You can't live without innovation. It's why you're in business. But as you grow, innovation also becomes a threat. It threatens to disrupt your existing business model, products, and services. It threatens to upset your customers, who have become accustomed to a certain way of doing things. It threatens your partners and employees, who have developed expertise in the way things currently work. That's the real reason innovation is so hard. While we espouse its values, we also build defenses against it.
I call these the innovation killers. The innovation killers are almost always neatly disguised as protectors of the organization. Few people use these behaviors to try to kill innovation outright. Their intentions are always good ones: to minimize risk, to deliver predictability and operational excellence, and to satisfy market, customer, and analysts' expectations. The innovation killers are staffed with armies of well-intentioned corporate citizens, ready to defend their turf and keep innovation at bay, lest it disrupt the certainty of the status quo.
"The innovation killers are almost always neatly disguised as protectors of the organization."
Guess what? If you're looking for certainty, you've picked the wrong century. Get used to it, and get familiar with this list of seven innovation killers. These are the weeds that threaten to choke your garden; when you see them, pull them out by their roots.
1. Believe that innovation will just happen.
Believing that innovation will just happen makes about as much sense as believing that a garden of perfectly formed roses will sprout in your backyard without any planting, weeding, or watering. The mistake most organizations make is that they expect innovation to come naturally, as part of their interactions with customers and the marketplace. The reality is that unless you've created an innovation-ready culture and an innovation practice, the clues that you get from the market will go largely unnoticed, since many of them will threaten the profitability of your current business model, products, and services.
2. Tell everyone to "think outside the box," hold a brainstorming session, and then call it a day.
Few companies I've worked with lack an abundance of good ideas. But ideas are not innovation. Ideas do not create value. Yet the focus in many of these companies is coming up with even more ideas, when what they should be doing is asking how they can evaluate and validate the best ideas. Companies that sustain innovation build, implement, and communicate a process to support innovation; they are constantly harvesting, evaluating, testing, and measuring the impact of ideas.
3. View "different" and "new" as bad.
The number of very smart people I've heard say, "That's just not the way we do it around here!" is the single most incredible aspect of my job. So the next time you want to say "That's not the way we do it here," try instead saying, "We prefer to let someone else do it that way and succeed in figuring it out, so that they can take our customers away from us." Doesn't sound as comforting, does it? Here's a news flash: The greatest threats to any business come from automatically rejecting ideas that seem to make the least business sense because they are the most antithetical to your current business model. Think it won't happen to you? You'll recognize the next big thing, especially if it's right under your nose? So did Kodak, which invented digital photography and then summarily killed it, and themselves.
4. 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 two of the most pressing issues are protecting and funding new ideas. In practice, I've seen more ideas killed off by well intentioned accountants and lawyers than by virtually any other innovation killer. If you really want to protect and fund the best ideas, create an Innovation Zone within your business.
5. Be very, very afraid of failure.
Failure-tolerant leadership is one of the most important ingredients in creating an innovative culture. Here's the scary truth: If you succeed in creating a culture of innovation then you will experience many failures. The question is: Are you the kind of organization that can fail fast and embrace innovation in spite of it? As a leader, you need to spell out what constitutes an acceptable failure. If you don't, then don't expect people to attempt anything that might fail. I recall working with a multibillion-dollar company on an innovation initiative. The CEO had gathered his staff of 60 strong to talk about innovation. At the end of the meeting, he proclaimed, "Great meeting! I just want you to keep in mind that in our business, the upside is limited and the downside is unlimited!" Yeah, that pretty much killed any hope of innovation.
6. Innovate only when you need to.
It's tantalizing to try to innovate on demand. It appears to cost less, focuses on specific issues, 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 a great motivator, but it is also the most expensive way to innovate, and it rarely changes long-term behaviors. Consider that only 20 percent of all people who experience a serious cardiac event go on to modify their behaviors over the long term. In the same way, you'll never sustain innovation by just waiting for the next crisis.
7. Encourage everyone to drop any and all ideas into an electronic submission box.
The suggestion box is my all-time favorite innovation killer. It's the roach motel of innovation. Organizations make two fatal mistakes when they take this path. First, they put one part-time person at the narrow end of a very large funnel of new ideas. That's 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 submitter almost never knows what happened to his or her idea, and soon gives up on even trying. Ideas need to be treated with respect. Our ideas are our children. We want them to be acknowledged, cared for, and nurtured. Ignoring ideas is the best way to convince your associates that innovation is nothing more than a hollow mantra.
Although each of the seven innovation killers is familiar, overcoming them requires constant diligence on your part. As a leader, it may well be the most important responsibility you have to the long-term success of your company. It's hard work--you have to create a culture that embraces uncertainty, you have to define the boundaries of acceptable failure, and you have to recognize and reward measurable innovation. In short, innovation has to become a set of habits that is consciously kept alive through your leadership.
The good news is that if you work to keep the innovation killers at bay, you will create a culture that not only thrives on innovation but can't live without it.