The enemy of innovation lies in one's own bed

November 09, 2018

by Prof. Nikolaus Franke

Why is innovation so difficult? Because it's not so easy to have a brilliant idea? Because the path of development to a functional product is so difficult? Because the market launch must succeed in convincing the customers? Because competitors can imitate the product immediately? All these are indeed enormous challenges. Yet managers who have suffered a great deal know that the worst opponents of innovation are the forces of resistance within their own organization.

A man is studying note about the topic of innovation
There are many reason why innovation is difficult, but these are not always external. Photo © CC0 Licence

An ingenious invention...

William S. Sims was captain of an American warship at the end of the 19th century. Stationed far away from home in China, he had met the captain of another ship there, a Brit named Percy Scott. He showed him his revolutionary invention: the continuously firing cannon. Until then, the firing process was carried out in three steps. First the distance to the target was estimated. Then the necessary angle of the cannon was adjusted, and when the ship was completely horizontal, the gunner fired the shot. What slowed this process down decisively was the swell. Ships on the high seas lie completely horizontal only twice per wave amplitude: at the top and in the wave valley. At all other times the calculated firing angle was incorrect. So you could only shoot at relatively long intervals. Scott's idea was simple: he let the shooter "go with" the target. The necessary adjustment mechanism at the cannon was finally there and due to the physical law of inertia the gunner did not even have to expend much force.

As expected, the effect was tremendous. A test in the "old" way, in which five ships shot a ship for a total of 25 minutes, resulted in two marginal hits. With Scott's invention, a single gunner seated the same distance away and aiming at an equally large target hit the target 15 times in a single minute - nearly half of which were direct hits. Sims was enthusiastic and wrote a total of 13 official reports to the Bureau of Navigation, describing the invention, how it worked and how it could be improved.

Picture of an old war ship as an example for an overlooked innovation
This famous nautical example shows that a great innovation not always gets the attention it deserves. Photo © CC0 Licence

…and what was in store for Sims

One should assume that the responsible persons acted immediately. Anything other than immediate implementation would ultimately be insane. However the Bureau of Navigation reacted differently. The first inputs of Sims were simply ignored. He didn't get an answer. When he insisted and also sent his reports to other officials in the Admiral's staff - recommending that they could no longer risk simply "overlooking" his findings - one officer examined his idea and told him flat out that his invention could not exist. 

The problem with the tests was that they were carried out on land; and indeed: without the supporting force of the moment of inertia, it was impossible for a shooter to swivel the heavy cannon fast enough. When Sims also impaled this error of thought, the final argument of the Bureau of Navigation, the fallacious argumentative strategy, Argumentum Ad Hominem, was used: Sims' career history was studied and several examples of indiscipline were found - enough to silence this troublemaker once and for all. Yet they underestimated Sims' determination. Sims wrote directly to the US president, who actually read the letter himself on a whim of fate. A short time later, the innovation was implemented - one of the greatest revolutions in the history of armed shipping. In the end, Sims proved he was right.

The enigmatic resistance to innovation

The case of the pivoting cannon is interesting because it is so extreme. You have to keep in mind how unusual this innovation was:

  • First, it was not a performance promise, but a proven technology that could be easily inspected and tested.

  • Secondly, it was not an incremental improvement, but a performance explosion - a difference of several thousand percent.

  • And thirdly, the ability to fire quickly and without interruption is one of the undisputed most important performance dimensions of a warship.


Hardly any "normal" innovation has the luxury of these three special features. Yet, the general pattern becomes particularly clear: every innovation first meets resistance, and every inventive and committed manager who proposes something new will experience it firsthand.

Picture of crumpled-up notes as a symbol of a discarded innovation
Why does an innovation often face resistance and sometimes even gets discarded? Photo © CC0 Licence

The first reason: change costs

Innovation research distinguishes between two categories of reasons why valuable ideas are opposed in an organization. The first reason is economic. According to Schumpeter, an innovation is a creative destruction. It's costly. This does not only mean the directly attributable project costs, but above all also the costs of the conversion. Routines and habits are eliminated among the affected employees. You have to move out of the comfort zone, learn new things, adapt. There are risks and uncertainties regarding effects and possible side effects. In a company, the costs of the changes affect the employees of all departments affected by the innovation. Moreover, because innovation is a cross-sectional task and all corporate divisions and functions from procurement to R&D, production, marketing and sales are involved accordingly, there will be resistance from everywhere. In the case of the pivoting cannon, it dawned on the Bureau of Navigation that the pivoting cannons would turn the organization of the fleet upside down - with unforeseeable consequences for them as well.

The second reason: psychology

It would be too short-sighted to hold only economic reasons responsible for the resistance. An innovation is not only a new and better solution - it is also a criticism of the status quo and those responsible for it. With each suggestion the question resonates why one did not think of it long ago, why one did it differently for so long, how much money one could have saved thereby. It is understandable that people would rather deny the benefits of innovation than admit mistakes and omissions. This was certainly one of the main reasons why the Bureau of Navigation rejected the innovation. In addition, humans also have an aversion to the new for evolutionary reasons. For prehistoric man changes always meant danger. Something unforeseen and foreign could mean a threat from natural disasters, disease, wild animals and foreign tribes. It was better one was careful and avoided it - this pattern still works today.

What can you do?

Those who want to implement innovations in their own organization must not be naive. Only unsuspecting souls believe that colleagues and bosses cheer when they are offered an idea for a radically new solution - whether for a product, a service, a process or a business model. The first step must therefore be an analysis of the situation: Who is in favor of innovation, who is against it? And above all: why? Are they mainly economic considerations or do psychological factors play a role? The implementation of innovation is adapted to the nature of resistance.

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