Surfacing Hidden Barriers to Innovation

by Paul Hobcraft

Surfacing Hidden Barriers to InnovationTo surface hidden barriers that might be blocking innovation does needs a conscious effort, a consistent questioning, validating and exploring to “peel away” and get at the root of the problem. Often it is simply the fear of moving from the current established practices into new ways and that stepping over is very hard and often very personal.Often in innovation adoption there are so many hidden barriers that need drawing out and resolving.

It becomes even harder when it comes to getting an executive team to recognize this. Achieving identification within a collective team, drawn from different disciplines, to surface their fears and address the numerous hidden barriers that can be holding innovation back is extremely hard. It needs a lot of debate, facts and recognition and precious time. Then that real recognition that this behavioural change- as that is what it is- needs to be taken to bring innovation more centrally into everyone’s thinking and lives.

Innovation requires concerted, dedicated efforts to take hold, to become fully embedded and run through the veins of the organization as the new blood type. Those famous antibodies kick in from all sides to protect the status quo, keep doing “business as usual.” The external adviser has the tough job of grappling all those objections to the floor, hence why we call it a work mat.

This is one of the real value points of having an external adviser as the facilitator and where the value of the Executive Work Mat series starts kicking in. It is very hard for a member of a team, including the CEO, to instigate a change of the magnitude needed for innovation to really be embraced and adopted without specialized knowledgeable help to be on hand.

Stimulating the innovation carriers

I’ve outlined previously about the issues surrounding the hidden human dimension of innovation:

It is the pivotal role of people as innovation carriers – their networks, collaborations, knowledge flows, interactions and tacit knowledge – and how innovation itself is a potent competitive force that drives productivity”.

To allow innovation to flow within organizations requires the senior executives to address their own potential inhibitions so they then become the innovation carriers and allow the true force of innovation to be unleashed.

It is through engagement that allows innovation to happen. We need to make innovation the social process it needs to be but this starts from the top, leaders have to come together and decide to lea. They need to surface their own hidden barriers to innovation otherwise many others within the organization simply stumble along in their own interpretations of how innovation fits within the grand scheme of things. Or they simply “wait” or never change as they don’t see the direction coming from the top of the organization. Leadership is required for innovation to really make that transformational hold.

We need to re-frame innovation as a series of challenges

Let me explain part of the power of the Executive Innovation Work Mat. I think it is important to offer any change deriving from the work coming out of the work mat as innovation challenges that need addressing, as necessary issues to be aligned and clarified. The work mat can only trigger, its outcomes need resolution and commitment.

For me managers relate to challenges, they are trained to respond, to investigate, to surface the issues and find ways to tackle the problems. Innovation management is no different. Part of the design of the work mat is to surface the gaps that exist that requires executive resolution so to allow innovation to be fully integrated within organizations and aligned with strategic goals and objectives.

Addressing hidden barriers and personal blockages through ten challenges

So for each executive to address innovation I believe lies ten challenges they need to question within themselves so as to answer and then collectively discuss. These allow a clear framing dialogue to unblock innovation and bring together clarity of where innovation needs to fit within the organization going forward.

The ten challenges can actually have a vital part to play in cascading this down the organization, for everyone to reflect upon and address. They become part of the communication mechanism to form a common language for innovation. Different views can surface for the challenges but they all need addressing.

The ten innovation change challenges

Addressing the issue of unfamiliar responsibilities – new and different ways of working, of understanding, of allowing innovation to take hold and flourish is often demanding new ways of responding, often adding to increasing responsibilities. This needs surfacing

Innovation demands new directions – making significant changes to the way the organization is run is very challenging, potentially disrupting and needs thinking through at the top level well.

Inherited problems always surface – addressing countless and inherent problems is messy and requires dedicated resolution. Changing a culture to become more innovative can be a massive step in structure, organization and policies.

Problems within the organizations make up – inadequate experience and resistance to change especially surface when a person is not equipped to deal with it. Installing innovation capacity, capabilities and competencies needs figuring out

High stakes of innovation – demanding breakthrough innovation makes everyone feel increasing vulnerable, increasingly visible and leadership has a real responsibility to manage this risk and set of fears. They need to be ready to ‘positively react and encourage’ both in supporting winning solutions and extracting positive learning from failures.

Scope and scale of innovation – Managing in scale and scope is demanding and requires well thought through systems and processes. To scope innovation needs robust business case approaches, its flexibility in its management and then to scale this up requires well established approaches and clear commitments to its engagement and execution.

External pressures multiply – everyone has an opinion outside the organization, let alone inside. Balancing these different interfaces and the pressures from these as you explore innovation needs managing well. Avoid that trait of just keeping raising expectations and actively work at the alignment for the ability to deliver on the promise.

Influencing without full authority – key activities within innovation usually demand that you become reliant on others. You need to spend (seemingly) inordinate time explaining and gaining others buy in and their own identification with concepts so as to move emerging innovation concepts along the pipeline. You need to find often imaginative ways of attracting across the resources needed. This is especially hard for senior managers to adapt too, the need to attract across, instead of simply expect, demand and simply take.

Work more with a listening and feedback culture – this can be totally different from the way business has been conducted today, through a more hierarchical structure. Flattening organizations to allow greater two way flow sucks up time; it simply undoes or unpicks command and control over time. It takes time to establish and gain the confidence and momentum. You need to allow more for debate, it shifts and alters the hierarchy and structures and that is a big step into an unknown, yet it is necessary for organization change, to allow innovation to truly flourish on a more sustaining basis.

The need to develop work group diversity – innovation asks for more diversity in opinion, it draws out more in thinking, in discipline, in alternative approaches and solution. This often leaves senior executives feeling they are less in control, reliant on other and that can feel scary and surface their own insecurities, buried increasingly as they moved up the organization and took on responsibility and accountability. It challenges often their very notion of management as they have known and experienced it. Innovation in its management challenges many past notions of managing.

To summarize

Each of these ten innovation challenges needs to be surfaced at the right time within any executive work mat discussion. Each one, individually can block innovation from advancing. Finding that right moment is not easy to draw these out but it is certainly necessary, otherwise those hidden barriers never come to the surface and get resolved.

Reducing concerns, addressing risks and making considered decisions are what senior executives are trained and schooled to be good at. To allow innovation to take hold, the key is to work hard at surfacing the known and hidden dimensions blocking innovation. These ten challenges can ‘break open’ the road blocks. Clearly any innovation journey, if seriously undertaken, needs some really dedicated work. The Executive Innovation Work Mat facilities this as the central gathering point and that is why Jeffrey Philips and I really believe in its value to innovation’s future within organizations.

The aim is to move up the innovation learning curve.

We have to often remember senior managers are used to being successful by competing. The genuine change in their mindsets and understandings they need to often undertake for innovation is sometimes difficult to adapt too and sustain, as they are often on a steep and unexpected learning curve themselves.

Like all aspects of change, this is only achieved through engaging them so they are beginning to change the way the organization needs to work to achieve its strategic innovation goals.

The original list of the ten challenges has been adapted from “creating learning experiences without changing jobs” by Cynthia McCauley at the CCL in 2006. I’ve applied it for a way for surfacing innovation issues and personal concerns at executive and organization levels.

image credit: chances4volunteering.org

Wait! Before you go.

Choose how you want the latest innovation content delivered to you:


Paul HobcraftPaul Hobcraft runs Agility Innovation, an advisory business that stimulates sound innovation practice, researches topics that relate to innovation for the future, as well as aligning innovation to organizations core capabilities.