Don’t Fight Innovation Blockers

Be Patient and Win!

by Gijs van Wulfen

Don't Fight Innovation BlockersInnovation is a main topic in many boardrooms, and probably also in your organization. Despite all the good intentions, top managers are just people and in reality not much is really happening.

It seems as if we treat innovation the same way as we treat the environment: everyone is concerned about it but we only do something when it is really necessary. In my experience, this applies to young as well as experienced managers. Innovation means taking risks, but many are inhibited by the world around them, because it is expected that you make as few mistakes as possible. Therefore innovation is postponed until you really cannot wait any longer. It is not surprising to hear, ‘we will have to innovate’ in the corridors of a company.

Innovation is still a struggle for many organizations. Thorough quantitative research done by the Product Development Management Association (aka PDMA) shows that the share of new product turnover in The United States has decreased in the last fifteen years. An important reason is the reduction in ‘new to the world’ products: thus real innovation. The share of real innovations in the product development portfolios of companies has decreased dramatically, from 20.4 percent to 11.5 percent, favoring line-extensions and small product changes. I will not be surprised if this phenomenon is also happening everywhere else in the world.

As an ideation facilitator I observe the tangible struggle managers have with innovation. In my new book Creating Innovative Products & Services I have listed factors that cause these struggles, which I call innovation inhibitors:

  1. As manager you are much too busy with the current turnover and profits. Especially at publicly traded companies all the focus is on the net results of this quarter.
  2. Due to the success in the past you are trapped in the process whereby old successful formulas are constantly being varied. Which only leads to brand extensions, with a high level of cannibalization.
  3. Dividing companies into business units, market and product groups works against innovation as real new concepts usually do not fit into any of these definitions. Therefore in practice units tend to work more against each other rather than with each other.
  4. The urgency to innovate is absent and is only felt at the scarce moments when the competition has already attacked and ‘it hurts’ the turnover, market shares and profit.
  5. Even though much market research has been done, there is a lack of insight with managers into the motives, needs and problems of the customers, in other words real customer insights.
  6. A structured innovation process is either non-existent or the stage-gate process is organized so bureaucratically with so much ‘paperwork’ that the innovation pipeline gets blocked.
  7. Customers are not involved in the innovation process or only get involved at a very late phase.
  8. Money, manpower and management support for innovation are not structurally available but on an ad hoc basis and only on those occasions when it is necessary to ‘put out any small fires’.
  9. As manager you hardly dare to take risks as you fear that one mistake or one ambitious new product, which fails, might cost you a promising career.
  10. At the start of the process, the innovation pipeline is not systematically filled with sufficient pioneering and appealing ideas for new products, services and business models.

When I was a marketer in the fast moving consumer goods sector I was blocked by many of these obstacles for a pretty long period. And what to do then? If you start fighting them, it will turn your colleagues and bosses against you. You will lose the internal support you desperately need to ideate and implement new concepts successfully. You even run the risk they will consider you as a kind of 2011 version of Don Quichotte de la Mancha, the Spanish guy who fought windmills.

My best advice to you is not to be too eager. Do not try to fight these innovation blockers. These forces are always much stronger than you are. Just be patient. Just wait, until your colleagues, bosses and shareholders start feeling the urgency to innovate from within.

There will always be a moment that other managers in the meeting will look in your way: “okay……. We have to innovate! But how?” And that’s the moment. That’s the moment to show them your innovative vision and your practical roadmap to start an ideation approach that will lead to the revolutionary concepts everybody is waiting for.

Just keep in mind that you can invent alone. But you need others to help to innovate in an organization. Don’t let it frustrate you that the others don’t share your need for innovation yet. It’s a very important part of your job as an innovator to poke the fire and get the urgency for innovation going. Be patient. And win.

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Gijs van WulfenGijs van Wulfen leads ideation processes and is the founder of the FORTH innovation method. He is the author of Creating Innovative Products & Services, published by Gower.

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6 Responses to Don’t Fight Innovation Blockers

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Blogging Innovation » Don’t Fight Innovation Blockers --

  2. Aad 't Hart says:

    Nice and clear artocle and I can relate very well with the innovation blockers you mention. I also agree it’s very hard to fight them, but waiting until the rest of the team realises it’s time to innovate is no option either, because by then you probably missed the window of opportunity. It’s hard, but necessary to fight for structured and strategic innovation


  3. Rafael Favereau says:

    Excellent, and thanks for advices.

  4. I would say you should not fight for innovation in the traditional ‘western’ way – think more of Tai Chi kind of fighting.. use the energy of the opponent.

    “The philosophy of Tai Chi Chuan is that, if one uses hardness to resist violent force, then both sides are certain to be injured at least to some degree. Such injury, according to tai chi theory, is a natural consequence of meeting brute force with brute force. Instead, students are taught not to directly fight or resist an incoming force, but to meet it in softness and follow its motion while remaining in physical contact until the incoming force of attack exhausts itself or can be safely redirected, meeting yang with yin.”

    Apply this to the battles you’ll have to fight to get innovation high on the priority list and you’ll do better.. or so I have come to realize..

  5. You really got the message, Martine. Thanks for the Tai Chi explanation.

  6. Pingback: Innovation is about choosing your moment « Gower Publishing's Blog

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