“Can I offer you a bit of advice?”

As an innovator, this question should trigger your fight, flight, or freeze response.

It is often a genuine question asked by a good-hearted colleague who is motivated by a genuine desire to help.

It can also signal the beginning of the end.

Beware Organizational Antibodies

Thanks to COVID-19, we’ve all (re)learned how our bodies’ immune systems work:

A foreign object (a pathogenic bacteria or virus) enters our bodies, and our immune system rallies a bunch of antibodies to identify the unwanted object and neutralize or destroy it.

Yea! Threat neutralized! We’re safe again!

Thank you, antibodies!

Companies work in much the same way (after all, “corporation” traces its roots back to “corpus,” the Latin word for body)

A foreign object (innovation) enters our company, and our immune system (culture, processes, structures) rallies a bunch of antibodies (rules, metrics, stories) to identify the new object and neutralize or destroy it.

Whether you thank the antibodies or curse them depends very much on your point of view. Either way, you can’t argue that the antibodies did precisely what they are designed to do – keep the company operating efficiently with minimum disruption or distraction.

How to spot Organizational Antibodies

Antibodies always appear in human form, usually as allies like colleagues or bosses, and express themselves in a single statement or question. 

Here are the five most common:

1. “Can I offer you a bit of advice?” – The antibody is here to help. It wants to spare you the pain your predecessors endured by passing lessons learned and suggestions to make your innovation more acceptable to upper management. Following their advice will neutralize the innovation, transforming it from “something new that creates value” to “something familiar that feels safe.”

2. “Have you thought about…?” – This is a slightly more aggressive antibody than #1, but it operates similarly. Intending to help, this antibody offers an unsolicited and specific piece of advice. If you take the advice, you face the same risk of neutralization as with #1, but if you ignore it, you risk hearing a very public, “I told you so.”

3. “You should talk to (fill in the blank)” – This is another antibody that wants to help, but not enough to do it. It senses the foreignness of your project, so it doesn’t want to get too involved lest it fails. But it wants to do something, so it can claim involvement if your innovation succeeds. So, it sends you to someone it genuinely believes will be helpful. While it’s certainly important to talk to people throughout the company, beware the run-around that results in all talking and no doing.

4. “I don’t have time right now but let’s talk in a month” – This antibody knows that we’re all time-starved, so we won’t argue with this reason. But “I don’t have time” means “It’s not a priority.”  If the project isn’t a priority now, it won’t be a priority in a month. And if the project isn’t a priority, it will be starved of resources and die a slow, agonizing death.

5. “Before I can approve this, I need to see (financials, documentation). I’m just holding you to the same standard I hold other projects to.” – When all other antibodies fail, this one is unleashed. Directly or indirectly, it kills every innovation in the organization. It ignores the fact that new things don’t have historical data. It dismisses analogous innovations as too different to be valid. Anything that can’t be proven to be 100% certain contains some amount of risk. And risk must be destroyed.

How to work with Organizational Antibodies

Antibodies mean well. They genuinely want to help. Even when they’re being tough, they believe they’re being fair. It’s essential to respond with an equal measure of kindness and fairness.

Remember, you can’t stop antibodies. You can only hope to contain them with one (or more) of these approaches:

1. Say “Thank you.” – Don’t try to justify, explain, or convince the antibody that they’re wrong. Simply acknowledge that you heard them and say thank you. 

2. Ask if they’re open to discussing their suggestion. – Most antibodies have short memories. Once they give advice, they move on to other things and quickly forget about you. But some don’t. Some return to ask what you did or why you didn’t listen to them. As tempting as it is to launch into an explanation or defense, don’t. Ask them if they’re open to a discussion. If they say “yes,” they just agreed to listen to your explanation and (hopefully) engage in a productive conversation. If they say “no” (usually phrased as “not right now”), then you save everyone time and aggravation.

3. Keep a list of people and when you’ll talk to them – You don’t have to talk to everyone before you start. When you are referred to someone, pause to think about when they will be most helpful – at the start of the project, when you have a specific question, or towards the end when you’re working through operational consideration. Keeping a list of who to talk to and when reassures people that you’re collaborating and helps you manage expectations.

4. Before you start, align on priorities – Ultimately, your boss decides what the priorities are. So, no matter how important or urgent something feels to you, if it’s not important or urgent to her, you won’t get the time, attention, or resources you need. Save yourself time and heartache by understanding the important and urgent priorities and aligning your work to those.

5. Before you start, ask, “What do you need to see to say Yes?”  – We live in a world of finite resources, which means that every person and dollar you receive is a person or dollar NOT going to another project. So, before you start, ask what the decision-maker needs to make decisions. Suppose the requests are unreasonable (like a 5-year NPV approved by Finance before you even have a proof of concept). In that case, you can try negotiating for more reasonable expectations or shift your focus.

Organizational Antibodies exist in every organization. It’s only a matter of time before they appear and even swarm. For the sake of your innovation efforts and your company’s long-term growth, stay vigilant and have a plan to work with them. It’s how you’ll keep innovation alive.