Innovation, or the lack thereof, is a function of how well leaders overcome common obstacles like insufficient time, effort, or risk tolerance. If you want to see the ideas start flowing, tackle the common obstacles to innovation first.
Is innovation critical for your business survival and success? Are you dissatisfied with your ability to bring new products and services to market? Surveys show that most business leaders would answer both questions with a ‘yes’.
If you want to make your organization more agile and innovative where should you start?
You could launch a big initiative with grand statements, training classes and an idea generation scheme. But I believe it is better to begin with a brutally honest assessment of what is preventing innovation from happening today. Organizations unwittingly develop internal impediments to innovation in terms of their corporate culture and practices. There is no point in running supercharged brainstorms in order to fill the funnel with ideas if there are blockages which prevent good ideas from being implemented.
In my innovation master classes, we start by discussing what innovation is and what its benefits are. I then ask delegates what is impeding innovation in their businesses today. The most common answers I get include:
- We do not have enough time to try new things
- There is no budget for experimentation
- We are risk averse
- There is a fear of failure
- Approval processes are long-winded and difficult with many sign-offs
- It is not in our objectives or Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)
- There are no rewards or incentives
- Departments work in silos
- There is no vision or strategy for innovation
I asked one delegate who ran his own business in entertainment, “What was impeding innovation for your firm?” He thought for a moment and then responded, “Nothing.” There was silence in the room. Most, if not all, of the impediments given by the executives and listed above are excuses. All of the cultural and process barriers can be overcome by determined and courageous leaders. We have plenty of people who talk the talk but not many who are prepared to tackle the people and process issues which are preventing entrepreneurial initiatives.
The courageous leader sets the vision, mandates innovation, overcomes the fear of failure, fights complacency and allocates time, money and people for innovation. They make it a priority. They empower people to experiment with prototypes and they accept that failure is part of the process and a learning experience. Over time, the innovative leader can create an entrepreneurial culture and build the processes for delivering innovation. We can see this in action in big companies like Apple, Facebook, Google, Uber, and Virgin.
What is impeding innovation in most businesses today? All the impediments and excuses can be traced back to a single cause; timorous leadership. So, start by courageously tackling the excuses and obstacles.
It is remarkable how similar the problems are across different organizations in different sectors – whether in government, charities, or private enterprise. The most common issue I hear is time. People everywhere are so busy on the day job that they do not have time to experiment with new methods or approaches. Fortunately, we can learn and borrow ideas from the most innovative organizations – which often face similar problems. Google, Genentech and 3M famously allow up to 20% of employees’ time for experimentation. You do not have to be so generous. Allocating one day a month would be a good start. And you do not have to give this to all employees. You can start in certain departments, measure progress and then roll it out to more.
Innovation has to have a purpose. It should support the corporate strategy. So, it starts with a vision of where the organization is headed and how innovation is needed to get there. Once you have set the vision then follow this plan:
- Candidly assess the state of innovation in your business today. Survey employees. Identify the blockers and prioritize them.
- Develop plans to overcome the most important issues.
- Implement these plans in some departments and then roll them out company-wide.
- Measure progress. Are more ideas being implemented?
- Now you can initiate the major front-end programs to generate more ideas from inside and outside the company.
This sounds straightforward and it is. But changing ingrained corporate practices and culture takes a determined effort. Grand statements are not enough. Change is achieved through actions and they need to be prioritized and followed up. The good news is that nearly everyone in the organization wants to see beneficial innovations. Start by removing today’s barriers so that ideas can flow more easily from inception through to implementation.
Paul Sloane is the author of The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills (CLICK HERE to get your copy). His methods will help you improve your lateral thinking skills, boost the creativity of your team and kick start innovation in your organization. Paul is an experienced speaker, course leader and facilitator. A recognized authority on innovation and creative speaking, he speaks and gives workshops to leading corporations around the world. He is also the best-selling author of How to Be a Brilliant Thinker, The Innovative Leader and editor of A Guide to Open Innovation and Crowdsourcing, all published by Kogan Page.
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