Nine Rules for Stifling Innovation

Harvard Business Review

Innovation has become the holy grail. Finding innovation is almost a sacred quest for the solution that will create growth, and open new eras of prosperity and well-being.
Unfortunately, like many things called holy, the concept of innovation is invoked ritually and ceremonially more than it is embraced in practice.

For all the talk about innovation, I see many leaders in numerous organizations in every sector who actively stifle it. They say they want more innovation. But at the same time, they seem to operate by a set of hidden principles designed to prevent innovations from surfacing or succeeding. I've compiled them into a set of anti-rules. Acting in these nine ways guarantees that there will be little or no innovation of any significance, because no one had the time, money, or motivation to innovate:

  1. Be suspicious of any new idea from below — because it's new, and because it's from below. After all, if the idea were any good, we at the top would have thought of it already.
  2. Invoke history. If a new idea comes up for discussion, find a precedent in a an earlier idea that didn't work, remind everyone of that bad past experience. Those who have been around a long time know that we tried it before, so it won't work this time either.
  3. Keep people really busy. If people seem to have free time, load them with more work.
  4. In the name of excellence, encourage cut-throat competition. Get groups to critique and challenge each other's proposals, preferably in public forums, and then declare winners and losers.
  5. Stress predictability above all. Count everything that can be counted, and do it as often as possible. Sweep any surplus into master accounts, and eliminate any slack. Favor exact plans and guarantees of success. Don't credit people with exceeding their targets because that would just undermine planning. Insist that all procedures be followed.
  6. Confine discussion of strategies and plans to a small circle of trusted advisors. Then announce big decisions in full-blown form. This ensures that no one will start anything new because they never know what new orders will be coming down from the top.
  7. Act as though punishing failure motivates success. Practice public humiliation, making object lessons out of those who fail to meet expectations. Everyone will know that risk-taking is bad.
  8. Blame problems on the incompetent people below — their weak skills and poor work ethic. Complain frequently about the low quality of the talent pool today. If that doesn't undermine self-confidence, it will undermine faith in anyone else's ideas.
  9. Above all, never forget that we got to the top because we already know everything there is to know about this business.

Following these rules ensures that innovation will wither on the vine, if it even surfaces in the first place. That is often just fine with established interests, who would rather be protected against the nuisance of change. It's not so fine for success in a highly dynamic environment that demands new solutions.

Leaders who want to nurture innovation can reverse the anti-innovation rules and eliminate the practices that stifle innovation, in order to create a pro-innovation culture. For each of these innovation-stiflers, innovation-promoters can move to the opposite behaviors. In a culture of innovation, these actions allow innovation to flourish:

  • Encourage new ideas, especially from below and from unexpected sources.
  • Look ahead, not behind. The past is prologue but not necessarily precedent.
  • Leave some slack for experimentation, whether spare time or seed money.
  • Look for improvements, not critiques. Encourage collaboration toward common goals.
  • Be flexible. Stress substance over form, action over calendar. Allow for unplanned opportunities.
  • Open strategic discussions to new voices.
  • Accept that stretch goals mean some things won't work. Avoid public humiliation; promote public recognition for innovative accomplishments.
  • Foster respect for people and their talents.
  • And know learning is an imperative. Everyone, even the most experienced, must be open to learning.

Leaders seeking innovation should adhere to these pro-innovation principles. But it might also be a good idea to keep the innovation-stiflers posted as a reminder of what not to do.

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