‘Perseverance’ is blissful but ‘Obstinacy’ is disastrous

posted by Ravi Arora May 13, 2016

A lot has been researched and written about how challenging it is to turn ideas into Innovations. Perseverance is the key attribute that one needs to complete this journey from idea/concept to innovation, which is filled with risks, roadblocks, drags and failures.  We have read about the phrase – ‘Too much of anything is bad’ –  Too much of perseverance is also bad! – I call it Obstinacy. This post explains how and why this transition from Perseverance to Obstinacy happens and what should managers and their supervisors do to avoid over-perseverance (obstinacy).

Moving targets with only one winner for every target:

The person who initiates an innovation project sets its own goal/target. The target could be unique to that person or there could be several others who would have set a similar target. A successful innovation typically results in win-lose situation amongst the competing teams/companies where everyone else other than the innovator ends up losing.

In our day today life, we use perseverance to achieve a challenging target, which doesn’t explicitly mean that someone else would lose. For instance, one needs perseverance for climbing a mountain (Mount Everest) or getting admission in a college based on competitive exams, or getting a job, or completing a marathon in a target time. Accomplishing these targets results in a win 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 think and then choose one or a few to pursue. There is a high possibility that the competition would also be pursuing similar ideas. Perseverance is needed by everyone to navigate this journey from idea to innovation. Due to several factors like short-term focus, annual appraisals etc, a few managers in some companies are able to persevere for a longer time. In the end, either there no one is successful, or one turns out to be a winner – everyone else loses.

We know that the new ideas for innovation keep coming on the horizon but the resources available are always limited. While perseverance is critical, sticking too long with an idea that is likely to be a loser is detrimental as we start missing 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 must shoot them down for which there are points. Players need to shoot down as many in the limited time. A similar situation in real life is that of a competitive exam in which there are many questions, each with a multiple choice and negative marks. The time is limited and therefore students are advised not to stick to a particular question for a long time!

Following quotes convey the same 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

What should companies do?

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

A high level of focus and the attitude of ‘We can do it’, ‘Don’t Quit’, ‘Keep going, never give up’ could also 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!). 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, fear of missing an opportunity to get a promotion or the big bonus, person approaching retirement.  Due to a large information asymmetry between the project head and the sponsoring manager of the project, it is not difficult for managers to continue getting funding for the project.

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.

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 organization gets such people freed up for other innovation projects (The next balloon!). Zombie amnesties would be possible only if organizations have the culture that allows ‘Freedom to fail’ – the topic of my next post

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 : ‘The difference between perseverance and obstinacy is that one comes from a strong will, and the other from a strong won’t.”

I searched further to find use of ‘negative perseverance’. I found one: ‘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 he can accomplish a certain goal, he will be motivated to achieve it and 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. 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 – In the context of Innovation, when a 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 state?