Heath Evans is a marketing and communications strategist, innovator, entrepreneur and Coach.
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Stuff I write

Innovate or Die — Why most employees choose to die.

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So often we hear this phrase trumpeted from our leaders, yet so rarely does this actually inspire employees into action?

Why?

The simple fact is that most employees are not scared of their company dying, they are scared of the blame if they were the one who killed it.

We see this in so many scenarios, where people sit paralysed watching their Titanic moving towards the iceberg, yet rather than take the wheel they are busy finding a place to shelter, focused on building a back-story for why it was not their fault.

Why wouldn’t they just take the wheel?

You might assume it’s fear, but it’s also because the incentives and rewards just simply don’t stack up — let me explain.

In you’ve ever worked in a high-profile industry, take the sports industry for example, you know it’s unbelievably hard to get in but once you’re on-board as long as you don’t rock the boat too hard, you’re welcome to stay for as long as you like.

The one rule that overrides all others, is you look after the person who got you your seat, and you never ever question the direction of the Captain. If you do, you better be ready to feel the pain!

Earn your keep, show some respect, who are you to ever question the Captain when you’ve never even set foot inside his quarters. The intimidation, the resistance, you need to earn your stripes before you dare to point out the dangers ahead and for most new passengers this is where they just sit back down, apologising that they now realise how silly they were to ever dream they could someday take the helm.

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But there are some who refuse to conform. They care too much. They know the ship is heading towards certain destruction because it is so clear to their young eyes, they simply can’t believe they see something that the old Captains may have missed.

But the Captain’s eyes have grown old, they’ve grown complacent, they’ve been too comfy for too long, and even if they see what’s coming they are planning to jump ship well before disaster strikes — they’ve got no plans to change the course and they’re certainly not about to listen to the new kids on the boat (NKOTB — Baby!).

These NKOTB though are clever, and having already anticipated this might be his response they’ve garnered the support of other members of the crew, and as they plead their case for change they have the cheers of those who marched with them — and for these brave souls I salute you.

Why?

Because those who choose to stay silent, who are too scared to speak up, do so to keep their chances alive. They are not about to risk their dream of becoming a Captain, and instead they choose to be silent, to be patient, to serve their masters, knowing that even if this ship crashes, they will survive and another boat awaits their services — simply pointing the blame at the young fools who dared to believe there was a better way.

It is this pattern of disincentivising disruption that I believe is the reason the rate of innovation is so slow in so many of these illustrious sectors, because the moment you step forward to take the helm, you are minutes closer to never having the chance to become a Captain again — and for many the fear of this is just too powerful.

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Take the recent example of The Footy Show in Australia. For the past 10 years people have been sneering, sniggering, criticising that it was doomed for failure, yet no one stepped in for fear they would become the person who destroyed the Pride of Nine’s fleet that had been the conquering the Channel 7 seas for over 20 years (see what I did there).

Instead they waited, watching as more an more new ships were launched that were faster, more family friendly, that captured the essence of what this great ship once was built on, and then eventually the catastrophic collision occurred that everyone had been expecting.

There was the theatre of shock and horror, but for those who knew the seas well this was the moment they’d been waiting for, recognising that too much had been invested in this behemoth to simply allow it to rest at the bottom of the ocean — and now the search would begin for the next great Captain to restore it to it’s greatness.

Who might they choose? A new age captain, a drastic shift from your typical old sea-dog with a thirst for new adventure, or is the risk simply too great?

As these huge ships always do — when they crash they become even more fearful, and they call in the only person they believe knows how to solve it — the almighty Captain whose face hangs above the mantelpiece, and in this case the legendary Eddie who set us forth on this voyage two decades ago, and the cycle continues.

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Now whether you agree with this viewpoint or not, it is simply an analogy to provoke your thinking so you may ask yourself the critical question — have you got this cultural balance right in your organisation, your industry, your team?

Are you locked in your Captains’ cabin, the echo chamber that is so warm and comfy believing there is only one way forward, or are you finding those who may one day take your place and encouraging them to lead so that you may see the world as they do and be open to a better route?

For too many employees the fear of death is no longer the greatest fear, but rather the fear of blame is what stops them ever becoming a real Captain. If you believe that this is a statement of truth, the next question we need to ask ourselves is do we only have ourselves to blame for that.

Heath Evans