4 Easy Ways to Kill Innovation

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How should we innovate? Business and technology leaders ask me this question a lot these days. I often respond with another question. Why do you want to innovate? Nothing kills innovation faster than a lack of focus.

A financial services CTO established a technology innovation team to explore.  “Explore what?” I asked.  “Emerging technologies that might help us” was his answer.  Not convinced enough focus was there, we refined the scope of his efforts using a finite set of business priorities he had just used to drive an enterprise architecture blueprint definition.  More focus means that the ideas, demos and prototypes will have meaning to those footing the bill.

Innovating is a lot like trying to build a campfire. Wild gusts of wind will blow out the initial flames. On the flipside, if a fire doesn’t have room to breathe, it’ll die. Properly stacking the wood is essential. In other words, freedom and structure are equally important to the success of innovation. In fact, they are so intertwined that striking the right balance between the two requires incredible discipline. As Peter Drucker once said, “innovation is work.”

Generating a spark is easy. Creating and sustaining heat is hard. The innovation initiatives of most organizations flame out because companies don’t effectively manage the disparate elements of people, money and business goals. Corporations try again and again to innovate and realize an ROI on their investments. Unfortunately, they perpetually fail.

Following is a list of the four ways that I see companies snuff out innovation:

Fail to Assign Roles and Responsibilities

Innovation is exciting. Who wouldn’t want to be involved in masterminding the next big idea to make company millions or draws the business closer to its customers? As such, when senior management issues an innovation mandate, people across the company start making plans before clear roles and responsibilities between people and teams are outlined. Turf battles ensue and workplace politics can easily derail innovation projects.

Fixate on ROI too Early

Management’s obsession with assigning innovation an ROI at all costs is suffocating. If you don’t know what it is yet, how do you build a business case? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen companies invent numbers out of thin air because they don’t have enough data. Why waste effort trying to define something that is un-definable at the early stages of innovation? Corporations should commit a small investment upfront to explore the possibilities before engaging in the futile exercise of trying to prove the value of the expedition. Invest enough money to test the idea and collect the required data to make a more informed go/no-go decision.

Forego Fire Pits

Here’s where companies don’t draw boundaries around what they are trying to innovate. Are you creating a whole new business, re-making a business function or inventing a new product type? Are you focused on improving internal processes? It’s crucial that companies clearly delineate the scope of innovation. With the scope defined, an appropriate multi-skilled team can be formed.

Fragment and Forget

Corporations often spin-off separate innovation units, which leads to innovation investments purposefully disconnected from the company. This isn’t a problem if the purpose of innovation is simply to make some extra money investing in outside businesses. Trouble arises when companies try to fold innovation back into core operations after the fact, diluting the mission of the separate unit.

Innovation is a hot topic. Companies desperately want to know how to innovate. First they need to understand why they want to innovate. Armed with a purpose for innovating, corporations have a better chance of avoiding the systemic problems that dampen the flames innovation.

What would you add to the list innovation killers?

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