Top 7 roadblocks to Innovation

Innovation is the new corporate mantra today. Everyone talks about it, every executive wants to showcase their fancy innovation processes, and pretty much every organization has some type of ‘budget’ to support innovation activities. However, most innovation programs don’t get too far because not too many executives and managers really understand why people don’t innovate as much as their corporate leaders would like them to, budgets and processes notwithstanding.

Here are my top 7 reasons why people don’t innovate in organizations:

  1. Innovation starts with people’s discretionary efforts – most people would like to be put on the race track if they have been hired for running, rather than being thrown in the swimming pool. Yes, we all like taking on newer challenges, but in reality, we might be better off being assigned those challenges than being expected to proactively volunteer for it. I don’t know how true that is, but supposedly, the first thing they teach you when you join Indian Army is ‘never volunteer’. This is surprising because you Indian Army doesn’t follow the conscription model – you volunteered in the first place to be there, and now that you are a part of it, you are told never volunteer! Initially it doesn’t make sense, but think about it – when you volunteer, it becomes your job – you become responsible for the consequence and the results, and you always might not have full control over them – but since you volunteered, you can’t offer any excuses. Instead of volunteering, if that was assigned to you, you would be much safer, and can always go back to your senior officer asking what all resources you need and sharing the risks associated, and so on. So, Army makes sure isolated cases of individual bravados don’t disrupt the monolithic command and control that is far essential to fight a war. When you see this in the context of an organization, you obviously can’t mandate ‘never volunteer’ rule. So, you do ‘ask’ people to volunteer, but for one, people are already booked on their projects. Unless you are a 3M or a Google, you may not have an official 15% or a 20% time-off policy for suspending your dayjobs and ‘doing’ innovation. So, if it becomes like a cane crusher where you are pressing the juiced-out cane once again to extract more juice out! Doesn’t work this way – except perhaps some 10% of the highly-motivated folks who anyway will find time to innovate. But for rest of the folks, the risks far outweigh the potential benefits of volunteering their discretionary effort that they can put to better use, both personally and professionally. If you don’t believe this, just look at some of the volunteers, say with IEEE or PMI or similar professional organizations – for no monetary or professional rewards, they are willing to invest their weekends for furthering community activities, but won’t do the same at their workplace!
  2. Pet projects are often shunned – many senior executives would like to be caught repeating the innovation mantra in the hallways, but their actions don’t often match their intent. When people come up with ideas or pet projects, they are shunned because they threaten the status quo, or challenge the established order or hierarchy, or come up with an approach that the powers that be hadn’t thought of before. Sometimes the excuse is that people shouldn’t lose focus and waste time – rather focus on what maximizes the ‘productivity’, but the intent almost always is to make sure people follow what they have been asked to do. What would be your motivation to take up some unsolved problem if your last similar experience left much to be desired?
  3. Not everyone has equal ‘political capital’ to think new things – this is often unrecognized at the workplace, but most of the new ideas comes from people who are closest to the process being executed to solve a problem – not from their managers. However, those foot soldiers don’t always have the right amount of ‘political capital’ to take their ideas further. It is quite likely that their managers don’t take them seriously enough, or simply shoot down the ideas by asking them to overtime on the projects instead of cooking up such fancy ideas! In extreme cases, their ideas might even be hijacked by the managers to make them look good in front of their own leaders. Ugly as it might sound, but that is the reality of corporate world. Quite often, the source of idea determines its success much more than the idea itself, and that’s where many extremely good ideas lose out ¬†simply because they came from someone deep-down the hierarchy without good connections in the management. There has to be a democratization of innovation to ensure everyone has a fair opportunity to bring their ideas to the table.
  4. The ‘NIH Syndrome‘ is alive and kicking – contrary of what most of us like to believe, the world doesn’t always embrace the ‘next best thing’ so easily. There are prophets of doom with varying level of contempt to a new idea – ranging from shock and disbelief to outright rejection that they will make an example of it lest someone else came up with similar ‘futile’ efforts in the future. Often the reason is Not Invented Here, or the NIH, which means there is a high reluctance to acceptance any idea coming from ‘outside’ – whatever that definition of outside be. After a few such interactions, either the inventor will stop asking for permission, or stop innovating, or might simply move out to another company where his ideas are more welcome.
  5. It does take a village to raise the child – no idea, how much good it might be, can grow into a robust product all by itself. It needs to be nurtured, debated, user feedbacked, improved, early adopted, marketed and eventually made into a success by a large number of stakeholders, performers and bystanders. Someone from engineering must bring that idea to life where someone from QA must play the devil himself and evaluate the idea critically – not to kill the idea but with constructive criticism that makes the idea stronger. Someone must help with the usability while someone must comment from the cost of mass-producing that idea. If there is a mutual mistrust in an organization, people simply won’t share their ideas with each other and thus miss out on this critical feedback during the formation stage of the idea. Result is bound to be a half-baked idea that can’t scale up for an industrial-strength mass production (or mass adoption, as in case of internet or mobile services). In fact, the most ‘vertically differentiated’ or ‘horizontally differentiated’ an organization is, the more such integrative efforts are required to bring all functions together to holistically review and feedback on an idea.
  6. It is not safe to fail – remember what they used to say -“no one ever got fired for buying an IBM”. IBM machine’s reliability and performance was supposed to be a hallmark that it was considered absolutely safe (from the marketer’s point of view, at least) that you will never go wrong with your choice, and hence there is no risk of losing your job. Zoom back into today, and you will realize your mailbox is spammed with every marketer’s snake-oil claims. You also know that like everyone else in the competition, your company’s (and hence your own) survival depends on ‘getting it right the only time’, how on earth do you stick your neck out and put money on a dark horse? The result is completely predictable in-the-box thinking and continue doing ‘more of same’ instead of betting something big, risky and uncertain – but meaningful and potentially worth taking the risks. But, imagine what all can happen if you suddenly make it safer for people to fail? People suddenly start taking more risks! Don’t believe me – take a bicycle and remove its brakes. Now ride it. You will be so scared of picking up speed and crashing into a tree that you will never ride it fast enough. Now fit some brakes in it. Your behavior changes when you realize that if you pick up speed, the brakes will make it safer for you to fail. So, you ride it much faster. This is not just logical thinking, but has been corroborated in reality as well, and there is even a name for it – Peltzman Effect. Now, Peltzman effect is is the unintended effect and basically refers to undesirable effect on people’s behavior by introducing safety, but in the context of organizations, we we turn it into an advantage. Imagine a workplace where there is no penalty or death sentence for failing – what do you think will be people’s behavior?
  7. It’s not my job – The ‘Genovese Syndrome‘ ¬†highlights the so-called ‘diffusion of responsibility‘. When we see something broken in a busy place, large groups tend to shrug-off individual responsibility unless asked explicitly to do so (small groups invariably acted in self-responsibility). So, an individual is a large setup is very unlikely to act individually to fix a problem unless explicitly asked to do so. It is not a reflection of an individual’s values, or skills or competencies – if and when he is asked to solve that problem, he will most likely find a reasonably good way. Just that human psychology at work stops him to take that extra step and volunteer to fix it. Strange, but true!

So, here are my 7 favorite peeves that roadblock an individual’s desire to innovate in an organization. While some highly-driven individuals eventually overcome some or all of these roadblocks and succeed, the larger percentage of population plays it very safe. Given today’s highly uncertain business climate, it isn’t very surprising. The real challenge is to create an environment of these impediments can be systemically eliminated thus paving way for individuals to play in an non-intimidating environment and get their best creative juices flowing. Anything short of that is simply leaving innovation to happen by chance!

What are your impediments to innovation, and how do you tackle them?

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