Seven highly effective ways to kill innovation

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.

Innovation killer #1: Believe that innovation will “just happen.”

Innovation tip

Lobby for the importance of innovation, and the dollars and owners to support it.

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.

Read also “The right road to innovation.”

Innovation killer #2: Tell everyone to “think outside of the box,” hold a brainstorming session, then call it a day.

Innovation tip

Create a formalized process for ensuring that ideas are nurtured.

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. (See also the book “Swarm Creativity: Competitive Advantage Through Collaborative Innovation“)

Innovation killer #3: Lay the success of innovation solely on IT’s shoulders.


Innovation tip

Realize—and convey—IT’s role in the innovation process.

echnology 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 and

Innovation killer #4: Create an obstacle course for ideas.

Innovation tip

Make the innovation process transparent and clear-cut, and create ways to support the entire company’s involvement.

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 bureaucracy.

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 Journalism.

Innovation tips

Study stories of people and companies that took risks. Also: Learn why fear of change is hardwired into our bodies.

“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 enorm