Research proves People are the biggest barrier to Category Creation

Written by Jonathan Simnett

Why is it some individuals can be dead against what are clearly good ideas? 

It’s a question that David Schonthal and Loran Nordgren, professors at Northwestern University – Kellogg School of Management, have been asking for years. And it’s one that confronts innovators, entrepreneurs, investors, movers and shakers of every sort. And, of course, Category creators.

Category creation is fundamental to corporate innovation. Whether you are building a tech business from the outset to be a Category leader, or are focussing your tech organisation to take it to the next stage. 

As the saying goes “If it was easy, everybody could do it” and scarcity drives value. At Categorical we are really glad Category Creation is complex. Why? Turns out the primary reason for Category design not being straightforward is, not tech, but people.

If you study the literature, or you are experienced in leading Category creation programmes, you’ll be familiar with the idea of ‘Zeds’. These are the negative individuals that pop up at any moment in the Category Design process and can threaten to derail it. So how do you stop Zeds appearing in the first place?

Nordgren, a psychologist and Schonthal, an innovation and entrepreneurship expert who has worked in startups and as a consultant and VC, argue that corporate innovation is being held back, and Zeds allowed to flourish, because leaders focus too much on the rush of making a new idea appealing, but not enough on the grind of overcoming the frictions that undermine change.

The Human Element

In `The Human Element,` their Wall Street Journal bestselling book, they list four frictions that operate against the creation of new ideas and subsequent innovation. These are: 

Emotion — the unintended negative emotions created by new ideas, innovation and change.

Reactance — people’s aversion to being changed by others.

Inertia — our overwhelming desire to stick with the status quo, even if we know it’s inadequate.

Effort — the physical, mental or economic exertion (real or perceived) required to make change happen.

Helpfully, Schonthal and Norgren offer up some handy hints to get over ERIE’s components.  

Dealing with ERIE

Despite every instinct of entrepreneurs and innovators to differentiate by newness, it appears, according to their research, more effective  to make unfamiliar ideas feel and appear more familiar, more relatable.  For instance, a computer home screen is called a desktop, and on that desktop you create documents, you store those documents in folders, and then, if unwanted, you put them in the trash. Another counter to the inertia that emerges in organisations is repetition; the more an individual or organisation is exposed to something, the more familiar and less threatening it becomes. This is vital as you are progressing through Category Strikes and getting your own people, as well as your customers and partners on board.

When introducing something new, clarity is essential in making a team understand what’s in it for them — and what’s needed from them. Delivering this is fundamental in Strike planning and why all Strikes must have roadmaps.  Vagueness is the sworn enemy of successful Category creation.

Don’t wait for the Zeds to come out, count on it

Lastly, realise it is going to be the case in any Category creation project that Zeds are going to appear. The old adage `fail to prepare and prepare to fail` applies here. Don’t wait for the Zeds to come out.

Think about what their objections might be – and plan proactively steps to mitigate or counteract their potential for resistance. They will be better handled, and it will be less expensive and more manageable when their resistance is forecasted, anticipated and mitigated up front, rather than when it suddenly presents itself  and things need to be repaired late in the Strike process.

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