Friday, March 19, 2010

Innovators shackled by chains of their own making

I think there's a quote from someone famous that suggests that many people are shackled by chains of their own manufacture.  I didn't have the time or energy to research that quote, and it's possible I've simply made it up.  But the quote or statement is relevant to a number of people who want to innovate.  Too often we are bound not by impossible tasks or improbable ideas, but by limits we believe others are imposing on us, when often those limits don't exist.

I was speaking recently with a colleague who is a senior innovator in his firm.  For years his team had been told that "legal" wouldn't approve any new ideas, and it was useless to try to generate new product ideas, since they'd only be shot down by the legal team.  My friend, a bit bolder than the rest, suggested that they put this barrier to the test.  Rather than simply use this assumption as an excuse not to innovate, they decided to innovate and find out what would happen if they did present new ideas to legal.  Being a bit more intelligent and insightful than some of his colleagues, he also simply approached the "legal" team and asked what the roadblocks and barriers were likely to be for a new idea.  To his surprise, the "legal" team seemed interested and eager to work with him to advance new ideas.  His team, in fact his entire business unit, had been so certain for so long that legal would simply reject ideas that they had basically resigned themselves to not innovating.

I believe many organizations face this same problem.  Many executives want their teams to create interesting new products and services, since the organization needs organic growth, but many within the organization believe another business unit or function will block or reject their ideas, so what's the point of trying?  Whether that blocking factor is a person, or a business function, or an executive, many organizations have a bugaboo within their ranks that they believe will shoot down ideas.  And rather than confront the possible challenger, they simply use this "fact" as a reason not to innovate.  In fact it is probably one of the most acceptable reasons to fail to innovate, since "everybody knows" that group X will reject the idea.

Working in an agricultural organization we generated a lot of very interesting ideas for new products.  The teams seemed reticent to do much with the ideas however, so we investigated the problem.  In this organization all new products had to pass a "safety" inspection, and that group was "notorious" for rejecting ideas. So many in the organization had simply decided that rather than have their ideas rejected, they'd simply not innovate at all - to the point that anyone could literally "shoot down" an idea by simply saying "safety will reject the idea".

There is psychological research that supports this groupthink.  Years ago a scientist placed a number of monkeys in a cage with a tree, and a bunch of bananas in the top.  Anytime one of the monkeys tried to climb the tree to get the bananas, the monkey would receive a shock.  Pretty soon the monkeys were pulling back any monkey that even went near the tree.  The scientists then slowly removed the original monkeys and added new ones.  The remaining original monkeys didn't let the newcomers anywhere near the tree.  Eventually all of the original monkeys were removed, and the new monkeys were avoiding the tree, even though none of them had been shocked or tried to climb the tree.  They simply accepted the behavior as normal.

Many innovators are shackled by chains they make for themselves, or allow to be imposed on them.  The real breakthroughs happen when people reject the metaphorical chains of culture, or acceptance and start testing new ideas without fear of rejection.  Until your teams can eliminate the barriers to innovation that exist within their own expectations, and then remove barriers that actually exist within your culture, you'll simply accept the status quo.  And what you are likely to find is that the imagined barriers are much less formidable than you'd expect.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:44 AM


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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