9 signs you know you shouldn’t bother with innovation

1. There is no money. Organisations sometimes think you can get innovation without investment. They believe in an “innovation culture” where employees do new things as part of their day job. The reality is that innovative companies have creative employees and some kind of formal enablement. Enablement costs money. Companies that don’t spend any (hoping that assigning a person or two to the innovation challenge will do), rarely do very much innovation.

2. Your boss is late majority, or worse, a laggard. They don’t like new things, and always need plenty of positive reinforcement from people they trust before they’ll even try something new. If they have an innovation programme, it is likely its been forced on them. They won’t see the point of the work, and certainly won’t support it.
3. Everything is controlled by the Finance Director. Another don’t bother moment, because this individual will likely want to make sure of the business case for every single innovation you undertake. Because most really interesting things don’t even start to pay off in the short term, chances are you’ll get nothing major done. You’ll be reduced to incrementalism (not that there’s anything wrong with that, if that’s what your innovation strategy is), and you may as well rename yourself the Lean Team, rather than the Innovation Team. 
4. The organisation is laser-focussed on core business. If this is the case, especially if it is because the organisation is in distress, then probably innovation will be considered a distraction. Oh, the right words will get said, but when the chips are down, the innovators will be told to go away. Retreat to the core is a classic strategy of an organisation that is disconnecting itself from change, for whatever reason.
5. The company is riding high on established product and service lines. There may be competitors, but for now the position is secure. Innovation will probably not be seen as all that necessary in the scheme of things, because there’s nothing going wrong right now. Such organisations have no burning platform for innovation, therefore, none will happen.
6. Audit and governance functions are over-powerful. If your organisation is full of security people, audit people, and governance people with the power to call the shots, then you should consider whether to bother with innovation. These are not bad people, but the organisation has programmed them to shut down change in all its forms. To innovate, you first have to find a way to eliminate their power over the innovators. In many organisations, that’s a task which is  practically impossible.
7. The organisations has never had a recovery from a near-death experience. Really innovative organisations have a generation of managers who were either with it when it started (when every day was a near death experience), or who went through a period where there was every chance of a close down. Without such people in place, there’s no entrenched belief in the power of change. Ergo, no innovation.
8. Your innovators are stuck in IT. This is a hard one, but the reality is this. If you’re an IT innovator, chances are you’re there to find ways to “enable” better IT through innovation. This is all very well, but enablement of a support function has much less money associated with it than enablement of a core business line (which in turn, uses IT). Sooner or later, the innovation team will look less attractive as an investment than other available opportunities.
9. Your CEO is risk-averse. If this is true, then even the very best innovations, no matter how well constituted, are likely to fail. This will not be because the CEO doesn’t “get” stuff. Rather, the amount of reassurance that he or she will need before they make a “go” decision is likely to be excessive. You can spend all your available time trying to convince everyone whom the CEO might consult of the value, and still miss a key individual that will plant the seeds of doubt. Then you’ll have to start all over again.

7 Responses to“9 signs you know you shouldn’t bother with innovation”

  1. Mark
    June 23, 2010 at 1:10 pm #

    Blimey James, that posting rang a lot of bells. Reminds me of a conversation we had a long time ago!! Be interesting what priority the civil service assign to Innovation in these financially challenging times… maybe the same as other equally financially challenged organisations.

  2. June 23, 2010 at 2:42 pm #

    Well, we are have a near-death experience at present. As you'd expect, this results in extreme focus on doing things in different ways….

  3. June 23, 2010 at 11:23 pm #

    Nice post. Points 2 and 9 ring bells with this recent HBR article from Rosabeth Moss Kanter.

  4. Franc
    June 26, 2010 at 11:22 am #

    It is right to the point post.
    It remains me on my recent experience I’ve had in a project (a project about
    implementing product catalog and
    event management support for
    consumers’ loans). We’ve had almost
    all challenges from a James’ post and
    on top of that the member of the
    management boar responsible for IT
    and R&D divisions was a lawyer.
    It was a real frustration.
    I believe that the list from post
    deserve a book to be written.

  5. PostalPerson
    July 26, 2010 at 3:29 pm #

    This post resonated particularly well with me. What I would be most interested in is your take on what if your these signs are apparent in your organization – but it desperately needs to innovate to stay relevant? How does one influence change? I know it needs to change from the top – but how does one influence this as a middle executive? That I would love to know. 🙂

  6. July 27, 2010 at 5:17 am #

    I hate to be fatalistic, but I really think that it is possible to flog a dead horse in this respect.
    If an organisation must innovate to stay relevant, yet all these 9 signs are there, I'd say there's not much chance of any innovation occurring no matter what any executive does.
    But all is not lost: sooner or later a near death experience is going to occur. My own experience with those is that attitudes change overnight. What was previously impossible becomes very possible… though not everyone might like it.
    So I think my answer is that there's not much a middle level executive can do except prepare for the (inevitable) day when their views on innovation will be sought and they have a chance to make a difference.

  7. November 8, 2010 at 12:39 am #

    The Value of Hutch Carpenter's Customer Feedback Innovation Model

    Hutch Carpenter's Three Models For Applying Customer Feedback to Innovation is the best post on business innovation and social media feedback that I have read. For two reasons, one is that it provides a nice, succinct business-oriented model, and secon…

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