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Innovation is Good, Change is Bad…Oh, Wait…

I ran on New Year’s morning (I haven’t been running lately).  The next day I lifted weights for an hour at BodyBusiness (the most excellent Austin-grown gym managed and owned by Susan Cooper – check it out at www.bodybusiness.com).  The gym was packed – that’s how you know it’s January 2, right?

Have you made plans to change for 2013?  To work out, change what you eat, change your mobile phone plan?  Me, too, but I know by mid-February my gym won’t be packed, my fridge will have less broccoli, and I will have the same cell phone plan.

Change is uncomfortable, unsettling, hard, and it mostly feels like a fight. Kind of like eating radishes instead of cookies.

Think about a favorite sweater, shorts, or shoes. We get attached to them.  Even if you buy new shorts, you keep wearing the favs. Eventually they have to be replaced because, in the case of my baggy madras shorts, there are now too many holes to be seen in public. When I find the “right” new (madras) shorts, I already know they won’t be as good as the old ones, which I will still wear around the house.  Our favorites are habits – easy choices made with little effort. Like eating freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.  Instead of radishes.

But, innovation is different.  Innovation is exciting, energizing, sexy, and – most importantly – cool.   It feels exhilarating!  It’s what Apple does!!  We have meetings about it!  Lots of meetings!

This year, The Economist will host its fourth annual Ideas Economy: Innovation conference at Berkeley.  Then there is the IBM Innovate 2013 Technical Summit conference (http://www-01.ibm.com/software/rational/innovate/).  And just a few hours ago, as I write this, Inc.’s John Brandon posted “4 Things Apple Should Tackle in 2013” (http://www.inc.com/john-brandon/apple-innovation-new-product-ideas-2013.html ).

Search on “innovation 2013” and view page after page of innovation conferences for everything from consumer electronics to yoghurt (no kidding, yoghurt).   Harvard’s Grad School of Education offers a Master of Arts in Technology, Innovation, and Education while Stanford has its Center for Social Innovation.  Dartmouth and Brown offer engineering innovation programs.  And the Australian government has a Department of Innovation.

We know that innovation is important for business and that most change efforts fail. Not because people are lazy or stupid or trying to make life difficult.  Change fails because it is literally exhausting. When we actively manage ourselves to do something different, it tires us out.  Remember that when you are working on changing the way you eat: the effort to resist temptation is drawing on a limited supply of energy.

Think about a choice between eating radishes or chocolate chip cookies. In an experiment[1], researchers found that the self-management exertion needed to resist the cookies tired people out. Here is how the study worked.  First, researchers baked chocolate chip cookies in a lab so when the participants walked in, they smelled freshly baked cookies.  They were then seated at a table where there were plates of fresh cookies and bowls of radishes.

Some were told to eat at least two or three cookies, but no radishes.  Others were told to eat at least two or three radishes, but no cookies.  Then the researchers left the room for 15 minutes – admirably, none of the radish eaters surrendered to the cookies.  I doubt the cookie eaters had a problem resisting the radishes… they were too busy wolfing down cookies.

After the snack, everyone was given the same puzzle to solve – one of those where you trace a pattern without lifting your pencil from the page.  What participants didn’t know was this puzzle couldn’t be solved.  The researchers actually wanted to see how long people would persist in trying to figure it out.

The cookie-eaters kept trying for an average of 19 minutes; the radish eaters stopped after an average of 8 minutes. It wasn’t the sugar rush that made the difference.  It turns out the radish eaters had run out of the energy needed to stay focused on the task.  It was like having a really tough conversation or having to figure out a hard problem at work.  After concentrating on the difficult task, you leave work with less energy to focus on change so you go home and grab the chips you had avoided for two weeks. Or you yell at the dog.

Change is often the right way to go in business, but remember – change is always hard. Stumbling on the innovation path is natural.  Next time you try to make too many changes at work, at home, or in yourself, remember it takes a lot of energy to make a single change.

While people generally dread change, remember that “innovation” derives from the Latin innovare, meaning “to change”.  Whether you are changing or innovating, be gentle with others and with yourself.

[1] Baumeister, Roy E., Ellen Bratslavsky, Mark Muraven, and Dianne M. Tice. 1998.  Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74 (5): 1252-1265.

Written by: Dr. Deborah L. Kerr

deborah@affintus.com