In 2003 the Department of Pharmacy at the Italian University of Federico hosted an unusual mock trial. The accused was coffee. The trial in the Southern Italian town of Naples sought to settle a long standing dispute: is coffee good or bad for you. [...] Behind this seemingly comedic lawsuit is a recapitulation of one of history's oldest examples of the tensions between technological innovation and incumbency. Coffee is one of the world's oldest transformative innovations." 1
Why do people have a gut reaction against change? Why is the typical reaction to new innovations is not one of immediate acceptance but one of defensiveness or outright rejection? Is it simply a fear of the unknown? Or a more primal fear about how "I might end up worse off"? Why do non-innovators react poorly to change, and how can understanding this help us overcome resistance to innovation? It might be surprising to us today, but coffee was an innovation that was resisted. Why? Because it turned upside down the fate of two other beverages that held sway for centuries: beer and wine. The public reaction to the change that coffee brought included demonisation, bans and trade restrictions.
People have resisted new technologies and developments throughout the centuries. Modern innovation controversies grow out of distrust of what could happen in a future of imagined new realities. With the pace of technological change making heads spin, the rise of robots and artificial intelligence has rekindled a long-standing debate regarding the impact of technology on employment. Robots and AI are one of many areas where exponential advances in technology trigger hype, fear, and public controversy. Many of these public debates over new technologies are framed in the context of risks to moral values, human health, and environmental safety.
Paradoxically, following a strategy of NOT innovating is just as risky or riskier than innovating. One of the more famous case studies is the rise of Netflix and fall of Blockbuster Video.2 3 4 The film and video game rental company went from an unchallenged empire in 2000 to bankruptcy in 2010. Blockbuster started out as an innovative way to defray the high costs of VHS tapes while enabling people to watch films at home. While the emerging possibility of internet streaming was being noticed by industry pundits, another technology actually hit Blockbuster harder. According to John Antioco, former CEO of Blockbuster:
"It's ironic that we were hurt by a different technology shift [than streaming]: the advent of the DVD. Whereas VHS cassettes were mostly rented, DVDs were introduced by the studios as a retail product, and mass merchants like Walmart and Best Buy priced them below $20. The adoption rate soared." 5
This first impediment to Blockbuster's continued success was the sort of change that people fear most: an externally imposed change that hit Blockbuster hard because their business was based on the prohibitively high cost of purchasing VHS tapes. Not only were DVDs cheaper, they were also easy to send by post. Ironically, when John Antioco came up with another innovation, online streaming, and rentals with no late fees, Antioco locked horns with Carl Icahn, an activist shareholder trying to protect his investment in the company. Antioco's problem was that the VHS accounted for a significant portion of the company's revenues. And what is worse, Icahn impeded Antioco's attempts to introduce streaming:
“[…] Antioco defended his business strategy of increasing the investment in Blockbuster’s online rental service and dropping customer late fees as ‘essential to confront the significant challenges facing our industry.’” 6
Antioco eventually lost his war against Icahn, stood down as CEO, and sold Blockbuster stock and bought Netflix shares instead.7 The death of Blockbuster and the rise Netflix is a great narrative to explain how innovation can build a business and how failing to innovate when times change because of uncertainty can be fatal. This uncertainty principle, as prominently displayed by Carl Icahn's fear that new technologies would risk existing "late fees" revenue, is only one aspect of the discomfort that comes from change.
A good example of a more ‘micro’ example of resistance to innovation and change are Facebook redesigns. There were a few years where Facebook seemed to be endlessly making big adjustments to the look and feel of the news feed. With each adjustment there would be renewed outcry of people threatening to leave the platform. For most users, a Facebook redesign doesn’t affect income or social standing, and yet, users resisted change even when it has very little material or social consequence for them. Facebook is a slightly addictive distraction that lets them keep up with friends and families.
So why can a slight change to a minor distraction prompt a passionate response? The reason is that these changes made people think. In psychological terms, this is called increasing the ‘cognitive load’. Why is this a problem? The danger here is that cognitive load creates sufficient uncertainty and friction that visitors will not feel comfortable. It is human nature to avoid uncertainty because it makes us feel uncomfortable. Why does this make us feel uncomfortable? Because thinking is hard work – something we are genetically programmed to avoid as it uses lots of precious energy.
To understand the concept of “thinking being hard work” it helps to understand how all animals, including people, follow routine scripts most of their lives, both big and small. An often-quoted example comes from ethology (the study of animals in their natural environment):
‘Turkey mothers are good mothers—loving, watchful, and protective. They spend much of their time tending, warming, cleaning, and huddling the young beneath them. But there is something odd about their method. Virtually all of this mothering is triggered by one thing: the “cheep-cheep” sound of young turkey chicks. Other identifying features of the chicks, such as their smell, touch, or appearance, seem to play minor roles in the mothering process. If a chick makes the “cheep-cheep” noise, its mother will care for it; if not, the mother will ignore or sometimes kill it.’ 8
As Dr. Robert Cialdini points out in the classic Psychology of Influence9, and Leonard Mlodinow builds on in Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change10 humans, much like the turkey mother above, often spend most of their lives following scripts. These scripts are an evolutionarily essential way to help conserve mental energy and give us enough cognitive load to deal with more immediate, unpredictable threats such as the large beasty that is stalking us11. For most people, following these scripts successfully will release serotonin (happy juice) into the brain and provide satisfaction.12 There is a specific gene (DRD4-7R) which is often found in adventurers and innovators which inhibits this serotonin release and encourages innovators to innovate.13 When innovators are presenting and especially trying to sell an innovation to a non-innovator it is important to recognise that there are subtle but important differences in brain chemistry. All this is a very technical way of saying that innovation and change often overwhelms many people.
Some of the biggest innovations of recent times are useability improvements. Steve Job’s is possibly the most famous innovator in this area, with his vision of the smartphone one of the best modern examples. Many of the most impactful innovations in the last twenty years have been around usability: Amazon with its “one click” buying format, Google with spartan design, Tinder with its ability to automatically get all your personal details from Facebook (rather than filling in forms) and its “left swipe/right swipe” method.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and natural language processing is as much a useability innovation as a technical one: the ultimate goal is to make computers more usable by teaching them to speak natural human languages rather us having to learn computer programming languages.14
Once we have established that the biggest impediment to change is that it forces people who do not necessarily want to think about something, to have to think about something, we can use this understanding to ensure that innovations are presented in as frictionless a way as possible.15 Payments systems for public transportation such as the London Underground (first with the Oyster Card then with bank cards) because we don’t have to think – friction reduction is built in.
Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug has an excellent summation of these usability principles. Krug, a usability specialist who has been evaluating websites since the late 1990s, outlines a very specific methodology for usability testing and design. He offers straightforward bits of advice like “nothing should be more than two clicks away”. He also espouses his first principle of usability: “Don’t make me think!”16 While explaining some of the best strategies for placing different bits of content on websites, and how following the flow of observable human behaviours will help a site come across as calmer and just ‘better’, he explains the concept of “satisficing”:
In reality, though, most of the time we don’t choose the best option—we choose the first reasonable option, a strategy known as satisficing. As soon as we find a link that seems like it might lead to what we’re looking for, there’s a very good chance that we’ll click it. 17
This “satisficing” principle is also an important feature of how the non-innovator mind works. When selling innovation, whether to your client, your CEO, or your board, it’s important to realise that “satisficing” is a script which will be running in their minds. To sell an innovation, one needs to find the angles that will “satisfice” the customer and present those to them as early as possible.
Calm Technology: Designing for Billions of Devices and the Internet of Things by Amber Case is an excellent resource for creating software and hardware that is both user centric and pleasing to a user because it helps reduce cognitive load. She outlines some of the important principles of Calm Technology and how important it is to understand the “limited bandwidth of people’s attention”18. Good design needs to not only reduce the amount of time or action needed to achieve a certain end, but it also needs to do so with the lowest mental costs for the user. One example provided is the Mac laptop charging cable which includes a light that shows the users, without them even needing to think about it, that either their laptop is charging (amber) or is charged and plugged in (green). It is these types of simple design and usability methods for which Apple is so famous (and so expensive!). Apple has always been good at understanding how its users, who are often innovators themselves, do not want to spend their time thinking about their technology, but simply using it for their own ends. This is exactly the approach that is needed to convince the non-innovator of the value of a proposition and to overcome their resistance.
Skeuomorphic design is a technique, used extensively by Apple and others, whereby an innovation that replaces an existing product will resemble the previous features. For example, a mobile telephone might have a ring that sounds like an old style telephone bell, or a piece of pottery made with a new material might have styled rivets that reminisce an older metal object.19 This is also a good design technique for selling innovation to the non innovator. The early concepts of mp3 players were sold with skeuomorphic Jukebox designs which was used to sell the concept to investors20. Skeuomorphism, although currently shunned by Apple in favour of minimalist design, is a powerful tool to explain an idea without making the customer “think” in a way they would rather not.
While people who resist innovation have a fear of change and will react with aversion to anything threatening the status quo, there is also the power of “Fear of missing out” (FOMO) that has driven much of the success of social media. On social media this has been blamed for depreciation in mental health amongst the generations that grew up with social media as a regular part of their life.21 Indeed FOMO has been cited as one of the main causes of social media addiction.22 When dealing with the non-innovator it is often helpful to realise that they too will have this fear. No one wants to be the Carl Icahn who is credited with blocking the innovation that could have saved Blockbuster Video (incidentally, Carl Icahn subsequently bought, then sold shares in Netflix netting himself a reported $2 billion profit23).
Often a big vision and a strong overall direction, a story arch which contains and unites individual stories of innovation and inaction with a bit of “what could go wrong”, can help create the “happening” or “buzz” that helps push an innovation forward with a touch of FOMO. No one would suggestion that most adult customers, CEOs, or boards will be as easily manipulated by FOMO as youth may be on social media, but it can help to remind people evaluating any innovation that someone else has probably thought of the same thing. They probably have! Creating a narrative “buzz” that will activate the script that overcomes resistance to innovation. FOMO is one of those scripts that brains follow; creating the right buzz around an innovation can help use this script to show the advantage of an innovation. Whether it is Netflix and Blockbuster or any of the many other success stories, there are always examples of great opportunities missed. There are, of course, always great examples of great ideas that cost millions but came to very little (just Ask Jeeves or look up friends on Friends Reunited!) so be careful not to make it a threat that will activate a negative script that creates fear where calm is need. Create a scene or happening or a buzz that because the “thing” that the resister now fears they will miss out on.
Resistance to change can include something as innocuous as a Facebook User Interface being changed or as a serious as new technology undermining your core proposition the way Netflix killed off Blockbuster.
Coffee is one of the world’s oldest transformative innovations. Whilst it is integral to our daily life, coffee controversy has spanned centuries, and the debate over it’s benefits still appear in our newspapers and medical journals.
Resistance to innovation is out there and is as integral a part of human makeup as is human’s ability to innovate! This resistance can be overcome using good design, understanding the human psyche, creating a “buzz” that draws people into and overcomes the fear of change.