Thursday, September 18, 2008

Why Johnny can't innovate

Do you remember the mantra from about a decade ago? Many of us were wondering why "Johnny can't read" or why "Johnny can't understand math". This approach was meant to expose the fact that many kids were graduating from school without the capability to do the basic functions that seemed necessary and prerequisites for graduating. Today, many CEOs ask the same things about their companies - Why can't we innovate?

There were a number of reasons that Johnny couldn't read - poor teachers, poor instruction, lack of preparation, no incentives to do well in school and so on. Perhaps as well there were social stigmas for doing well in school, or perhaps some of the kids had dyslexia or other undiagnosed problems that made it difficult for them to learn to read. In any complex problem there are usually more than one underlying challenges or root causes. The same is true with innovation.

First, let's just say that for many of us, we can innovate. It's not a failure of the individual that innovation isn't happening more consistently in most businesses. If anything, in our experience, most people are frustrated at the pace of innovation within their firms and feel trapped by the bureaucracy and decision making. So, Johnny can innovate. It's usually the company that can't.

So, if we accept that many people are interested and engaged in innovation at a personal level, where's the disconnect between that initiative and drive and the fact that innovation isn't more prevalent? Most companies, intentionally or not, erect barriers and inhibitors to innovation. Here are just a few:

  • Most people work within one business unit or function, but often innovative ideas combine capabilities from several functions or business units. While we are optimized to work within a business function or unit, many firms struggle to work well across business units or functions
  • Most people are compensated on a specific set of goals. Rarely does the compensation include any aspect of innovation. So, while we ask people to be innovative, we compensate them for their "regular" or "day" jobs
  • Innovation requires change and risk, two factors that most firms try to eliminate from day to day operations. Failure, change and risk are career killers in most firms, so few people have the strength of will to attempt them.
  • The pressure from Wall Street for quarterly earnings is so high that few organizations do a good job looking at evolving trends and new opportunities. Even the firms that do look further out rarely look more than 18 months into the future, often less than a full product cycle.
  • Most businesses have optimized their staffing and processes to the point where there is no slack in the system. It can be difficult to squeeze in a meeting with a senior manager, much less find the time to explore a new idea or concept in any detail.
In the face of all of these intentional and unintentional barriers, is it any wonder that many firms struggle to create interesting new products and services, much less innovative products and services? Johnny, and Suzy, and Mary, and a lot of the other folks in your organization can innovate, and many of them are ready and willing to do so. What does your organization do to either enable them to be successful, or place obstacles in their way?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:01 AM

7 Comments:

Blogger Gray Rinehart said...

Excellent! So good I forwarded the link to my colleagues in the Industrial Extension Service at NCSU. Thanks!

10:04 AM  
Blogger Jeremy Gershfeld said...

I completely agree that people do not know how to share the flow of information across specialties or disciplines.I blog about how we engage in listening from the perspective of a classical musician. I'm at http://gershfeldislistening.blogspot.com

Jeremy Gershfeld

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