Seven 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.”

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 endeavour – 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.

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.

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 and

Innovation tip: Realize – and convey – IT’s role in the innovation process.

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

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 per cent of respondents reported losing interest in championing their idea due to internal process and bureaucracy.

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

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.

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

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 per cent, 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 company.)

Innovation tip: Create support and ownership for innovation at management’s uppermost tiers.

Innovation killer #7: Be very, very afraid of failure.

Failure-tolerant management was the third most important ingredient in creating an innovative culture, according to CIO’s survey; it came in at 25 per cent. 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 happen.

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 that?

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.

Related content:

CIOs spill secrets for innovative IT

Four steps to innovative service transformation

Why business models matter

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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