After 30 years of watching and helping companies that struggle with innovation I've realized that there are a few things that most often stand in the way of innovation. I call them the Innovation Killers; they stealthily eliminate that vast majority of ideas without so much as trace.
The Innovation Killers aren't malicious attempts to kill innovation. Our intentions are always good ones: to minimize risk, to deliver predictability, and to satisfy market and analysts' expectations. The innovation killers always have armies of well-intentioned corporate citizens behind them, ready to defend their turf and keep innovation at bay, lest it disrupt the status quo.
I'll warn you though that changing each of these behaviors will encounter some natural resistance due to the incorrect view most people have of how innovation actually works. We want to believe in the magic of innovation, the fairy tale. The reality is that innovation is a process that can be managed, fostered, and nurtured.
1. Believe that innovation will just happen.
The belief that innovation will just happen makes about as much sense as the belief that a garden will sprout in your backyard without any planting, weeding, or watering. Innovation requires a proactive process that identifies, validates, and nurtures ideas into value. The challenge is that the overwhelming majority of ideas will not pass muster but without a process you'll not only ignore the ones that aren't valuable but also ignore those that do.
2. Tell everyone to "think outside the box," hold a brainstorming session, then call it a day.
Great ideas are the seeds of innovation; they are not innovation itself. Ideas are not in short supply. Spend an hour in a meeting with a few bright people and you will end up with dozens of new ideas. Then what? Where do those ideas go? Who evaluates them and shepherds them through the next stages? Ideas are not innovation. Companies that get innovation right build, implement, and communicate a process to support innovation, so that everyone is able to participate. In the end you have to have a formalized process for ensuring that ideas are nurtured.
3. Lay the success of innovation solely on the shoulders of your technologists.
Technology should support innovation, not lead it. This is because innovation is first an issue of corporate culture. Absolutely anyone in your organizations should be able to submit a new idea for evaluation.
4. Create an obstacle course for ideas.
If you want to guarantee a process that kills the innovative spirit, force people to take time away from their regular jobs to build their new ideas on their own. Ideas need a safe place to take shape and they need resources. They have to be protected for long enough to be evaluated and then evolve. Make this process cumbersome and people will just avoid it, and their ideas will simply languish rather than flourish.
5. View "different" and "new" as bad.
If anything is certain it's that every great idea, product, or service will eventually be trumped by a better one. Yet the fear of the "new" is always an obstacle. So the next time you want to say "That's not the way we do it here," try "We prefer to let someone else do it that way and succeed in figuring it out so that they can take our customers away" instead. Doesn't sound as comforting, does it?
6. Hand over the good ideas to the Legal and Accounting departments.
Ideas are fragile, easily broken or squashed. On the surface, giving the care of those ideas to Legal or Accounting may make sense, since some of the greatest issues with protecting new ideas are legal and financial. But neither of these functions has the resources to actually develop the idea. The answer is creating a protected space, called an Innovation Zone, where the resources are available to evaluate and develop new ideas.
7. Be very, very afraid of failure.
Here's the scary truth: You will fail often. The question is: Are you in the kind of organization that can embrace innovation in spite of that? What doesn't work out is merely a learning experience and therefore fodder for the innovation cycle. Just fail fast and move on to the next idea.
8. Innovate only when you need to.
It's tantalizing to innovate on demand. It appears to cost less, focuses on specific opportunities, and provides a rallying cry when a crisis looms. But this is like trying to stay healthy by waiting for a life-threatening condition to arise before paying attention to your health. A crisis is certainly a motivator, but it is also the most expensive way to innovate, in terms of costs, resources, and image.
9. Leave it up to the "innovators."
Every organization has a handful of people who are considered to be the thought leaders. Sometimes they are the leaders, other times well-tenured individuals, and sometimes people tasked with coming up with big ideas. The implication is that only these big thinkers can come up with big ideas. Ideas can and should come from anyone in the organization. Focusing on just the "big" ideas or just the "big" minds is equally dangerous as it creates barriers for incremental innovation and encourages ideas to find an exit elsewhere.
10. Encourage everyone to drop any and all ideas into an electronic submission box.
Even when they put the effort into creating an innovation zone organizations make two fatal mistakes. First, they put one part-time person at the narrow end of a very large funnel of new ideas. This is a setup for disaster; no one person can keep up with the flow, and it's too easy to shoot down ideas that don't pass some unwritten code of acceptability. Second, the ideas languish in a nondescript repository with no taxonomy to group them, combine them, and make it possible to mine them. Ideas need to be treated with respect. Whatever systems you put in place must have boundaries for what constitutes an idea submission. For example, what core values or business hurdles must it address?
Beware that these aren't behaviors that change overnight. They require a sustained commitment to put in place a team whose specific responsibility is to nurture innovation by establishing an Innovation Zone where new ideas can take root. That's a process that takes time. But the benefits of overcoming these Innovation Killers is the creation of a culture that will encourage ideas and ensure that the best ones don't end up dying quiet deaths.