Feature Story

How to Stop Innovation Killers

Culture kills innovation—but culture really means people. How do you track down your innovation killers, and re-start the flow of transformational ideas?

In an era of rapidly changing market forces and technology developments, you can’t afford to stop or even slow down innovation.

“It’s difficult enough to keep up in business, even when you’re moving as fast as you can, never mind if you have someone who’s not moving with the rest of the team,” says André Mendes, CIO and CTO of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors. “You can’t afford to have someone interfering, or someone dragging their feet. That’s the difference between surviving and thriving in a market.”

Managers, directors, and c-suite executives have the experience, authority, and leverage to influence culture and innovation, according to Kimberly Whitler, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and a longtime chief marketing officer.

When a workplace environment suppresses innovation, it’s a reflection of its executives.

“It takes all types of people to make innovation successful, but frankly, not all managers or directors are suited to innovate,” she says.

Innovation-killing activity may not be immediately obvious, but Whitler says you can look out for red flags in a wide range of qualities and characteristics.

Leaders who curb innovation are uncomfortable with risk, she says. They struggle with making decisions, only doing so when there’s a high degree of confidence.

“They’re uncomfortable with imperfect information,” Whitler says. “Ninety percent confidence isn’t good enough—they need it to be 100 percent before they’re comfortable with saying yes or no.”

Mendes points out that the department run by such a manager becomes a bottleneck. It churns out very few completed projects.

“You might start seeing memos that explain elaborate reasons why a project can’t happen because of a risk it poses to established procedures,” he says. “Individuals who resist innovation curtail progress because they’re afraid. You have to be very attuned to where cogent articulation of arguments ends and fear begins.”

It’s not only fear that can slow innovation.

“Studies have shown that the more you have mastered a field, the less open you are to new information because you’ve invested the time and energy into knowing what you know now,” says Julie Lynch, vice president of talent and culture at the National Fire Protection Association.

“Innovation is a mindset: You have to be curious, have a penchant for learning, and be excited for—not threatened by—something new,” says Lynch.

For some executives, it’s the “innovator’s dilemma,” Mendes adds. “The bigger you are in an organization, the bigger the price you pay for disrupting a space in which you’ve been very successful.”

Managers need the right team and people for innovation to work.

“Problematic leaders won’t put their best and brightest workers on non-revenue-generating activities. They’re protective of them and won’t let them work outside their silo,” he says. “Everyone has ideas about how to change a product or service, but what businesses need are managers who will support this with resources,” says Tom Koulopoulos, chairman and founder of Delphi Group.

Lastly, watch for executives who point out more problems than solutions, Whitler says. They’ll pick apart ideas before carefully considering them.

“These people are problem finders, not problem solvers. When an idea is on the table, they’re automatically critical of it. They’ll say, ‘This won’t work, and here’s why,’” she says. “They’re too focused on that one side of the equation.”

As CEO, you have the most authority and influence. Do any of these behaviors—risk aversion, indecision, fear of undercutting last year’s success—show up in your own management style?

If a lot of people on your team are contributing to a lack of innovation, they might be taking their cues from you. That’s doubly true if there isn’t a culture that encourages debate and frank feedback.

“Are these issues seen across the corporate culture, or is it just isolated in one department?” Whitler says. “If it’s everywhere, the problem usually starts with the CEO.”

CIOs from the world’s fastest innovators try to enjoy a meal, but the industry’s slowest waiter keeps interrupting their dining experience as he tries to understand how CIOs are using technology to stay ahead of the marketplace.

A process for finding and (hopefully) reforming innovation killers

As Whitler notes, not all employees are going to become (or lead) idea machines. Once an organization pinpoints its innovation killers, they have a few options.

Some managers may simply need a frank conversation. Most will need more than that, including new goals that emphasize changed behavior.

But putting a risk-averse personality in charge of innovative projects may lead to failure instead of reform. Instead it may be more important to eliminate foot-draggers’ authority to slow down or kill new ideas.

There are some measures you can take to spot innovation bottlenecks and re-establish an innovative corporate culture. Experts advise a company to set in place these five measures and repeat them on an ongoing basis:

1. Conduct a formal survey: The survey should look at the company’s ability to innovate broadly, Whitler says. Include questions such as:

  • To what degree are we an innovative company?
  • To what degree does my specific division/workgroup/CEO promote or stifle innovation?
  • Ask for examples of people or departments who have very strong innovative skills.

2. Evaluate the way you lead: Consider the unintended consequences of your leadership style, Lynch says. “If you’re bottom line-focused and productivity-minded, people won’t innovate because innovation might cause productivity to drop,” she says.

3. Set innovation parameters: To state that you want the organization to innovate more won’t work, Koulopoulos says. Employees need guidelines. “What constitutes acceptable failure?” he asks. “What license do they have to experiment with something that might not benefit today’s bottom line but might create the potential for new areas of value, going forward?”

Innovations should have a purpose, Lynch adds. “Help them understand why you’re innovating: What are the challenges or problems you’re looking to solve? Set some goals around that, and be very clear about the parameters they need to work within,” she says. “That will help you set them up for success.”

4. Accept failure: Corporate cultures that don’t tolerate mistakes or failures won’t successfully innovate, Whitler says. Instead, treat these as opportunities to learn.

“When people know it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from them, they’ll be more apt to innovate,” she says. “When an idea fails, don’t place blame. Instead, focus on the lessons learned, and reward mistakes that drive growth.”

This helps to build a better culture of innovation, Koulopoulos says. “Make it clear that you know that innovation might result in nothing, but once every so often, it does—and that’s what makes it worth it.”

5. Bring success center stage: When ideas succeed, highlight and celebrate them with the company, Koulopoulos says. “You need to be very vocal when it comes to innovation. This means recognizing people and ideas during company meetings, and saying, ‘This is what worked for us,’” he says. “You need to create that benchmark for people to strive toward, and shine a light on it regularly.”

Kristin Burnham has covered business and technology for CIO Magazine, InformationWeek, and other IT media outlets.