How Professional Identity Blocks Innovation?

Organizational Renewal
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Innovation is built on proven methodologies, much like the approach we use at Change Logic. Yet, methodology alone is not enough. As Prof. Michael Tushman, Change Logic’s co-founder, reminded us recently, no amount of fashionable business techniques can substitute for the lack of emotion. You need to spark the fire of the imagination in the team to drive innovation. People are the most important part of successful innovation culture. They should be at the center of everything.

Becoming a effective innovator often involves mastering cultural change as much as strategic disciplines. A recent Harvard Business Review case study from Prof. Tushman illustrates the point perfectly. Deloitte Pixel is a unit of Deloitte Consulting. Launched in 2014, Pixel enables Deloitte’s consulting teams to crowdsource on-demand talent to support client engagements. People with in-demand skills, like AI and data analytics, do not always want to work directly for management consulting firms. So, Pixel helps Deloitte access this difficult-to-find expertise and collaborate on the development of new products and services.

Despite the successful completion of many projects, with millions of dollars of value delivered as a result, Pixel’s use within the larger organization remains limited. A few project teams have embraced Pixel, but most are wary relying on open talent and tools for serving their clients.

They are not alone. Two earlier cases from Prof. Tushman uncovered the same dynamic at Havas, a French advertising firm, and the space agency, NASA. In 2013, Havas attempted to undergo digital transformation by adding crowdsourcing to its advertising toolbox. The initiative met with a vicious resistance of the agency’s 300 creative professionals who considered crowdsourcing as a threat to their professional identity. Facing the revolt – and unable to overcome it – the Havas leadership abandoned the crowdsourcing program.

At NASA, professional identity clashed with innovation when its Life Sciences division opened its strategic R&D challenges to an external audience. The move split the organization in two. One group represented NASA scientists and engineers who embraced open methods as an opportunity to enhance their role and capabilities. The other group flatly rejected open innovation methodology as an existential challenge to their professional identity.

In each of these cases, emotion is at the center of the rejection related to a new way of working. Professionals protect their position of control. What can you do?

  1. Define a higher level of ambition – you need to help professionals code innovation as being in service of a goal that they want to achieve, rather than a threat that they need to protect themselves against.

  2. Reset identity – NASA succeeded in turning around its by addressing the problem of professional identity. It encouraged its scientists and engineers to focus on the bigger “why,” rather than narrow “how,” in their work and promoted shifting from internally focused “problem-solving” to externally oriented “solution-seeking.”

  3. Engage in an open dialogue – you need to be open about this change, rather than hoping that professionals will see the opportunity. Objectors to Deloitte Pixel have reasonable concerns, one issue being a fear that external contributors could breach client confidentiality. Openly addressing such challenges can reduce fear.

  4. Frame innovation as a Both/And challenge – Deloitte consultants were also concerned about their long-term value. As one partner quoted in the case put it: “Well, if a crowd can do it, then what is our value proposition?” Crowdsource talent at Deloitte is not a replacement for consulting expertise; it needs to be framed as a Both/And challenge not an Either/Or.

Over the past ten years, NASA has expanded and deepened its usage of open talent. Havas closed its experiment and was eventually sold. The story of Deloitte Pixel is still being written. Its success will likely rest on its ability to address the emotional sources of resistance.

Every case of failure in executing a large change initiative has at its root a failure to have the high-stake, high-tension conversations about the future. This is a lesson that all executive leaders would be wise to learn.

Eugene Ivanov