3 Ways you are Squashing Innovation at your Organization (and how to stop)

Innovation has reached the status of necessity. If we can’t change and evolve with our customers, we will cease to exist. This is a lesson that executives at Blockbuster, Kodak and so many other organizations had to learn the hard way.

Despite knowing its importance, actually delivering innovation within our organizations has proven to be incredibly challenging. Much of the challenge lies in the fact that our organizations are designed around a process of management that arose in an industrial era with the primary objective to minimize waste and drive efficiency.  And we’ve seen great success at that.

The problem is that innovation is fed by many of the things that management exists to eliminate. Some of what looks wasteful to management is vital to innovation. This is what we often refer to as “the inconvenient truth about innovation.”  To succeed at innovation and make it part of how we do business requires that we learn to un-manage our organization a bit.

To help you recognize what this might look like, here are three ways you might be squashing innovation and what you should do about it.

1.You allow silos to exist. While most leaders understand that silos aren’t ideal, few are doing much about it. If the accountants sit with, eat with, and work with other accountants (and same for IT, HR, sales, ops, etc.), then you have silos. New ideas are born at the intersection of difference. When you and I see a problem or solution in different ways, when we come together to combine those perspectives and work towards the best solution, our differences create the opportunity for something new to emerge.  Silos make this kind of interaction far less common.

What to do: At a minimum, get in the practice of creating frequent cross-functional task forces to address organizational challenges and opportunities.  Use these groups to bring together people from different areas of the organization to share and use their diverse experiences. If you want to really amp up this effect, break up the physical silos by creating cross-functional office spaces where instead of putting employees together by function (IT with IT) you mix it up (IT with Ops with HR with Finance, etc.). This is an example of what might not be optimally efficient but is vital to innovation.

2. You allow the same small number of voices to dominate every meeting.  Meetings tend to be where good intention and ideas go to die.  That’s because in most meetings, while there may be a dozen unique perspectives and opinions in the room, only a few get heard.  Usually we hear plenty from the person with the biggest title, the person with the loudest voice, and the person who believes they are smarter than everyone else.  And, these same voices dominate every meeting.  This is a colossal waste when you consider the amount of squandered talent within the room that is rarely heard from.  Innovation relies on not only on the inclusion of this diversity of perspectives but also on healthy conversation and conflict to thrive.

What to do: Create some ground rules for your meetings that ensure contribution from all members. Start by being very clear about the purpose and expectation of your meetings and attendees.  One expectation might be that “everyone contributes and no one dominates.” This alone may change the dynamic of the meeting. It can also be helpful to designate a rotating meeting facilitator who has the responsibility of ensuring that each person contributes (i.e. “Jim, we haven’t heard from you on his topic.  What do you think?”).

3. You have made innovation the job of a small number of people. One of the most powerful myths we have about innovation is that it is the product of a lone creative genius or small dedicated team. When we hear the word innovation, we see the face of Steve Jobs and assume that the key to innovation is finding our own genius. This also assumes that innovation comes only in big, game-changing packages. The reality is that innovation is a process of small, incremental steps that build upon and inspire each other over time. All of these small changes ultimately result in what looks like a major breakthrough (i.e. the iPhone). The mores small changes we can make, the more likely the game changer emerges. So, the notion of putting this process in the hands of a few is counter-productive and limiting. You need as many eyes, minds, and hearts committed to finding those small improvements as possible.

What do to: Encourage all employees to experiment with how they do their work. Equip and empower them to find new and better ways to get things done. When they find success, celebrate and share these ideas broadly. Also, create forums where ideas for improvement can be shared and socialized by anyone within the organization. The people closest to the work and the customer frequently have the most important ideas. Create paths for those ideas to come to light using corporate intranets or innovation platforms.

We’ve spent decades perfecting management as a way to drive efficiency while unknowingly making our organizations almost resilient to innovation. To reverse this trend will not be easy and will take time. Starting with these simple ideas will get you started in the right direction.

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