Who wouldn’t want their company to have a culture of innovation, trying new things, embracing untested solutions, constantly probing to find breakthrough initiatives that will drive revenue and profit? There are some significant barriers to creating an innovative culture in an organization, however.
Barriers to innovation:
- Leaders and employees alike may not naturally bring innovative behavior into the workplace,
- Companies with a culture of tight expense control rarely stimulate innovative behavior,
- Companies seldom have role models for what innovative behavior looks like,
- Companies often confuse product development with research and development.
Some people just don’t bring those “innovation genes” with them, so it is hard for them to feel comfortable and get good at innovation. Assessment tools can readily determine an individual’s proclivity to think and act innovatively. I use a great 360 degree leadership assessment tool that measures a leader on 22 behaviors (one of which is innovative) as observed by the leader’s boss, peers and direct reports. “Innovative” is one of the behaviors that usually shows up as really important, but also one that rates the lowest for leaders individually.
Innovative behavior implies that some things will not succeed, yet in most companies, failures are not recognized as learning experiences. When budgets are tight, people are often criticized or put into the “penalty box” when something goes wrong. If the proper due diligence has been done, business cases have been developed and approved and the implementation plan created and followed, a quick failure probably deserves recognition and treatment as a learning experience that supports an innovative culture. Great leadership teams regularly dissect such failures, both to learn from them and to institutionalize future behaviors to assure a better chance of success.
Companies regularly try to encourage an innovative behavior culture but often don’t have one single leader who naturally acts this way. Who is the role model for leaders to act innovatively? Very often in certain types of companies (engineering, process industry, etc.) people have grown up and been hired precisely because they know how to avoid mistakes that could have real exposure for their company. If a leader’s entire career and job performance is based on minimizing errors, how would they even know what innovative behavior looks like? Team assessments can often be helpful in determining whether innovative behavior is a natural strength in any team member. If it doesn’t show up as a strength, then perhaps the next hire on the leadership team needs to be assessed for this, to ensure they bring that strength.
To me, R&D means throwing ten things against a wall and having one or two “stick”, i.e. become commercial successes. Most companies cannot afford this failure rate, however, so when they talk about having an R&D culture I wonder at their definition. Most companies do PD; product development, rather than true R&D. Driven by customer input, competitor product introductions and/or just incremental product evolution they develop new products with a high chance of success. This is certainly innovation, but usually not at the breakthrough level. Funding some “skunk works” or allowing leaders to try something that has a less clear business case for success but could result in breakthrough revenue and profit growth can make sense – as long as it utilizes intelligent risk.
So assuming that you want and need innovative behavior to grow your organization, have you recognized and addressed the four barriers described above?
An excellent article on Collaborative Leadership appeared in the July-August issue of the Harvard Business Review: Are You a Collaborative Leader?