Tag Archives: NIH

How ‘Not Invented Here’ Limits Innovation

Imagine the scene. A warm summer’s day. The tree-lined slopes of gentle hills stretch toward a darker valley below. There’s a river running through it, sparkling water, dappled light through the leaves. Now place a party of schoolboys there, shipped out from the nearby town – lucky kids from well-off families, enjoying the fun of summer camp. On the first day, they form into two teams. They’re given different huts to sleep in and different colored badges to wear. They’re encouraged to choose a name and an identity. During the coming days, they’ll compete in all sorts of games and projects.

Sounds idyllic, yet, by the end of the week, there is almost open warfare between the two teams.

What began with name calling and petty violence (each group burned the flag it had captured from the other team) moved on to raiding parties that attacked the opposition’s huts, overturned beds, ripped apart furnishing and stole key possessions. Before long, there was a real risk of violence. The teams armed themselves with baseball bats and socks filled with rocks and marched toward each other for a showdown when the camp counselors finally intervened!

This was the famous “Robbers Cave” experiment devised by Muzafer and Carolyn Sherif to explore how inter-group conflicts occur when there are limited resources and a strong element of competition. Being in one group – in this case, you could be either in “The Rattlers” or “The Eagles” – meant that you had a great deal of loyalty toward your fellow teammates and an equal antagonism toward the others.

In many ways, this mirrored work by Henri Tajfel and others around social identity theory – the idea that we define ourselves by the groups we identify with and which we try to belong to. Their famous studies gave us the idea of the “in group” (people like us) and the “out-group” (the others outside of our circle). Once again, research showed the propensity for conflict between the two groups and the lack of trust that could quickly build up – even if the basis of who’s in which group is as simple as being allocated a color or a group name.

See also: Improving Your Potential for Innovation  

Significantly, the same effect can be reproduced very easily with different groups and in different situations – essentially underlining an important aspect of the way we have evolved as social animals. We bond together tightly (which is good evolutionary practice when facing a common enemy). However, it has a downside, which is a tendency to distrust people belonging to groups outside our circle and the ease with which this can escalate into open hostility.

What has all of this got to do with innovation?

Quite a lot, actually. It helps us understand the famous “Not Invented Here” (NIH) effect. NIH is one of those surprising features of the innovation landscape – the situation where an organization rejects a new idea offered from outside.

For example, the young inventor Alexander Graham Bell was looking for a partner to help him commercialize his idea for a telephone – a device which could revolutionize the communications industry. He started with the U.S. market leader, Western Union, the guys who’d spent so much time and effort stringing telegraph wires alongside railways tracks to link up the continent.

It seems like a good fit from the outside. However, their reception was frosty. In a famous comment the President of Western Union, William Orton, who was known as one of the best-informed electrical experts in the country said: “There is nothing in this patent whatever, nor is there anything in the scheme itself, except as a toy. If the device has any value, the Western Union owns a prior patent … which makes the Bell device worthless.”

NIH is a surprisingly common feature of the innovation landscape, and there are many other famous examples. Not least Kodak’s rejection of both Edwin Land’s idea for the Polaroid process and Chester Carlson’s xerography underline how easy it is to put up defenses against ideas originating from outside. NIH is a theme which my colleague Oana-Maria Pop has written a great blog post about, but its persistence makes it worthwhile to take another look.

Elting E. Morison gives a wonderful example in his detailed study of “Gunfire at Sea,” which explores the tortuous journey the innovation of continuous-aim gunnery had in finding its way on to the decks of U.S. warships. Back in the late 19th century, naval gunnery was not very accurate. A U.S. Bureau of Ordnance study of one thousand shells fired during an exercise around the time of the Spanish-American war suggested that less than 3 percent were hitting the target. That’s a problem.

A long way away in the South China Sea, Admiral Percy Scott of the British Navy was working on the solution. His squadron was doing gunnery practice with similarly poor results – except for the crews on one ship (rather inaptly named HMS Terrible) who were recording surprisingly accurate performance. Looking more closely revealed the use of a prototype gun-sight and a novel method of tracking the target called “continuous-aim gunfire.” Scott supported the development, trained all the crews on all his ships, and eventually changed practices across the British Navy.

The fascinating part of the story concerns a young U.S. lieutenant, William Sims, on secondment with the squadron. He is aware of the Bureau of Ordnance study and the poor U.S. performance and sees in the new British system an opportunity to make his name and career by introducing this better system to his superiors in Washington.

What follows is a classic case of NIH – all sorts of arguments assembled to prove that the new system was no better. For example, a side-by-side test was arranged on dry land where the advantages of the new system in dealing with moving targets at sea were neutralized! It took President Roosevelt intervening himself to get the U.S. Navy to take the idea seriously and eventually adopt the new system.

It would be wrong to see this behavior as the result of blind stupidity or outdated attitudes. Significantly, in most NIH cases, there is a very plausible defense to be mounted – the lack of fit with the core business, the risk of having to cannibalize existing activities, the unproven nature of the new technology, etc. What’s really going on is subtler and owes a lot to the ideas introduced above around group identity and defenses.

We sometimes talk about a corporate immune system, and this is a good metaphor because it accurately captures what an immune system does for our bodies: protect them against dangerous things from outside. The narratives around resistance to outside ideas – not invented here – are very much those of a well-meaning immune system.

One way this hits our innovation world is when the new ideas emerge from across national borders. There is little doubt that “lean” thinking has changed the world – first through manufacturing and then across services both public and private. In its early days, lean was conflated with Japanese manufacturing techniques which had a frosty reception outside Japan – a common argument was that “it works over there, but it isn’t right for our kind of organization.” The same goes for many of the quality management principles which we now accept as second nature but once saw as something peculiar to Japanese corporate culture and not transferable.

Studies in psychology have shown the close links between the ideas raised by social psychologists like Sherif and Tajfel. For example, Alex Haslam and colleagues looked at perceptions of creative ideas arising from groups. Their findings confirmed on many occasions that when those ideas came from within the group, they were highly rated and valued where those coming from another group were lacking in innovativeness or value. And a recent article by Frank Piller and David Antons distills a variety of other psychological studies, which give us a clear sense that this is not an occasional effect – it is deep-rooted.

The big question for innovation management is, of course, what might we do about NIH?

How can we reduce the risk that we miss out on something important from outside because the way our “immune system” operates?

One useful place to start is with Sherif’s original experiments. In their later work on trying to understand inter-group conflict, they found that giving groups a superordinate goal made a difference. In other words, make the challenge big enough and everyone will co-operate, share, and work together towards the target. The “moon-shot” project is a powerful way of overcoming tribal rivalries, and it works just as well inside large organizations.

See also: Linking Innovation With Strategy  

Another approach is to mix people up. The more we can experience first-hand that people are like us, the harder it is to maintain inter-group boundaries and barriers. Cross-functional teams, secondment, and rotation are all helpful strategies, especially in innovation where ideas from across different functional or discipline boundaries are often powerful assets in solving the overall challenge.

Interestingly, we’ve known this for a long time. Back in the 1960s, a pioneering set of experiments were carried out by Paul Lawrence and Jay Lorsch looking at innovation in textiles, plastics, and food. They found that the extent to which differences between functions was an important influence on how long it took to get new products to the marketplace. By extension, those groups with multiple integration mechanisms fared better, sharing ideas, defusing tensions, and working together towards the common goal.

The Destructive Search for an Elixir of Life

For 3,500 or more years, mankind has been searching for the mythological elixir of life, the Fountain of Youth, the philosopher’s stone, pool of nectar, etc. that will defeat aging and extend life, if not achieve immortality.

According to Wiki, “The elixir of life, also known as the elixir of immortality and sometimes equated with the philosopher’s stone, is a mythical potion that, when drunk from a certain cup at a certain time, supposedly grants the drinker eternal life and/or eternal youth.”

All around the globe from 400 BC on, alchemists from India to China to Europe were seeking the elixir of life. Many thought gold was an essential ingredient.

The Fountain of Youth, also known as the water of life, was part of the search for the elixir of life. That search was in full throttle during the crusades and was carried to the New World by Spanish explorers, the most famous of whom was Ponce de Leon in the 1500s. Even the Mayans had legends about waters of eternal youth.

The search for the elixir of life didn’t end there.

In the 19th century in the U.S., many believed that bathing in special springs had healing powers. During that era, people flocked to eureka springs, hot springs, healing springs and many, many more. So-called healing spas are still very popular today.

“Snake oil” salesmen were peddling various cure-alls into the 20th century. A search on the Internet will reveal a large number of “promising” balms and salves, some of which actually worked for minor scrapes and burns.

If you’re over 60 or so, you may recall Carter’s Little Liver Pills. They were advertised to treat biliousness and other ailments. The FTC made the company drop the word “liver” from the name. Carter’s Little Pills are still sold, but as a laxative.

If you watched the Lawrence Welk show, you saw ads for Serutan, which is “natures” spelled backward. It’s a “vegetable hydrogel.”

Today, the search for an elixir of life, by various names, is still in high gear, and salesmen abound.

People still pursue the same goal of longer and healthier lives through a mix of vitamins, supplements, wellness, incentives, education, exams, tests, etc. that will push the time of their death out a few years.

But, alas, the human body and its organs simply wear out over time. No insurance plan, wellness plan, patient education program or prevention combination can defeat the inevitable. As we age, our bodies just wear out. For example, the reason brain aneurysms and strokes occur in the elderly is that blood vessels get thinner and more fragile with age. The same applies to other vascular diseases. Joint diseases are common as we age. Why? Joints just wear out over time. Dementia is usually related to aging. The list goes on and on.

According to NIH data, all cancer rates begin to skyrocket at about age 65. That is partially the effect of age-related diminishing immune systems. Our immune systems wear out as we age.

Companies are paying huge dollars to elixir of life promoters today, when all the facts show the elixirs just doesn’t work as advertised. Such companies’ intentions are good, even noble, but doomed to fail. Lesson: Whatever you seek, someone will find a way to sell it to you.

We are all going to have a mortal illness someday unless we die sooner from something like an auto accident. My grandfather died at age 99. Every organ in his body was failing. His kidneys were failing, as were his vascular system, his brain and his liver. Why? He simply outlived his body. I’ve known a number of good people who died a miserable death after years in nursing homes. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.

Another factor driving up costs in the U.S. has been the creation of the emergency phone number system — dialing 911 and having a life-saving trained team show up at your door in a few minutes. The 911 system saves live, no doubt, but there have been unintended health cost consequences.

If one survives a heart attack, the average cost is about $250,000. Because of the 911 phone system, some 80-year-olds are surviving three heart attacks in nine months just to die from the fourth one, adding $750,000 of cost to their last 12 months. Now, healthcare providers are even putting ventricular assist devices in people like that to keep them alive for one more day. The cost for that procedure alone is $900,000.

I’m not making a comment on the morality of deferring an elderly person’s death for nine months at a cost of $750,000 to $2 million. But we need to have an adult conversation in America about how we are going to pay for all this. By any measurement, Medicare and Social Security are both totally unsustainable unless huge changes are made that will affect everyone. Beware of proposed changes that promote intergenerational rivalries.

This chart shows death rates by age). When people hit about age 50, the death and sickness rates begin to skyrocket.

This chart shows leading causes of death. See the strong correlation to aging and heart disease. People are simply outliving their hearts and blood vessels. In 1900, people rarely died of heart disease because they didn’t live long enough to develop chronic conditions. Most of the chronic diseases we worry about are simply a consequence of aging. They are irreversible. As with the Hydra of Greek mythology, if you defeat one chronic condition, three others will pop up.

The third chart shows health spending by age; again, disease correlates to aging. That will always be the case until someone comes up with a way to prevent aging or finds an “elixir of life.” That chart also illustrates the massive, wasteful spending on end-of-life care in the U.S. compared with peer countries.

People born in the U.S. today can expect to die along a bell curve centering on age 80. If we all do everything we can possibly do to be healthier for all of our lives, there will be slightly fewer deaths around ages 78 or 79. (A great source of information on this topic is Nortin Hadler’s The Last Well Person: How to Stay Well Despite the Health-Care System.)

In any case, if you are able to add a year to your life it will, obviously, be added to the end. For most people, that will mean another year in a nursing home, in assisted living or as an invalid at home. (For a Washington Post article on just how nasty nursing homes can be, click here. Again, I would not wish that on my worst enemy.) People sometimes tell me about someone who was more or less healthy and independent at age 90. For every person like that there are a hundred in nursing homes or dementia units.

Most people retiring today don’t have enough in savings to support themselves for more than a few years, let alone enough to pay for assisted living or nursing homes when they are elderly and frail. Medicaid nursing home budgets are likewise unsustainable. Don’t count on that. For many people, living a year or two longer will simply mean being a burden to your children for another year or two, both financially and emotionally.

What about your children’s lives? Do you really want them to have to look after you well into their 60s? At that age, they should be concentrating on their own welfare.

As people age into their 80s and 90s, many become demanding in an irrational way. Some people aged 55 and up are relieved when their elderly parents pass away, but often with feelings of guilt. Most people have witnessed this in their own families.

Someday, researchers may discover a way to delay the effects of aging. Personally, I believe such is the province of science fiction. If aging is ever reversed, God help us. That would be very destructive to mankind.

Imagine our world populated by a billion or more centenarians. Imagine a nation with an average age of 65. Imagine yourself at age 90 with a 120-year-old parent or two. Who will look after whom? Will 70-year-old children or their 45-year-old children be able to look after and support such parents, grandparents and great-grandparents? The news from Asia is that many young people are no longer willing to support their centenarian parents or grandparents today, let alone great-grandparents.

What should we all do then? Simple. Spend less time wringing your hands over which illness will get you in the end; rather, make the most of the time you have. Worry will never add a day to your life.

The Romans had a blessing: May you live well and die suddenly.

How to Live Longer? Drink More Coffee

This idea is taken from The Doctor Weighs In post by Dov Michaeli.

As the article says, “Coffee drinkers have a reduced risk of dying prematurely from all causes, and consequently live longer.” Coffee is a “vice” that is most worthy, and one to be embraced.

Some health attributes of coffee include reduced risks of death from:

  • Cardiac arrhythmia
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Dementia
  • Pneumonia
  • Lung disease
  • Accidents
  • Strokes

That’s quite a list. The good news is that a 50-cent cup of coffee works as well as a five-dollar cup. Any amount of coffee is better than none. According to results of a study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “Compared with people who drank no coffee at all, men and women who drank six or more cups per day were 10% and 15% less likely, respectively, to die during the study.”

Don’t tell wellness true believers about this. They may want to start charging coffee-free employees a higher health payroll deduction.