If there is one thing that innovation people like to talk about, it is hurdles to innovation. Indeed, most innovation consultants would delight in giving you a list of their perceived top 10 hurdles to innovation. Moreover, if you ask employees in most companies, what are the hurdles they face in implementing an innovation process, they will quickly list a handful of them.
The thing to remember, however, is that hurdles are for jumping over. The best method of jumping over innovation hurdles is through creativity and innovation!
In most companies, the hurdles to innovation are similar. Middle managers, in particular, are widely perceived as culprits keen to sidetrack creative ideas before they even have a chance to become innovations. There are numerous reasons for this. A manager may fear that a subordinate with a brilliant idea might take her job. She may not want to deal with the change implicit in implementing the idea. She may fear the loss of her own power through empowering a subordinate to take charge of implementing a potentially innovative idea.
This is not to say that all middle managers are innovation hurdles. Rather that in many firms, many middle managers are perceived as hurdles. Moreover, because they provide the link between the people on the ground and upper management, they can be a very high hurdle indeed.
On the other hand, when middle managers are conducive to the innovation process, it is a huge benefit to any large company. But when they are hurdles, that becomes a problem.
But wait! As we have learned before, the innovation process typically starts with a problem. It simply needs to be turned into a challenge so that people can work on solving the problem with creative ideas!
The first step in the creative problem solving process, which is the basis of the front end of any viable innovation process, is to understand better the problem. Sticking with middle managers, you need to ask firstly, “How are middle managers creating hurdles to the innovation process?” The answer is probably simple: they are rejecting ideas from subordinates, they are discouraging subordinates from sharing ideas and they are reprimanding subordinates who attempt to test ideas without first seeking middle management approval. In particularly ugly cases, middle managers may be stealing subordinates’ ideas and claiming them as their own, thereby killing all desire of subordinates to share ideas and creating too much ill-will.
The best practice is to ask “why?” five times.
The second step in the process, and this is the most important step, is to use the information from step one in order to ask why questions, for example: “why are middle managers suppressing ideas?”
The answer might be: “Because they have no motivation to push good ideas forward.” That’s a good answer. But it’s not good enough. Indeed, the best practice is to ask “why?” five times. By doing so, you may discover that managers are not rewarded for forwarding their subordinates’ ideas; that they are overly pressured to perform routine tasks; and that they may lose budget and promotional prospects if they back a failing idea. In short, they are not rewarded in any way for pushing ideas forward, even if those ideas are winners, but they risk consequences if an idea they champion does not work.
In such an environment, any potentially innovative idea starts with a tremendous handicap. Moreover, one can hardly blame the middle managers for discouraging ideas.
The next step in the innovation process is to define the criteria by which you will evaluate ideas. This can be done before or after the idea generation process, but it is usually more businesslike to do it beforehand. In this situation, criteria will probably include: viability of implementing the idea, ease of implementing the idea, expected effectiveness of the idea; avoidance of conflict from middle managers, minimal disruption (In some cases, you may actually want to encourage disruption in a new process. But, for all the sexiness of “disruptive innovation” the truth is, most employees do not like their jobs to be disrupted)
The biggest hurdle to innovation is probably allowing hurdles to become insurmountable.
With this information, it becomes relatively easy to formulate one or more innovation challenges that can be used to generate ideas. For example: “in what ways might we motivate [or 'reward'] managers to champion new ideas from their subordinates?” or “in what ways might we encourage middle managers to start more innovative projects with their teams?”
At this stage, you go through the usual idea generation process and get lots of ideas. This done, you can combine ideas and evaluate them using the criteria you have identified. Now, does that not sound like a lot more fun than moaning about middle managers being hurdles to innovation?
Best of all, this process can be used to identify and define other hurdles to innovation as well as generate ideas to solve them. Indeed, the biggest hurdle to innovation is probably allowing hurdles to become insurmountable. But you would never catch an athlete thinking that way!
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a new approach to achieving goals through creativity.
Image credit: woman hurdlers from Shutterstock.com