The NIH Syndrome

By Mark Diorio

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All too many times, we engineers suffer from extreme opinions regarding areas of personal expertise. Our personal positions on a subject may grow so intense that we become, or at least appear to be, inflexible to alternative theories, approaches or suggestions. In some cases, we even will lock metaphorical horns with our colleagues, battling over whose position should prevail. We zealously argue until we convince our “opponents” of our theory's infallibility or until we admit defeat, realizing that there may be other meritorious opinions or approaches.

Engineers typically are quite logical people – ridiculously stubborn, perhaps, but predictably logical. As such, we conform or adapt quickly once convinced of an alternate position. Given a well-crafted argument that is bolstered by significant statistical data, we are somewhat open to change.

I, too, can be extremely stubborn when I have made considerable efforts in researching a subject about which I have strong underlying beliefs. If I develop a strong conviction, it is extremely difficult to sway my position or change my focus. However, if someone can convince me, with sound reasoning and data, that his or her approach is a viable alternative, I am apt to amend my position, accepting and following through with the new concept even though I didn't think of it myself. The ability to recognize others' ideas as superior is key to a team-building environment.

But what happens when companies have difficulty accepting new ideas (especially when these new ideas come from sources beyond their own organizational team)? Can they be convinced that more appropriate courses of action are available to them and might save them time and money, potentially even awarding them notoriety and market share?

As most readers are aware, NIH stands for “not invented here” and is a prevalent attitude in this industry. It exists among both end users and suppliers. NIH impedes progress, as even the most compelling arguments from outside sources cannot change the minds of the decision-makers within such closed-minded companies. These companies and their managers usually are absorbed by the notion that only they know the right way, rhetorically asking, “Who are you? An engineer from a second-tier company? A supplier? A consultant? An editorial writer? How could you possibly know better than we?”

It is truly difficult for some organizations within our industry to accept new concepts from “outsiders.” We could blame such factors as arrogance, stubbornness or incompetence. Usually, however, company culture drives and/or tolerates NIH. In some cases, it appears a matter of pride; in other cases, it validates vulnerability. Even worse, perhaps, is a company's acknowledgement that it may not have the best ideas, thereby raising among employees questions about job security. Whatever the case, there are companies that suffer tremendously from NIH, and consequently we adjust our approach to these companies accordingly.

Conversely, there are companies that dismiss the NIH attitude, instead utilizing ideas from outside sources. These companies often are not market leaders but are striving to become significant players. Their managers are committed to contributing to the company's performance rather than protecting their own personal domains. These managers are open to change; internal politics or bureaucracy does not limit their thinking. They do not conform to the adage, “Well, that's the way we always have done it here,” and instead are willing to try new ideas from outside their domain, regardless of how vulnerable they may appear to their supervisors. They are in search of how to make their companies more successful and more recognized, using whatever means are available to them. If the dreaded NIH syndrome does exist within these companies, it is kept deep in the bowels of the organization, invisible to the industry at large. It is these companies with whom we enjoy working and sharing our best ideas. We cooperate with them to demonstrate supportively the excellence of their ideas and to show those with NIH that they are wrong to misjudge our concepts.

So, give it some thought. Are you open to change and new ideas, to outside sources and concepts? Or do you suffer from the dreaded NIH syndrome? And if you do suffer from NIH, so what? Who cares whether you're striving to achieve or maintain status quo? Well, probably your shareholders…

MARK DiORIO, chief executive officer, can be contacted at MTBSolutions Inc., 1630 Oakland Road, San Jose, CA, 95131-2450; 408-441-2173; Fax: 408-441-9700; E-mail: [email protected].


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