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  • Writer's pictureMalcolm De Leo

Innovation is a Contact Sport?



Working as a change agent and innovation advocate for the past 25 years, I hear time and time again how we need to all work together as a team if we want innovation to happen. We are told almost universally that our collective and complementary effort is critical to innovation being produced. And frankly, in my experience, collaboration is a critical part of being a great innovator. Knowing the difference between what you are great at and subsequently what you suck at is critical to finding others who complement you to produce great outcomes.


But there is another side to innovation. There is a side to it that hides in the shadows of change management. It is the unspoken part of innovation that most of us don't want to admit. Why? Because seeing the dark side of innovation sort of shatters the rainbows and unicorn image most of us hold when it comes to producing something better by thinking and acting differently.


What is this dark side to innovation? My good friend Bob Rosenfeld who I have known for over 15 years articulated this side of innovation best when he once shared with me the following; "Most people think innovation is a collaborative sport. Actually, innovation is a contact sport because someone is going to get hurt if change is going to happen."


Innovation is a contact sport


Think about that for a moment...Innovation is a hands-on activity. Once we get past the results of most innovation efforts, which frequently include both breathtaking and mesmerizing breakthroughs that were once thought to be impossible (The iPhone, Chat GPT, vaccines, SPAM in a can), we don't usually investigate what transpired during the time it took to produce the innovation.


It is quite easy to see the amazing output and forget the journey that brought it to life. And sure, there are amazing collaborations that produce innovation (see the scene in Apollo 13 where they have a table of stuff on the shuttle that must be used to save the crew), but we have to see that beneath the effort is often a political and emotional reality that requires people to win and others to lose.


I am not here to advocate for the dark side of innovation, but merely to point out to be aware that innovation is a contact sport. This means that you need to be aware of this dark side of innovation, be prepared to deal with it, and counter it in order to ensure the success of everyone involved. But like most things, you might have to engage in contact so the needs of the many can outweigh the needs of the few.


What drives the dark side of innovation?


If you think about it more widely, the dark side of innovation has many faces. Some of them are innocent, some are committed with purpose, and others occur simply out of fear. And if we take an even further step back, the change brought about by any innovation effort is both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time, it just depends on how it affects you, whether you stand to gain or lose, and if your inability to see how the change matters elicits a reactive response. So let's talk about the drivers a bit...I will break them down by class (innocent, purpose and fear).


The dark side of innovation: INNOCENCE


Hubris: We have all seen the movie where the mad genius is hellbent on bringing their innovation to life and they often don't think through the consequence of bringing it to life. We watch the movie in horror as someone creates something because they believe they can, only to find out they missed the damage it can do. A person's hubris can drive the creation of change and when this happens their relentless drive damages those around them because they simply can't see. Their unending singular focus brings the need for contact to stop them.


Righteousness: Some people believe that they know what is best for others, and that the changes or innovations they are advocating will benefit everyone. This is often accompanied by the statement "you'll see." It is as if they believe that everyone around them is stupid and doesn't know any better. This righteousness can lead to blindness in the pursuit of a project, and often leads to bad things.


The dark side of innovation: PURPOSE


Narcissism: This one is quite obvious. Someone so self involved who carries a sense of victimhood will inevitably try to sway others to do their bidding. They will want to drive change that benefits them first and foremost, bringing others to their cause even if they are casualties in its birthing. They do this because they know no other way and those who suffer their effort are meaningless in their quest to satisfy their own needs.


Control: Innovation can be created for good and it can also be created for evil purposes (insert movie line in here). Many people drive change to what is around them to assert control over the collective. These efforts are dangerous because they will produce a change, but often one that benefits few while the many are left behind.


Power: Gaining more power is something that people will crave. Being the winner of any innovation effort means someone who gets the credit will gain power over others. When that power meets the other two listed above you have real problems. Sometimes those who drive change for the sake of power just want to be on top of others so they can control the rest of the group. In this case, the change is created for the sake of moving upward rather than helping the greater good. If this is their motive then it won't go well over time.


The dark side of innovation: FEAR


Sabotage: Unlike the other two classes mentioned above, fear is driven to stop those who are trying innovate. The first mode of fear is sabotage. People who want things to stay the same will do anything to keep the status quo. They will go out of their way to kill something that looks different, smells different and frankly disrupts their hardened view of the world. I once worked with someone who literally said to my boss, "it is safer to kill this innovation than try to make it succeed!". I never will ever forget this and almost fell off my chair when I heard it. Talk about the need to play innovation as a contact sport...this was the moment.


Complacency: Some people will attack the change in front of them because it is better for them that things stay the same. They won't for even a minute take the risk that the new innovation will disrupt the world they treasure so dearly. We see it all the time. People resist changing even when its necessary. Some might argue the battle between gas cars and electric cars represents innovation as a contact sport because people are complacent that this is how it is always done. Change disrupts markets, but as we are seeing companies like Tesla (regardless of how you feel about the brand) have totally upended the automobile market.


Preservation: This is simple fight or flight. Innovation will always change something. Some people are going to be affected and if it could really ruin their way of doing things they will fight back and fight hard. One can't blame people for preserving themselves in the face of change, but this is still a fear based response. And while of all the dark sides, this one makes the most sense to anyone, it is still something to be aware of, particularly when those who could be forced to do things differently are the minority and not the majority.


To clarify, the dark side of innovation is a natural and sometimes justified response to change. However, like all things, there are so many variables to consider that the goal of discussing innovation in this way is to provide a framework for understanding how change occurs. This post is intended to help you stop and consider the side of innovation that most people do not want to talk about, because in some ways, driving change is what allows us to evolve the world around us, whether for good or bad.


So what should you do?


Now that we have created a more 360 degree view of innovation, what are we going to do about it. By widening how we think about the reaction that innovation can often bring when we engage in being a change agent it becomes important to build a few ways to manage ourselves when its time to make it a contact sport.


Rule 1 - Define what form the contact will manifest: Now that we have defined the dark side of innovation, you have operational definitions to use to identify where resistance will come from and in what form. This allows us to see more clearly. Being aware of what we are up against allows us to best plan how we will counteract the issues in front of us. Do we use a direct assault to get things done? Do we use an avoidance strategy? Do we need to simply decide whether the contact is going to allow us to win a battle but lose the war? There are so many ways to approach fighting through contact to get to your end goal. Start by knowing what you are up against, which will allow you to better plan your attack.


Rule 2 - Be Patient: One of the biggest mistake most innovators make is they think that change has to happen as fast as possible because why wouldn't anyone want to stop change? I would argue that one of the best ways to drive change is to be patient. This is using Jujitsu to simply avoid making innovation a contact sport. The best way to counteract the dark side that you are facing can often to let the forces around you do the work you might do yourself. If you have a power hungry peer, will they simply burn out before they acquire that power? Many times, those around you will see your adversaries methods and you don't even have to do anything. Maybe you need a market force you can see but others can't to make the change something that has to happen. Pain brings change. If you plan solutions that solve for it, you can often win in the long run. Patience really is a virtue when it comes to producing innovation that drives a change.


Rule 3 - Do what's right: This sounds hokey, but I have found those who are trying to drive change for the good of the many are often rewarded over time for being viewed as looking out for everyone. One of the best ways to drive change/innovation is to literally be agenda-less. By others perceiving you as having no real agenda it will bring them to your cause. If the innovation you are trying to create is viewed as selfless, then it is much easier for those around you to see how it benefits them and ultimately they join you creating a force multiplier. If innovation is a contact sport and you have a lot of people joining your effort the impact you will feel will be greatly diminished if they are there to help you absorb the contact.


Rule 4 - Practice Positive Trust: Trust is such a multifaceted thing that is often looked at as monolithic. What people don't realize that to be in the highest state of innovation, what Robert Porter Lynch calls a creationship, you have to be have completely open trust with those you are working with. Avoiding contact is centered around people trusting you. Those who practice the dark side can only be countered with avoiding negative trust states. Utilizing positive trust is critical. Below is the trust belt created by Robert Porter Lynch who is one of my mentors who taught me much of what I know. If you stay on the top of the chart great things will happen effortlessly.



Credit to Robert Porter Lynch and Paul Lawrence


Rule 5 - When all else fails be willing to hit back: Listen innovation is a collaborative sport and practicing those principles will help you win in the long term. You just have to believe that. But if this article has done anything I hope it has shown you a different side. Sometimes you have to realize that those around you who are practicing the dark side of innovation to stop you must be dealt with. And sometimes the only way to fight is to fight back when all else fails. Don't apologize for having to go here when it is necessary because sometimes we can't let the world roll over us, particularly when we know there is better way. Innovation is a contact sport...so be prepared to hit back.



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