Our very first customer at Mergeflow was very good at beating “not invented here” syndrome.
He is a very successful innovator with a distinguished career. A physics PhD by training, he started his professional career doing semiconductor research in the R&D department of a large, global technology corporation. He then moved on to running a new business unit (outside the R&D department). After that, he led the spinoff unit of his company. There, he helped commercialize a whole range of technologies into successful spinoff companies.
You get the idea. This is a true science entrepreneur who is at home in both R&D and business. Also–and this is important–who said that you can’t be an entrepreneur in a large corporation?
“Not invented here” syndrome happens frequently, and understandably so
At Mergeflow we often hear from innovators how they struggle with “not invented here” (NIH) syndrome in their organization. NIH syndrome refers to the tendency to avoid using products, knowledge, etc. that come from outside one’s own organization (cf. this Wikipedia article).
Many people view other people’s ideas and solutions as a threat, not as an opportunity.
It is understandable that many people show NIH syndrome. When you develop a new technology, product or solution, it’s easy to think that you look less brilliant if you incorporate other people’s ideas. And unfortunately most educational systems enforce this way of thinking, from a very early age onward. As a result, many people view other people’s ideas and solutions as a threat, not as an opportunity.
So…how did he beat “not invented here” syndrome?
Let’s start by looking at what our customer didn’t do.
Don’t try to change people’s minds
It’s very tempting to address NIH syndrome heads-on. To somehow try to change people’s minds. Very often, people and organizations try doing this by organizing some kind of event or campaign. For example, this could be an (off-site) event where people talk about culture change and whatnot, and listen to some keynote speaker (“I’ve been to the Valley. And I’ve seen the light…” Narrator’s voice: “He only went there for two days, on an organized bus tour.”).
Our customer never did that. No mindset change, culture change, or other innovation theater.
Here’s what he did instead when he wanted to bring outside ideas into his organization:
Find individual people who are open to new ideas
If you want to beat NIH syndrome, it’s good to start with “low-hanging grapes”.
For example, when our customer wanted to introduce a new idea to a team in his organization, he first approached the most open-minded person from this team. Once he had this person as an “ally”, he engaged with the other team members (together with his ally).
This didn’t always work. Sometimes he couldn’t find anyone who was open-minded enough. And in situations like that, he wouldn’t try to force anything but moved on instead.
Can’t find anyone who is open to new ideas? If this happens, don’t try to force anything. Instead, move on.
Use concrete information, not abstract “trends”
“[TOPIC XYZ] is really trending hot. We need to act now!”
You often see this in the context of so-called technology radars, for example. They look like dartboards, where the arrows represent topics (usually described at a very high-level, such as “machine learning” or “blockchain”). And the arrows in the middle of the dartboard represent those topics that need to be acted upon.
This can be an interesting exercise, but it is not enough. First, what exactly do you mean by “act”? Who exactly should do what exactly, for how long, etc.? And what exactly do you mean when you say “machine learning” or “blockchain” in the context of your organization?
So instead of abstract trends, our customer always used concrete information. Details depend on context, of course. But good examples might be companies with a relevant product or solution; a paper that describes a potentially interesting new technology; or sometimes just a blog post with an interesting idea such as a plausible future scenario.
But don’t overwhelm people. Nobody has the time to go through a list of 50 companies or 100 papers. Instead, use a handful of findings, or even just a single finding.
Note that “single finding” doesn’t necessarily mean “single document”. For example, if a finding is a specific company, then this finding might include the founder’s bios, their patents, scientific publications, and news about the company.
Don’t tell people what to do. Instead, ask them for feedback. Or ask them to explain something to you
“Hey, I just found this great paper, and you should really read it.”
Not a great conversation starter. First, you don’t want to corner people and make them feel like they missed something. Second, you might be wrong. What if your great finding isn’t that great after all? Or what if for some reason the finding is interesting but not relevant, i.e. won’t work in the context of your company?
So instead, our customer took his finding and either asked people for feedback, or to explain the finding. He would ask them, “I’m no expert on this, but I saw this…what do you think?”. And these feedback conversations were not just high-level generalities, but very specific and detail-oriented. Also, the “recipient” did most of the talking, not our customer.
When you share an idea with someone, the other person should do most of the talking, not you. Otherwise you won’t learn anything.
Use information that’s targeted to your audience
It’s no secret that when you share new information with people, you make it easier for them if you reach them where they are.
For example, when our customer introduced an idea to a researcher, he would try to find a research paper or other technical contents. This allowed the researcher to evaluate an idea in depth. And this resulted in substantially more valuable feedback or explanations–which led to clearer decisions and faster progress.
By contrast, when he talked with someone from finance or marketing, he tried to find information that emphasized the business aspect. For instance, this could be a company’s business model, competitive landscape, a good narrative, or market information.