How to Prevent Team Politics From Sidelining Innovation

David Dabscheck
April 17, 2024
15 min

Ed Hoffman is NASA’s chief knowledge officer. He knows a thing or two about pulling off high-tech innovation under bureaucratic pressure. “Most organizations like to focus on the technical risk with innovation,” Hoffman recently told me. “But even with our projects, which involve the most complex engineering problems in the world, more important are the social and political risks of the relationship dynamics within and outside the core project team.”

In other words, successful innovation all comes down to people. Upset the culture within and among the teams trying to achieve it, and it’s likely you’ll make a mess of things. Here are a few ways to avoid the petty—yet destructive—politics that innovation can sometimes breed.

No Change Without Politics

Asking a company how they pursue innovation is like asking someone to describe a wonderful first date; all you usually hear about is a long list of thrilling qualities and high hopes for what’s to come. Companies are willing to write seemingly endless checks for innovation because, like any early crush, the target of their affection appears completely nonthreatening, and future prospects look so bright.

True innovation, however, requires the sophisticated love of a long-term relationship—and the knowledge that overcoming challenges is key to making any serious commitment last. After all innovation is about nothing if not change, and replacing old ways of doing things can tip your company’s culture off balance. Sometimes pulling off big, innovative projects unavoidably increases the social status of some and undermines others’. Employees can usually detect that right from the outset, which creates strong incentives for them to think and act politically.

In other words, organizational politics will exist without innovation, but even the most modest innovation programs introduce politics.

“We felt pretty good after awarding a prize for our inaugural organization-wide innovation challenge,” Declan Denehan, the liquid alternatives business head at BNY Mellon, recounted to me recently. “Upon returning to the office, however, I immediately received a call. A message of congratulations? Hardly. It was someone claiming that they had come up with the winning idea first. We learned quickly that how you do innovation programs is as essential as what you do.”

Startups can sometimes sidestep these issues due to their small size and limited history, but most large, organized groups of humans—from Fortune 500 companies to government agencies—fall prey to this dynamic. In fact, Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson describe virtually the same process occurring at the national level in their book Why Nations Fail. The authors show how leaders and governments that feel threatened by innovation have in some cases stunted economic development within their own countries. “Technical innovation makes human societies prosperous, but also involves the . . . destruction of the economic privileges and political power of certain people,” they explain.

The central question for innovation then, is not how can we minimize politics, but rather, how might we manage it?

Innovation and the Culture Campaign

In order to deliver innovation, large companies need to figure out how to modify employees’ behavior to support these initiatives as universally and collaboratively as possible. Like any political campaign, that comes down to communication, which can be broken down into these three “M”s:

1. Map:

Identify the most influential team members you need to reach—which can often be strikingly at odds with the expected order. In 16th-century Spain, for instance, if you wanted to sway the king, it was crucial to engage the Groom of the Stool, who was responsible for the royal toilet. While he lacked formal power, his physical closeness to the king during these most intimate moments made him an influential player—someone in whom a great deal of confidence was placed.

Today, organizational hierarchies are arguably becoming less relevant, but mapping out the lines of power and influence is still critical for keeping your culture intact during times of change. Have a look at General Stanley McChrystal’s book Team of Teams, which shows how this “network theory” is as applicable for mapping our businesses as it was for defeating Al Qaeda in Iraq.

2. Message:

Once they know who the key players are, leaders need to craft messages that resonate with those people, not with themselves. This can be difficult since we easily become enamored with our own creations, leading us to attribute malice—or stupidity—to those who might think differently. As the consummate political operator Barney Frank remarked last year to theWashington Post, “Just repeating initial enthusiasm and deepening it doesn’t help. You’ve got to think about ways to reach out to people who are initially indifferent, skeptical, and maybe even mildly hostile.”

3. Messenger:

While we might say “opposites attract,” considerable scientific evidence has demonstrated the reverse—we prefer to date, hire, and vote for people who we think are similar to us. So the messenger is just as important as the message. Whomever you task with driving innovation in your company should have maximum credibility with their target audience.

Politics might not be avoidable when you’re trying to innovate, but wrecking your company culture is. Approach your efforts with an honest reckoning of the risks and costs that come with the package. Acknowledge the strain it’s going to put on teams and individuals. But then put all that into perspective. The same way that innovating isn’t about one-off events—testing this idea or launching that initiative—the main thing is the long-term goal and the purpose behind it. Like a solid marriage, what really counts is the commitments you make before, and especially after, the public ceremony.

back to Library

How to Prevent Team Politics From Sidelining Innovation