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The Human Element

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The Human Element

Overcoming the Resistance That Awaits New Ideas


15 min read
9 take-aways
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Identify – and overcome – the frictions that hamper change and innovation.

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The road to progress – and business success – is littered with failures: evidence of the forces that can wreck even the most promising innovations and business models. To help leaders, entrepreneurs and other change-makers maximize their impact, management experts Loran Nordgren and David Schonthal offer an examination of the subtle reasons why many good ideas and ventures fail. Psychological research and case studies add heft to this clear, commonsense study of frequently overlooked impediments. It serves as a valuable addition to the management bookshelf.


  • Four types of friction can sabotage change and innovation.
  • Inertia, the first type of friction, causes people to avoid the unknown.
  • To counter inertia, make the unknown feel more familiar.
  • Having to expend effort, the second friction, can arouse resistance to change.
  • To reduce effort friction, use streamlining and road maps.
  • People’s feelings about a change or innovation can cause emotional friction, the third type.
  • To allay emotional friction, you first have to uncover it.
  • The friction of reactance means adding more incentives can backfire.
  • To avoid triggering reactance, help people persuade themselves.


Four types of friction can sabotage change and innovation.

When innovators and change-makers try to promote their products and ideas, they tend to focus on the benefits of embracing them. And they often fail. People resist embracing new things for four basic reasons: first, inertia; second, the effort required to make a change; third, emotional responses; and fourth, reactance – the backlash that can happen when a person feels pressured. These four sources of friction correspond to the four basic elements of innovation: the extent of change it introduces, the costs it imposes, the audience’s response and the innovator’s approach to introducing the idea.

“Imagine building an airplane without taking aerodynamics into account and only thinking about the power of the engines.”

Think of the benefits of a change or innovation, as well as the costs and risks of not adopting it, as fuel: They drive an innovation or offering forward. Fuel works because it highlights the reasons to make a change or embrace an offering. But fuel has limitations, and it loses power when it encounters humans’ sensitivity to costs and negativity bias – the propensity to give negative things more weight than positive ones. Regardless of the benefits of a choice, even a small amount of negatives can cause people to turn away. Fuel can backfire, too, when people feel overly pressured to make a change or adopt an innovation. Despite the power of friction to derail progress, innovators and change-makers tend to keep focusing on fuel – because it’s easier to see. But when friction is undermining a change, or preventing acceptance of an offering, adding more fuel is unlikely to help, and it can even cause further harm. The sources of friction can be elusive; you’ll need empathy to perceive and understand them.

Inertia, the first type of friction, causes people to avoid the unknown.

Inertia stems from the fact that people tend to stick to the familiar and steer clear of the new and unknown – an aversion that has roots in the elemental desire for safety. This sort of friction leads to stagnation and places limits on people’s thinking.

“To understand friction, you need to shift the spotlight from the idea to the audience.”

Inertia can even stand in the way of investment and the development of social capital. For example, Japanese investors choose to put 80% of their funds into Japanese companies – missing out on the 91% of global capitalization based outside Japan. Likewise, in social situations, people usually gravitate toward people like themselves, forgoing opportunities to broaden their networks.

To counter inertia, make the unknown feel more familiar.

To overcome inertia, focus on making the unknown seem more familiar. Use two major approaches. The first: Help people acclimate to the new idea or change. Consider the following strategies:

  • Use repetition – The more people encounter something, the more they’ll accept and even like it.
  • Take baby steps – People will tolerate new things more easily in small doses.
  • Use a familiar messenger – People will listen more readily if they know or feel similar to the messenger.
  • Refer to a prototype – Frame the innovation or new idea as a variation of something familiar. Tesla made its electric car look exactly like a normal car.
  • Employ an analogy – Explain an innovation in terms of something people know – for example: “It’s like a Roomba for your yard.”

Don’t ask people to buy in until they’ve grown accustomed to the new idea.

The second major approach is to make the new idea or change seem less of a leap by modifying the context. To do this, create a more extreme alternative that causes your offering to seem less dramatic in comparison. Restaurants use this tactic when they place an outrageously priced option on a wine list – the other prices pale by comparison. This technique makes it more likely people will order a pricey bottle, because they can reassure themselves it’s not the most expensive one. Also consider using the decoy effect: Offer a truly undesirable option and highlight it. This can make it easier for people to see the reasons to choose your preferred alternative.

Having to expend effort, the second friction, can arouse resistance to change.

When people face a choice between different paths, they will obey the “law of least effort”: They’ll choose the path offering the greatest rewards given the effort required. Conversely, people will quickly accept change if it reduces the effort needed to do something – such as online shopping. People tend to think about the level of effort involved before other considerations; thus, too much effort can easily outweigh the benefits or value to be gained from a course of action.

The desire to avoid extra effort is so powerful, it even distorts people’s perceptions. In an experiment, people had to move a joystick left or right to match the direction dots were moving on a screen. When the researchers made it harder to move the joystick right, people tended to see the dots as moving to the left – even when they were moving to the right.

Small differences in effort levels make a significant difference. Just moving a bowl of candy a little farther away – 20 inches – led people to reduce how much they ate by half. Leaders tend not to consider the effect of effort when they attempt to create change – a phenomenon called effort neglect. In general, people don’t realize just how much effort matters in resistance to or acceptance of change.

To reduce effort friction, use streamlining and road maps.

The antidote to the friction of effort is to make the change or innovation easier to embrace. Consider the two dimensions of effort: ambiguity and exertion. Ambiguity refers to a person’s uncertainty about exactly what to do to implement a change or achieve a goal – such as where, when or how to take action. To reduce ambiguity, offer a road map: Tell people exactly what they need to do. Ideally, provide an if-then trigger to spark people to remember to act. For example, during World War II, the government doubled its sales of war bonds by adding this line to posters: “Buy them when the Solicitor at your workplace asks you to sign up.”

“Your goal is to remove drag by making your idea sleek and aerodynamic.”

Exertion refers to the expenditure of energy to do something. The antidote to exertion is streamlining: removing barriers to action. To discover where exertion might present an obstacle, ask questions about the customer journey or change process and reflect on the answers. Create an experience timeline showing the steps involved in achieving a goal, and then remove the negative elements or friction points. For example, a sofa manufacturer discovered many potential customers abandoned their shopping carts before finalizing the purchase, because they didn’t know what to do with their old sofa or had no easy way to dispose of it. The company, thus, extended a new service: hauling away the old sofa and donating it to charity. Sales increased significantly.

In an extension of streamlining, make it easier for people to say yes than to say no. If you can make yes the default, then it requires effort to say no, and you get exertion to work for and not against you. Too, pay attention to the way people actually behave when they resist your change, offering or innovation – this can give you clues as to what they really want.

People’s feelings about a change or innovation can cause emotional friction, the third type.

When cake mixes were introduced in 1929, they flopped. It was decades before the idea caught on. Why? Women considered cake-making a gift and an expression of love. Making it too easy seemed to cheapen the gesture. In the 1950s, General Mills changed the formula, so bakers had to add eggs to the mix. This incorporated just enough effort into the process to allow bakers to accept the use of cake mixes. This example illustrates how emotional friction can prevent uptake of a product, innovation or change. Emotional friction refers to unintended feelings that a new idea arouses in people, creating resistance.

“Even the most promising idea can unintentionally trigger negative emotions that become significant barriers to adoption.”

Product innovator Bob Moesta and, later, the thought leader Clayton Christensen spotlighted the role of emotion when they posited that people “hire” products or services to fill a need – often an emotional need. Emotional friction comes up in B2B as well as B2C contexts. It can even exist within organizations themselves. For example, emotional friction may result in a leader hiring less than ideal candidates or sidelining talented people to minimize threats to their personal power – even when this action harms the business.

To allay emotional friction, you first have to uncover it.

Many people have “inattentional blindness” – an inability to perceive things they’re not specifically looking for. You’ll need to overcome this tendency to discover emotional frictions. Three techniques can help:

  1. Ask why – Dig deep to find out why people object to a new idea. The “five whys” process that Toyota popularized in the 1970s, in which you ask why five times while investigating an issue, can help you get to root causes.
  2. Think like an ethnographer – Ethnographers study how people behave at work or at home. Taking the same approach with your audience can yield important insights.
  3. Involve people in innovation – Giving the people you intend to serve a voice in the design of your offering can help you minimize emotional friction.

To overcome emotional friction, consider offering free trials, so people don’t have to commit right away. Allowing them to reverse a decision – such as cancel a purchase – can alleviate emotional friction, as can providing a service – such as Apple’s Genius Bars or Best Buy’s Geek Squad – that assures people you’ll be there for them if they need you. But avoid empathy theater. Fake expressions of sympathy can undermine your efforts to understand and meet people’s emotional needs.

The friction of reactance means adding more incentives can backfire.

Reactance, the fourth friction, refers to the way people’s desire for autonomy can arouse resistance. Threatening their autonomy by putting them under pressure can cause people to react. People can even perceive fuel – evidence or benefits – as pressure, and they will react against anything that makes them feel a decision is being taken out of their hands. In some cases, people will simply close their minds. Cults persist, for instance, because people reject scientific evidence when it feels oppressive and would force them to admit to being wrong.

Three situations, in particular, will trip reactance: threatening a person’s core beliefs; pressuring people to change; and excluding people from the process of designing an idea, but expecting them to execute it.

To avoid triggering reactance, help people persuade themselves.

Self-persuasion defuses reactance. Self-persuasion means guiding people to arrive at the decision or conclusion you seek of their own accord. You can accomplish this by asking questions to prompt people’s own process of discovery. In politics, the technique called deep canvassing employs this approach: Instead of just telling voters to think or vote a particular way, canvassers ask a series of questions to lead people along a certain train of thought. This approach can create empathy; it’s been shown, for example, to reduce transphobia.

“Not only does self-persuasion work against those who oppose our ideas, but self-persuasion is often the only thing that does.”

Use questions to build a “yes ladder.” Start by asking a question where you know agreement exists. That first yes establishes common ground. Then, you can ask a more challenging question and have a better chance of getting a subsequent yes. Advocates of legalized marijuana used a yes ladder to overcome inertia and emotional friction and to avoid spurring reactance. They first worked for legalization of medical marijuana – a question the public and legislators could agree on. Only after people had become accustomed to legal medical marijuana did the advocates move forward to decriminalizing recreational weed.

Follow these guidelines for using self-persuasion:

  • Don’t confuse self-persuasion with inviting feedback or suggestions. Self-persuasion involves a specific process of guiding people toward an insight.
  • Have people make public commitments. This establishes accountability and internal commitment in a person.
  • Make people’s participation meaningful. When people participate meaningfully in an initiative, they feel involved and significantly less averse to change.

About the Authors

Loran Nordgren, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management, studies the psychological processes underlying how people think and act. David Schonthal, a professor of strategy, innovation and entrepreneurship at Kellogg, teaches new venture creation, design thinking, health care innovation and creativity.

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