with an authenticity that does not downplay its costs. In doing so, another of Aristotle’s maxims is instructive, “one swallow does not a summer make, nor one fine day.” So too navigating the politics of innovation cannot be confined to one-off events around the launch of this idea accelerator or that corporate initiative. Like a good marriage, what really counts is the commitment before, and especially after, the public ceremony.

An edited version of this article was originally published at on January 13, 2016.