How to Change an Innovation Skeptic’s Mind

By Matt Mueller, Contributing Columnist |  March 30, 2022

If you work in the field of innovation, you are bound to run into skeptics.

You know you are talking to a skeptic because you will hear phrases like:

“But, we have always done it this way,” or

“We tried that five years ago…and it didn’t work.”

What do you do? I know it is easy to feel inclined to push back: “Get with the program or get out of the way — we’re innovating here!”

Unfortunately, this will not turn a skeptic into a believer.

We need to take a step back and ask ourselves, why are they innovation skeptics? I’ve found two common reasons:

Matt Mueller, Insights Manager at C.A. Fortune

1. Innovators’ Ignorance

Innovation can be a complicated topic, especially when it’s not someone’s day job. A Chief Financial Officer who manages revenue and costs keeps her job only if the business stays afloat. The furthest thing from the CFO’s mind is how to experiment and take risks.

How can a CFO or other senior executive not intuitively buy into the benefits of innovation? Innovation ignorance comes from a misunderstanding of innovation by people who don’t work on it every day. Innovation can be challenging from the outside looking in. It’s messy and risky. It involves learning new methodologies and creating new processes, rather than following established ones. Positive outcomes are far from assured.

“…An innovator’s job is to understand [the skeptic’s] perspective first, and then help shift their paradigm.”

2. Burned By Innovation 

Then there are those that have been involved with innovation projects in the past, and have just not seen the benefits. Perhaps they were involved in a project that stretched out over months and months, and a year later they wondered why the idea never sees the light of day. We have all been there. It can be a deflating and demoralizing feeling. Those that have been burned will protect their calendars a little more closely the next time the innovation team comes knocking.

Innovators are on the inside looking out. But the view from the outside is very different. It is like if we were to go to the beach, and were back to back, looking in the exact opposite direction. I see powdery-white sand, crashing surf, and the horizon. But you, looking in the other direction, see a parking lot. To get meaningful results, an innovator’s job is to understand their perspective first and then help shift their paradigm.

Can’t We Just Ignore Them?

You’ll inevitably encounter people who think innovation is not worth the time. It will be tempting to avoid these skeptics, whether that means staying in your silo, or walking in the opposite direction down the hallway. Careful, don’t make eye contact!

In reality, you cannot ignore them. Some of your experiments, if all goes well, will be eventually implemented by the rest of the organization. So your innovation’s fate could potentially fall directly into the hands of a skeptic. How do you think they will handle the new concept?

Let’s think about our skeptical CFO again. We created a new business model around a proof-of-concept service experience, received great feedback from consumers, and ran tests that showed excellent potential. Now, we need to push the concept into the organization for launch.

Keeping skeptics out of the process is beneficial in the testing phase, when you really want feedback from potential customers. It gives you more control. But to launch at scale, the CFO needs to be involved, and feel confident about how your concept will impact the business. If the CFO is still a skeptic, she will see this idea for the first time at launch, and torpedo the concept with every reason she can throw at it. Why? Change is scary, it involves risk, and this was not her idea. Skeptics can only be ignored for so long. They will eventually need to enter the fold — and better sooner than later.

The Six Thinking Hats

The one thing in life that we have control over is our own actions. We cannot stop a skeptic from poking holes, but we can stop looking at them negatively. As an innovator, how might you leverage skepticism to propel a concept into something amazing? In The Six Thinking Hats, Dr. Edward de Bono writes about the importance of looking at a problem from different perspectives, using colored hats to represent different modes. A white hat for facts, red for feelings, green for creativity, blue for process, yellow for optimism, and black for caution. These hats need to be worn by each participant at different points to get to the best solution. In other words, participants need to shift their thinking from facts to feelings to optimism, and so on, to get the best, well-rounded thoughts out in the open.

“The skeptic can give valuable feedback on your ideas in early stages, and prevent stumbling blocks later on.”

A skeptic in the group is a super-powered black hat, throwing an abundance of caution in your lap, and sometimes a red hat, full of emotion on why the idea will never fly. But the skeptic can give valuable feedback on your ideas in early stages, and prevent stumbling blocks later on. The magic behind Dr. de Bono’s hat system can also nudge the skeptic into adopting a new perspective. A comment like, “Thank you! That is some great ‘black hat’ thinking. Now let’s shift to ‘yellow hat’ thinking,” can switch the skeptic’s mindset in an instant, by dropping their defenses and giving them permission to evaluate the idea from a different angle.

At the end of the day, the skeptic’s perspective is shaped by either not seeing the innovation’s value, or negative past experiences. But just like everyone else, if a skeptic feels like they are heard during the innovation process, they will be more likely to see the idea positively. And if their thoughts and feedback are used to propel the innovation forward, the innovation will become “their idea,” transforming them from an innovation skeptic to an innovation champion. 

 “…Just like everyone else, if a skeptic feels like they are heard during the innovation process, they will be more likely to see the idea positively.”

Turning Innovation Skeptics into Champions 

Innovation skeptics are a normal part of every organization, easily recognized by their apprehension to participate in innovation with comments like, “But we know this way works.” Instead of writing off the skeptics, it’s best to involve them early.

To leverage their skepticism to help your innovation succeed, use the method described in the The Six Thinking Hats, transitioning from cautionary thinking (black hat) to optimistic thinking (yellow hat). By including skeptics in the innovation process and listening to their feedback, they can — and will — become constructive collaborators, and perhaps even true champions of innovation.

Matt Mueller is a former Innovation Strategist for Boar’s Head Brand. InnoLead welcomes contributed pieces from current corporate professionals; our guidelines are here.