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Paul Sloane

Innovation

Overcoming Impediments to Innovation

Tackle the common obstacles first

Published: Friday, September 28, 2018 - 12:03

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 to fill the funnel with ideas if there are blockages that 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 signoffs
• 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 that are preventing entrepreneurial initiatives.

Courageous leaders set the vision; mandate innovation; overcome the fear of failure; fight complacency; and allocate 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 percent 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 companywide.
• 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.

First published on the thoughtLEADERS blog.

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About The Author

Paul Sloane’s picture

Paul Sloane

Paul Sloane is an author and expert on lateral thinking puzzles and lateral thinking in business. He is a skilled facilitator and course leader who helps top level teams achieve breakthrough results in their meetings. You can see some of his innovation articles and videos on the Free Downloads page.