June 4, 2013

Three Friends and Three Enemies of Innovation

Innovation is no easy feat to accomplish. While it’s a buzzword that CEOs and other high-level executives love throwing around, it’s a case of talking the talk but not walking the walk.

Paul Sloane, professional speaker and expert facilitator on innovation and lateral thinking for business leaders, has come up with three powerful friends to innovation, as well as three dangerous enemies. The editorial team at Digital Growth Insights collaborated with Sloane to expand upon his thought leadership, bringing you the corollaries and culprits to innovation:

Here are the three Friends to innovation according to Sloane, along with their corollaries:

1. Vision: It’s imperative for a leader to effectively communicate a common goal that an organization can buy into. It’s the most powerful friend innovation can have, as long as its believable, aspirational, worthwhile and demanding.

Corollary: For an organization to have a strong vision of the future, it must first understand its past. What was the company’s goal when it was first launched? What business models remain viable today, and which ones are outdated? What can the company do differently? Understanding your past is a necessary step before setting your sights to the future.

2. Curiosity: The second friend is a culture of curiosity. People should be encouraged to look for new and better ways to accomplish things, and to understand why certain products do better than others. It’s important for the staff to feel that they can challenge existing models constructively, and that they are being listened to.

Corollary: People are inherently curious; it’s human nature. Freedom is what allows curiosity to flourish and bring upon new discoveries that can better business processes and introduce new and viable business models. Without freedom, curiosity is an important trait that can become suppressed, something that will hurt businesses.

3. Courage: Great vision and curiosity will only get you so far; you need courage to act upon those insights to truly make a difference. You’ll always find a long list of reasons why a certain action shouldn’t be taken, but it takes courage to understand the need to taking risks, and admitting when you made a wrong decision.

Corollary:  For courage to be a viable weapon against outdated business models, you’ll need the right support. Supportive leadership that understands the occasional need to take a risk will help a business stay dynamic instead of being left behind while the competition takes over.  And, in fact, risk is encouraged and rewarded.

What, then, are key Culprits and Enemies that stand in the way of innovation and business growth?

1. Busyness: People are generally so busy focusing on the day’s tasks and meeting short-term goals  that innovation seems to fly out the window. There’s no time for distractions, exploration, or thinking outside the box. The most innovative companies have met this challenge by allocating time for innovation.

Culprit: The existence of business goals and metrics are a big reason employees don’t take additional time to innovate. When every second of your work is recorded and quantified, it’s in your best interest to get all of your assigned work done on time, or face the wrath of an angry employer.  Clearly businesses can’t eliminate metrics, but having a keen eye to the downsides and ramifications of poorly constructed metrics is equally important.

2. Bureaucracy: Making any significant change to how things are traditionally done is no simple task. There’s too much red tape; convoluted approvals, multiple sign-offs, etc. New initiatives regularly get bogged down by all the regulations and compliance requirements, which heavily interferes with innovation. Of course some checks and balances are needed, but they need to be appropriate for the level of change and risk involved.

Culprit: “Industry Methodology & Best Practices” are the handcuffs to innovation. These rules and guidelines confine organizations to well-trodden, innovation-constricting ways.  While proven and reliable, they are a death-knell to innovation.

3. Complacency: In his seminal book, Leading Change, John Kotter identifies complacency as the number one reason why change projects fail. Complacency is a particularly dangerous foe if the organization is successful, since it undermines the need for change.  We are doing well right now so why do we need to rock the boat?

Culprit: Politics play a big role in business, and it’s sometimes better to keep up appearances than to look to the future. Many organizations reward successful political behavior over market-changing results.  A good business politician may not even need to meet their goals, if they can work the internal system.  Politics are the quiet unseemly underbelly to complacency.

The importance of innovation can’t be overstated, but leaders should be aware of innovation’s friends and enemies and leverage that knowledge to their gain. Drastically changing existing models is inherently costly and dangerous, but with the right friends by your side, you needn’t go at it alone.