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The Never Ending Fight Against the “Safe Choice”

by Hank Barnes  |  March 26, 2019  |  1 Comment

It’s an uphill battle.

Anytime you have a new idea or innovation that you want to bring to a company (whether it is internal or your are a vendor selling something to a customer), it is not easy.

There are many forces you fighting against you.  The pull of the status quo is the most obvious but two others come to mind if you’ve gotten past that.

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First, is the perceived safety of established vendors.  Even as you help people overcome concerns about change, you have more work to do.  They still worry about risk, so they look around at others for confidence.  Often, that leads to a preference for established vendors, whether they have great capabilities in the area of change or not.   It is viewed as “safer” to fail with an established vendor (or approach) than to fail with something lesser known.   There are many layers to risk that must be understood.

Second, even if you’ve succeeded initially, you now have to extend it across the organization.  Which means you have to repeat many of the same things you did to win the case for change initially.   You may need to tailor the story, but the deeper you get in the organization, the harder it can get (of course there are exceptions).   Often, people are ingrained in ways of working and ways of thinking.   Taken to an extreme, it’s easy to not think, just do.   This makes change even harder.  And making that case has to be made over and over again.   Its repetitive.  Its time consuming. And its frustrating.

This is a different type of innovator’s dilemma.

But what can be done about it.   Here are a few ideas:

  1. Recognize the challenge first.
  2. To fight the safe choice, be prepared with examples of the risk of playing it safe.  The org is already committed to change, why risk having that change be less than successful (further locking the org into safe options).
  3. Also, recognize the power of brand and don’t take for granted that your customer is entirely rational.  Brand perceptions are powerful forces.  You have to help people break free from their mental association of a brand that actually extends it beyond its limits)
  4. Find a partner.   Most great innovators hate process and repetition.  Others love it.   Find someone who wants to be known for making things stick and scale and let them do that hard work.
  5. Seek a mandate.  Rather than an approach that makes participation optional, there are times when new ideas need to be mandated–or at least “default in.”  By default in, you don’t start from “you have to make the case to try the new way.”  You start from “we’ll do it the new way, unless there is a good business reason not to.”   This at least encourages people to consider working a different way.

Breaking free from the constraints of mental models, brand associations, and “we’ve always done it that way” is incredibly hard, particularly in a world of micro-measurement where it feels like more and more roles are being paid “not to think, just do.”  (Think of sales reps that are forced to follow scripts).

Maybe, if we shifted toward a model of “Think, then do” change and progress would be a little easier.

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Category: go-to-market  

Tags: brand  change  change-management  

Hank Barnes
VP Distinguished Analyst
6+ years at Gartner
30+ years IT Industry

Hank Barnes explores the dynamics, challenges, and frustrations enterprises face when buying technology products and services. Using that customer-centric lens, he advises those responsible for marketing technology products and services, general managers responsible for product portfolios, and startup CEOs on next practices to drive success for their customers and their business. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on The Never Ending Fight Against the “Safe Choice”

  1. Thanks for this post Hank – you’ve touched on an under-developed theme in the innovation literature, although Chakravorti’s work on the Slow Pace of Fast Change points in the same direction.

    Perhaps one axiom that would be helpful: the safe choice produces a concave response over time: If it is safe for you, it is safe for your competitors and so undifferentiating. The unsafe choice poses new risks and challenges, and precisely for that reason it is also more likely to be aligned with a convexity of response over time. So let’s get to it!

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