8 Types of Corporate Antibodies

If you work in a company, and want to develop a new innovation, at some point you are going to meet resistance.

You will come up against individuals or teams who just do not support your new idea for one reason or another.

Much like an animal’s immune system cells which tries to kill foreign invaders, these individuals will try to kill your ideas.

This is why they are often called “Corporate Antibodies”.

But not all corporate antibodies are the same.

While some antibodies will just voice their disagreement with an innovation project, they will not have the ability to stop the project. They will however sap the speed at which the project can progress, and often also drain the energy of the team trying to execute the innovation.

Others meanwhile, especially those in leadership positions, may have the ability to stop a project or idea completely.

Not every individual in an organisation will resist new ideas for the same reasons.

In fact, I have identified 8 distinct types of corporate antibodies, who each have their own reasons for trying to kill ideas and innovation projects within their company.

In many cases, individuals may be a combination of several of the eight types.

But all of the eight types have the potential to slow, stop or even kill your innovation initiative if you do not engage with them in the most effective way.

1. Opposition

Some people will just straight up not like your idea for what the idea itself is or what it is trying to achieve. They may have a personal reason for it, which may be tied to their worldview, opinions, values or ideologies. It has nothing to do with whether the idea could benefit your company or its customers, it is more about the idea itself. An example would be a marketing initiative where you are thinking of sponsoring a sports team, and the individual here opposes the idea because they support a rival sports team and HATE the team you are recommending.

Best way to fight the antibody: Opposition antibodies can be some of the hardest to convince as their reaction to the idea is often more emotional than logical. But an effective method can be asking the Opposer to think of and list out the benefits for the company and the customers. Even if you cannot change the individuals’ opinions right away, you may convince them to let the project proceed on the basis of the value it creates.

2. Status Quo Supporter

Some people just want things to stay the way they are, as this is what is working for them, and they know they can do their job as it currently is done. Most innovation projects require a change. Some innovations may result in a small change for the existing business, such as adding a new product to the list of items which can be sold. This may be easier for a Status Quo supporter to deal with, since it doesn’t necessarily change the way they do their work. However, some innovations change the entire way the company operates, such as by changing the business model, the way that performance is measured, or the speed at which change should spread. This is likely to give a Status Quo Supporter anxiety, as they are unsure of how their job and responsibilities will change, and more importantly, whether they will be seen as bringing their current level of performance after the change. Their resistance to the innovation is therefore based around “Things work fine the way they are now and don’t need to change”.

Best way to fight the antibody: Time, Transparency, Training and Follow-Through. If the individual can understand what changes are really coming their way, and what high performance in the future looks like, along with sufficient time to get trained in any new changed processes, it is possible to convince many Status Quo Supporters. Sometimes they may actively resist the change, but the less they feel it is being forced upon them, such as by having open discussions where they can voice their views and maybe even contribute to the solution, the more they are likely to eventually accept the changes. But the changes also need to have the support to actually enact the change and be implemented, in order to be taken seriously.

3. Frustrated elder

“We already thought of that before, but it didn’t work!” Often your team will not be the first group to have a specific idea, or even starting an innovation project to tackle a particular problem. Your predecessors, often older than you and having been at the company longer, will tell you of a previous time when that same idea suggested, and that it didn’t work then, so it will not work now. What is important here is the subtext which is not being spoken aloud. When an individual says “That idea didn’t work”, one piece of information they don’t want to openly communicate is “We (and I in particular) couldn’t get that idea to work, or maybe even started”. This is why the initial statement is related to the Frustrated Elder’s pride. If they were part of a group who couldn’t get the idea to work, then:

  • What makes you think you can make it work? Do you think you are better than me?
  • If you were in fact able to make it work, it will make my failure in the past visible and harm my reputation

This is why you need to be especially careful in how you communicate and navigate with a Frustrated Elder. If done properly, you can turn this foe into an ally

Best way to fight the antibody: Since pride may be reason for their current frustration, you can use that pride positively. Go to them and ask them to “sponsor” the idea, and discuss all of the things which were learned the previous times when the idea or project failed. By being brought into the team as a sponsor whose insights are valued, the Elder can then also feel like if the project is a success, they will share in that success as well.

4. Failure Fearer

Some people are actively afraid of change. Beyond just preferring the status quo, the mere thought of not knowing what will be different as a result of changes brought by an innovation can cause them to be anxious. But even worse is the fear of a company trying something and the failure of that innovation having a negative effect on the company, and on the stability the person now experiences. If a company invests tens of millions of dollars into an innovation project which ends up failing, that could be financially catastrophic for the company and individuals may lose their jobs, even if they were not involved in the innovation project directly. As a result, some people who value stability above all else may be highly resistant to their company investing heavily in unproven innovations.

Best way to fight the antibody: Yes, if a single failed innovation project were to bankrupt a company, this would be a justified reason to be fearful. To combat this, set out your innovation project to take smaller, faster, cheaper steps to validate itself along the way. Using such an innovation pipeline approach can make each project less likely to be a catastrophic failure. Then, communicate this method of innovating to the wider company, where instead of projects being failures, they are treated more like experiments.

5. Apathetic Colleague

Often, even though your own team is excited by your idea, you will quickly notice that other people do not share your enthusiasm. When you speak with them about the benefit of your innovation, you might get a noncommittal “Great” or even a blatant lack of interest. This is because other people will never see your ideas and projects the same way you do, and they do not care what you think of your own ideas. While this may not be enough to prevent an idea, apathy can slowly drain the life from an innovation project, especially if leadership sees more enthusiasm behind other innovation projects within the company. Worse, interacting with people who don’t care about your idea can make you doubt your own idea, draining your own enthusiasm necessary to make it a success.

Best way to fight the antibody: Here, what is most important is to understand who in the company is important to make your innovation project a success. Firstly, get these groups enthusiastic for your project, by communicating the benefits and values it will deliver, and then getting them involved in the process. Later, you can market and communicate your idea to the wider organisation.

6. Permission denier

You might know a Permission denier under a different name: the Bureaucrat! These are individuals who have no problem with the innovation or project itself, but will not support it unless you follow the company’s approval processes as THEY interpret them. For example, if they believe that their job is to check whether every project has developed and reviewed a 5 year business case in order to be entered into the system to receive resources, they will not help your project proceed until you have completed all their steps. Even if it is impractical, illogical or impossible for your project to follow their steps. There may even be Permission deniers who personally do not have a problem with you innovation project, but are waiting for a consensus from a wider group where everyone will provide their approval. In some cases, if a single leader does not give an explicit “Yes” for your project to proceed, even if that leader has no involvement in the project, then the Permission denier may believe it is their duty to prevent the project from proceeding. And considering that it is almost impossible to get perfect consensus from any group, this may mean your project gets stuck in red tape and cannot proceed.

Best way to fight the antibody: In order for bureaucracy to not kill your innovation project with stupid rules, it is vital that your company has an innovation management framework that actually allows projects to proceed, based on assessment criteria and innovation accounting metrics which are appropriate to innovation projects, and different from the normal management methods used by other parts of the company. Additionally, remember that in order for a project to succeed, they actually only need a single Leader to act as sponsor for an idea, not consensus from everyone.

7. Analytic Paralytic

Some decision makers are very risk averse. Others want to make sure that all investment made by the company is the best possible decision. And in order to achieve this, they will only feel comfortable with clear data that shows that the decision they are being asked to make is the one and only correct decision. Since almost no innovation project can provide this hard data at its inception stages, this can make the decision makers uncomfortable about making a decision without supporting data. In fact, decision makers react especially negatively to highly creative ideas and innovation projects. So when choosing between allocating resources to an innovation project and a project which is closer to what the core business understands, they feel more comfortable allocating the resources to the traditional project which can show a track record of similar successes. When being asked to assess only an innovation project, similar to the Bureaucrat, they may ask for more and more data before being willing to make a decision. They suffer from analysis paralysis. Unfortunately, many gatekeepers responsible for resource allocation have this mindset.

Best way to fight the antibody: In order to reduce the amount of data required, reduce the risk of making a decision or how often a decision needs to be made at all. What can help here is agreeing with leadership what resources are available for innovation projects specifically, such as by setting up an innovation resource pool. This way, resources and funds can be accessed from the pool much faster, and fewer gatekeepers need to make decisions each time.

8. Competitor

You might not be the only team trying to innovate within the company. In fact, large companies will often have multiple innovation projects happening at the same time. While each project may bring exponential benefit for the company and customers when it is implemented, the various teams may feel like they are competing against each other. In some cases, even if each project has all the budget and staff they need, there may be situations where one project or team really does have to compete for finite resources, such as the attention of the core business or leadership. It will be challenging for the core business to implement multiple changes to their processes simultaneously, so innovation teams may feel the need to compete to have their project prioritised to be implemented first, or have a marketing campaign developed by the marketing team, or having their draft website checked by the legal department. After all, if their innovation is waiting to be implemented because everyone else is busy, it looks like their innovation is making slower progress than in reality.

There is another, more sinister way that Competitors act as antibodies. And this is because of pride and reputation. I have been in situations where multiple individuals or teams in a company all wanted to be known as being the “best” at innovating. The internal innovation experts. And as a result, they could not allow other innovation teams or specialists to get the limelight they thought they themselves deserved. This is such a shame, since in-fighting within the innovation teams can result in people being unwilling to collaborate as they do not want to share success, even if this means that all innovation projects end up suffering.

Best way to fight the antibody: Having a clear innovation strategy can help with the prioritisation of implementation for various innovation initiatives. But the most effective and important thing is to have an overview of your entire innovation portfolio, and where in their lifecycle each project is and which next steps require certain stakeholders. When done effectively, this can result in a well optimised innovation pipeline, where resources are available when they are needed, and more innovation projects being implemented faster than if everyone were competing individually.

Conclusion

What is interesting to note is that if you ask any individual whether they are a corporate antibody, they will almost surely deny it. Nobody wants to be known as someone who actively tries to prevent progress and innovation. As a result, they will always justify their actions and opinions for some other reason, such as wanting to reduce risk for the company.

Yet at their core, most of the reasons these antibodies exist is because of our human fears and biases.

For all of the types of antibodies, one of the most effective ways to reduce their issue is to bring them into the innovation process as early as possible.

This way, they can feel like they are helping guide the process, instead of having it forced upon them.

Which of these antibodies have you encountered in your job? And how did you end up working out problems with them? Let me know in the comments below.