Where to Start with Innovation? Begin by removing the Barriers

Surveys show that the large majority of senior executives see innovation as critical for their businesses but what 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 ideas scheme but you tried all those last year and they fizzled out. 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 in order to fill the funnel with ideas if there are blockages which prevent good ideas from being implemented.

In my innovation master classes, we start by discussing what is innovation 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 sign-offs
  • 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

We discuss and prioritize these issues. Then we generate ideas to overcome some of the most important impediments.

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% 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:

  1. Candidly assess the state of innovation in your business today. Survey employees. Identify the blockers and prioritize them.
  2. Develop plans to overcome the most important issues.
  3. Implement these plans in some departments and then roll them out company-wide.
  4. Measure progress. Are more ideas being implemented?
  5. Now you can initiate the major front-end programmes 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. So start by removing today’s barriers so that ideas can flow more easily from inception through to implementation.

About the author

Paul Sloane is the author of The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills and The Innovative Leader. He writes, talks and runs workshops on lateral thinking, creativity and the leadership of innovation. Find more information at destination-innovation.com.

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