When Ego Gets in the Way of Innovation

Wherein we can substitute Innovation with Success, Change, and What Customers Need...

Looking back over the past 3 years of Studio VO, I’ve seen a pattern. For many reading this, the pattern won’t be a surprise: Most of our prospects start from a point of crisis. What I’ve been referring to as, in my imagined words of the client, “we need to put out the fire du jour.”

a picture of a fire in a fire pit.


I’ve had clients tell me they might lose their job if x doesn’t do y. That could be if the launch doesn’t go well, if the app isn’t fixed in time, if the right people don’t participate in the research. It’s a litany of reasons. And every single time I encounter the fire du jour, I can tell that:

  1. The client is (usually) only interested in putting out the fire, and
  2. This fire (for the most part) could have been avoided by better decision-making well in advance of the reason they reached out to us.

I’ve had jobs in the past where there have been leaders in the organisation that seem to excel at putting out fires. But with enough time observing, it was clear that said leaders also excelled at starting the fires they would then be seen as heroes for putting out.

I understand and also do not understand the obsession with running a business (or project, or team) in crisis mode. The rush to get to market without a good understanding of what you’re delivering or why. The desire to please/placate internal stakeholders, external shareholders, or your customers regardless of their actual needs. The need to fit in to the culture around you that values heroics over delivering needed and viable outcomes.

It’s all ego-driven.

“I need to be seen as a leader.”

“I made a promise and we’re going to keep it.”

“I have really thought this through. The research is wrong.”

And then I get an email from a prospect or past client that is essentially a bunch of rocks and palm fronds laid out on the beach of an uninhabited island, spelling out H E L P.

We’re happy to help. We will put out the fire for you. We’re also happy to make sure the fires never start again. But for some reason, ego perhaps, that’s not a type of project we sell easily.

Not Fires

We definitely have clients who want to make sure the fire doesn’t start again.

They tend to be larger companies who have seen the fires start over and over and over again. They want to take a holistic look (in a non-buzzword sense) at how their business functions (Service Design). They want to understand their customers better on the customers’ terms (User/Design Research). They want to know all the problems with every aspect of their app, not just the new feature (Usability Testing).

They are tired of wasting money being reactive.

It’s not that you have to be a large corporation to think like this. If you’re a C-level person at a small- to mid-sized company, you will likely say, “I also don’t want to waste money being reactive.” And then you also might say something about Innovation, Change, or being Customer-centric.

But you don’t have an environment, organisation, or, dare I say, culture that is set up to allow for that to happen.

You have Directors and Managers that cannot lead their teams out of a conference room let alone toward some “better tomorrow, today.” Mostly, it’s because your Directors and Managers never were trained (or are rewarded) to do so. Some of it is because they got promoted for being a great performer ... whom no one actually trusts.


You don’t know everything. No amount of “I’ve thought this through”-ness from the leadership in an organisation is going to save the organisation from disaster. But here’s the thing: most organisations are structured to reward self-centeredness.

People are rewarded for delivering on-time and, ideally, under-budget. They are also rewarded for not being on-time or under-budget. They are rewarded for delivering the wrong thing. All the energy spent on developing OKRs and KPIs and digital dashboard with ALL THE GRAPHS! ... and it’s all focused on the wrong thing.

Because ego.

Much like biases, ego isn’t something you are going to get rid of, but it’s certainly something you can acknowledge and plan to work with/around.

You can bring in companies like Studio VO. You can train your employees to do the right work well. You can actually Innovate. Or you can increase revenue by reducing waste.

But it all starts with being willing to go slow to go fast. To be willing to be changed by correctly collected data. To let something burn because your organisation needs to learn.

It’s not something I mean to be harsh about. We’ll still take on the fire du jour projects, but we’ll also keep pushing you to spend time and money to put plans in place to reduce the likelihood of fires in the future.

Those kinds of projects are going to cost you money. There’s no way around that, even if you decide to do the work internally. But if paying us $100,000 to increase your yearly revenue by $10,000,000 sounds like too much money ... well, I guess we can keep charging $30,000 to put out fire after fire and maybe increase your yearly revenue?

Our challenge is that the people who can hire us to do the $100,000+ projects are the ones who are rewarded for their ego-driven decision-making.

Sure, we want to sell many $100,000+ projects, but we want to help you. And not just do it for you but show you how it’s done so you can continue doing the right work well on your own. With some of our clients, we’ve gotten to this stage by putting out a few fires first. But wouldn’t it be nice to start from the perspective of:

  • “People have meetings, let’s find out more about that,” (generative research)
  • “Work gets done, but we have no idea how everything fits together,” (service design)
  • “We need to know if there’s a different way to meet the needs of our customers,” (product design & testing).

All real examples from clients we’ve worked with this year who want to look beyond the fire du jour.

It’s expensive to deeply understand the space in which your organisation exists. It takes time (though not as much time as people fear it will). It takes commitment by the decision-makers in your organisation to see it through.

And, it takes a willingness to set aside/work around Ego and a fondness for “heroic” fire-fighting.

We want to work with you whether at the fire du jour stage or the “let’s see what’s out there” stage. But know that if it’s the former, we’re going to push you on getting to the latter. Not because we’ll be able to charge you more (which, we will), but because it’s so much healthier for your organisation to do so.

If you want to start that conversation now, get in touch.

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