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How Can You Overcome Corporate Antibodies?

I work in the innovation and technology sector. Many of my coworkers are brilliant individuals, some bordering on genius. Yet many of these men and women have almost no ability to navigate the hurdles between having an idea and getting others to support it. I’m amazed at how few people have the skil

Phil McKinney
Phil McKinney
10 min read
How Can You Overcome Corporate Antibodies?

I work in the innovation and technology sector. Many of my coworkers are brilliant individuals, some bordering on genius. Yet many of these men and women have almost no ability to navigate the hurdles between having an idea and getting others to support it. I’m amazed at how few people have the skill to pitch an idea. The pitch is the starting point. It’s where you lay out the idea, the rationale behind it, and its potential influence on the organization. If you can’t do that effectively and persuasively, this inability to overcome corporate antibodies will limit your ability to turn your idea into a breakthrough innovation.

Many simply put the facts out there and think, “Everybody should just get it like I get it.” Some people will meander and dither, taking too long to get to the point of the idea. Others are so stubbornly resistant to feedback or compromise that they anger the people they pitch. Still others don’t do their research and have no idea how decisions are actually made within their organization.

While all of these shortcomings derail pitches every day, far more damning is a failure to understand the decision makers themselves. Being able to anticipate and react to the conscious and unconscious biases they hold—and sell them an idea—is just as important as being able to create an idea in the first place. Innovation is about doing and making things, so an unsuccessful pitch means no resources, which means no innovation.

Most push-backs are simply quick, off-the-cuff ways to try to make your idea go away; the antibodies have already made up their minds without really considering it. So what do you do when you’re trying to sell a great idea but are getting resistance from the people whose support you need? The first step is nothing. Don’t fight—at least, not yet. Don’t argue or in any way insinuate that they “don’t get it.” Instead, take a moment and ask yourself, “OK, why am I getting this push-back?”

There are four reasons why a corporate antibody might shoot down your ideas:

1. The Ego Response

“Oh I already thought of that a long time ago.”

“Somebody else has already come up with that idea.”

“I have something better.”

The three examples above are classic ego-driven statements. These people are essentially telling you “been there, done that.” They are brushing you off in a way that suggests that on some level your idea is threatening the speaker’s sense of self, especially if they themselves are a creative or idea person within your organization. Be careful. You may think you are talking about business, but you are actually engaged in a very personal exchange about your respective places in the hierarchy of your organization. In order to get their support, you need to appeal to their ego and satisfy their need for personal validation. Once you’ve done that, you can do the necessary work to satisfy them that the idea makes business sense as well.

When you’re dealing with a corporate antibody who is fueled by ego, the most important thing to do is show you’re not challenging them. If they give you feedback, look at it as a possible opportunity for getting further support from them. Put their suggestions to work in your idea and your pitch, and acknowledge that it came from them. Take a moment to recognize them and their contribution both in writing and when you deliver your revised pitch. Why do you want to do this? Because you’ve now given them a sense of ownership in the idea. No matter what their original doubts and hesitations, they are going to be more inclined to support your idea now.

2. The Fatigued Response

“You’ll never get approval.”

“We tried that before.”

“Who’s going to do it?”

“It won’t fit our operation.”

Sometimes ego isn’t the problem. A big issue with corporate antibodies is fatigue. Perhaps their nature is to support new ideas with enthusiasm and energy, but the corporate culture is conservative to the point where they can’t get those ideas executed. When they hear your pitch, their inner voice says, “I’ve pitched a dozen ideas in the last five years to management and all of them got blown out of the water; none of them got approved.” They are so burned out that they only half listen to new ideas, assuming they’ve heard it all and tried it all before. They simply can’t deal with the thought of going through the process again.

Remember that you’re the person who wants something, so, fairly or unfairly, you have to go more than halfway. How should you recraft your idea to make an executive feel excited about taking on your idea and promoting it? Can you rework your idea so you’re asking them to take little steps rather than asking for a big commitment up front? Remember, step outside of yourself and hear your pitch with their ears. The fatigued corporate antibody feels like he’s heard everything you have to say many, many times before. As you describe your idea, his biases automatically kick in, and they draw connections between your new concept and old ideas that didn’t work. They zero in on one of these perceived links and start to tune out everything else. Your job now is to draw their biases out, understand what old experiences they remember, and figure out a way to demonstrate that these things aren’t applicable to your new concept. Keep the dialogue going. Ask questions, and get them engaged in your ideas by asking for their opinions. Remember that the information they share is valuable; they’ve witnessed many ideas and innovations get shot down. They understand what went wrong, and how you can prevent the same thing happening now. Try to listen more than you talk, and hold off on responding until they’ve finished. Every question you can ask draws the corporate antibody closer to supporting you, because, whether they realize it or not, they are slowly becoming invested in your idea.

If you can keep the momentum going, at some point you’ll see an opportunity for a direct question about the viability of your idea. Take it; find a way to demonstrate that your idea will not play out their worst fears about repeating past experiences. All you need is one acknowledgment that there is an opportunity that didn’t exist before to turn it around.

3. The No-Risk Response

“Not enough return on investment.”

“We can’t afford that.”

There’s no risk in saying no; there’s a risk in saying yes. When you hear automatic responses like this, you’re dealing with a corporate antibody who understands that doing nothing might not advance their career or their standing in the company, but it avoids any downside risk. The “no-risk” corporate antibody will often tie these statements together, so you’ll hear “We can’t afford to risk R&D on an idea that won’t give us a sufficient return on investment.”

“No-risk” is essentially stagnancy, and it can be incredibly hard to work around. Try to hear your pitch from their perspective. The “no-risk” antibody is willing to stall the companies’ evolution rather than take a chance by committing dollars to a new idea. You may think you’ve got a foolproof strategy, but they might be hearing “Hey, take this big leap: Get me ten million dollars and I’ll promise this thing is going to be fantastic, trust me.” The most effective way to get them to support you is to demonstrate that there is less risk than they think. Use the gated funding model we will be discussing in chapter 5 and make it clear that supporting the first stage of your idea will be low-risk, low-cost, and does not commit them to moving on to a bigger investment. Think of the “no-risk” antibody as a commitment-phobe; let him know that he can give up on the idea whenever he wants, and he is more likely to stay interested in it. Figure out how you get people comfortable with risk. Rather than making it a one-shot “big-bang” commitment, figure out how you can chop your concept down into smaller steps. Asking for a few thousand dollars to prove that the customer really needs the product is going to get a yes faster than asking for the full budget (and the attendant risk) all at once.

Example: HP And The Medal of Defiance

There is also a more dramatic way to deal with a “no-risk” antibody. One of the classic stories of innovation at HP was when David Packard awarded Chuck House the Medal of Defiance for deliberately defying Dave’s orders and forcing through an idea he had about a next-generation oscilloscope. David Packard himself ordered the idea killed. When the product turned out to be highly successful, David Packard admitted he was wrong and presented Chuck an award “in recognition of extraordinary contempt and defiance, beyond the normal call of engineering duty.”

This speaks to a subtle truth about innovation. Chuck believed in his invention, but he couldn’t get any support for it. The lack of support wasn’t because of the cost of his invention, it was more a fundamental belief on the part of management that the product wasn’t worth pursuing. Chuck believed that if he got his oscilloscope into the catalog, it would sell. Turns out he was correct, and the oscilloscope ended up selling 17,000 units instead of the predicted 31. Beyond its success, the core product was modified and used by NASA to enable the world to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Without Chuck’s defiance, the world would have listened to “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” only on the radio rather than watching the landing as it happened.

Sometimes there is no other way around a “no-risk” corporate antibody than a slightly cunning reinterpretation of the rules, or selective hearing when you’re told no. I’m not advocating lying, deceit, or anything of that nature; rather, you need to understand that within most organizations you’ll find far more people who feel empowered to say no than people who feel they are empowered to say yes. So you are always more likely to hear a no than its positive counterpart. Don’t lie, but don’t always wait for permission, either. If you truly believe in an idea, and you’re willing to take a risk, put your plan in motion. There are multiple paths to your objective. If you can’t get direct approval, then sometimes avoiding explicit disapproval is almost as good. You can always ask for forgiveness later.

4. The Comfort Response

“We’ve always done it this way.”

“Our customer likes it this way.”

“Don’t rock the boat.”

What constitutes success? Do you need a specific kind of victory in order to feel like you succeeded, or can you redefine success over the years to reflect the realities of your business? When corporate antibodies tell you that change isn’t desirable or feasible, they may be locked in some very outdated thinking about what success looks like. It’s up to you to find ways to convince them that what constitutes success may well have changed.

Look at how the treatment of HIV has evolved. Twenty years ago, most HIV patients had two potential outcomes: die now or die in the very near future. Success in the battle against AIDS was narrowly defined as finding a cure. Now, twenty-six years later, the HIV drug cocktails have allowed doctors, researchers, and patients to redefine what success means. It has evolved from a finding cure to giving AIDS patients a similar quality of life, and lifespan, as they would have enjoyed had they not become infected. So, you need to be aware that the goal posts can move, for both good and bad reasons. Be aware that there are two negative results of the comfort response: You can either become so ingrained in your answer that you never want to let go, or so unfocused and disorganized that you’ll chase any possible answer. If you’re getting feedback that your business has already identified clear definitions of success and that your project does not fall within those parameters, then you need to either move your goal posts or persuade them to move theirs.

Example: Tom Ford And Gucci

Consider this example from the world of fashion. In the 1990s, Gucci designer Tom Ford redefined what a fashion show was, and how a fashion designer communicated with the mass audience who would eventually be buying his products. He anticipated how the previously “members only” fashion world was going mainstream, and created decadent runway shows and boldly sexual advertising that spoke directly to the end consumer. In the mid-’90s, turning a somewhat dusty fashion house into a global megabrand was success, and the maximum exposure equated to maximum sales.

Of course, you can’t assume that things will stay the same in any industry. When Ford returned to fashion in 2010 after a hiatus he asked the same question: “How do I keep people really, really wanting this?” but came up with totally different answer. During his tenure at Gucci he changed the fundamental assumption of success by challenging fashion’s exclusivity. He created an assumption that fashion was instantaneously accessible. Anyone who wanted to see or experience high fashion could. That definition of success ultimately eroded any sense of exclusivity, however. Ford’s first fashion show under his own name was a bold statement about making fashion exclusive again. His presentation had 100 invited guests, no cameras or bloggers allowed, and celebrities like Beyoncé modeling. Ford flipped the switch and completely reversed the goal posts. Rather than courting publicity and seeking maximum exposure, he shunned it. By minimizing access he maximized impact. This paid off in early spring 2011, when every major fashion magazine ran editorials and interviews about him and his collection.

The point is that you need to understand that while your core mission may stay the same, the way you define success in achieving it may change. In Tom Ford’s case he considered how to get to his end customer, the woman who was really buying his clothes. The first wave meant selling to buyers, the second meant opening up the experience to include everybody who wanted to be part of it. And the third was realizing that the definitions of success had to change, and that to reclaim a sense of luxury he had to exclude just about everybody. All these tactics are in pursuit of the same goal: a luxurious, in-demand brand with high status recognition and sales to match. The approaches are simply different definitions of success when it comes to building a brand and customer loyalty.

Overcome Corporate Antibodies

You may think corporate antibodies are being needlessly conservative, but they believe they are keeping the company safe. This is especially true when you’re standing on the other side of the desk from an antibody, and they’ve just shot down your idea. The reality is that the antibodies believe that they are working in the best interests of their employer and their customers. They believe that they are serving as gatekeepers, and are the last line of defense against people or ideas that might damage the organization. To get them on your side, you need to convince them you aren’t a threat and that your idea is actually aligned and complementary to their ideals. When they start to see your idea as a “good change” with a clear path to success rather than a “bad change” or an experiment, then you stand a chance of winning them over.

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Phil McKinney is an innovator, podcaster, author, and speaker. He is the retired CTO of HP. Phil's book, Beyond The Obvious, shares his expertise and lessons learned on innovation and creativity.


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