‘Perseverance’ is blissful but ‘Obstinacy’ is disastrous for Innovation

posted by Ravi Arora May 13, 2016

A lot has been researched and written about the implementation or execution challenges related to Innovation. Perseverance is the key attribute that one needs to have to complete the journey from idea/concept to innovation. Perseverance is important for this journey because one is expected to come across various risks, roadblocks, drags and failures.  Like every good thing, Perseverance too has a negative side, which is perhaps known as Obstinacy. In this post, I have made an attempt to explain how and why this transition from Perseverance to Obstinacy happens and what should managers and their supervisors do to avoid and overcome.

The Innovation game has moving targets with only one winner for every target:

The reason why Perseverance could have negative effects in the context of Innovation is simply because Innovation, unlike many other targets, is a moving target. Innovation also results in a win-lose situation amongst the competing companies. Let me explain this a little more. Perseverance is usually used for a fixed targets. For instance we say that one needs perseverance for – climbing a mountain (Mount Everest), getting admission in a particular college, or getting a particular job, or even completing a full marathon etc. etc. Accomplishing these targets results in a win and happiness for the person who achieved it but not at the cost of someone else losing it.

On the other hand, when it comes to innovation, there are several ideas for managers to choose and pursue, in a hope that the chosen idea will turn out to be a successful innovation resulting in achievement of the goals. There is a high possibility that the competition would be pursuing the same or similar ideas to achieve their goals. Perseverance is needed by everyone to navigate this journey from idea to innovation. In this innovation game, either none of them is successful or only one is able to complete and turns out to be a winner – everyone else loses. We know that the new ideas for innovation keep coming up on the horizon but the resources available are always limited. While perseverance is must, sticking too long on a particular idea that is likely to be a loser, means that the manager is missing on other ideas & opportunities for innovation. To understand this better, imagine a fast paced game where there are hundreds of balloons rising from the surface and the players have to shoot them down for which there are points.

There are several quotes that convey the above message:

  • Sometimes I want to go back in time and punch myself in the face
  • We always regret the opportunities missed… more than the mistakes we have made
  • In the end we only regret the chances we didn’t take, relationships we were afraid to have and the decision we waited too long to make

How does one know that the transition from Perseverance to Obstinacy has begun:

We know that the team leader and the members, who have the maximum knowledge about the innovation project, need to have a high level of perseverance.

This high level of focus and the attitude of ‘You can do it’, ‘Don’t Quit’, ‘Keep going, never give up’ could make the team reluctant to listen to the advice of other people who might feel that the project should be shelved now (time to target the next balloon!). In my view it is just the early signs of perseverance getting into obstinacy. This could become detrimental only when the person perseveres with the wrong intention and energy. What is this ‘wrong intention’? If the team leader/members along with the people around them, too lose hope in the project but do not want the project to be shelved, I call it Obstinacy.  This reluctance to shelve the project could be due to many reasons: Black mark in the career, missing a Promotion opportunity or the bonus, approaching end of career, looking for an external change or the scare of failure.  In such situations, these managers are smart enough to convince their seniors to continue funding the project. This is not at all difficult as there is a huge information asymmetry between the project head and the funding manager).

I read a quote, “Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after another” and if the innovation journey becomes long, unending without achieving milestones at reasonable intervals, it could be an early sign of Obstinacy.

Perseverance and Obstinacy – The Oxford dictionary meaning
  • Perseverance: persistence in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.
  • Obstinate: stubbornly refusing to change one’s opinion or chosen course of action, despite attempts to persuade one to do so. Samuel Butler way back in the seventeenth century wrote, “The obstinate Man does not hold Opinions, but they hold him,”

There is an interesting quote by Henry Ward Beecher that explains the difference between these ‘two words: ‘The difference between perseverance and obstinacy is that one comes from a strong will, and the other from a strong won’t.”I googled to find if someone has ever used the phrase, ‘negative perseverance’. I found one answer: ‘Continuing to attempt to do something that will result in negative good for yourself or others, like continuing to persevere in killing yourself’

Scientific reason for Perseverance

According to psychologists, perseverance and belief in oneself go hand in hand. If one believes that one can accomplish a certain goal one will be motivated to achieve it and thus will fight against the odds to achieve it. Is there some science behind this psychology? The answer is YES. As per the research, ‘Dopamine’ is the fuel that keeps people motivated to persevere and achieve a goal. One has the power to increase the production of dopamine by changing the attitude and behavior.  Scientists have identified higher levels of dopamine – also known as the “reward molecule” – as being linked to forming lifelong habits, such as perseverance.

Neuroscientists have known for years that dopamine is linked to positive behavior reinforcement and the ‘ding, ding, ding’ jackpot feeling one gets when one accomplishes a goal. Neuroscientific research shows that higher levels of dopamine might separate the internal drive some people have to persevere while lower dopamine levels cause others to give up. Obviously, there are a wide range of factors that come into play when someone decides to persevere -but dopamine can be harnessed and used as a prime motivating force.

A study released on December 22, 2011 found that key receptors for dopamine function like ‘gateways’ that are essential to enable habit formation. “Dopamine neurons regulate circuits all over the brain but they need to be regulated too,” said Dr. Joe Z. Tsien, Co-Director of the Brain and Behavior Discovery Institute at Georgia Health Sciences University.

I would like to raise a question for readers, psychologists and scientists to consider. In the context of Innovation, when the person moves from Perseverance to Obstinacy, the Dopamine perhaps gets dried but the external factors that I explained at the beginning of this article makes the person pretend to be persevering (Obstinacy). Is such a person happy? If not is there some other hormone/chemical that could detect this behavior?

What should companies do?

I came across two interesting articles – ‘build an Innovation Engine in 90 Days’ and ‘Zombie Projects: How to Find them and Kill them’. They recommend companies to have a process to identify Zombie projects and institutionalize ‘Zombie amnesties’ through which people could willingly come forward and admit that they are carrying a dead wood. People who come forward on these amnesties are not penalized but are honored and there is a celebration because the organisation gets such people freed up for other innovation projects (The next balloon!). Zombie amnesties would be possible only if organisations have the culture that allows ‘Freedom to fail’ – the topic of my next post.