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INNOVATE

5 Innovation Traps to Avoid

Even smart leaders can unknowingly sabotage their own innovation efforts. Make sure you aren't falling into these traps at your company.
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As an entrepreneurial leader, you are constantly concerned with making sure that your organization is moving new ideas ahead--that is, creating new processes, providing new services, and bringing forth new products. However, leaders have to be aware that the road to successful innovation can be laid with traps. Organizations sometimes are ensconced in inertia to the point where innovation is actively hindered. And the irony is that organizations, in many cases, set the traps themselves. 

The existence of innovation traps has been noted by numerous researchers. For instance, Liisa Välikangas and Michael Gibbert have chronicled the first three traps listed here, and the last two traps are mentioned in the American Management Association's excellent article, "The Quest for Innovation."

Here are five innovation traps that entrepreneurial leaders should be able to recognize before they launch their innovation effort:

1. The performance trap. Companies inadvertently set the performance trap when things are going well--sales are up and the financials are solid--but the firm isn't bothering to commit time or resources into developing the next generation of innovative ideas. Because everything seems to be moving in a positive direction, leaders have a tendency stay very much in the moment, and not be too concerned with the future. When demand shifts, the economy weakens, or when the company hits a rough patch, leaders who are caught in the performance trap are not in a position to be flexible and adapt, because there are no new ideas in the pipeline. 

2. The commitment trap. The opposite of the performance trap is the commitment trap--that is, the company sinks a lot of resources into new ideas that just aren't panning out. Rather than recognizing the mistake and changing course, leaders feel compelled to put more money into a sinking project with the hope that something will flourish.   

3. The business-model trap. This happens when a company ventures into a product or sector which may seem ripe, but the firm doesn't readily possess the competencies or materials necessary to execute.  While it may seem like a good idea to expand horizons and product lines, if a company is not equipped to take on the new task, then it can fall victim to the business-model trap.

4. The deliberation trap. Companies embark on the endless journey when too much time is spent analyzing, discussing, researching, and testing a new idea--without real results. Teams spend so much time processing the idea that they never arrive at real results. No one--neither team members nor the leader--is prepared to risk taking that important first step of transforming the idea into a concrete innovation. 

5. The short-term trap. Short-term wins are not substitutes for real long-term gains. Short-term wins usually stem from meeting traditional customer needs, and offering traditional or expected products and services. Short-term wins are usually rooted in the past practices. When opportunities arise that could garner in some long-term gains, companies focused on the short-term are often looking the other way.

These traps characterize the degrees of inertia that can stifle innovation. Organizational leaders may rationalize the existence of the innovation traps and the organizational culture might reinforce them and justify them. The innovation traps are cognitive blinders that steer leaders away from taking bold steps, from pulling the plug, from redirecting an effort, from screaming out that the goals are misguided and that the emperor has no clothes. 

Entrepreneurial leaders should not ignore these traps--once they are triggered, they can lead the organization down a sinkhole. However, your challenge is to identify and disable the innovation traps that can prevent your idea from moving ahead.  

Last updated: Aug 12, 2014

SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies

Samuel B. Bacharach is the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School, and is director of Cornell's Institute for Workplace Studies in New York City. Among his books are Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. His latest volume, A Good Idea Is Not Enough: Leading for Change and Innovation, will be published this November by BLG.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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