Innovation is the survival mantra of today, chanted by everyone, but acted upon only by a few.Â Companies that routinely invest in innovating for the future are eventually able to putpace their competitors, everything else being equal. However, not everyone is able to kickstart, manage, sustain or nurtureÂ an innovation-led culture. Large monolithic organizations often become victims of their own processes, structures and past strengths. Smaller ones generally innovate to survive and succeed, but are they always truly innovative?
I once worked at a large European medical systems company where we worked on workflow automation software for Radiology departments in hospitals. We had not one but three #1 products in the market! We were #1 in Germany and that product had a great database system. We were #1 in Sweden and that had a great workflow. And we were #1 in the Netherlands and that product had a great GUI. However, we were #Nobody in the global market. While this was ‘achieved’Â due to a very decentralized governance model in that company which allowed localized innovation to meet that market’s highest priority needs, it also created islands within a global company. Local success in those national markets was super sweet, but it impeded success in global markets. At that point, I thought this was a classic large company problem – until I worked for a small company. We were a typical bay area company with several cool products in a very niche market – the only trouble was none of them looked like they were from the same company. At one time, we counted five different GUIs for our products – all different in technology, all different in style, allÂ different in workflow, all different in product roadmaps, and all different in egos (ok, I made this up, but not by that much!). We had a virtualÂ in-house industry – after all, who needs competitors when you have colleagues like that.
So, I witnessed excessive innovation without any direction or coordinationÂ in these two personal experiences, but I was really shocked to learn of more advanced methods, like thwarting orÂ sabotaging innovation in the article Microsoft’s Creative Destruction. Even if just 10% of what the article claims is true (some people might argue that it is sour grapes), it still must be extremely sad and demotivating forÂ any bright, young, enthusiastic engineer to be on one such project, only to see fruits of his labor allowed (rather, forced) to rot.
Why do we lose our bearings, and go completely crazy? Why do our personal egos get supersized and conquests take-over our initially benign need to do things better? Why do fun-loving collaborators turn into fierce competitors? Why do otherwise successful companies turn their break-out areas into shoot-out ranges? Why do genuine innovation efforts get sabotaged by selfish interests?
I am not a psychologist nor a sociologist, so I can’t tell why people behave like this. But as a practitioner, I am definitely interested to understand how to fix it. In our profession, practice is clearly more important than theory :).
I searched for information on the net, but was not able to find a lot of work on this area. There is lot of work on why innovation fails, but not much on how internal efforts at crossroads with each other sabotage innovation in the long run. Priscilla Kohl discusses Five Steps For Discouraging Employee Gossip From Sabotaging Productivity, and the focus is on employee gossip.Â In another excellent article, Are Workplace Bullies Sabotaging Your Ability To Compete, Linnea and John highlight the importance to identify and eliminate bullying behavior at workplace that stifles innovation and risk-taking. Another interesting blog post lists 56 Reasons Why Most Corporate Innovation Initiatives Fail. I like reasons like CEO doesn’t fully embrace the effort (#6), senior team not aligned (#8), lack of trust (#12), too many turf wars #20), mind numbing bureaucracy (#27), and many more.
I think this is an interesting problem to work on and learn more about. Do you know about published or anecdotal data on this subject? Or, do you think this is not a key issue?
Meanwhile, I am still interested to know who is sabotaging innovation in your company 🙂