5 barriers for getting innovation going – and ways to deal with it.

I am a fortunate man. I have been given the chance to take part in exciting opportunities and projects from different industries and organizations as employee and manager such as: Ogilvy, Universum, LinkedIn, Connect, Cybercom and now Blocket. I’ve worked on different levels and as of late in management. All this has granted me insight in where most organizations fail and reasons for why when it comes to managing innovation. This is what I am going to write about today.

There is a big difference from managing innovation from managing raised efficiency (or continuous improvement) or optimizing processes in a company. Both are naturally important. Both have a severe impact on revenue, profitability and healthy company growth. Innovation is however a lot harder than the efficiency part, mainly because it requires us to change and look at things differently. Raising efficiency is a well known ground. It is about looking over processes we are already familiar with and which key stakeholders in the company agree are important. Therefore that kind of work is what -usually- takes up 100% of our time in ongoing meetings, projects and daily operational tasks.

Working with raising efficiency = Becoming even better at what we already do.

Working with innovation = Foreseeing what is to come and do something completely new.

Few companies are savvy enough to actually work with innovation actively despite most CEO’s agreeing to that innovation in a company is key for gaining a competitive edge vs. competitors and gaining an substantial increase in market share. Most often it is because of fear of what lies beyond or what will happen when we change something we have in front of us in the present. Accepting what we know and continue to do what won’t bring any surprises to our tomorrow is by far simpler for most people. Especially for decision makers who are most often rewarded for not embracing swift change in an organization.

Ironic since life in itself is about progress and change is around the corner at all times. Not progressing as a human being and in private life is considered a social reject status in most cultures. In every culture you are expected to progress within the lines of how the specific culture are used to judge success. In a typical western world civilization people expect you to study, get a job, raise a family, become promoted to a new job, travel places and of course add something unique because of your personality. Not everyone follow the same pattern or ever fulfil all of these steps or even want to for that matter – and that is fine. All these steps are however regarded as personal progress and a natural part of a successful beings life by the general community. Most important part is: Not progressing or not changing is not considered successful. Doing the same thing every year is considered unexciting and uninteresting.

Because of this it is ironic that companies fail to acknowledge and manage innovation to such an extent they are. We all know that change is something we face continuously. We all know that successfully facing and surpassing change is what makes us grow as individuals while remaining in status quo but doing it slightly better than the day before is not going to grant us new perspectives.

We all know this. Still there is plenty of reasons for why innovation is so hard to kick start in an organization. Let’s have a look at them.

Barriers for innovation:

1) Experience

This is what is most controversial when it comes to innovation; Experience is often one of the main barriers to make it happen. Mentioning that experience is not always a good thing is controversial for many and it is often misunderstood. Naturally experience is a core factor for running a profitable, healthy business, but it is not always the primary necessity regarding making change happen.

The model below is made to visualize my way of thinking when it comes to this aspect. (It is not scientifically proven. It is simply a visualization model for why experience is not always imperative for innovation.)

The size of the frame visualize an individuals openness for change of perspective. The less experience an individual has got the greater the openness. The main reason for this is because we have yet to acquire a wider frame of reference which is going to limit our perspectives and ‘tell us’ what we ‘should’ be regarding and not.

The red quadrant is the level of experience an individual has acquired and as said, the less it is the better we are to ‘look around’ for other perspectives. The wider our frame is to begin with, the more we will look around and the more open we are for listening to new perspectives before we decide on what we are going with – in a particular situation.

A clear majority of us start out in the big box to the left. We are open, unstained, have no prejudism to what is ok and not, we don’t have a boxed vision of right and wrong and what is going to solve our life and not. In private life it is very common we all agree that children are like this. Apply the same thinking to your professional profile development and you’ll see where I am heading with this.

The more we learn and the more experience we gain from working, the smaller our frame will become. We learn what works and not and our brain start excluding methods, choices and alternatives before we even know it – when meeting various problems or situations we face.

Is experience a bad thing then?

Of course not. Experience is crucial. What I describe is a perfectly normal consequence of gaining experience however. As the red quadrant grows which signifies our experience, we become smarter, faster, more efficient and more productive. Our experience becomes key in making a business run smoothly what can take 8 hours from someone inexperienced can take a mere hour for someone much more experienced. This we all know. So of course it is not a bad thing.

But as you also see the frame has been reduced in comparison to the big box on the left meanwhile the red quadrant is bigger. Therefore we become less open to new perspectives – because we are taught – or have taught ourselves – to not see, acknowledge or value them.

As you can see there are two boxes on the right where the lower one has a bigger frame than the one above. Simply said; we are all different. When some of us grow up, some are better in keeping a bigger frame throughout our professional lives while some others reduces their frame extensively. No frame is the same for every person. It is very individual and so is its transformation along with our experiences. For now we only need to acknowledge that this is a natural process and this change of perspective actually occurs. That said. The frame of Steve Jobs was surely a lot different from an ordinary industry man. My guess is Steve Jobs ended up in the lower box on the right and not the upper one. But as said, that is only a guess.

Every individual becomes more boxed because of his experiences. Some more than others. And then the experienced must become better to listen to those with a more open mindset. And the more experienced is most often the one to tell how to execute on the ideas.

Let me give some examples of when experience becomes an obstacle for innovation:

No we can’t do that. We have always done it like it is today.”

A senior manager saying this is protective. Foremost of already shaped processes and also of creating more work which could become ‘unnecessary’. He/she foresee that it will be hard to shape and apply new rules when the existing one is tested and used to such an extent and doesn’t believe this is the battle which is going to be most valuable to the organization. He/She also knows it is going to become a mess to propose this to his other managerial counter parts.

“We already tried that years ago and it didn’t work.”

A senior manager saying this relies on his experiences and plainly suggests it is a bad idea. Perhaps not because the idea sounds wrong but just because he happens to ‘know’ it won’t work out as planned.

This is a typical situation when someone more experienced fool himself because of his experience. Just because something didn’t work out five years ago doesn’t mean it won’t work out now. We have to remember that the prerequisite for an idea to work is not only the idea in itself. It is a lot about the people who act upon it, the market conditions at the time, the openness of clients going to use it (which is in constant change and more so now than ever) and foremost it is about -HOW- an idea was tested and implemented five years back. Perhaps it was not tested out properly?

I have heard this second excuse of “we already tried this” so many times I’ve lost count and still do today. And nothing could be more true than the quote above made by Edison. And it becomes a symbol for why such reasoning is dangerous to organizational evolution and growth. I’ll repeat myself: Just because it didn’t work out then doesn’t mean it won’t now. Period.

2) Routines and processes

Routines and processes are the second obstacle. They are most often put in place for resource control so that the organization produces maximum output on needed areas defined by management and then to be measured and reported to other stakeholders. Routines and processes are there to help us and guide us do the right things the right way. This in order to raise efficiency. And as said, raising efficiency is not going to kick start innovation. Therefore the processes and the routines stop us from thinking outside the box and looking at other perspectives. They make us unable to question things using other frame of references.

Person 1: “But maybe this is not at all what it is? Maybe we need to unlearn what we know and look at this completely different?”

Person 2: “For what reason? We should just handle this as we do normally? Then we are done with it in no time?”

Routines and processes help us be more productive. But fact is they most often are an obstacle for thinking outside the box. The processes is most often the reason we open our laptops in the morning and -without thinking- uncheck tasks in swift speed without interest, time or incentive to go to the bottom with unusual things.

3) Conservatism with management – Dislike for change.

Sadly enough this is also a strong blocker. As we all know many in the management team are most often there on the merit of having made great things for the company in the past. While this make them highly suitable from a “we know what usually work out”-perspective it also often make them the biggest protectors of too rapid organizational change and transformation. That is – to them – unknown grounds. Unknown grounds can’t be calculated and estimated the same way. And what is then the board going to say? How will that sound?

CEO: “We are trying a new thing here!”

Chairman: “We made 35% profit last year. Target this year is 45% profit. Didn’t we agree that the easiest way there was to reduce friction in some processes and improve our marketing efforts to chosen key targets?”

CEO: “Yes, but we think the decision making is going to change the coming years. Trends show that <Enter speech>.

Chairman: “Fine. Give me an estimation of that and let’s discuss it.”

<End of scene>

The CEO wants to avoid this situation. It plainly puts him in a bad situation. Therefore the management are not looking for change. They are looking for continuous improvement as a baseline and that is also what the management team meetings are most often about.

4) Fear of failure

Every decision in a company is a risk. Everything is going to challenge the present and bring it into a new direction. And the less we know about the potential outcome of something the less likely we are to want to try it out. Understanding this makes us come a long way. It will help us understand why managers act as they do. They have a plan in place for how to reach the targets and they sleep well at night if that plan is sound. Entering things into it which brings up unknown obstacles raises organizational stress and puts a heavy weight on the shoulders of management.

The fear of failure is constant. But as I always say: The only thing we know is that if we don’t change we’ll remain the same forever. And no one buys typewriters any longer. You can be sure of that.

5) Wrong or shortsighted KPI’s.

What is measured gets done. Nothing could be more true than this. A successful company lists tasks and plans for how to constantly improve the chance of reaching outspoken targets on time.

Companies rarely have KPI’s related to innovation. Very few companies have. And those who have are often thought leaders and innovation inspirationalists.

The KPI’s are key. If innovation is ever going to happen then see to that KPI’s include innovational thinking, work and progress.

So what do we do about this? There are plenty of things we can do but let me list a few of them:

How to make innovation happen – Hints for managers

1) Dedicate time

The first is simple. Dedicate time.

As a company you need to tell people: “We think we rock in what we do but we believe it is our duty to always challenge the status quo. Therefore we want you to dedicate time every week to do something completely different than what you normally do. Find new ways. Find new solutions. Talk to new people. Sit in new locations. Endulge in new conversations.”

In order to break the status quo which is controlled by all these processes and ongoing duties you need to empower people in becoming innovative. It is not enough by saying you encourage innovative behavior. That is pure nonsense. If you think that is going to be sufficient then grow up. You need to give people in your organization the tools and the conditions needed for innovation. Primarily that is time!

2) Make KPI’s for innovation

See to that you measure innovation. Tell people you hand out bonuses for things innovated, executed and implemented. Show that innovation matters and is going to be rewarded. Writing “Innovation” on your wall and not rewarding it is like telling a date you are a great chef and then give her meat balls every time it is your time to make dinner. It’s a lie. Don’t lie. Don’t pretend you’re for innovation if you’re not.

3) Reward achievements for innovation

When people do good things then reward it. Reward even the little things and sometimes even if it isn’t implemented. It doesn’t have to be implemented. What matters is people are giving away brain-time for your company and if 1 out of 1000 ideas are great innovative ideas bringing your business forward then you are going to transform your business. And who knows, perhaps even your entire market.

In short:

  • Encourage Innovation.
  • Dedicate time for Innovation.
  • Measure Innovation.
  • Reward Innovation.

How to make innovation happen – A last hint for employees

Solid idea plan

Think things through and try to provide your managers with a risk analysis, suggested project plan and feasible targets. The main thing is an explanation of why this could rocket your business and what could happen if you don’t consider it. You need to help your managers and the management team understand what’s going on in your head. Remember that they have a lot to do and if they need to back things up in the organization they are going to need details. All this while you are short spoken, to the point and focused around results. No long emails. Make every word count.

Some last words…

Lastly, it is about the entire mindset. Everyone needs to be on board. It is not enough with one manager or with a few people in a team. The entire organization needs to embrace innovation and its necessity, not question others if they have found themselves a new way of working, new location for where they think, or new ways to address key stakeholders. All these changes is what make people challenge routines.

Challenge is good. Innovation comes from it. If stopping it, you’ll ironically only stop your own organizational evolution.

Go ahead and innovate!

Thanks for reading,

Daniel Sonesson