In 1955 C. Northcote Parkinson wrote an article in The Economist that introduced the world to Parkinson’s Law – “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

An observation so universal in application that it is instantly recognisable in our work habits today. He wrote many other articles and books that poked fun at bureaucracy, and in “The Law of Delay” he introduced the Abominable No-Man. The person who automatically says no to every new thing because it is the easiest thing to do. It involves no risks for the Abominable No-Man, no blame and very little thinking. An earlier version of “computer says no” from the TV series Little Britain.

We meet the Abominable No-Man regularly in innovation. We have all heard the common phrases that can kill an idea stone dead:

  • We tried it 10-years ago, and it doesn’t work
  • The customer isn’t interested in that
  • We don’t have the capacity
  • It would cost too much to develop
  • I can’t see the return on investment

The web is full of lists of comments that prevent innovation; such as, 29 Phrases Blocking Innovative Ideas and 17 Phrases That Kill Good Ideas.

It is a real problem, and a great deal of advice is given on how to battle these grumpy, backward-looking types who do not grasp the genius of your idea. How to push ahead and prove them wrong. How to go around them. How to create momentum and recruit allies.

The implication is clear. The Abominable No-Man is a barrier to progress. They are crushing the fresh shoots of the next generation of products and services. Their inability to consider new possibilities is a threat to the future of the business.

They just don’t get it!

But suppose the Abominable No-Man is right

But let’s suppose, just for a moment, that the Abominable No-Man is right. Maybe they know something that we don’t. Perhaps the problems of 10-years ago are still problems today. Perhaps their knowledge of the market and the target consumers is superior to ours; deeper and more up to date.

Sometimes a bad idea is just a bad idea.

After all, when excited by a thrilling new idea we can be just as dismissive of any objections as the Abominable No-Man is of new ideas. We can be just as blind to anything that doesn’t fit our vision. New is not necessarily more relevant, more interesting or more correct than old.

I had practical experience of being the Abominable No-Man in a workshop on recycling with a group from an environmental NGO. Exploring some ideas for creating a more circular economy I commented that one line of approach broke the second law of thermodynamicsThis was instantly dismissed as an example of ‘negative thinking’. They accused me of blocking their creativity, and possibly even being ‘not a team player’. Well sorry guys, but this is actually a real problem that we are going to have to overcome if this concept is going to go anywhere!

How to explore objections

So, how do we treat these objections? How can we give them a fair hearing without giving up on our innovative idea too easily?

The key is to get to the source of the objection. Why do they think it won’t work?

A bit of gentle probing should reveal their reasons. Those reasons will probably include some assumptions about technology, manufacturing, competitors, markets and customer needs, rules and regulations etc. If you can surface those assumptions, you can question them. Are those assumptions still valid? What has changed? Are there any trends that will give us a feeling for how the market or technology will evolve?

Practical innovation is about managing risk and uncertainty, just as much as it is about creativity. How can you use the differences between your assumptions and those who are objecting to your idea to take action to reduce risk and uncertainty? How can you make the picture clearer? Is there an experiment you can do, a prototype you can construct, or some market research that will test whose assumptions and beliefs are a better match to the market needs and your business capability?

The objections people raise about your idea and the reasons they give can help to make your concept stronger and increase the chance of success.

Of course, sometimes the Abominable No-Man will turn out to be someone who reacts unthinkingly to new ideas and just ‘knows’ it won’t work. In which case feel free to ignore them. But test their thinking before you reject it. Experience of previous failures and problems helps to refine and improve your ideas.

 

The “Abominable No-Man” and Innovation
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