What Impedes Innovation?

by Janice Maffei

What Impedes Innovation?Five Glitches Sabotaging Your Plan

What company, division or team isn’t striving for some combination of better, faster, cheaper in order to compete? A recent Korn/Ferry survey found that 84% of executives believe that innovation is very important to future success. No big surprise – everyone in the business and non-profit worlds seem to be talking innovation as mission critical. Organizations are awash in innovation projects, incorporating innovation objectives in annual plans and leadership competencies, and devising metrics to track progress. How are they doing? Only 15% of those same executives are very satisfied with the level of innovation in their companies.

If innovation is the new North Star, then what are the likely obstacles and common traps that derail your drive for the breakthrough?

Whether at the institutional or team level, whether focused on products, services or processes, consider five recurring glitches that slow down or, even worse, can cause a backslide despite your best intentions.

GLITCH # 1: Fuzzy Vision – Amorphous Goal

“A problem well stated is a problem half-solved,” according to Charles Kettering – and, as the holder of 140 patents, he should know. In order to focus breakthrough effort, the challenge needs to be stated clearly enough to unleash big ideas that drive at the heart of the challenge or opportunity. For example, the question “how can we focus on long term strategy in the heat of short term pressure?” drives right into the heart of a fast-paced culture too busy to think forward. Of course the answer is that organizations need to do both – deliver results today and set sail for the future. But framing the right question can make all the difference in thinking differently. So take a close look – how sharply defined is the innovation challenge you face? When Howard Shultz described the innovation challenge for Starbucks as “a third place between work and home” he neglected to mention coffee. Yes, coffee was part of the plan, but he focused on the experience. Have you grabbed the hearts and minds of the team with compelling words that will focus effort and stimulate solutions?

GLITCH #2: Old School Brainstorming

Brainstorming has become a check-the-box part of company cultures. Yet idea generation needs to go beyond flip charts and “no idea is a bad idea” kind of thinking. It’s a discipline for generating, building on and shaping ideas. Here are three tips for better brainstorming. For starters, create an environment safe enough to entertain the wildest possibilities, creating a runway down the road for its more plausible version. Try this partway through your next brainstorm – ask “what ideas are so crazy they could get you fired?” After a self-conscious few snickers, the conversation typically takes a liberated turn for the better as ideas become more free-wheeling. Take it even further by inviting outsiders to the brainstorming party, those without a vested interest in the status quo or burdened with well ingrained habits of the past. Beth Comstock, Chief Marketing Officer of GE reports on compelling outcomes from the GE Open Innovation Challenge where a broad-based online community generates ideas, sorts through them, votes, debates and rallies toward outcomes. Third, get outside. If you stay within your industry, category, or even your office, it will be hard to think new thoughts. Steve Jobs got inspiration for the Mac graphics from a restaurant menu. What and who can add inspiration for your team?

GLITCH #3: No Care and Feeding of Best Ideas

Even the best of brainstorming will never deliver ready to execute ideas. Ideas need to be advanced and explored; they need to be cultivated with key stakeholders so they don’t suffer an early death, snuffed out by the inertia of the status quo. Whose buy-in is needed for the idea and what will happen if you don’t get it? Think about the first barcoded product -a pack of Juicy Fruit gum – now on display in the Smithsonian. When supermarket executive Alan Haberman worked to advance a universal product code in the 1970s he met with endless resistance from colleagues and collaborators who could envision more problems than solutions. In the end, it was not just his persistence with cultivating a shared belief in a linear strip of bars to automate and organize product information – but his effective relationship and trust building with constituents that won the day. What more can you do to till the ground, to cultivate your best ideas?

Clearworks - Customers, Connections, Clarity

GLITCH #4: Saying No Is Easy

No doubt, you will try new ideas and be disappointed in the results. Count on it – if you’re in innovation mode. But be careful not to jettison the plan at the first sign of imperfection. How can the idea be morphed? Bubble wrap was initially imagined as wallpaper and then greenhouse insulation before it became the product pioneer in protective packaging; Viagra emerged from a careful review of the test results from what was intended as a blood pressure drug. Buried in the experiments and pilots are kernels of potential; in a different application, they might be the unexpected breakthrough. The critic has been over-rewarded in the modern marketplace for discarding and dismantling what does not work. Route unexpected outcomes back to your idea generators for further exploration. What have you left on the cutting room floor that might spark an unexpected breakthrough?

GLITCH #5: Not Pausing to Learn

The culture of execution is in high gear in most organizations and the quiet time needed to thoughtfully debrief lessons learned is rare. What worked? What didn’t? Where were the surprises and bumps in the road? How did the team fare? This is not a performance review – set aside the impulse to blame and shame. Create an environment where learning is valued and disappointments reveal insights for a stronger cycle next time. This “learning loop” is one of the single, most economical ways to power up your performance. Exploring lessons learned helps team members to grow, transforming experience into wisdom. And it’s not just about glitches: understanding what was at the root of a success is just as valuable. Prepping for a global leadership meeting in which a successful project was to be showcased, we asked the naïve question: What was at the root of your success? Once prodded, the team stepped back to analyze what made it click – how they made decisions and shared information, for example – and how they could apply their learning to the next project. It took a couple of focused hours of candid, constructive conversation, not days or weeks of analysis and presentations. Is your team hitting the pause button for the team to reflect about what works and take the measure from success, disappointment and failure?

A culture of innovation cannot be legislated through memos or inspired solely by a catch phrase on your intranet. Instead of proclaiming your intention to innovate, see if any of these five common glitches are interfering with progress, then try something new. Clarify your vision. Boost your brainstorming efforts. Look for the serendipity in unplanned outcomes. Take a deep breath and learn from experience. You may be surprised to find that a small change in mindset and technique can yield exciting results.

Let’s embrace Meg Wheatley’s thought that “the things we fear most in organizations — fluctuations, disturbances, imbalances — are the primary sources of creativity.” Confront the glitch and let the problem solving begin.

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Janice MaffeiJoanne SpignerJanice Maffei and Joanne Spigner are the founding partners of VisionFirst, helping teams to envision their future state and innovate to get there. They invented the rapid visioning tool, Vision-in-a-Box® and co-hosted a weekly program, “Invent the Future,” which showcased innovators in business, education and not-for-profits.

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  1. With the company I work for, I am fairly certain that most of us come to work to maximize our paycheck, and have little to no idea what the owner sees in terms of growing the company, other than the usual “quality standards” and “keeping the place clean” stuff we hear regularly. I’m not certain how much the owner would entertain the notion of utilizing the workers to grow the company actually.

    Construction isn’t a growing industry right now. There will likely be a need forever here in the Pac Norwest because of the weather we have. So I at times gravitate to collectivising the local carpenters, creating a group that is more democratic in decision making as well as money sharing. It’s just a tad irritating when the owner goes to Hawaii while I get a short lay off.

    So I’ll take this article and share it with the owner, in part anyway, to see if he can open up a bit in terms of bringing us into the process of company growth.

    Thanks!

  2. Rob, kudos to you for inviting the boss to open up a dialogue about the future of the firm. You may find that in these tough times, he may be willing to have such a conversation. Be sure to pitch him the WIIFM from his angle (what’s in it for me…) so he can see the win from all sides. Keep us posted on progress. Best from J & J.

  3. How about innovation is at odds with the ‘norm’ within organizations- it is the opposite of striving to be efficent

  4. I’ve found that the Number 1 impediment to innovation — the kiss of death — is the association of an idea with a person. The Obama Jobs Plan is one where the name is LITERALLY on it. And there are many examples at work — e.g., Megan’s Budget, Ethan’s New Product Idea. But there are others where it’s just understood that a particular approach is the idea of one particular person.

    Sure, some people will evaluate the idea on its merits and offer suggestions to refine and advance it, but most people will stand most comfortably in one of two camps: Bystanders — Their mantra is “ignore the idea and maybe it’ll go away”, and Opposers — They tend to be the strongest and most energized and motivated people, and will line up to vigorously oppose and defeat it, just because it’s got someone else’s name on it.

    The answer is simple but far from easy to implement: If you’re really passionate about building or fixing something, just start by talking about the problem or challenge you’re trying to address. Invite many voices to the table. Minister to the “haters.” Their opinions and feelings matter too. Spend your time selling others on the benefits of working on the problem, rather than trying to get them to “buy into” an idea or solution that just happens to be “your baby”. Many people view helping someone else’s idea to come to fruition as little more than wasting their time just to make that other person look good. You didn’t know that? Sure you did! Why force your ideas into that buzzsaw of certain destruction?

    Ask yourself: Are you tough enough to resist the temptation to be a “poser” by putting your name on an idea? Do you care enough about growing the business to be willing to suppress your own ego? Do you feel passionately enough about your ideas that you’ll offer them up as some of many that will be evaluated by others in the group? Are you ready to accept the notion that “To influence others, you must first be completely open to being influenced by others”?

  5. Paul, true – it does take resources to innovate. While efficiency is always an important goal in the day to day operations, it’s important to understand its limitations too. What is efficient today may become outdated as processes (and those pesky competitors) leapfrog your current state. The trick is – you need to hold both ideas simultaneously: how to drive efficiency today while dedicating some resource (people, money, time) to the next big idea. Thanks for lobbing in your thought.

  6. Mike, you cut right to the heart of an important issue – who owns the idea? When projects become too associated with a single personality, it’s never a good thing. You say: “”Invite many voices to the table.” We couldn’t agree more. In fact, a critical step in the innovation cycle is ADVANCING – spreading ownership and gaining buy in for the multiple stakeholders it will take for successful implementation. This step is often overlooked as organizations rely on traditional power moves to push something through. Beware – as you point out. Influence is not simply a skill but a true mindset of listening and openness – a willingness to absorb new information and enrich the plan accordingly. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. J & J

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