Take a look around your workplace. Is the team overworked and exhausted? Some leaders put pressure on staff to maintain a sense of predictability. How does your company feel about surprises?
What about discussions of new ideas for the business? Can anyone take part, or are they the exclusive domain of a select few? And what happens when a team member fails? Does she shrug it off, or will she face public humiliation?
Your answers to these questions reveal a tremendous amount about your company’s capacity for innovation.
Obstacles to Innovation
Today, the number of businesses that don’t describe themselves as innovative is dwindling. That’s because we all recognize the fundamental importance of innovation: It creates opportunity, transforms markets, and fuels growth. But it thrives on uncertainty, and that’s something that makes many leaders nervous.
Plenty of companies that claim to foster innovation are actually smothering it. This is especially true when a business is in crisis mode; strategic innovation is deemed “not vital” and shoved to the back burner. But whether they’re aware of it or not, many companies confound their own ability to innovate through a common set of obstacles, making innovation impossible even as leaders push for it. Those include:
1. An organizational culture that stifles uncertainty.
Every business has the potential to innovate. Many, however, deny this potential by focusing exclusively on cut-and-dried performance metrics. This narrow-minded pursuit of conformity and predictability stifles ideas that are new and unique, as they are a perceived threat to efficiency.
For a company to innovate, there needs to be room to experiment, play, and fail. There must be a language for fostering, managing, and measuring innovation — a language that extends across the entire business. Organizational culture sets the foundation for innovation.
2. Using the phrase “Prove it.”
Early-stage innovation is, for lack of a better word, fuzzy. When an idea is born, it is malleable, fragile, and imbued with limitless potential; it’s not something that can be easily quantified. So when an employee brings a new idea to a manager and the response is “Prove it,” leadership is essentially clipping the idea’s wings.
If that employee fails to prove her idea and experiences a form of rejection, that may well prevent her from taking the risk to think creatively in the future.
3. A focus on past glory and a “one-right-way” mindset.
Success in the past can create an undertow in the present, sucking down anything on the horizon that doesn’t look like what came before. Companies that obsess over recreating past glory are doomed to a narrow mindset. Why innovate when you feel you already know all there is to know about the business?
Because things are always changing, this mindset is not sustainable. It restricts flexibility and monopolizes the oxygen that might breathe life into something new.
4. Maintaining a culture of fear of failure.
An enterprise that is struggling to innovate will strive to maximize efficiency, effectiveness, and quality. These are critical indicators that can accommodate certain levels of risk. However, if risk and failure are off-limits, leadership won’t invest in transformational strategic initiatives that capture or create new markets.
In the long run, the drive to protect efficiency, effectiveness, and quality can damage organizational health.
How to Activate Innovation
Though these obstacles are endemic, they also have straightforward solutions. Here are a few guidelines for activating your company’s potential for innovation:
Invest time, energy, and resources in creating an innovation-capable culture. Start by identifying key behaviors you’d like to see your team adopt. For example, encourage them to conduct first-person research with customers in order to gain a more empathetic understanding of customer needs. Give your team the time and resources to explore new concepts and designs through rapid, small-scale experimentation.
Create processes for capturing new ideas; help your managers identify and foster the key behaviors you believe will result in innovative thinking.
Hold leaders accountable for innovation performance. How are your leaders spending their time? What part of their workday is devoted to pursuing innovation?
Incorporate innovation into the ongoing dialogue at the senior leadership level. Launch innovation-focused projects and make individual leaders responsible for their oversight and success. Tie performance systems to innovation efforts, as well as outcomes.
Honor past glories without being a slave to them. Rather than trying to repeat the efforts of the past, recognize the deeper actions that made them successful. Craft stories around these actions. What risks did the team take in order to orchestrate the success? What insights were gained?
Share these stories as a way to engage and challenge the team in the present, but encourage them to move forward in their own creative new ways.
Invest in innovation at multiple levels. Create slack in the enterprise that can serve as a breeding ground for innovation. Build a pool of shared resources, offer capacity-building opportunities, and bring in external subject matter experts. Innovation occurs when people have the skills, motivation, and permission to see things in a new light.
Innovation is vital to a company’s health. Without it, the business becomes stale and non-competitive. And on a more human level, the pursuit of innovation is as rewarding as it is thrilling. It injects life into your team.
Even if the outcome is less predictable, don’t be afraid. Investing in innovation is one of the most important strategic moves your company can make.
About the Author: Andrew (Drew) C. Marshall is the Principal of Primed Associates, an innovation consultancy. He is a co-host of a weekly innovation-focused Twitter chat, #innochat; the founder, host, and producer of Ignite Princeton; and a contributor to the Innovation Excellence blog. See more by him at his Google Plus Profile.