Barriers to Change: Not Invented Here Syndrome

Automatically rejecting ideas from the "outside" wastes time and energy that could be spent on desperately needed change

Maybe your innovation team has been hard at work streamlining a process, which will save the organization millions over the next few years. Or maybe a new leader is excited to apply a new technology that worked really well in their last role, and believe it could unlock opportunities at your organization. But despite the potential for massive improvement, teams are dismissive, if not openly in revolt. You could understand skepticism, but why are they immediately rejecting a change that could make their work better?

Discounting external ideas has a very real drawback, as individuals have to spend time and energy re-creating solutions that already exist.

The “Not Invented Here” (NIH) Syndrome is the tendency to reject ideas that come from “outside”—and unfortunately, “outside” can still apply to solutions that come from other teams within the organization. It occurs when: 

  • They believe the organization is different. Their conditions are unique, and solutions developed elsewhere won’t be as effective. 
  • They’re protecting their own egos. People have a natural bias to overvalue their contributions and believe their ideas are the best. Alternatively, they could be afraid that they overlooked an obvious solution, which will make them look foolish in front of their colleagues.
  • They’re striving for personal consistency. People with a given set of values or ideology will ignore information that challenges their pre-existing beliefs.
  • They’re protecting the group’s social identity. If the group demonstrates elements of tribalism (“we’re the best”), acknowledging that an external idea is better could threaten that identity. 
  • They’re making a power play. If an idea comes from somewhere else in the organization, another leader might want to downplay or denigrate their contributions in an effort to make their team’s contributions seem more valuable. 
  • New ideas are incentivized more than reapplying ideas. All too often, coming up with a new idea (such as a patent) garners more prestige or recognition than applying an existing solution to a problem. 

Unfortunately, discounting external ideas has a very real drawback, as individuals have to spend time and energy re-creating solutions that already exist. To manage this syndrome at your organization: 

  • Get teams to make the change their own. Invite teams to contribute to the change so that they feel a sense of ownership. It’s also a realistic approach: although organizations may not be as “unique” as they believe, most solutions will still need some level of adaptation to be the most effective. 
  • Rotate team members for fresh perspectives. Research from MIT found that R&D teams tend to peak in effectiveness at about 1.5 years and decline at the five-year mark because  they believe they’ve invented all there is to invent. Adding new people or rotating team members can introduce new ideas and force teams to question their own long-held beliefs.
  • Make them explain their objections. If people do reject a change, ask them to explain in detail—even getting them to do a cost-benefit analysis if possible. Taking a more objective approach can help determine whether a “no” is a knee-jerk reaction, or if there are legitimate reasons for taking a different approach. 
  • Ask them to take a different perspective. Ask them to consider the proposal from another team’s point of view: how would it benefit that team? How would it change how teams work together? Again, this is an opportunity for teams to step away from their own biases and analyze change in a more objective manner. 
  • Check incentives. Applying existing solutions and refining existing processes may be less exciting than coming up with a new launch, but is just as (if not more) critical to the operations of an organization, so make sure that you recognize those efforts, not just for coming up with something new. 
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Barriers to Change: Not Invented Here Syndrome
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