Innovation may be the obvious business mandate, but
plenty of companies are guilty of creating a culture where a
good idea has as much opportunity to take root as most of us
have of winning the lottery. What gives?
For starters, the creative process can be fragile and
requires support and nurturing. That can be tough in
today’s fear-inducing environment of rapid technological
change and marketplace competition—but it also makes
innovation essential. So take a journey through our list of
innovation killers, and find out if your company is crushing
good ideas or allowing growth and change to flourish.
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5 Steps to Foster Innovation
Innovation killer #1: Believe that innovation will
Trusting that innovation will take care of itself is like
believing a vegetable garden will just happen to appear in your
yard one day. Innovation requires the investment of time and
money, and it requires a process to support it, according to
Thomas Koulopoulos, founder of the innovation consultancy
Delphi Group. Like a garden—a fragile and time-consuming
endeavor—the innovation process requires a place for
seeds (or ideas) to root. It also requires weeding, protection
against predators, and consistent nurturing and care.
Attention to innovation is a requirement in today’s
world, says Koulopoulos. Even in industries where the margins
are slim—such as manufacturing and
sourcing—innovation is a must. “Here’s the
irony,” he says. “Even though I might find that I
cannot afford to take a big risk, that doesn’t mean that
somewhere on the globe I won’t be challenged.” As
an example of how vulnerable standing still makes you, he
points to the American auto industry, now failing in its battle
against foreign carmakers; the competitors did think it was
important to innovate.
Innovation tip: Lobby for the importance of innovation, and
the dollars and owners to support it.
Next: Should you think “outside the
Innovation killer #2: Tell everyone to “think
outside of the box,” hold a brainstorming session, then
call it a day.
Great ideas are the seeds of innovation; they are not
innovation itself. “Everyone [for example] has the idea
for a book in their head,” says Koulopoulos, “but
there’s a huge gap between ‘book in the head’
and the laborious process of writing the thing.”
Invention and innovation are mistakenly synonymous in so
many people’s minds; but they are different and you need
both. Koulopoulos points out that companies that get innovation
right have a holistic view of innovation and create a culture
to ensure that it flourishes. This means a process to support
innovation is created, implemented and communicated so that
everyone knows how it works and is able to participate.
Innovation tip: Create a formalized process for ensuring
that ideas are nurtured.
Next: Who should control the innovation process?
Innovation killer #3: Lay the success of innovation
solely on IT’s shoulders.
Technology should support the role of innovation, not lead it,
says Koulopoulos. This is because innovation is first an issue
of corporate culture, concerning things like rewards,
inspiration and motivation.
In any situation, you get two activities—the invention
and the innovation, or the actual process of innovating.
Koulopoulos draws a hard line between the two and says
technology’s role falls after invention. IT should be
involved with implementing the technology that best supports
the innovation process. For example, many companies are turning
to vendors that offer idea management technology, such as iBank
Innovation tip: Realize—and convey—IT’s
role in the innovation process.
Next: Should you keep some of the idea process
Innovation killer #4: Create an obstacle course for
Guaranteed way to kill the innovative spirit? Model your
processes on Kafka’s The Trial or your typical
parking clerk’s office.
Bureaucracy and Byzantine processes discourage enthusiasm
and participation. In a teambuilding game conducted by the
Improv Asylum, participants quickly find out that saying yes
or at least a positive version of no creates a more
participative, stronger team. Conversely, when
employees’ ideas are treated with derision or
disrespect or the process is confusing and difficult to
navigate, enthusiasm will likely deflate. That’s just
what Koulopoulos found when he surveyed 374 senior IT execs;
22 percent of respondents reported losing interest in
championing their idea due to internal process and
Innovation tip: Make the innovation process transparent and
clear-cut, and create ways to support the entire
Next: Should tradition be your guide?
Innovation killer #5: View “different” and
“new” as bad.
Ever watched a new idea shot down at time-warp speed with a
derisive “that won’t work”? Chances are the
naysayer was one of the more entrenched execs. “This is
the single greatest trap companies fall into,” says
Koulopoulos, “and it’s a people issue: When
you’ve invested yourself [in how things are], the last
thing you want is for them to change.”
But not being open to change is a big mistake, he says. Take
the newspaper industry’s initial
refusal to acknowledge (and take advantage of) the
disruption by the Internet. As a consequence, ad sales,
newspapers’ primary source of revenue, flatlined in
2006, according to the 2007 “State of the News
Media” report by Project for Excellence in
“I hear [a] lot of people talk about how media has
less integrity—we’re not editing, etcetera,”
says Koulopoulos. But, he points out news and media are being
consumed differently, and the gap between the pre-Web model of
media and the increasingly interactive version of it
will only widen. So are you going to stick to your
“values” about the way things should be? Or do
you respond to change and the need for
innovation? Certainly the internal resistance can be
difficult to overcome, but few companies can afford to cling
to the past, he says.
Today’s world requires companies to become more like a
Gillette, which is “not afraid to eat its young,”
says Koulopoulos. He says that the company will invest enormous
amounts of money in developing products that will compete with
existing ones, for one simple reason: If Gillette doesn’t
innovate on its products, someone else will.
Innovation tips: Study stories of people and companies that
took risks. Also: Learn why fear of change is hardwired
into our bodies.
Next: Does appointing innovation administrators
guarantee idea safekeeping?
Innovation killer # 6: Hand over the good ideas to the
Legal and Accounting departments.
Ideas are fragile, easily broken or squashed. On the surface,
giving the care of those ideas to Legal or Accounting may make
sense, since one of the greatest issues with inventions are
legal ones. And there are financial considerations as well.
But those with the most influence over the idea process must
be the innovation champions, and that emphasis must come from
the top, says Koulopoulos. CIO magazine’s own
research bears this out. At 61 percent, the highest-scoring
critical ingredient of an innovative culture was
innovation-focused leadership, according to
CIO’s survey of 2007 CIO 100 winners. (Winners are
chosen for innovations in IT that have transformed the
Innovation tip: Create support and ownership for innovation
at management’s uppermost tiers.
Next: What risks are acceptable?
Innovation killer #7: Be very, very afraid of
Failure-tolerant management was the third most important
ingredient in creating an innovative culture, according to
CIO’s survey; it came in at 25 percent.
There’s a reason why this factor is so important.
No doubt you can build an iterative process and lessen the
cost of a failure, says Koulopoulos, but the bottom line is the
market is fickle and you can’t predict what will
Here’s the scary truth: You will fail sometimes. Like
a child learning to ride a bike, you simply cannot move ahead
without taking a few knocks. The question is: Are you the kind
of organization that can embrace innovation in spite of
Innovation tip: What doesn’t work out is merely a
learning experience and therefore fodder for the innovation
cycle. Use case studies, research and other support to show
naysayers why learning experiences are a must in
today’s corporate environment.