Is there a corporate leader who doesn't extol the virtues of innovation these days? Yet if innovation is so important, why do so many companies have so much trouble with it?
The reflexive response is that it is a human capital problem — that is, that most people just don't have what it takes to successfully innovate. I reject that view. Academic research in fact shows that almost anyone can become a competent innovator (with sufficient practice). I've seen countless examples of ordinary individuals displaying the creativity, ingenuity, and perseverance of the world's great innovators.
Those people can only be effective in the right context, but, ironically, many of the things leaders do to encourage innovation actually kill it. Look carefully at your company and you might spot one of four types of unintentional innovation assassins.
1. The Cowboy. Itching to create a corporate culture tolerant of creativity and innovation, the Cowboy says something along the lines of, "No boundaries! Just great ideas!" Of course, companies should continually evaluate and push their boundaries. But every company has a set of things it simply will not do. Saying innovation has no bounds when it does just leads people to waste time working on ideas that — honestly — have no hope of ever being commercialized.
Instead, consider issuing highly-focused challenges. For example, a few years ago Netflix offered a $1 million prize to any team that could improve the performance of the algorithms that determine which movies it should suggest to consumers by at least 10%. More than 250 teams rose to the challenge, and two actually exceeded the target. Focus is one of innovation's best friends.
2. The Googlephile. Inspired by stories of how Google and 3M ask engineers to spend 15% of their time dreaming of new ideas, this executive asks everybody to spend a bit of time on innovation. Maybe carve off a half-day during the third Friday of the month for everyone to focus on innovation.This approach feels participatory and inclusive. But it rarely works, unless the company has sophisticated systems to select and nurture ideas. Too frequently these efforts lead to a long list of suggestions that never get implemented. Cynicism takes hold quickly, and more and more employees find excuses to miss Innovation Friday.
As an alternative, executives should ask a small number of people to spend a significant amount of time on innovation. Remember, most start-ups fail — even with entrepreneurs spending every minute of every day obsessively focusing on their business. One person spending all of his or her time on innovation often trumps 1,000 spending 10% of their time on it. The math doesn't work — except for when it does.
3. The Astronaut. This executive invokes the United States' ultimately successful effort to put a man on the moon by urging, "We need something big, people! What is our moon shot?" It's great to think big, of course, but pushing for big ideas often leads to proposals with sink-the-company risk (remember Motorola's Iridium?). That risk means that the idea must be carefully studied, and since it hasn't been done before, it probably won't withstand analytical scrutiny. The push-for-moon shots too often mean innovation efforts never even get to the launch pad.
Instead of shooting for the moon, executives should encourage what author Peter Sims calls "little bets." Academics and entrepreneurs agree that the very best ideas emerge out of a process of trial-and-error experimentation. Hang up posters of Thomas Edison with his famous line, "Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration." Start sweating.
4. The Pirate. This swashbuckler says, "We don't have a fixed budget for innovation — but we don't need one. We find the money when we need it." While that statement sounds entrepreneurial, it can make the innovator's life a nightmare because it signals a lack of clear rules for obtaining resources.This often means endless meetings with a varying cast of stakeholders. No one quite says yes, and no one quite says no, either.
The best companies manage innovation in a disciplined manner. They have dedicated budgets for it, with clear rules for how to obtain funding. While many leaders think this kind of disciplined approach is anathema to innovation, it actually enables it. During a memorable discussion a few years ago, former Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley put it well (PDF)when describing his company's innovation process: "The important thing about the process is that you follow it."
The good news? Since unintentional innovation assassins are easy to identify, they are also easy to disarm. Constrain the Cowboy, bound the Googlephile, ground the Astronaut, and make the Pirate walk the plank — and watch innovation efforts soar.