Kill the Barriers to Innovation
by Kassir Hussain
I was speaking to a friend of mine Keith Edwards (founder of Spectrum Insight Ltd) about innovation in larger companies and he commented that the process you adopt for innovation is actually less important than removing the barriers to innovation. There is definitely something in that. A lot of the focus is put on getting the innovation process right, but actually what does undermine a lot of the innovation effort is the barriers within a company.
There are some really smart people in the company and everyone intellectually gets the need for innovation (in fact I’ve yet to find someone who thinks it’s not a good idea!), but as soon as you try and put an innovation process in place that’s when the hurdles come out. So what are the barriers to innovation that I’m talking about? Here are a few of them:
- Headroom for people to innovate – Most companies in today’s competitive environment operate quite lean and efficient operations. The machinery is geared towards the core business activities and efficiency and longer term planning is critical. So when headroom is required to do some innovation people can be just too busy to engage. Lots of people would like to, but they’re concerned that they can’t do their day job or their manager might think less of them for it. Closely linked to this is point 5 below too.
- Unsuitable processes – Whether you consciously think about it or not, businesses follows processes to getting things done. I use processes in this context in a very broad way and not just about the detailed flowcharts that people think about. The innovation may need a different way of doing things to be successful but the company will inadvertently try and force fit it into its existing processes because “that’s the way things are done around here”.
- Death by a thousand cuts – This is sort of linked to point 2, but to emphasize the point I’ll deal with it separately here. In any corporate organisation there are many departments and functions that’ll want to have a say on how things should be done. Now each and every individual request to change the innovation in itself is probably a really good idea and seems like common sense, but the cumulative effect of all these reasonable requests is enough to compromise the whole innovation to the point that it is devalued or no longer feasible.
- Funding – Innovation activities don’t always naturally fit into the annual planning cycle that most companies operate. This means that when it comes to an ad hoc request for funds to implement an innovation idea, there isn’t the money or at the very least its not easily accessible.
- Reward and incentives – Getting people to participate in innovation and make time for it requires the right cultural framework to be in place to encourage innovative behaviors. This often means that people need to incentivized or rewarded. Look carefully at whether your organizations culture encourages the right behaviors for innovation through reward and incentive.
- Senior level engagement – I’ve spoken about this in a previous blog, but its vital that senior managers in the organization encourage innovation behaviors. This doesn’t mean just saying complimentary things but actually engaging in the process so that others see this and think “Okay, if he’s involved, it has got to be a good thing”.
So what’s the solution to overcoming these barriers? Well I’m afraid there is no single answer and it’ll depend on the company, the culture, the industry and what you are trying to do amongst other things. Being aware of the barriers is the first step to removing them. So when you are designing a new innovation process or trying to understand why the current one isn’t working then look at the barriers above and ask yourself if any of these are the reasons.
Remember most people genuinely are in favor of more innovation but there are some sound reasons why rational people seem to be hindering rather than helping. It’s not their fault!
Kassir Hussain has worked in a number of organizations, mostly recently as Head of Futures and Innovation at Telefonica O2 UK, where he was responsible for innovation in O2 UK. Kassir is a fan of innovation and technology generally. He writes a blog on innovation and various technologies. He can be found on twitter @kasshussain.