Have you ever experienced a situation where your company receives a great idea from outside your organization that has the potential to speed up or improve a process, but the idea is immediately rejected? This is when the "not invented here" syndrome strikes.
In this article, we explore what this syndrome is, how to measure it, and how to deal with it in your organization. Let's dive in!
What is “Not Invented Here” Syndrome?
To gain a deeper understanding of the topic, we first need to define the “not invented here” (NIH) syndrome.
In an organizational culture that exhibits NIH syndrome, individuals or groups within an organization resist accepting or embracing ideas, solutions, or technologies that come from external sources. These types of organizations are characterized by a strong bias toward internally developed solutions and an unwillingness to consider or adopt innovations created elsewhere, even if they may be better or more effective. This syndrome often stems from a combination of pride, fear of change, and a desire to maintain control or ownership of ideas and projects.
Organizations that suffer from NIH syndrome tend to underestimate external expertise and reject external innovation, resulting in missed opportunities for growth, improvement, and collaboration. The syndrome can manifest itself in many ways, such as reinventing the wheel by developing solutions that already exist externally, ignoring or downplaying the benefits of collaboration or partnerships with external organizations, and disregarding external ideas or technologies due to a lack of trust or credibility. NIH syndrome can hinder progress and innovation, limit access to new knowledge and perspectives, and create a closed, insular environment within an organization.
Examples of “Not Invented Here” Syndrome
Let's look at a few examples of the "not invented here" syndrome to explore how it manifests itself in real-life situations.
Alexander Bell and Western Union
Young inventor Alexander Graham Bell was looking for a partner to help him commercialize his idea for a telephone – a device that could revolutionize the communications industry. He started with the U.S. market leader, Western Union, the company that would spend so much time and effort stringing telegraph wires alongside railway tracks to link up the continent.
It seems like a good fit from the outside. However, the company’s reception to Bell was frosty. In a famous comment, President of Western Union William Orton, who was recognized as one of the best-informed electrical experts in the country, said: “There is nothing in this patent whatever, nor is there anything in the scheme itself, except as a toy. If the device has any value, the Western Union owns a prior patent … which makes the Bell device worthless.”
NIH syndrome is also exemplified by Kodak’s rejection of both Edwin Land’s idea for the Polaroid process and Chester Carlson’s xerography. These examples underline how easy it is to put up defenses against ideas originating from outside.
The US Navy
American historian Elting E. Morison gives a wonderful example in his detailed study of “Gunfire at Sea,” which explores the tortuous journey the innovation of continuous-aim gunnery had in finding its way onto the decks of US warships. Back in the late 19th century, naval gunnery was not very accurate. A US Bureau of Ordnance study of 1,000 shells fired during an exercise around the time of the Spanish-American war found that less than 3% were hitting their target.
A long way away in the South China Sea, Admiral Percy Scott of the British Navy was working on a solution. His squadron was doing gunnery practice with poor results, except for the crew on one ship (rather inaptly named HMS Terrible), which was recording surprisingly accurate performance. The crew on HMS Terrible was using a prototype gunsight and a novel method of tracking the target called “continuous-aim gunfire”. Scott supported the development, trained the crews on all his ships, and eventually changed practices across the British Navy.
The most fascinating part of the story concerns a young US lieutenant, William Sims, on secondment with the British squadron. He was aware of the study from the Bureau of Ordnance and the poor US performance and saw an opportunity to make his name and career by introducing the much better British system to his superiors in Washington.
What followed was a classic case of NIH. There was strong US opposition to the new system, with many trying to prove that it was no better than the existing way of hitting the target. For example, a side-by-side test was arranged on dry land where the advantages of the new system in dealing with moving targets at sea were neutralized! It took US President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s intervention to get the US Navy to finally take the idea seriously and eventually adopt the new system.
What Causes NIH?
It would be wrong to see "not invented here" syndrome as the result of outdated attitudes. Significantly, in most NIH cases, there are reasons to be cautious: the potential lack of fit with the core business, the potential risk of having to cannibalize existing activities, the unproven nature of new technology, and so on. What’s really going on is subtler and stems in large part from issues related to group identity and defenses.
We sometimes talk about a corporate immune system, and this is a good metaphor because it accurately captures what an immune system does for our bodies: protecting us against dangerous things from outside. The narrative around resistance to outside ideas, as exemplified in NIH syndrome, very much replicates our well-meaning immune system.
Studies carried out by psychologists like Alex Haslam have assessed perceptions of creative ideas that come from different sources. Their findings showed that when ideas came from within a group, they were highly rated and valued whereas when they came from outside the group, group members viewed them as lacking in innovativeness or value.
How Do We Measure NIH?
Measuring the level of NIH syndrome within a company primarily involves assessing the attitudes, behaviors, and decision-making processes of individuals and groups. The following approaches can all help to provide important insights:
- Survey or interviews: Conducting surveys or interviews with employees at various levels of the organization can help gauge their attitudes toward external ideas, solutions, and collaborations. Questions should focus on employees’ preferences for internal versus external sources, their willingness to explore external innovations, and their perceptions of the value of external expertise.
- Project evaluations: Analyze past and ongoing projects within the company to identify instances where external ideas or solutions were rejected in favor of internal ones. Assess the reasons behind these decisions, such as concerns about intellectual property, control, or a general aversion to external contributions.
- Collaboration and partnership analysis: Examine the company's history of collaboration and partnerships with external entities. Evaluate the frequency and success rate of these initiatives to determine whether there is a pattern of reluctance or resistance toward external collaborations.
- Employee feedback and idea-sharing platforms: Utilize platforms such as HYPE Innovation that enable employees to share ideas, suggestions, and feedback. Analyze the frequency and nature of submissions to identify any patterns of resistance toward external contributions and preference for internal ideas.
How Should You Deal with NIH?
Here's a checklist of simple but proven tips for dealing with "not invented here" syndrome in your organization:
- Acknowledge that NIH exists
- Assess its current impact on your open innovation effort: How many opportunities have you missed?
- Build explicit incentives, such as reward programs, to overcome NIH
- Engage outside people and organizations in the strategy and external ideas evaluation phases to gain fresh perspectives on your projects
- Mix people up: cross-functional teams, secondments, and rotations are all helpful strategies
"Not invented here" syndrome can significantly hinder progress, innovation, and collaboration within organizations. By underestimating external expertise and rejecting external innovation, companies stand to miss out on valuable opportunities for growth and improvement. Disregarding external ideas and technologies can create a closed and insular environment, limiting access to new knowledge and perspectives.
It’s crucial that organizations recognize NIH syndrome and its negative implications, and implement measures that promote openness, collaboration, and the value of external contributions. Doing so can foster a strong culture of innovation that embraces the benefits of external ideas, ultimately driving success in a rapidly developing business world.