Why Are Transformative Ideas So Hard To Sell?

October 31, 2014 | blog | By Mike Sullivan


Cries for innovative thinking echo off walls of corporations, hospitals, governments, and schools across our country, but when novel solutions are presented, they are often met with resistance—even scorn.

It’s a peculiar yet familiar paradox folks in the advertising world know all too well. “Bring me breakthrough thinking,” we’re told, only to have original ideas revised until they are familiar again. Marketers, in particular, need to be aware of the shadowy psychological forces that move against them. After all, it’s well established that CMOs are the ones with their heads on the block when companies fail to achieve the kind of growth goals that require “out of the box” thinking.

As a student of human behavior, I’ve learned the power of a single great idea is no match for the unifying power and comfort of conformity. Novel approaches are also no match for the hubris of an expert opinion fortified with the confidence of success even if that success is incremental. While experts are certainly capable of offering the most discriminating assessments of new ideas, they will at the same time offer the most critical opinions. It’s a problem that is only compounded when experts hold the highest organizational rank. This is because, in most organizations, the decision to adopt or reject an idea often rests on one thing: the highest paid person’s opinion, otherwise known as the HIPPO.

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A new study from Harvard confirms this and sheds important light on the psychology that undermines transformative organizational thinking. It’s a concept any leader interested in achieving more than incremental progress needs to understand. We are more likely to resist ideas that change the rules and the outcomes in areas of our own expertise. The reasons for this are many but distill to an innate, if subconscious, bias for stasis where we have made deep personal investments of energy, time, and resources to develop personal expertise. This is never more true than at the intersection of disciplines where ideas offered from less experienced but qualified sources run into deep expertise from another area. Witness the classic internal struggles among interdepartmental leadership over ideas that require significant change. A novel idea from one group gets shot down by another because it requires an alarming break with convention.

Karim Lakhani, one of the Harvard study authors, says this is why most innovation comes from outside an organization. The psychological distance is an advantage for outsiders who are better positioned to offer fresh perspectives on old problems. Anyone who’s ever had an idea fall on deaf ears among internal peers only to have it presented by a consultant and praised by those same peers understands this. If that’s happened to you, you’re in good company. Lakhani points out that history’s list of Nobel Prize winners is largely populated with the names of people whose transformative ideas were dismissed out of hand by experts who knew better.

Knowing that powerful psychological forces push against the current transformative thinking, marketers can better equip themselves for success by doing four things:

1. Understand the decision-making dynamic. If a HIPPO is in charge, factor his or her bias into the presentation of the idea and make it clear where their expertise is important and remains relevant.

2. Use respected outside resources for idea generation to help establish credibility.

3. When possible, take a multidisciplinary approach that remixes knowledge to come up with unique solutions. Authentic collaboration often diffuses the tension game-changing ideas can cause.

4. Stay out of your own way. Don’t let your own expertise as a marketer play the role of saboteur when evaluating ideas. Remember, it is possible to know too much.

Finally, remember this: If you want to break with convention, you must not be a slave to it.

transformative ideas

Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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