Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork + Co., an advertising agency that specializes in working with stalled, stuck and stale brands. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”
Beware the knights who say “NIH!”
When a company finds itself stuck in a rut, there’s a tendency for the management team to become insular, particularly if it’s feeling embattled by customers, employees or shareholders (and perhaps all three). That’s a road on which all sorts of bad behavior can arise.
Those who grasp the wheel may cling to it ever tighter, whether out of desperation to avoid losing control, denial that there’s even a real problem, or in hope that they can keep their issues to themselves. Rather than seeking wisdom wherever they can find it, they may turn into, with apologies to Monty Python, the Knights Who Say “NIH!” (“Not Invented Here”)
The analogy, unfortunately, is fitting. In the classic comedy film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” the Knights Who Say Ni are shadowy, menacing types led by a bearded giant dressed in black and sporting a helmet of antlers. When the film’s protagonists, King Arthur and Sir Bedevere, first stumble into their presence, the giant introduces his horde as “keepers of the sacred words.” That’s how the Knights Who Say NIH seem to conceive of themselves as well, as if seeking advice or solutions “not invented here” is somehow sacrilegious.
That’s an archaic way of thinking in an increasingly open-source world. It’s quite common for companies to stall as the economic and competitive landscapes shift beneath their feet; they may lose focus, or become complacent, or get knocked sideways by a punch they never saw coming. And when a company is in trouble, time is too short and resources too constrained to try and cook up a solution that may have already been baked elsewhere. Insights and ideas, processes and perspectives, and even software and services “not invented here” should be sought after and embraced, not avoided.
OpenSource.com is a website that publishes stories about creating, adopting, and sharing open source solutions in business, government, entertainment, and more. That there would be a website dedicated to the trend itself demonstrates the point, and here’s how its authors define the open source way: it’s “more than a development model, it defines a culture. A culture that includes everyone, and harnesses real experiences to solve problems.”
Principles such as openness, transparency and collaboration, however, which OpenSource.com cites as characteristic of rapid-deployment thinking, is not the way of the Knights Who Say NIH. As Arthur breathlessly blurts to Bedevere in response to learning the identity of their adversaries: “Those who hear them seldom live to tell the tale!” Like their counterparts in the film, the Knights Who Say NIH tend to reflexively exhibit baser human impulses like insecurity, arrogance, secrecy and, somewhat counterintuitively, impatience — unwilling to take the time to discover how others may have solved the issues they confront while unwittingly prolonging their problems.
This makes things particularly frustrating for forward-thinking people stuck in the trenches with them. At one point in the film, the giant ominously declares, “The Knights Who Say ‘Ni’ demand a sacrifice!” Similarly, corporate NIH-sayers exact their ransom through wasteful resource deployment, dangerous trips down unproductive blind alleys, grossly inefficient make-work and, often, blame-shifting. Such is the challenge of trying to overcome the Knights Who Say NIH.
But overcome they must be. The first step in doing so is refusing to be intimidated. In the film, the giant threatens that his minions “shall say [NIH] again to you if you do not appease us.” Yet after doing his best to meet their demands, Arthur simply throws up his hands and finds a way around them. That can be a risky thing to try, but the alternative of idly watching your company’s demise is no better for your career.
We’ll never be entirely free of the Knights Who Say NIH, but they’re rarely as dangerous as they appear. As in the film, they can’t chase someone down who’s moving forward with determination. Give them their due, but if they remain intransigent, press on.