People are naturally apprehensive about change, especially in successful firms. But even successful companies are at risk if they stand still. Paul Sloane explains why it

People are naturally apprehensive about change. They fear the unknown. There is a reluctance to take risks. This can be particularly true in a successful enterprise. Success can be an enemy of innovation. Why mess with a model that works? There is little incentive to take risks and try new things. But even successful companies are at risk if they stand still. Polaroid Corporation was a leader in its field but digital camera technology dealt it a serious blow and pushed it into Chapter 11. Smith Corona was very successful making typewriters but the advent of word processors proved fatal.

Overcoming the fear of change is a key objective for innovative leaders. They will need to take this issue head-on. They must engage people in a dialogue and discuss the risks and benefits of standing still or of innovating. The types of messages they strive to convey are:

  • We are doing well right now but we need to do better.
  • We must fight the risk of complacency
  • If we don’t find new ways to reach and delight our customers then others will do it for us.
  • There is a risk in innovating but there is a bigger risk in standing still.
  • Change can be a big positive for us if we can drive it in the direction we want.

Leaders must promote a dialogue where, in addition to telling these messages, they listen to people’s concerns and solicit their input. You can turn negative people around by asking for their views on how to make things better. When asked, they will often volunteer great ideas for how we can make the change a big success.

Here are some tools you can use in the battle to win the hearts and minds of your people:

  • Stories about companies that focussed on what they did well and who missed the next big wave.
  • Examples of how we lost business to more innovative competitors.
  • Examples of how we won business by doing something new.
  • Praise for risk-takers and entrepreneurs within the business who have helped to drive change – successfully or unsuccessfully.

Innovation involves taking risks, changing things that work and coping with failures. Many people find it an uncomfortable journey. It can be a very bumpy ride but the alternative is to stay in the same place and slowly wither.


Innovative leaders constantly evangelize the need for change. They replace the comfort of complacency with the hunger of ambition. We are doing well but we cannot rest on our laurels – we need to do even better. They explain that while trying new ventures is risky standing still is riskier. They must paint a picture that shows an appealing future that is worth taking risks to achieve.  The prospect involves perils and opportunities. The only way we can get there is by embracing change.

Paul Sloane speaks and leads workshops on innovation. His book, The Innovative Leader, is published by Kogan Page.