The top 6 blocks to innovation & how to overcome them

Innovation is a tricky business. Sexy as heck when it works (yes, I just said “sexy” in a CCL blog), but challenging to implement in an organization, no matter how big or small.  Why? Many reasons.  Following are six of them with some brief suggestions for how to overcome.  Rest uncomfortably knowing that this is not an exclusive list.

  1. New ideas look funny. Whether it’s wine made with baby mice or toilet-themed restaurants, new ideas at the outset look unusual at best, strange and crazy at worst.  And that scares people away, no matter how brilliant the person.  SOOOOO: the leadership challenge is to start searching for the value in all new ideas, whether they’re yours, your boss’s, your peers’ or your direct reports’ ideas.  Get into the habit of looking for something positive for every critical question you have as you start to understand the idea.
  2. “Innovation” is more than just new products. Ask a group for examples of innovation and you’ll hear about a lot of cool products from Apple to…well…Apple.  But innovation is more than just a lumpy object.  It also involves business models, networks, systems, processes, services, channels, customer experiences and more.  SOOOOO: look at ways to be innovative beyond just a great product.  Consider what areas you can influence based on where you sit.  And better yet, start adding different types of innovation to your product. The iPod wasn’t just a cool MP3 player…it allowed you to get music one song at a time, through its proprietary store, enabling Apple to make money by the sale of content and apps — not just a gizmo — and changed how we purchased music, among many other things.  How can you make your innovation bigger by looking at other types of innovation?
  3. When strategy doesn’t match the talk. Many leaders of organizations talk about the importance of innovation throughout the enterprise. But many organizational systems stop employees dead in their tracks. One organization we worked with spent gazillions of dollars to train and empower people to engage in team-based innovation.  It started to really take hold, but then began to fizzle because the annual review process had managers asking their direct reports, “What have YOU created?” and discounted the team contributions, focusing on the individual. The result? The review spoke louder than the training, and people went back to old habits of working alone, until the system was changed. SOOOOO: look at your organization for those things that get in the way of innovating. Does the organization encourage disruptive change? Is the organization focused on rising stars with a different hurdle rate than cash cows? Is there time and resource support for newness?  If you answered, “No!” then start making some changes.
  4. Innovation is risky. So is crossing the street! The challenge for innovators is not to eliminate risk; it’ll always be there. The challenge is “how to minimize loss.” Humans aren’t risk averse; we’re loss averse. Consider this example: if I were to offer you a raffle ticket, and you knew you had a 1 in 200 chance of winning, would you pay $1 to win $100 to benefit a cause in which you believed? Probably. If I made the same offer, except the ticket cost $1,000 with the chance of winning $100,000, would you still do it? Probably not. The risk doesn’t change – your chances of losing are still 199 out of 200. What changes is what you would lose ($1 versus $1,000). Ever notice how small start-ups seem to disrupt industries? It’s not because their people are any more innovative, it’s usually because the larger and more successful the enterprise, the more there is to lose.  SOOOOOO: take chances early, often, and in low-loss situations.  Tom Peters said it this way, “Test fast, fail fast, adjust fast.” Look for opportunities to prototype on the quick and cheap. Find opportunities to test in very small doses, rather than with a market roll-out.  Get lots of input early and often to find out where the risk is when it’s safe.  Don’t think big yet, focus on small bets now to win the big reward later.
  5. “Innovator of the Year” contests. Perhaps nothing frustrates me more than the usual knee-jerk reaction to “How do we create innovation in this organization?” than the response, “Let’s reward it with a competition!” “Oh boy,” I think, “here we go again.” In his book Drive, Daniel Pink does a nice job of deconstructing the myth that incentives motivate or change behaviors. In most cases, this technique not only doesn’t work, but it can also be destructive.  It seems like an easy thing to do, but every time you reward the “innovator of the year,” you DEmotivate all of the other people who are working their butts off to innovate, but didn’t get the prize. SOOOOOO: Recognize everyone who’s working their butts off, whether they succeed or not.  Not all attempts at innovation will succeed, but you need as many attempts as possible in order to achieve success (see number 4, above).  Celebrate the successes and circulate the learnings from the failures so that other people get the real benefit of attempts that don’t succeed: new knowledge (and recognize that the “new knowledge” may not always be correct).
  6. People not taking on innovation as a challenge: Too many people say, “I’d like to be more innovative, but my boss won’t let me.” Or, “I’d like to have more innovation, but my direct reports don’t do it.” The fact is that innovation starts with one person and a fact, question, idea, or solution in which they see the wisdom (see number 1, above).  Given that organizations are complex, and people are generally resistant to change, the responsibility falls on each and every member of the enterprise to champion their own ideas and the ideas of others. SOOOOOO: since the top leader probably won’t send you an engraved invitation to ask you to innovate, it’s your responsibility to work diligently to understand, clarify, ideate, develop and implement innovation in the organization, fully realizing that it may well feel like pushing a boulder up a mountain repeatedly. The entire enterprise is made up of people…the real source of innovation. If you and everyone else waits for others to start, you’ll be waiting a long time.  So take action, start to get others on board, and recognize that it is your responsibility. If not you, then whom?

So what are you waiting for? Get moving on innovation!  And, in your down time, also let us know the other blocks to innovation that slow you down and what suggestions you have to get past those blocks.

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About Jonathan Vehar

As a Senior Faculty member at CCL and subject-matter expert in innovation, Jonathan’s education and extensive experience in program design serves the Center in his design and delivery responsibilities for various Global Solutions clients, as well as his delivery responsibilities for various open enrollment programs. Jonathan is also an adjunct instructor at Northwestern University, the Center for Studies in Creativity at the State University of New York, Ithaca College and the Creative Problem Solving Institute.
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