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The Peculiar Way We Reward Innovation

Harvard blogger Chris Trimble discusses the "not invented here" phenomenon that discounts ideas generated by people other than ourselves

Posted on Harvard Business Review: August 23, 2010 10:00 AM

Responding to my earlier blog, Google and the Myth of Free Time, reader Brian Merritt wrote:

How do you deal with NIH? I hate the "not invented here" types that seem to think innovation is a contest they have to win.

Brian has touched on a problem with deep roots. In all fields of endeavor, humans compete for status. It's a universal truth.

That said, each community has its own status scorecard. In Washington, it's all about how much power you have. On Wall Street, it's how much money you make. And in the innovation community, it's how close you are to the beginning of the innovation story. (How many times have you heard a brag line that sounds something like, "I was there right at the beginning!") What this means, of course, if the idea was yours, is that you are king.

Ultimately, that's the source of the "not invented here" phenomenon. People discount, marginalize, and ignore the ideas of others — and refuse to lend the support that is necessary to get beyond the idea stage — because they are, after all, only human, and can't help but want to be king.

Now, in many endeavors, getting off to a good start is crucial. Innovation is clearly one of them, and breakthrough insights are hard to come by. But I'd argue that the importance of ideas has been blown completely out of proportion. Ideas without action are worthless.

And, if you think about it, rewarding the idea above all other parts of innovation is a peculiar system. It's sort of like analyzing the life of a great person, say Mozart, and giving all of the credit of his output to the ovum. Or, it's like idolizing the kicker on a football team because he starts the game with a kickoff.

So my answer to Brian is that you can't change human nature, but with effort you might be able to change the status scorecard, at least in your company. One step you can take is simply to hold the right kinds of celebrations. If you call out, with every successful innovation initiative, all of the contributions that were necessary to get from idea to fruition, then you're going in the right direction.

What questions do you have about innovation? Leave questions in the comment area below. I'll address as many as I can.

Provided by Harvard Business Review—Copyright © 2010 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

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