Three Sins Against Innovation

Every once in a while it's a good idea to make sure you're not—inadvertently—making it harder for either yourself or your team to be innovative. Here are three sins even the best managers commit occasionally. (We have been guilty of them ourselves.) We also offer suggestions how to guard against, and recover from, these pitfalls.

Sin No. 1: Saying "enough already."

We like to call the most innovative employees—the ones who can come up with countless ideas at the drop of the proverbial hat—"idea monkeys." We could say countless wonderful things about idea monkeys, and here are two of our favorites: They have boundless energy, and they are flexible. You want more ideas? Great! You want to brainstorm about something else? Even better! Your job in managing these kinds of employees—the ones who say, "We could do this" or "What about that?" and "Wouldn't it be so cool if"—is to focus their energy, not cut it off. So instead of yielding to the temptation to yell, "Please stop coming up with something new every 20 seconds," you should direct them where you want them to go. Suggest specific areas where you need innovation help. Discuss the outcome you want and explain the hurdles standing in your way. Be specific about the things that have you "stuck." Then strap in and enjoy the ride.

Sin No. 2. Telling them "it won't work."

Not every idea your people come up with is going to work. Heck, most of them won't. They may not be practical. They may not fit with the company's goals. They may simply be too wacky or scary. But if you say, "it won't work" over and over again—even if the idea, indeed, won't work—eventually people will stop trying to come up with truly innovative ideas. Instead of saying why it won't work, connect your concern to a wish. "I wish we could figure out how to get the sales force excited about this idea," or "I wish we could find a way to cut the price by 20%." That way you keep encouraging people to refine their idea to the point where it may work. If you master this technique, we guarantee you will consistently get "unstuck" with excellent ideas you would not have discovered on your own.

Sin No. 3. Doing innovators' jobs for them.

One reason you want to suggest subtly ("I wish we could figure out a way to …") that the ideas you receive be refined is you don't want to stop a process that will lead to the most innovative result. Ironically, idea monkeys often make bad managers, because they rescue people struggling to come up with new ideas. By always jumping in with a great idea, they keep people from thinking for themselves or from failing forward.

Conversely, if you get good at redirecting creative thinkers, they will quite naturally bring you back ideas you had not considered. Revolutionary innovation happens when unconventional ideas are used to solve a challenge. Evolutionary—baby-step—innovation happens when the safe, usually obvious solutions are used to solve challenges. Redirecting an idea monkey is the most likely way to get the revolutionary innovation your company needs to shake things up.

Look long enough at successful companies, and you will notice a balance between the idea monkeys and the brilliant managers who get the most out of them. Look a bit harder, and you will usually find leaders who come from both of these camps and respect and rely on them daily.

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