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Three Common Ways Organizations Trip When It Comes to Innovation

Innovation appears prominently as part of almost any company’s strategy. Why then is it so hard to make it repeatable, scalable and lasting success? Scholars name key elements that bring innovation in sync, such as leadership, strategy and governance. Often, though, it’s not what organizations aren’t doing that causes a problem, but what they are doing—they’re tripping themselves up.

While there are many ways to trip, see if you recognize one of these three common ways in your organization. Fixing them can turn into a fast win and create the momentum necessary to get all the other pieces in sync.

We Don’t Have problems; We Have Challenges

“I don’t want to hear about problems, show me solutions.” Sound familiar? There are multiple reasons why different corporate cultures come up with different terms to beat around the fact that problems exist. Some cultures use “challenges,” “hiccups” or “issues,” for example. I’m sure you can think of others. Language both reflects and shapes thinking and behavior. What does this do to the overall culture?

Let me introduce you to Alexej. He has been hired from a startup-gone-bust into product development for a large German corporation. His first weekly report is greeted frostily. He has identified a problem, but merely naming in a report is considered unethical finger-pointing because of a silent consensus on whose fault it was. This bright young man learns this lesson fast. His reports turn into a list of “last week’s accomplishments.” He hides from others the challenges he is working on and stays away from sharing the opportunities for improvement he comes across. This already siloed organization not only loses the creativity and enthusiasm of a highly skilled individual, but also foregoes the enormous potential residing in an all-one-team approach to tackling problems.

Organizations should acknowledge: Human life is problem solving. For people, any level on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can quickly turn into a problem. Processes and entire departments are there to solve problems: “I don’t know next quarter’s financial results.” Industries solve problems, too: “I can’t communicate with a far-away person.”

The Russian innovation thinker Genrich Altshuller, inventor of the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ), observed: What sets the inventor apart is his or her ability to spot problems where the rest of us have grown accustomed to living with the hassle. Indeed, at times we don’t even notice that hassle anymore, that is, until someone comes up with the solution. Did anyone have a problem before the wheel was invented?

So firstly, from an organizational perspective, learn to recognize and acknowledge problems at face value, and to value the individuals who spot and communicate these problems.

The other two common ways organizations trip when it comes to innovation are adhering to the equation “innovative = creative = good” and overdoing the “let’s form a team approach.”

Read more about them in my full article on Innovation Management