Attack of the Organizational Antibodies

I’m sure you’ve had this experience yourself. Come up with a good idea, and run it by your peers and superiors in a meeting. Before you’ve finished your last sentence, someone in the back of the room pipes up, announcing that he or she “is playing devil’s advocate” – and proceeds to find every negative they can think of about your idea and lay it out on the table for all to see.

Yeah, you’ve been there. So have I.

It’s a funny thing that happens in the corporate world. People have a much easier time finding out what’s wrong with the work of others than doing something new, innovative and exciting themselves. One colleague tells me a story of an impromptu last minute presentation on a new service program made to a top marketing executive and her staff. He thought he nailed it. He did, really. A day later, the feedback? “He used the wrong colors on his presentation slides.”

People like to play “find the fault.” It’s easy. They can take a paycheck home every day with impunity. But have they created any value for their customers? Have they really created any value for their organization? True, if an idea really is bad, people should speak up. But to nit-pick things to death, bringing up this fault and that risk over and over – I say, that’s crap.

Beyond simply being easy, the reality is that some people – and some organizations – simply are uncomfortable with change. When a new idea comes along, half (or more) of the people in the room simply think it’s their job to chime in to point out what’s wrong with it. I call these people “organizational antibodies.” Like the real antibodies, they’re tough, and they come back again and again to do their job – against any foreign “substance” they might find.

The reason this is important is systems rarely work without people; in fact, it’s the people using them that make them go or not go. So when people fall back on their roles as organizational antibodies, they’re causing the innovation management system to fail. That’s bad, and its worse when, as is very often the case, they’re getting support as “antibodies” from their management teams. It’s still worse when top management folks are the antibodies themselves – now you’ve got a real problem.

These antibodies may just be lazy, or they may be especially risk-adverse people individuals. They don’t really understand the business or the customer, or and they aren’t passionate about what they do. As a manager (or as a consultant, as I often see it) there are at least three things you can do.

  1. Stop rewarding the behavior. Don’t give any “attaboys” for people who simply find the fault, and absolutely don’t promote them, give stock options, etc., for this kind of work. (I see it all the time.)
  2. Accentuate the positive. Don’t let someone simply crap all over the ideas of others unless they have a positive suggestion to make at the same time.

3.    Connect them to the “soul.” People who make a living crapping all over the ideas and suggestions of others simply aren’t thinking about their customers, or really, the long term health of their business. These people need a lesson on both the “soul” of the business and the “soul” of the customer. Reset their expectations, and buy them a plane ticket or give them a headset to get them over the divide to putting customers first.

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