Killing Innovation in Your Company -- Without Even Knowing It?
By Holly G.
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
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
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
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
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?
been done before.
We don’t do
things that way.
It will cost
won’t go for it.
That will never
pay for itself.
won’t buy that.
Nice idea, but
too far ahead of its time.
You’re such a
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
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
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
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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