Tag Archives: barriers to innovation

Barriers to Innovation

Our previous post identified the “innovation dilemma” faced by many organizations. Continuing on that theme, our experience and research into barriers to innovation surfaced three paradoxical observations:

Lack of Time or Too Much Time?
Many organizations cite the lack of time and attention to innovation as a major barrier. People are too busy to think about innovation. “If my boss’s boss is too busy to think about new and better ways of doing something, I
better be too.”

This is a good recipe for keeping things exactly the way they are while the world passes by.

But dedicating resources to innovation does not seem to work that well, either. It may foster a creative environment, but this does not necessarily translate into more workable innovations. One organization created an innovative think tank with 12-14 people led by a senior executive. After two years they were disbanded because while they came up with some innovative ideas, none of them were financially viable.

Similarly, Xerox created an inventor’s paradise, Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), assembled incredible talent, big budgets, and freedom from oversight by senior management back East. They envisioned a great number of wonderful things, but that did not enable them to bring these visions or prototypes to market. Many of their greatest ideas were brought to fruition by other companies.

Too Much at Stake
Innovation requires risk taking, and large, well-established organizations simply have a lot on the plate to risk.

When the large financial information firm, Bloomberg, was a small start-up with a few big ideas, the founders carried their prototype via taxi over to Merrill Lynch, their first customer. The computer had only partial functionality and nowhere near the required reliability — yet. But the risks of not bringing it out, of waiting until everything was in order, exceeded the risks of showing the product, even with some flaws remaining and some features not quite built. The meeting went very well, and the rest is history.

But when a well established company with a broad customer base introduces a new product, expectations are quite high and risks must be carefully weighed. Each potential innovation must be considered and evaluated in light of the existing portfolio of products and commitments. Innovation becomes much more complicated and difficult.\

Similarly, managers at middle or high levels in an organization often have completely different risk profiles than they had in their twenties when they were just trying to make a name for themselves. For middle management, the costs of introducing a bad idea can far outweigh the costs of not introducing a good idea, and they become risk-averse.

Consider the impact of risk-aversion when the number of great ideas is a function of the total number of ideas. When it comes to innovation, the win/loss ratio is meaningless. All that matters is how many wins you have. And the number of wins varies with the number of tries. As Thomas Edison once said about his long journey toward a working light bulb, “I have not failed; I just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.”

How many incomplete or unworkable ideas must one consider to find a real winner? Quite a few. Yet at what ratio of rejected ideas to accepted ones do people decide to keep their heads down and continue doing things the way they have always been done? Little wonder innovation is so hard to come by.

“Too Much of a Good Thing”
We cannot innovate with too few ideas, but can’t get anywhere with too many. Innovation requires a well disciplined process as well as a fast flowing stream of ideas. An organization needs to have an effective way to
pivot from idea creation to sifting, sorting, choosing, and doing. Ideas can get in the way of deeds, and effective innovation requires both.

In our next post we will share some ideas for overcoming these and other barriers to innovation.

3 Big Barriers to Innovation

Our previous post referenced a common obstacle to major process innovation as being a reluctance to challenge the “status-quo.”

Three additional and significant barriers to innovation are:

  1. Time… Many organizations cite the lack of time and attention to innovation as a major barrier because people are simply too busy to think about innovation. “If my boss’s boss is too busy to think about new and better ways of doing something, I better be too.” This is a good recipe for keeping things exactly the way they are while the world passes by.
  2. Too much at stake… Innovation requires risk taking, and large, well-established organizations simply have a lot on the plate to risk. When a well established company with a broad customer base introduces a new product, expectations are quite high and risks must be carefully weighed. Each potential innovation must be considered and evaluated in light of the existing portfolio of products and commitments. Innovation becomes much more complicated and difficult.
  3. Too many ideas… While everyone realizes we cannot innovate with too few ideas, we also can’t get anywhere with too many. Innovation requires a well disciplined process as well as a fast flowing stream of ideas. An organization needs to have an effective way to pivot from idea creation to sifting, sorting, choosing, and doing. Ideas can get in the way of deeds, and effective innovation requires both.

Now that we’ve identified some of the most common challenges to innovation, our next post will focus on specific ways to overcome these obstacles and to develop a culture of innovation.

Challenging Assumptions?

To achieve a significant breakthrough through a significant process innovation and improvement, we must challenge and overcome assumptions.

This type of process innovation is one that significantly changes the speed, the cost, and/or an aspect of the quality of a process or service, and has the potential to change the competitive landscape.

A few examples:

  • An insurance company overwhelmed the competition by shortening the time between claim filing and payment from weeks to hours.
  • A small bank picked up market share through a process innovation reducing the number of days to approval by 80%.
  • Dell Computer went from upstart to market leader with a process innovation that dramatically shortened the time from start-of-build to ready-to-ship — enabling them to build-to-order and dramatically reduce manufacturing costs.

But every business operates under the constraints of operating assumptions, many of which are not recognized as such because they are considered simple  facts-of-life; because they are so ingrained in an organization’s paradigm that we assume they are irrefutable facts.

To challenge these “facts” is, of course, easier said than done.  We all want to achieve a process innovation that will remake the competitive landscape in our favor, and we all want to make improvements that will enhance our competitive position in the marketplace. But it is hard to accomplish these types of continuous improvements when people are running hard just keeping up with the day-to-day workload, and when some of the barriers to attempting significant changes appear to be irrefutable facts-of-life.

Consequently, game changing innovations are rare.

If your organization is going to identify and execute process innovation, you have to have created both the right human conditions and the best methods to successfully identify, challenge, and reverse the constraining assumptions that are keeping you and your competition trapped in the status quo.

Lots of Ideas Can Be a Surprising Barrier to Innovation & Continuous Improvement!

People readily agree that we cannot innovate with too few ideas. Fortunately there are numerous methods for surfacing “innovative thought,” such as brain-storming, checklists, or the five W’s and 1 H.

But can’t get anywhere with too many ideas either!

toomanychoicesWhen too many ideas are generated by the above-listed methods, the risks of choosing the wrong idea or the complications associated with choosing the best idea can get in the way of deeds, and effective innovation requires both.  To be effectively innovative an organization must have a process for pivoting from idea creation to sifting, sorting, choosing, and doing.

It is no surprise that one of Bill Conway’s favorite sayings has always been, “The most important business decision people make every day, is deciding what to work on.”

Risks of Innovation: “The Bigger They Are…”

risk2Another significant barrier to innovation is risk, which tends to increase along with organizational size and stature.

When considering new ideas, large, well-established organizations simply have a lot on their plate to risk. For example, when the large financial information firm, Bloomberg, was a small start-up with a few big ideas, the founders carried their prototype via taxi over to Merrill Lynch, their first customer. The computer had only partial functionality and nowhere near the required reliability — yet. But the risks of not bringing it out, of waiting until everything was in order, exceeded the risks of showing the product, even with some flaws remaining and some features not quite built. The meeting went very well, and the rest is history.

But when a well established company with a broad customer base introduces a new product (a position Bloomberg finds itself in today), marketplace expectations are quite high and risks must be carefully weighed. Each potential innovation must be considered and evaluated in light of the existing portfolio of products and commitments. Innovation becomes much more complicated and difficult.

Similarly, managers at middle or high levels in an organization often have completely different risk profiles than they had in their twenties when they were just trying to make a name for themselves.

For middle management, the costs of introducing a bad idea can far outweigh the costs of not introducing a good idea, and they become risk-averse. Consider the impact of risk-aversion when the number of great ideas is a function of the total number of ideas. When it comes to innovation, the win/loss ratio is meaningless. All that matters is how many wins you have. And the number of wins varies with the number of tries.

As Thomas Edison once said about his long journey toward a working light bulb, “I have not failed; I just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.”

How many incomplete or unworkable ideas must one consider to find a real winner? Quite a few.

Yet at what ratio of rejected ideas to accepted ones do people decide to keep their heads down and continue doing things the way they have always been done?

Little wonder innovation is so hard to come by.

Too Much or Too Little Time Can be a Barrier to Innovation

timetoolittleortoomuchContinuing our theme of identifying barriers to innovation, our experience and research into the subject has surfaced some paradoxical observations.

For example, organizations may give innovation too little time, or too much time!

Many organizations cite the lack of time and attention to innovation as a major barrier. People are too busy to think about innovation.

“If my boss’s boss is too busy to think about new and better ways of doing something, I better be too.”

This is a good recipe for keeping things exactly the way they are while the world passes by.

But dedicating resources to innovation does not seem to work that well, either. It may foster a creative environment, but this does not necessarily translate into more workable innovations.

One organization created an innovative think tank with 12-14 people led by a senior executive. After two years they were disbanded because while they came up with some innovative ideas, none of them were financially viable.

Similarly, Xerox created an inventor’s paradise, Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), assembled incredible talent, big budgets, and freedom from oversight by senior management back East. They envisioned a great number of wonderful things, but that did not enable them to bring these visions or prototypes to market. In fact, many of their greatest ideas were brought to fruition by other companies.

What has your organization discovered with respect to allocating the “right” amount of time to innovative thought?

Are the Same Old Problems Impacting Your Innovation Level?

innovationIn a recent post we shared some thoughts on the relationship between quality and innovation.

Everyone wants to be innovative — the best returns and greater profits come to those who who can create a management system or culture that constantly is clicking on all cylinders, or those who can be the first to introduce “new or improved” products to the market.

Innovations such as these create powerful competitive advantages.

But how often do they happen?

Innovation is challenging for both large and small organizations. In our experience and research, we find that innovation is truly enigmatic:

  • Large organizations have more wherewithal to invest in systematic innovation, but smaller organizations seem more capable of capitalizing on innovative ideas. Why?
  • Most innovations come not from visionaries at the top but from people closest to the work. Yet paradoxically, strong leadership and vision at the top of the organization are required to create an environment that fosters innovation and risk taking. Without strong leadership, organizations become bureaucratic and risk-averse.
  • Outsiders often have the most innovative ideas, but insiders’ know-how and buy-in are required to get them implemented.

Our next few posts will discuss some of the barriers to innovation and some ways to overcome these barriers.

More Barriers to Innovation & Continuous Improvement

under construction barrierIn earlier posts we identified some of the most common barriers to innovation.

Since then, we’ve posed the question to a number of improvement leaders and specialists, and have been presented with some interesting responses!

Here are just a few:

“The greatest barrier is communication. Companies often adopt a culture change without building communication into their strategic plan… the KPI’s and objectives required to accomplish the change. It has to be two-way communication to effectively engage the entire workforce.”

“The greatest barrier to innovation is simply not believing that it is necessary. Many companies view innovation merely as a corporate marketing exercise, like a new flavour of their product. Real innovation is going to turn an organisation into a place where things change for the better.”

“I see lack of motivation as main barrier. Innovation in the context of a company has to do with its core processes, products & services, defects & quality costs, or market status elements to name a few system component where innovation is usually expected to take place. That requires aiming at efficiency of operations, not just the effectiveness of an implemented system.”

“The biggest barriers I’ve seen are resistance to change and Group Think.”

“The chief barrier to innovation is the Barrier Of Strategic Success, colloquially called the Boss.”

“To me, the most common barrier to innovation is within ourselves. Innovative thinking is in all of us, but when is the last time you really let it out; and once out, really championed it across your organization. Even innovations must be “sold” to peers, superiors and even subordinates before that vision can be transformed into reality. Usually it’s fear that stops people from making their vision known.”

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