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  • Joanne Rencher

How Companies Kill Innovation

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

This article was published online in the July, 2016 edition of People + Strategy (HRPS Blog)

Sophia, a top performer in her company, was constantly searching for ways to do things smarter or faster. She had joined a team assembled to develop and scale emerging ideas within a geographically dispersed company.

Her colleagues were bright and among the best of the best in their industry, and she was pleased to have been selected for this high-profile initiative. One day, however, she became disillusioned. She had just left a meeting where her offer to address the team’s unresolved issue of how to store files online, synchronize them across different computers, share them with team members, and access them remotely from anywhere was met with paralysis. She had suggested that they use Dropbox. It wasn’t exactly a novel tool anymore, but it was one that would allow her colleagues to move onto more pressing business issues. Instead, it died a slow death in the meeting.

Sadly, no one on the team was comfortable making decisions. It was purported to be the team that could take the company to the next level, yet decisions were made laboriously and mired in a sea of sameness of opinions.

Sophia is one of countless individuals who show up to work desperately wanting to change the world—one issue at a time. She represents a cadre of talent whose innovation is being killed—every day. Whether through not-so-subtle contradictions between espoused values and work environments, or complex organizational structures and processes, which put a stranglehold on creativity, these companies are killing innovation.

There are several culprits that hinder innovation. Here are just a few, as well as strategies for counteracting them.

So, You’ve Got Creative Office Space—Now What?

Indoor gaming and free-roam Segway riding are all the rage in workplace redesigns. These creative workplace environments are intended to inspire creativity and a sense of fun. Indeed, these outcomes are important as it relates to innovation. Companies like Lego have created space that allows employees to brainstorm while they work. Other companies, such as Cisco, have built their space to appeal to the Millennial generation, highly focused on a flexible and mobile workforce in terms of hours and location.

However, beyond physical space, the workplace environment must scream innovation in everything from its cubicles (or lack thereof) to its demonstrated values, systems, and processes. The incongruence between workspaces with cool foosball tables and company cultures which avoid conflicts and encourage cutthroat politics is wildly transparent to employees hungry for opportunities to innovate. It breeds cynicism and will never give rise to new ideas.

It is perfectly fine to tackle workplace redesigns. It is just as important to work as diligently on your cultural norms, values, and behaviors to identify the gaps between your desired and future state.

Draw the Crowds, but Don’t Smother Them

There is little question that two heads are better than one. In fact, multiple heads operating with a diversity of thoughts and perspectives birth great ideas. This is the theory behind crowdsourcing.

Crowdsourcing, in its original concept, is soliciting help in solving a challenge or generating ideas from essentially the world at large. It is the canvassing of countless people to glean the broadest amount of input possible. Those people are often those external to a project, company, or initiative.

While companies look to create the space and tools for greater innovation, more of them would be well served to look in their own backyards. Beneath the carnage of would-be ideas and “never minds” whispered at the water coolers, are innovators yearning to breathe free. One need only ask DSM, a global science company active in health, nutrition, and materials.

In the July 2015 video edition of the Harvard Business Review, Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg, co-author of Innovation as Usual, shared DSM’s story. After two years of on an unsuccessful quest to address an issue with one of their products, DSM employed crowdsourcing to engage others on social media. They shared the problem, solicited input, and even provided an incentive to solving it. Five people came back with different parts of the whole puzzle which solved the problem.

Fairly unremarkable, right? What was remarkable, was that three of those people were from DSM’s own company—one a lawyer from their patent office. This was someone who had clearly been exposed to new ideas, yet apparently had never been engaged directly until DSM chose to crowdsource the challenge.

Tapping into the innovation of our surrounding talent could be as simple as asking them a question. However, even with successful idea generation, innovation can still be subject to slaughter if decisions cannot be made effectively.

Crowds of innovators are often smothered by faulty decision-making within companies in a host of ways. The DSM lawyer in the above example was fortunate not to have been trapped in a “culture of excessiveness,” where every decision requires multiple inputs at multiple levels with the same amount of rigor. Further, where a decision sits in the organization must also be thoughtfully determined if work is to move at the right speed through empowered employees.

Mindful Hierarchy

Innovation can also be squashed by the weight of too many levels of authority. Some companies are experimenting with the opposite concept of hierarchy: holacracy. At its core, holacracy eschews levels, instead choosing to focus on self-government where everyone is equally responsible for outcomes. However, it could be extreme for some and not conducive to the type of order that most people naturally seek, according to research on the topic.

Hence, while some degree of hierarchy is preferable and wise, flatter and more nimble organizational structures which inspire fluid decision-making are key ingredients to innovation. Requiring employees to navigate their way through several levels of authority before decisions are final is draining and counterproductive.

I’ve either conceptualized, led, or inherited organizational redesigns over more than two decades in business. On several occasions, I intentionally flattened the structure in place to increase agility and quicken decisions. It often meant having to assuage concerns of those who equated authority with perceived value. Invariably, it also meant that the ultimate team structure increased innovation and empowered employees. The latter was far more important in my view.

The Power of Individual Thinking

There are few more damaging aspects of behavior within a company than the disease of groupthink, a behavior born from a fear of creating disharmony or being rejected that destroys independent and critical thinking. It replaces healthy individualism with behavior that can be irrational at best, and destructive at worst. Groupthink serves as the enemy to innovation. When one is afraid of upsetting the group’s status quo, innovation will naturally be stifled.

We can put an end to this plague. It will require both honesty and intentionality. As leaders, let’s conduct an honest assessment of the ways in which we may be contributing to the killing of innovation in our spheres of influence. From there, we should be unequivocal in our resolve to root out this problem. Our businesses will begin to truly thrive as a result.

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