I am a virus

My name is Innovation

Few organisations claim to want less innovation, less creativity or fewer ideas, yet their internal processes are designed like an immune system that kills innovation like a virus.

My career has been characterised by creating startups and organisations that challenge the status quo, from the music industry in the 90s to the education sector during this century. Over the last few years I have been invited by organisations large and small to help their leaders and their teams respond to rapid change and take transformative actions. This is exciting work where I get to work with some brilliant minds and talented people.

For want of a better job title I call myself a “catalyst” as I think the term consultant neither represents what I do nor what I’m asked for in the engagements I undertake. Whether I’m asked to speak at a conference or a leadership meeting, sit on an advisory board, mentor a startup or design a programme the ask I receive is to trigger and catalyse thought and action around innovation and transformation.

The leaders and teams that I work with nearly always have great ideas and my job is to help liberate these ideas and encourage teams to innovate collaboratively towards the purpose of their organisation.

Which sounds easy until the “innovation immune system” kicks in. It’s at this point that I find myself professionally, psychologically and financially vulnerable. Professionally because the immune systems first reaction is to undermine alternative thinking and therefore cast it out, psychologically because I can find myself isolated in the process and financially — well go figure!

The innovation immune system is how an organisation deals with new ideas and can include strategies that kill innovation.

The cause is usually unconscious yet it is embedded within the organisational culture that is intended to secure its future. HR practices designed to hire for consistency offer no hope of doing something new. To ensure conformity HR can be about finding people that are like existing employees — same school, same degrees, same industry, same background and so on. According to an article in the New York Times, 80% of hirings are made on the basis of “cultural fit”.

We know from the natural world that monocultures are not a good strategy for survival. Bio-diverse ecosystems are resilient because they result in a variety of ways to respond to stress and change. The value of diversity to the economic ecosystem is the same. In both systems it is the diversity of responses that drives success and yet many organisations employ processes and procedures that create a culture of groupthink.

At the heart of groupthink is the desire for harmony and conformity. It seeks to minimise conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints, by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating the group from outside influences. Driven by loyalty to the group, controversial issues or alternative solutions are avoided resulting in a loss of individual creativity, uniqueness and independent thinking.

Take Research in Motion (RIM), the company behind the Blackberry. At the pinnacle of its implosion all eight of RIM’s outside directors, including its chairman and lead director, were accountants, economists, and finance people. There have been countless examples of groupthink in executive teams, whose members contribute to what the psychologist Irving Janis called their “illusions of invulnerability”, leading to business disasters. Nokia, Swissair, Kodak and Enron, to name a few classics, are salutary lessons of the cultural deficiencies that lead to failure.

Like society itself, organisations build themselves around structures, that withstand change & risk, to maintain the status quo. Whereas, in the last century when we were comfortable with change following a linear progression, it is problematic as a response to the digitally enabled economy of today.

A report from The Economist points out that:

“In industries with lower barriers to entry, technology is driving bigger changes. Over the past decade persistent reductions in technology costs have made new business models feasible; this trend will continue, with companies competing far less on capital deployed and far more on the strength of their ideas”.

The antibodies that form an innovation immune system are varied but ones that I encounter a lot include:

  • Fear
  • Hierarchy
  • Command and control leadership
  • Focus on short term results
  • Risk of cannibalising existing business
  • Over reliance on data
  • Lack of purpose beyond profit
  • Lack of autonomy
  • Lack of process to nurture the development of new ideas
  • Working in silos
  • Micromanagement
  • Fixed and narrow job descriptions
  • Employee disengagement

But truly disruptive ideas are often seen as bad ideas when they’re first muted. They can result in scorn as the immune system kicks in and on occasion they are even criminalised.

In 1917 when Marcel Duchamp submitted a signed porcelain urinal to the Society of Independent Artists he was met with outrage and yet today is regarded as a major landmark in 20th-century art. When Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood collaborated in the 1970s, designing and selling a fetish and bondage inspired clothing range, they were widely condemned by the mainstream media and yet their impact on popular culture remains. Would today’s media streaming $multi-billion business exist had it not been for the likes of the peer-to-peer file sharing systems that saw innovations like Napster criminalised?

Matt Mason, author of the Pirates Dilemma, goes further and suggests that piracy drives innovation, a position that he supports with compelling evidence — see video.

Aldous Huxley made a good point when he said that:

“The vast majority of human beings dislike and even actually dread all notions with which they are not familiar. Hence it comes about that at their first appearance innovators have generally been persecuted, and always derided as fools and madmen.”

The organisational cultural deficiencies that work against innovation are usually structural, bound in the hierarchy and procedures designed to ensure a stable ship. But it’s worth noting that even in startups; typically known for their loose, open structures, things can soon calcify as the culture begins to set.

Depending on size, organisations — aware of their own limitations towards innovation - may outsource to consultancy firms that conduct market analyses and in-depth need-finding, identify new opportunities, generate promising ideas, and, often, develop ideas into working prototypes. Some may attempt to navigate internally by supporting employees to dedicate a small percentage of their time to side projects. 3M started this in 1948 and companies like Google follow similar models today. Others may dedicate a small team as a “skunkworks” described by The Economist as a:

”small team taken out of their normal working environment and given exceptional freedom from their organisation’s standard management constraints.”

And sometimes they might invite someone like me along to challenge their thinking in an attempt to unlock the creativity already in their midst. This is a process that I often tell my clients will be fun, but only in retrospect. Because when asking for disruptive innovation and fresh thinking be careful what you wish for, you might mistake it for a virus.


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An entertaining & thought provoking slayer of sacred cows, Graham Brown-Martin works globally with senior leadership teams to help organisations adapt in the face of rapid change & innovation. By challenging entrenched thinking he liberates teams to think in new ways to solve complex challenges. His book Learning {Re}imagined is published by Bloomsbury and he is represented for speaking engagements via Wendy Morris at the London Speakers Bureau.