Turning the Innovation Skeptic into an Ally

Part of the nextERA Voice Series

ARTICLE | Oct 10, 2018
by Catherine Tkachyk, Chief Innovation and Performance Officer, Cuyahoga County, OH

You come up with a great new idea or program that you want to work on for your organization. You take the time to gather a team together of people whose input you value to discuss your idea.  Immediately after you present, someone in the meeting starts telling you all the reasons the new idea won’t work. Congratulations, you have run into the innovation skeptic. When the innovation skeptic strikes, it can be tempting to dismiss the skeptic as the person that fears change, is uncreative, or just a negative person.  However, instead of dismissing that person, if you can use their views and talents it can help you improve your new idea and increase the likelihood of success.

I have worked in government innovation for the last seven years. During that time, I have had a lot of different roles, including occasionally the innovation skeptic.  These are the lessons I have learned in my career around creating an ally out of someone that could be a roadblock.

To understand how to best use an innovation skeptic to improve a project, you first need to know what can cause the skepticism. Below are three reasons I’ve seen for people to act as the innovation skeptic. 

What Creates the Innovation Skeptic?

  1. Overwhelmed:Starting a new program or implementing a new idea is a lot of work.If a person is already feeling overwhelmed by their current job, or life in general, then the time and energy it will take to implement a new idea is going to feel like an impossibility.Instead of getting discouraged, this is an opportunity to realize how timing is the key ingredient to launching transformative new ideas. Ask yourself if this is really the right time and, if not, don’t give up; be patient, keep building momentum for what you can control and wait for the stars to align for the factors you can’t control.
  2. Discouraged: The innovation skeptic may have tried something similar in the past and it did not work out.He or she does not want to put the extra effort in again to get a negative result.Instead, they may feel compelled to convince everyone the same thing is going to happen this time.Instead of getting frustrated, hear out the skeptic and ask them to start problem-solving those barriers with you to determine if a new path is possible this time.
  3. Helpful: It is possible an innovation skeptic believes they are being helpful by pointing out weaknesses, so that they can be improved.However, if this does not occur in the right time, place and atmosphere, the innovation skeptic can stop the new idea or program before it even gets started. Instead of assuming they are being difficult, ask what their level of support is for the project. That can help you assess if the issue is in the ideas they have, or if it is in the delivery or timing. 

How To Create an Ally from an Innovation Skeptic

If you are going to do innovation in government then learning to deal with innovation skeptics is an important skill. The additional tactics described below can help turn the innovation skeptic into allies. 

  1. Identify time for new ideas and call for everyone to suspend disbelief: One of the most destructive times for an innovation skeptic to strike is when an idea is being first presented, or initially created. Negativity to a first idea can shut down an entire conversation, lessen staff’s creativity, and make people less likely to share ideas in the future. This is not a recipe for innovation. In an ideal world, everyone would be open to a first idea and work together to help it grow, but that’s not always the case. Instead of assuming the innovation skeptic will only always bring the negative view and leaving them out of the discussion, create a space and time specifically where all ideas are welcome. To create the space, the leader of the group needs to state explicitly that this is a time for ideas, positivity, suspending disbelief, and saying yes. Be clear the fine-tuning of the idea or programs will come later. By making the suspension of disbelief explicit, you give the innovation skeptic permission to put aside their skeptical hat and participate in a positive and creative exercise. He or she can more easily do this if they know they will have their concerns addressed at a later time.
  2. Use the innovation skeptic to strengthen the idea: When a person gets a reputation for being negative or always bringing up problems, people start to exclude them from meetings and projects. This can create a cycle of negativity. The innovation skeptic believes their concerns are not being addressed, so they raise them more forcefully each opportunity. As the innovation skeptic becomes more forceful, the project team(s) ignores the concerns because, “he or she is always negative.” The concerns are never addressed, leading to a less successful project, a more empowered skeptic and a frustrated team. Instead of avoiding the innovation skeptic, use their skepticism to your advantage. Suspending disbelief is important during the ideation phase of a project, but at some point, reality must come back in play. The culture of your organization, resource availability, laws, processes, risks, ROI, and all other project elements need to be addressed. At that time, bring in the innovation skeptic, and share that you want their help to poke holes in the project. The idea is not to discourage anyone, but to create the best program. And, if you can answer the innovation skeptics questions, you’ll feel more prepared for selling your idea going forward.
  3. Don’t create innovation skeptics in the first place: Some of the most ardent innovation skeptics I have seen in my career are people that were previously champions for innovation. These are the people that committed fully to a new initiative in the past. They put in the effort to get an initiative off the ground and recruit more staff to the process. Then, the new initiative did not live up to expectations. Now, the pendulum has swung in the other direction toward discouragement and skepticism. How can you prevent this swing from happening? One key is not overpromising results. When you set expectations too high for what is realistic for your organization then you risk not meeting those expectations. Even if you do great work, the project can feel like a failure all because of expectations. Not overpromising is easier said than done, especially when a group of people get together who want to change their workplace. The excitement builds and soon you are convinced this new initiative will solve everything. When you find yourself in that place, it is the perfect time to reach out to your innovation skeptic and have them help.

These are just a few ideas on how to use an innovation skeptic to your advantage. You can also challenge people on your team to take on that role occasionally. It is a useful skill in the right situation and can be an invaluable asset as you try to implement innovation in government organizations. 

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