Why do Supervisors Block Innovation?

by Paul Sloane

Often we find in large organisations that the executive team is keen to improve innovation and at the same time, front-line staff are frustrated and keen to change things.  So why is change not happening?  Who is impeding innovation?  Middle managers get the blame.  They are seen as the blockers.

John Kotter in his book, Leading Change, identifies supervisors as one of the key obstacles to major change initiatives.  He points out that they do not actively oppose change but they offer passive resistance. They are so busy doing their job that they don’t have time to implement someone else’s fancy idea.  They wait for the change initiative to lose momentum.  They focus on making the current systems work.

James Gardner takes a similar view in this blog Middle Management won’t Innovate.  He argues that middle managers do not innovate but this is not because they are not innovative.  They do not innovate because the systems and their objectives are inimical to innovation.  If we want to overcome this problem then two approaches spring to mind:

1.  Change the supervisors’ objectives to include innovation, initiative and risk-taking.  Give them targets for trying new approaches and include it as a measure in their appraisals. One issue here is that these metrics are hard to measure objectively.  Another is that these guys often have too many objectives already.


2.  Bypass the middle ground. Empower front-line staff to try new things in their work and set up skunk works to operate under the corporate radar and develop new products and services without having to go through normal approval channels.  But provide an executive level sponsor to give them the political clout they will sometimes need.

The ideal approach is for innovation to be in everyone’s objectives and for every employee to feel somewhat of an entrepreneur making the whole organisation more agile. However, many companies would find this culture change very hard to achieve. So the second approach of bypassing the normal channels and empowering a smaller number of innovators is often a better way to kickstart innovation.

image credit: info.law.indiana.edu

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Paul SloanePaul Sloane writes, speaks and leads workshops on creativity, innovation and leadership. He is the author of The Innovative Leader and editor of A Guide to Open Innovation and Crowdsourcing, both published by Kogan-Page.


  1. Yes I agree to your point as well that if normal mind is also allowed to flow with ideas they will too innovate.
    I stronly feel innovation is a mindset.. an innovative mind will always looks for it in any possible way… they will be crazy and go to any depth for that. …
    An innovative person will either silently do it n show it or defy the superior to achieve.. they are bitten by the innovation bug n it keeps their mind occupied 24×7

  2. Definitely true! How it is frustrating and slowing down, sometimes… But it seems to be in the nature of things and humans…

  3. The challenge with innovation is to distinguish a truly valuable idea from numerous others that are floating around each day.
    Where failure is not an acceptable option, it takes one to be almost foolhardy to try out ideas that are unproven and untested.

  4. Francisco de Rhodes Sérgio

    It is absolutely true.

    The difficult part is to make it real. How to change people’s mindset and aline objectives?

    Again, we get to the core of what makes a difference: (bidirectional) communication, (adequate and personalised) incentives and a free, transparent, efficient process for collaboration where everyone has a voice and people see innovation flowing from ideation, to cocreation to implementation.

    If you skip any of these you might even successfully launch an innovation program but it won’t last for long…

  5. We published an article on a similar theme that might be of interest:
    The Innovation Enthusiasm Gap

  6. Very interesting article. Indeed aligning the objectives of middle management it is critical to develop a more innovative organization. As long as the objectives don’t ostracize failure and learning from failure, which are also critical dimension in transforming an organization into a more innovative reality.

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