The Secret To Innovation? Apply A Little Grease…
I confess I’m a self-development junkie! Challenging myself, whether physically, mentally or emotionally, has an innate appeal for me, and I never miss an opportunity to push the envelope and demand more of myself. At my wife’s insistence, I have tried to insulate those around me from this obsession; apparently there is nothing more annoying than subjecting others to your own weird compulsions? Why everyone wouldn’t want to get up at 5:30 AM and take an ice bath is beyond me; it’s the perfect way to kickstart your metabolism! But, as the warden told Cool Hand Luke, some people you just can’t help…
A recent episode, “The Obstacles You Don’t See” featured on NPR’s podcast The Hidden Brain, hosted by Shankar Vedantam, looks at how we encounter new ideas: how innovation necessitates a challenge to the status quo, and how we come to either accept or deny that challenge. Consciously forcing ourselves to engage with and embrace the new is, of course, one way to do this. Plunging into new ideas or new processes that challenge us is important, although not always comfortable. But often, as the episode relates, we don’t consciously choose to confront innovation. Instead, we find ourselves beset by the new or unfamiliar, like John Goodman encountering a salad, and, until a tipping point is met, the revolution meets a determined resistance. We need an entry point, or introduction, before the novel can become the new familiar.
As Vedantam relates in the opening to the episode, when American Food Companies first proposed cakebox mix, they believed they were on the eve of a revolution. The convenience was undeniable, and the flavor and consistency of the cakes was every bit as good as more conventional baked goods. But for nearly 20 years the product floundered. Despite aggressive marketing the product didn’t sell, to the utter exasperation of the company. It wasn’t until they realized that the housewives to whom they were marketing the product—their core demographic—were put off by the lack of effort and expertise the product entailed. Simply pouring a mix into a pan devalued their kitchen skills, and, by extension, devalued them. When the lightbulb finally went on, AFC updated the mix to make it more participatory, including requiring that real eggs be added and beat into the mix. This simple change did the trick: sales picked up and the baking world has never been quite the same.
Vedantam goes on to relate many more such occurrences. Each is fascinating, as it points to a cycle of innovation, resistance, adjustment and, finally, acceptance. This process seems to be intrinsic to our human make-up, like a fear of snakes or our love of Korean boy bands. But, beyond simply being an interesting feature of innovation, this rhythm suggests that we proactively think through points of friction and how we might mediate these to accelerate the revolution! In essence, as Vedantam goes on to explore, we are working to shift human behavior: to discourage an existing behavior and rewire the response to accommodate a new outcome.
All creative acts—all new ideas—are a revolutionary act! Creativity necessitates a destruction of the old: something must give way—die metaphorically speaking—in order to birth the new. Often the outcome is a very mild revolution—a change that doesn’t place much of a psychic burden on us and may, therefore, not even register as a change. Further in the episode, Vedantam relates how Netflix—you know, the service responsible for that additional 15 pounds you put on over the last 20 months—began automatically starting the next episode in a series, effortlessly allowing you to binge watch show after show without having to lift a finger. This innovation, mild enough in character, created a behavioral impact—whether we were aware of it or not. The shift may have been mild, in terms of revolutionary change, but it was a shift nonetheless—one that Netflix wanted to drive.
Often, necessity can do this too: during COVID, the department of motor vehicles lost bandwidth, closing some driver’s license processing centers and requiring formal appointments in order to take the driver’s test. Walk-ins were subject to lengthy delays—often having to come back multiple times before they could be serviced. The DMV process shifted—they innovated change due to necessity—and we hardly noticed! Because a delay at the DMV is up there with bad behavior from an NFL player or a shortage of brussel sprouts at the supermarket—it just doesn’t really register a blip with us. But other times, revolution carries guns and flags, storms the Bastille and carries your head off your shoulders with a disconcerting swishhh.
How do we consider the impact of this type of innovation then? Beyond simply initiating change, how do we ensure the revolution catches fire when, by definition, revolution is precisely that which we didn’t plan on? This is the realm of philosophers, psychologists and marketing companies, a consortium that has grown oddly conjoined in our society. Turns out, by reducing the friction of change, we can better ignite the fire of revolution and—for the marketeers—drive those behaviors we are seeking to influence.
Podcast guest Loran Nordgren, an organizational psychologist, notes that “friction is a process of discovery…of understanding the needs of the people we’re interested in impacting” and to the extent we get to the root of these needs, we increase the likelihood that we cannot only introduce change, but get people to embrace it. Remember the story of the cake mix? Reducing negative friction for people matters more than increasing positive outcomes. Psychologists will tell you, and marketeers know, that negative experiences have a stronger and more lasting impact than positive experiences.
As an example, Nordgren has us think about a romantic relationship: no matter how many romantic dinners you have had together, or surprise gifts you have showered on your beloved, one blow-out fight with a few choice words can destroy all of the goodwill you have built. This is the same reason, he adds, that employee inducements don’t work if the culture is inherently toxic or negative. The positive gestures simply don’t outweigh the negative friction.
Removing negative friction, paving the way for change, may be easier than you think. Asking really good questions, and investing in a sincere understanding of your team, of your colleagues and peers—of your employees more broadly—is the way to uncover these points of negative friction. Uncovering them, you have the potential to address and change them. Innovation, like a good electric current, follows the path of least resistance. Remove resistance and you pave the way for change to take root and grow.
I hate to beat an old familiar drum (but if I’m going to do so, may it be like John “Bonzo” Bonham), good leaders meet regularly with their people. In addition to all of the developmental growth this fosters, these meetings also improve rapport and establish trust. You’re demonstrating a genuine interest in your direct reports and in their long-term success. The trust this engenders earns you the right to ask questions and uncover those elements of friction that not only inhibit their development, but can impede the work of innovation and change. You want to change behaviors and improve performance? Help them to remove those points of friction that stand in the way. The best way to do this, according to Nordgren, is to ask good questions and dig into those answers.
Some people are simply wired to seek out change and push the boundaries. Perhaps they simply don’t experience negative friction like others; or what to others would be negative friction doesn’t even register to them? My own interest in self-development is a little like this. I see the long game: a little suffering today may remove significant friction down the road. But this connection between innovation and friction is one that I keep coming back to. The two are necessarily entwined, as Vedantam notes, like Ozzy Osbourne and bat heads.
Removing friction often precipitates innovation; and for innovation to take hold, it must acknowledge and address friction. They occupy a sort of dyadic relationship: they come as a pair. Thinking about this can help you better appreciate the steps necessary for real change to take place: whether that’s the introduction of a new process, a new product or a new team member. How do you remove the friction that change can introduce, making a way for change to create the impact you intend? And where do points of friction suggest the need for innovation to follow? A little consideration here can help you better approach change and implementation. Ultimately, it might even convince you to get into that ice bath at 5:30 AM. You’ll be the better for it—I promise…!