Are You Killing Innovation in Your Company -- Without Even Knowing It?

By Holly G. Green

In today’s world, innovation is a business imperative. You either find new and better ways to add value to your customers, you play follow the leader with those who do, or you go out of business as others change the game and you lose.

Most business leaders intuitively know this. Which is why more and more are making sincere efforts to encourage innovation in their companies. Unfortunately, these efforts rarely produce the desired results.

According to a recent Forbes article, “Why The Pursuit Of Innovation Usually Fails,” when it comes to business innovation, failure is the norm rather than the exception. Most “innovations” are little more than thinly disguised reformulations of existing products or services. What’s behind our systemic inability to innovate?

It’s not a lack of creative ideas. People and companies come up with these in abundance. Instead, Forbes attributes the dismal results to how we go about trying to innovate.

Today’s business leaders are trained to defend and extend the existing core business, not create a new one. This is especially true in successful companies. Instead of looking for the next breakthrough product, leaders seek to lower costs, improve operational excellence, and develop customer intimacy with the biggest clients.

As a result, most innovation efforts focus on making the innovation process efficient and effective rather than actually developing something new. They try to leverage the company’s core brand, which may lead to incremental innovation but greatly reduces the odds of coming up with anything that transforms the market or industry.

At the same time, innovation initiatives rarely receive sufficient budgets or resources. In most companies, the lion’s share of the resources go into supporting existing products and services.

These are all valid reasons for why companies struggle to innovate. But sometimes I think the reason is even simpler and more insidious. In the corporate world we are trained to kill good ideas. Instead of looking for ways to make new ideas work, we look for reasons why they won’t work. And most of the time we’re not even aware we’re doing it!

How do we kill good ideas? Simply by the way we talk about them. This process is automatic and mostly unconscious, and it happens countless times every day on the shop floors and in cubicles and boardrooms everywhere. How many times have you heard these phrases (and others like them) in your organization?

  • We already tried that.

  • That’s never been done before.

  • We don’t do things that way.

  • It will cost too much.

  • Management won’t go for it.

  • That will never pay for itself.

  • The customer won’t buy that.

  • Nice idea, but too far ahead of its time.

  • You’re such a dreamer.

These are innovation killers!  They sound reasonable. They sound practical. In some cases they may even be true. But they stop new and promising ideas dead in their tracks before they have any chance to blossom and grow.

Here’s the interesting part - most of us do not intentionally set out to stifle innovation. When we hear a new idea, we don’t consciously think, “”That’s a bad idea, I’m going to kill it.”  Instead, our response occurs at the unconscious level. A new idea contradicts what we believe is true, so our brain perceives it as a threat. This triggers an automatic response, and the innovation-killing phrases come out of our mouths before we even know it.

Don’t believe me? Watch what happens the next time a new employee joins the company. Part of the reason we hire new employees is for their fresh energy and new ideas. Yet, when they start suggesting different ways of doing things, you’ll hear things like, “Oh, we’ve always done it this way.”  Or, “That’ll never fly!”  Or, “You might want to learn how we do things around here before you go rocking the boat.” 

People say these things all the time!  Yet we never take notice because they are so ingrained in our thinking and our culture. How do these innovation killers get started?

We all walk around with “thought bubbles,” things we tell ourselves that we absolutely, positively know to be true about how the world operates. In business, thought bubbles include all the “facts” we know to true about our industry, our market, our customers and our employees.

Thought bubbles can form very quickly. And once formed, they can be very difficult to break. For example, I recently worked with a client who tried to raise prices on their core product a few years ago. Their customers refused to accept the new pricing structure, and the company lost several long-term customers as a result.

Needless to say, this had a profound impact on the senior management team. Based on the negative customer reaction, they became convinced that raising prices was not an option. Their thought bubbles told them that because they had unsuccessfully tried to raise prices once, they could never raise prices.

The issue here is not whether customers will or won’t accept a price increase. It’s how quickly we can form immovable thought bubbles when something happens to us even once. And once formed, it’s how much of an impact those thought bubbles have on our decisions and actions going forward.

With the world changing at an ever-increasing pace, we can’t afford to run our companies on beliefs and assumptions that may no longer be true. As leaders, we need to get in the habit of pausing to identify the thought bubbles that are guiding are decisions, and then evaluate how the world has changed since we first formed those beliefs.

I agree that we need to train our leaders better on how to manage innovation. And we could certainly allocate more money and resources in that direction. But it can start with an even simpler approach of identifying and eliminating all the different ways we unintentionally shut down good ideas with our thought bubbles and with the way we talk. Of course, this does require that we first become aware of our own thinking process and reasons for our auto responses.

The language we use to describe the world has a powerful impact on the way we see it. As long as innovation killers remain part of our lexicon and culture, our chances for meaningful innovation are greatly diminished.

Read other articles and learn more about Holly G. Green.

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