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Jeffrey Phillips


The Seven Stages of Innovation Grief

Skip quickly past disbelief and denial and become a master of bargaining

Published: Tuesday, June 7, 2016 - 12:09

The tone of this article is a bit tongue in cheek, but the point is quite serious. Innovators go through a number of phases as they accept the reality of innovation based on what executives and corporate culture allow. Growing as an innovator is something like experiencing the seven stages of grief, only it’s often done in reverse.

When we experience grief, such as when we lose a loved one, psychologists note that many people progress through a number of stages. Those are: disbelief, denial, bargaining, guilt, anger, depression, and finally acceptance or even hope. That is, at first we deny the issue, then we try to come to grips with it, then we express anger, then we finally come out of the darkness and end up with some hope.

One of the funnier examples of this was done by Tony Shaloub, who played the obsessive-compulsive TV character Adrian Monk. Here’s the clip. Monk goes through the stages in about 2 minutes, first denying that his psychiatrist is retiring, then bargaining for his return, then blowing his stack and sinking into depression.

We innovators, especially corporate innovators, are like Monk, but often in reverse. We often start out with hope and end with denial and disbelief. We have these big expectations about what we can do, only to watch them get watered down, constrained, managed, defunded, and so on. Yet we’re supposed to push on with the same enthusiasm.

Let’s examine why this happens, and then look at methods used by Napoleon Bonaparte to circumvent it.

The five stages of innovation planning

As good innovators, in stage one of innovation planning we should be planning to “disrupt” an existing market or industry or create a new market or industry. This type of innovation has an impact far beyond the existing corporate framework, creating new products or even new industries. These plans will often be stymied because executives will find them too risky because the firm doesn't have experience outside its own comfort zone.

So the next option is stage two, migrating or competing in an adjacent industry, one where we can partner with other experts to extend a capability or do some “open innovation” that marries our products and services with another’s. This allows us to enter an industry or segment where we don’t compete. However, this also places a significant bet on a partner which we don’t control and that might have other plans or motivations. Trying to mitigate one type of risk, we simply transfer the risk elsewhere.

Once stage two has been considered and rejected, in stage three we seek to do whatever we can to innovate within our own footprint, discussing “disruptive” innovation in our own markets or industries. But we’re quickly reminded that disrupting the cash cow isn’t smart, so we must either tone down the innovation in our existing footprint or innovate outside the footprint (which, of course, has already been rejected because we know so little about those markets or industries).

In stage four innovators will consider adapting or adopting existing capabilities for new uses within the industry or footprint. This seems like a real possibility until we discover that we really know very little about innovation beyond the product itself. “Channel,” “business model,” and “customer experience” innovation, which build on an existing product and extend innovation beyond it, seems interesting, but we know nothing about how to do it.

Eventually, at stage five we end up with “incremental” innovation based on existing products—in other words, product extensions. This is a completely viable innovation outcome. It shouldn’t be the only one, but inevitably it is.

Environment shapes attitude

In a perfect world, we’d consider places to innovate and types of outcomes, and create an interesting mix. We’d innovate in adjacent and completely new spaces, because it’s a rare company that wants to disrupt its own industry or business model. In other words, we’d challenge other companies’ models or industries to keep them off guard, which opens new markets for us and protects our nest eggs from attack. We’d also keep innovating in channels, business models, customer experiences, and services to retain the value proposition of our products by extending innovation in other means and types. 

Innovators all know this and live with consistent hope. We go through innovation denial, giving up first disruptive innovation, then adjacent innovation, then other types of innovation to settle into incremental innovation. It’s no wonder that so much innovation is simply incremental. It almost doesn’t matter where your starting point is, or what your original targets and expectations were; most paths lead to the same place. Paul Hobcraft covered this in a recent post, “Are we playing Snakes and Ladders with innovation?” The “snakes” are everywhere, causing us to fall back to the lowest common denominator.

This reality is the reason so many innovators are so often also fatalists. They’ve seen the mountain, and even think they know how to get there, but the obstacles placed in their way, by their own sponsors, executives, corporate culture, and others, simply wear down their hope and initial enthusiasm. Ask almost any experienced innovator, and he will be able to describe the proposed journey and the almost inevitable outcomes. New innovators are full of possibility and energy. Experienced innovators constantly seek ways to get a lot more done under the radar, or before the barriers are raised. Experienced innovators skip quickly past disbelief and denial; anger they have in plenty. They become masters of bargaining, and still retain a lot of hope.

When you stop to consider how important attitude, belief, and commitment are to a successful innovation effort, it won’t surprise you that fatalism and inertia are deadly. The best innovators never give up hope, never stop believing, always overcome obstacles. But it can be difficult to remain optimistic when your own organization is the culprit that builds those obstacles.

What Napoleon can teach us

Napoleon would make a great modern innovator. Of course he was a pretty good innovator in his own time, in warfare and in governance. He had a couple of sayings that I think would apply nicely to modern innovation activities. The first was, “Audacity, always audacity.” He meant that the winning side was often the one that plunged in and took big risks. He was known for dividing his army in the face of the enemy, doing crazy, audacious things that no other commander would do. He grew from a lowly second lieutenant to commander of most of western Europe by doing things others didn’t expect. I think the same is true with most successful innovators. They have hopeful plans and are audacious, doing things that others can’t imagine.

Another important Napoleonic aphorism was, “If you go to take Vienna, take Vienna.” In other words, no half-hearted attempts. Make big plans and execute on those plans, ideally before the decision makers and corporate culture become aware of just how audacious your plans really are. If you want to bypass or overcome the steps of innovation denial, move with audacity, make big plans, and achieve them quickly. Otherwise, the slowly moving corporate forces will introduce fear, uncertainty, and doubt, which will cripple your efforts.

In the world of corporate innovation, there are many possibilities but only a few certainties. One is that the faster you move, the less time the culture has a chance to develop antibodies against your plans. Another certainty is that no matter how audacious your plans are, they will encounter resistance and will be watered down. Therefore, go for the biggest opportunity you can imagine.

A third certainty is that innovation grief evolves in the opposite direction of psychological grief. Innovators often start with hope, move to bargaining, and end with denial and disbelief. Move so quickly, with such force and determination, that you don’t have to go through those steps.

First published April 12, 2016, on the Innovate on Purpose blog.


About The Author

Jeffrey Phillips’s picture

Jeffrey Phillips

Jeffrey Phillips is the lead innovation consultant for OVO, which offers assessments, consulting, training and team definition, change management, innovation workshops, and idea generation space and services. Phillips has led innovation projects in the United States, Western Europe, South Africa, Latin American, Malaysia, Dubai, and Turkey. He has expertise in the entire “front end of innovation” with specific focus on trend spotting and scenario planning, obtaining customer insights, defining an innovation process, and open innovation. He’s the author of Relentless Innovation (McGraw-Hill, 2011), and 20 Mistakes Innovators Make (Amazon Digital Services, 2013), and co-author of OutManeuver: OutThink—Don’t OutSpend (Xlibris, 2016).