Author Talks: The forces working against innovation and how to overcome them

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with David Schonthal, professor of strategy, innovation, and entrepreneurship at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and former senior director of the design-thinking firm IDEO. In his new book, The Human Element: Overcoming the Resistance That Awaits New Ideas (Wiley, 2021), the award-winning professor and coauthor Loran Nordgren offer solutions on how to overcome hesitancy that gets in the way of innovation. An edited version of the interview follows.

Why do we need yet another book on innovation?

Loran Nordgren image
Loran Nordgren
Loran Nordgren image

There are quite a few books written about innovation and entrepreneurship; specifically, a lot of books around how to make an idea better, and how to make a strategy more compelling. We have read some of those works and ascribe to those philosophies.

But what we felt was that the other side of the innovation equation had gone underdeveloped and underpopularized. When we say the other side of the innovation equation, it’s not how to make an idea better or how to make a product more appealing; instead, it’s how to overcome the headwinds that stand in the way of that idea getting to market. As innovators, our intuition is that in order to get people to say yes, all we have to do is make the idea better or describe it in a more compelling way.

No matter how cool your idea is or how compelling your strategy is, unless you address this human element, unless you address some of these psychological barriers and forces, your innovation efforts will be stifled.

What this book highlights, and what Loran and my collaboration highlights, is that’s not good enough. There are forces inside of human beings that make them resistant to new ideas. No matter how cool your idea is or how compelling your strategy is, unless you address this human element, unless you address some of these psychological barriers and forces, your innovation efforts will be stifled.

The other half of the equation

Successful ideas often need great fuel and overcome great friction

We begin the book with this analogy: What makes a bullet fly? A bullet, when fired, leaves the barrel of the gun traveling at an enormous speed—at about 1,300 feet per second. A bullet can travel as far as two miles and hit a target with absolute precision in the hands of a steady marksman.

We think it’s the perfect metaphor for how people view innovation and change. When you ask people, What makes a bullet fly? overwhelmingly the answer they give you is, Gunpowder. Gunpowder makes a bullet fly, which is not an incorrect answer.

It’s only half true. Gunpowder, when it ignites, creates gas in the chamber of the gun, which propels the projectile out of the barrel and toward the target. But on the way to the target, the bullet encounters all sorts of headwinds and forces of opposition: the force of gravity that pulls that bullet down to the ground, and the force of drag, which is the wind resistance that the bullet faces on its way to the target.

While gunpowder is part of the answer of what makes a bullet initially take off, what really makes a bullet precise and true in its ability to hit its target is the fact that it’s aerodynamic, the fact that it has been designed in such a way to minimize the headwinds that work against it.

We think this is kind of a beautiful metaphor for innovation and change. Many entrepreneurs focus on the gunpowder of their idea—what we refer to in the book as “fuel.” They focus on how to make an idea more magnetic, how to make it more powerful, how to make it more appealing.

They don’t focus as much on how to make their idea more aerodynamic, in the sense of how to design your solution or your strategy in such a way that it minimizes the forces of drag and the headwinds that counteract it and act against it. While we think there’s a lot that’s been written on the fuel side of the equation, we feel like there’s not as much that’s been said on the friction side of the equation, which are those forces that oppose that change.

Let us start with inertia, one of four frictions facing good ideas

In this book, we talk about the four headwinds, or frictions, that stand in the way of a new idea. The first is the friction of inertia. The way we determine the amount of inertia, or status quo bias, in an idea is by asking ourselves whether this idea represents a significant change or a modest change from the status quo.

The magnitude of that change dictates the amount of inertia present in an idea. We always underestimate, as innovators, people’s desire to stick with what’s familiar. Unless we address that friction of inertia and help overcome that, people’s bias will be to stick with what they know as opposed to adopting something new.

On overcoming the other frictions: Effort, emotion, and reactance

The second friction we talk about in this book is the friction of effort. How costly is the implementation of the change or the idea? This isn’t just economic cost; this is also, how much physical exertion does it require for sustainability to adopt this new thing? How much cognitive effort does it require for sustainability to figure out how to use it, or how to work with it, or how to integrate with it? That determines the amount of effort-related friction present. The third friction is emotion. What negative or undesired feelings does our idea cause in others?

It’s sort of ironic. Sometimes in our efforts to help people, we wind up causing them a lot more anxiety and intimidation than we think. How much anxiety, how much fear, how much trepidation does our new idea cause in our intended audience?

That determines the amount of emotional friction present. Finally, the fourth friction is what we refer to as “reactance,” which is people’s aversion to being changed by others. How pressured does the audience feel to change? Have they had time to acclimatize to the idea?

Do they feel like they participated in the development of the product or the strategy? The answer to that question determines the amount of reactance present. Once we’re able to forecast what these frictions are, the easier it is to mitigate them and make our ideas and projects more successful.

Say more about the idea of reactance

Reactance is one of the most interesting of these frictions. Each of these frictions has its own nuance and remedies, that we talk about in the book, to overcoming them. Reactance is having a moment right now in our country, and probably elsewhere around the world.

If you take a look at the news, you can see lots of examples of people resisting ideas that might otherwise be perceived as good ideas, for a variety of reasons that are individual to whoever is opposing it. For example, if you look at public health and you look at COVID-19, our belief is that the way to get people who are resistant to vaccines or mask wearing to say “yes” is simply to show them evidence, to show them a lot of data.

If somebody says, “I’m not sure I want to get a COVID-19 vaccine,” then you say, “Here’s more data that suggests that COVID-19 vaccines are effective against severe illness,” or “Here’s more data that suggests that COVID-19 vaccines prevent death and hospitalizations.”

What we sometimes fail to recognize is that this usually isn’t resistance because of a lack or an absence of data. It’s resistance because people feel like they’re losing their autonomy to make decisions for themselves. No matter how much data we push at people, sometimes the best data we have is the worst evidence in their mind, because it’s not going to change somebody’s mind.

How do we then overcome reactance?

We talk about other ways you can get people to open up to the possibility of change that’s not fuel based, which is showing them evidence, but more disarming their reactance. For example, if you were to try to get a vaccine resister to consider a vaccine, maybe consider a different way to do it than showing them reams of statistically significant data sets. Maybe the better way to do it is to sit down and have a conversation that goes something like this: I know you’ve been resistant to taking a vaccine. Let me ask you a question. Have you ever had an experience in your life where you or someone close to you has contracted an illness or a virus that could have otherwise been prevented and caused them some serious disruption or challenges to their life? Can you tell me about that?

Maybe that’s followed by a conversation about a severe flu or a severe pneumonia, or chickenpox, or something else. Once they take themselves out of the context of COVID-19 and put themselves into the context of something that has affected them, then the follow-up question might be: What do you wish would have happened in that situation?

For example, was there another way you could have prevented it? As you think about the situation we’re in right now, as a country or as a population, what advice might you give others about how to think about public health?

What you’re doing is taking them out of the context of feeling like they’ve lost autonomy in their own decision making and putting them into the seat of both engaging in a conversation about them personally and involving them in the design of the strategy about how they might get others to consider public-health initiatives. We are often resistant to being told what to do. But one of the most effective ways we can persuade people is by inviting them to persuade themselves . It’s just a very different approach to change.

We are often resistant to being told what to do. But one of the most effective ways we can persuade people is by inviting them to persuade themselves.

Disarming the forces of resistance

Is this about asking ‘yes’ questions?

The first part is engaging them in a conversation or asking “yes” questions. Have you ever had an experience in which you or somebody close to you has been affected by an illness that could’ve been prevented?

By saying yes, they’re now engaging in a conversation that invites us to talk more. In fact, this can be used for good. This can also be used in somewhat nefarious ways. One example of overcoming reactance is the explanation of how brainwashing works.

Back in the Korean War, a bunch of American POWs ended up defecting to North Korea. The belief of Americans was that these individuals had been brainwashed, or there was some sort of a chemical agent involved, or they’d been lobotomized.

People believed there was something scientific or invasive that went into brainwashing these POWs. Otherwise, why would they ever consider leaving the United States and pledging allegiance to North Korea?

As some of these POWs came back to the United States and got debriefed, what you learned about the brainwashing process was that it wasn’t chemistry, it was conversation. The way that these conversations with POWs typically started was by somebody on the North Korean side asking the following question: “Would you agree that no country or government is perfect?” This is a yes question because any normal, logical human being would say, “Sure. I agree that no government or country is perfect.” Then the follow-up question is, “If that’s the case, then you’re also suggesting that your government is imperfect,” which is another yes question.

The follow-up question to that is, “Tell me some of the ways your government has let you down.” Now it’s no longer me trying to convince you of the reasons to defect. It’s now you beginning the conversation, convincing yourself that you might be open to a new idea. Again, that’s kind of a nefarious intent for some of these tactics. But this same approach works when you’re trying to get somebody to warm up to an idea they might otherwise oppose because of reactance.

There is a ‘codesigning’ approach to overcoming reactance

Codesign is something we use a lot in design innovation. I spent ten years at IDEO, the design and innovation consultancy. IDEO’s work is a lot about radical change, how to get organizations or consumers to adopt new ways of doing things, or new ways of working, particularly in a B2B setting.

In a B2B setting, where you’re trying to enact organizational change, or you’re trying to enact some sort of a significant shift in the strategy or the way an organization works, one of the best ways to do it is not to unveil a strategy after six months of putting your head down and having everybody sort of agree to it.

In fact, the way consultancies typically work is by having a kick-off project at the beginning, check-ins along the way, and then some sort of a final presentation, which is deliberately designed.

It’s designed to agree with the destination we’re traveling in. Then each of these steps along the way, these workshops along the way, invite our clients to participate in shaping the brief further, to participate in having their fingerprints on the strategy.

By the end, when we unveil the strategy, it’s not something we’re asking you to say yes to that you’re seeing for the first time. It’s something our clients have had their fingerprints in designing, which makes it a shared inventorship versus me being the customer of a strategy or a product that you’re now putting in front of me.

That process of inviting our audiences in to design the solution, or to design the strategy, or to design the product with us, reorients our view on the change. Reactance is our aversion to being changed by others. But when we’re designing the solution ourselves, or when we’re participating in the design, no longer are we a customer of the change. We’re part of the inventorship of the change, which just completely changes our willingness to adopt. Codesign shows up a lot.

Does it help to make commitments public?

There are some examples we use in the book about how making commitments public, and being accountable to those commitments, is an important way to overcome reactance. One of the techniques we use quite a bit in meetings is at the beginning of a meeting, we create some codesigned agreements.

For the first ten minutes of the meeting, what we will say is: Let’s make some ground rules, or let’s create some agreements about how this meeting is going to run. Then for the first ten minutes everybody agrees to say: All right. We’re going to put our devices away. We’re going to be fully present while we’re in the meeting. We’re going to [listen] when somebody else speaks in the meeting.

Once you create these agreements and you put them on the whiteboard, at the end you ask everybody to opt in and say, Are you willing to commit to these agreements? If everybody nods their head, we’ve now created a social contract that we’re accountable for.

It gives people permission to act a little bit differently or act a little bit more bravely in conversations. This idea of making commitments public and externalizing these agreements can help overcome some of the reactance by having the social contract at the beginning of the conversation.

Comments and opinions expressed by interviewees are their own and do not represent or reflect the opinions, policies, or positions of McKinsey & Company or have its endorsement.

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