Everyone Wants Innovation — Why Is It So Persistently Hard To Find?

22 February, 2018 / Articles
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Breakthrough innovation is the Holy Grail of business. Everyone wants it, yet it remains frustratingly elusive.

When I was in the corporate world, we had no shortage of methods to try to coax more innovation out of employees: incubators, innovation centers, brainstorming sessions… yet acutal creative innovation was inevitably challenging to find. It’s hard to be “innovative on demand.”

Which is why I was interested in a survey of CFOs I just happened across from last fall from Robert Half, examining barriers to workplace innovation.

Mundane tasks and firefighting

The survey noted that nearly 9 in 10 employees say a company’s reputation for innovation “is an important consideration when evaluating potential employers.”

Despite such keen interest, innovation can be hard to find for a variety of reasons. In the survey, Chief Financial Officers were asked, “What is the greatest barrier to your company being more innovative?” Let’s look at the responses.

30% answered “too much bureaucracy.” (My own take on this one? Feels like a bit of an excuse. Whoa, I could be really creative but if only this darn bureaucracy didn’t keep getting in my way!)

27% cited “being bogged down by daily tasks and putting out fires.” Yep, totally identify with this one. In my days in corporate management, mundane daily tasks and fighting fires consumed an inordinate amount of energy. Seemed like at the end of many days I was left wondering, Where did the time go? Realizing I hadn’t spent any of it on the things I intended to.

But back to the survey. Additionally, 25% of respondents cited “lack of new ideas” and 16% mentioned “ineffective leadership” – other headwinds that can impede an innovative process.

Net-net, the business world puts up ample roadblocks to creativity.

Tell creative people what to do, not how to do it

So what can we say about effectively encouraging innovation from a management perspective? The field of management doesn’t always attract the most creative types. Truth be told, I worked with some managers who wouldn’t know a great creative idea if it “slapped them upside the head.”

But the best managers, I believe, build an environment where innovation and risk-taking (a necessary element of innovation) are rewarded and encouraged. Rather than meeting new ideas with what I like to call the nine most dangerous words in business: “This is the way we’ve always done it here.”

In this regard, I feel I learned more about encouraging innovation from one of my direct reports than I ever did in a management textbook or MBA course. One day when a certain employee had grown weary of my micromanaging, she took me aside and told me told me quietly but firmly, “You know, you’ll get the best results if you tell creative people what to do, not how to do it.”

I looked at her, heard the clarity with which she said it and in an instant I knew she was right.

She was a highly experienced sports marketer and I’d been providing her with far more direction than she needed. I was frustrating her, not helping her.

Management should provide sound strategic direction, she continued, but don’t proscribe solutions for creative people. Let them sort through the options and the pros and cons. Don’t try to solve the problem for them.

They’ll find a better way.

The science man and innovator, Fernando Fischmann, founder of Crystal Lagoons, recommends this article.

 

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