Murder Most Fowl: Innovation Killers

Posted by Sally Hogshead on June 16, 2011
Murder Most Fowl: Innovation Killers

Let's bow our heads and take a moment to mourn the loss of all the brilliant ideas that have died at the hands of "innovation killers"-the business habits that nip great ideas in the bud. They lurk in the hallways, gather around the water cooler, and generally infect most committee meetings. What are they? Inertia, fear of risk, cynicism, and complacency.

Often an innovation killer starts innocently enough. It can pop up in five simple little words: "Let me play devil's advocate." Uh-oh. As soon as I hear that phrase, I know someone has an innovation killer up his sleeve, ready to sling it like a Japanese star across the room and into the whiteboard. Most businesses want to create excitement and interest around their ideas, products, and even themselves. Yet innovation killers can live within the most well-intentioned companies, and if they do, anyone within those companies will have trouble conceiving and executing innovations that survive. So do your company's operations house any of these silent-but-deadly terminators? Let's find out, starting by taking a long, hard look in the mirror. Do any of these sound familiar?

.  You have policies and protocol that impose a red-tape mentality, or an overthought, overcontrolled approval process.
.  Your company has never apportioned a percentage of its budget or revenue to a project with a higher risk, but potential higher reward.
.  If an employee has a remarkable idea, accomplishment or innovation, few people in the company or industry find out about it, because it's not valued.
.  Your company is so focused on keeping a low profile that it kills ideas before they've had a chance to hatch.
.  You're so concerned with not offending people that your image has been diluted down to a tasteless gray mush. (Yuck!)

We all know that innovation requires fresh thinking and strategic creativity. But it also needs to be protected. How? Below, are a few tips for making sure that your biggest, smartest ideas survive and thrive.

1. Don't let committees do the thinking for you. The most "breakthrough" ideas are often fragile because they can be easily dumbed down by a committee mentality.

2. Protect innovation throughout the process, from conception to execution. Most brilliant ideas are not killed outright, but killed slowly and painfully. They bleed to death from a thousand little cuts. With every seemingly innocent modification, their value dies, too. How will you sell this into your process and get support for your agenda from your board, your retailers, your employees? Don't lose focus after the honeymoon is over.

3. Wake up sleepy traditions. What might have been fascinating at one time can soon become unremarkable. Crayola's first contest to name a color drew 2 million entries in 1993. But without changing the format, participation has dwindled to a measly 25,000 entries per year. Is your target aging? How can you tweak your business model or category to regain relevance? If the old standby methods of earning attention don't work, it's time to think about updating them-or finding new tactics.

4. Think like a dandelion. As a child you might have plucked a dandelion puffball, closed your eyes while making a wish, and blew the fuzzy tufts to the wind. Dandelions don't have one or two seeds per flower; they have up to 200. Some of those spores landed on rock or water or road, but odds are good some landed in soil. Dandelions spread their bets around to increase the odds of success in a chaotic environment. Accept that imperfection is inherent in the innovation process-a lot of those spores come to naught. But some of them take root, and that's what you're looking for. You'll make mistakes, but the more bets you place, the less risk you take with each one.

5. Raise the stakes. What would you do if your company's life depended upon innovation in the next year?.In the next month?.In the next 24 hours? If you had to be innovative, what changes would you make? The reality is that your success does, in fact, depend upon your ability to create new ways of thinking and branding yourself.

6. Inaction can be the biggest gamble of all. Risk isn't a coin with danger on one side and safety on the other. It's a coin with two heads of risk. Taking a risk is risky. So is not taking a risk. Your job is to make the smartest choice. Avoid the gray mush. Instead, create ideas that not only drive sales and the culture, but also your own career. That's how to create ideas-and a life-that you love. 

MBA Jungle, August 2008

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