What really blocks innovation
If there are a number of hidden or unspoken barriers or concerns about innovation, what are they, and how do we address them before trying to start innovation initiatives or projects? I think there are four issues that block innovation but are often hidden from view:
- Executive alignment
- Uncertainty about near term and longer term objectives
- Resource allocation
- Don't want to "go first" but don't want to be "left behind"
After countless business books, management philosophies, balanced scorecards and other means of obtaining executive alignment, you'd think that every organization is closely aligned to strategic goals and outcomes. Where innovation is concerned, nothing is further from the truth. When we talk to executive teams about innovation, its clear that there are very different perspectives, different goals and even different definitions between and among members of many executive teams. What most executive teams are aligned to is obtaining the next quarter, staying within budget and driving up share price. Anything that may call any of these objectives into question is anathema to the team. While executives demand innovation, they hope it will happen in ways that do not disrupt the highly tuned "business as usual" operating models I described in Relentless Innovation. Further, even when there is some agreement about the need for "innovation", what is usually described as innovation is really incremental change at best, or continuous improvement. Executive teams lack a common language and definitions about innovation, and limit their sights and definitions to incremental, internal and product-oriented innovation, rather than the breadth and depth of innovation potentials and outcomes that are possible and necessary. The vision for innovation is cramped, cautious and serendipitous at best.
Uncertainty about objectives
Which is most important? Obtaining short term goals or envisioning long term needs and objectives? And what does "long term" mean anyway? After years of right-sizing, most organizations have just enough people to accomplish the day to day work. Pulling the best people from the day to day activities to focus on longer term innovation seems risky and dangerous. Where should the teams place emphasis? How much of the existing time, resource and focus should be placed on day to day efficiency? How much should be focused on longer term objectives with less than certain outcomes? If resources are reallocated to innovation, what should the team "Stop" doing? Here lies the rub. We all have limited resources and far more opportunities than we can pursue. Which are the most important, and what should we "start" doing, and what should we "stop" doing in order to free up the resources necessary to innovate? This question is probably the most difficult for many executive teams to answer. Until there is clarity about objectives and they are placed in the correct balance by the CEO or other senior executives, the management team will revert to what is safe and predictable, and innovation will be starved for attention and resources.
As noted above, until the objectives are clear, little focus is placed on innovation, and resources are scarce. But there's more to this than simply creating more focus around objectives. It's not a matter of simply "more" resources, but a matter of the "right" resources at the right time. Innovation demands the best people in the organization, not simply the people who are available or who can be freed up from their existing activities. This is not a case where more bodies are necessary. Innovation suffers unless the best people are involved. When the most respected people are involved, the ideas seem less risky, they have the backing of the best people in the organization. When people who enjoy less respect are involved in innovation, you send the signal that innovation is less important, and the ideas are more easily ignored. What is the level of investment your team is willing to provide for innovation, not just in the number of people, but the caliber of the people? You send a very powerful message as an executive team with the choices you make, both in terms of the number of people, as well as the type and caliber of people. Think of it this way: who on your team can you least afford to "give up" to an innovation activity? If innovation is as important as we think it is, can you afford for them to not be on the team?
No pioneers but plenty of followers
No one wants to be the first to try out a new activity or methodology when so much is on the line, especially in organizations with highly efficient processes and limited resources. So it can be very difficult to find an executive on the management team willing to take the plunge and start an innovation activity. I've been fortunate enough to sit in on meetings where the CEO asks his or her team, "who wants to lead an innovation effort?" and the silence is overwhelming. Everyone in the room recognizes the possibilities and the risks involved. There's a palpable sense of fear based mostly on concerns about "failing" to achieve a novel concept and also based on distracting the organization from their day to day activities. Yet what is also interesting is that every executive wants as much investment and attention as the next one, so while no one wants to go first, most don't want to go "last" or see another individual gain a lot of credibility because they were successful. Don't kid yourself, any executive team is a group of people who are at the top of their game, and who want every last resource they can obtain and every last opportunity they can pursue. While innovation is risky, these executives don't necessarily want to be the first to the plate, and definitely don't want others to gain an inordinate about of credit for the success they may achieve.
Clarity, alignment, resourcing, leadership
Before asking your teams to innovate, examine the commitment and alignment of the executive team. Sustained innovation can only occur when there is clarity about goals, alignment within the executive team to the goals, deep commitments to appropriate staffing and resource allocation, and the willingness to lead into risky or uncertain initiatives. When these factors are present, innovation can flourish. When any one is absent, innovation will suffer, because we tend to revert to safer, more familiar activities when we feel threatened.