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The top five ways leaders kill innovation (without knowing it)

April 27, 2017

I have to be honest…I’m tired of listening to people talk about innovation. It has become the latest business ‘buzzword’ instead of an actionable business strategy that nets long term, sustainable competitive advantage. What frustrates me most is that I see passion and energy for innovation in all kinds of organizations, but the leaders often get in the way! It’s a shame to see employees who are ready to take risks, try new things, and be creative, only to be stifled by their leader.

Here are the most common ways I’ve seen leaders kill innovation, along with suggestions for how to remove the barriers and make innovation happen:

1. Problem: The leader makes innovation the responsibility of an individual (a.k.a. Director of Innovation), a department (a.k.a. Product Development) or a secret society (a.k.a. off-site incubator).

Solution: A Director with no resources (human or otherwise) can’t drive innovation. No department or incubator can do it without support from other areas of the organization. Why do we keep doing the same things and expecting a different result? Isn’t that the definition of insanity?

What we need to do is leverage a process for innovation, sprinkle in some diversity and harness passion. A defined, repeatable process helps us step through large scale, overwhelming activities to make them manageable. Without a process to follow, people generally don’t know where to start -- so they don’t start at all.

If you want innovation, include the receptionist, customers, dealers, suppliers, finance folks, etc., on your teams. These people will ask questions and push you to look at things differently. They will be so passionate about the work they are doing, they will break through roadblocks that would stop other teams in their tracks.

2. Problem: The leader doesn’t provide a mission that “rallies the troops” and give meaning to innovation.

Solution: Saying you want to invest in innovation, and even funding it, is not enough. We need to provide some context to help our teams understand the reason we need an innovation, what is in and out of scope, what constraints we have, and which areas we are willing to explore.

I know that some would say that putting a ‘fence’ around innovation stifles creativity, but in fact, it enhances it. When we leave it too wide open, innovation feels overwhelming and risky.

3. Problem: The leader views innovation solely as technology (for example, new to the world hardware and software).

Solution: Innovation is about combining a series of ‘knowns’ (ex. facts, technologies, research, etc.) in a new, meaningfully unique way to solve a problem or take advantage of an opportunity. Innovation is about creating VALUE. That definition makes innovation bigger than technology. It can be a new product, new service, new market for existing products/services and even new internal processes. Focusing too much on ‘pure’ technology as innovation means that your company will miss out on great opportunities to innovate.

4. Problem: The leader thinks that what the organization is doing today is innovative, ignoring true potential innovation.

Solution: Sorry to say it folks, but copying a competitor is not being innovative. Too often we see companies take someone else’s product/service idea, make a few minor tweaks, give it a ‘cool’ new name and send it out into the world as an ‘innovation’.

Innovation happens when you listen to the employee who comes to you saying,” We get tonnes of requests for “X”, because no one in the industry offers it. I think I’ve come up with a way we can do it…”. Listen to your customers when they express a problem or frustration that no one has been able to address yet. Notice I highlight the word listen. All too often leaders quickly dismiss these conversations as being a waste of time because of Problem #5….

No one said being innovative is easy. It’s bloody hard! If it were easy, everyone would do it. The companies who win are those who invest in a process for rapid cycles of learning, encourage failure as a way to push us forward, and as a result, do what others said could never be done.

5. Problem: The leader focuses on how they are a victim – of the economy, of regulation, of global competition, of consumer behaviour, of a lack of funding, etc., instead of leveraging those things to an advantage.

Solution: I saved the best for last (and I say that with just a hint of sarcasm). If leaders in an organization are only willing to focus on how they are a victim in their industry, there is no hope of innovation.

Recently I had an opportunity to work with an industry group that was looking for ways to encourage more traffic through their businesses. We quickly recognized that testimonials would be key, so we started to work with them to identify ways we could get people ‘talking’ about them. While we were trying to focus the conversation and idea generation around things that make people talk or share experiences, many of the leaders instead wanted to complain about how they couldn’t do anything because they are highly regulated, how consumers shop for their products is ‘problematic’, etc.

Here’s the thing: Everything they were complaining about applies to EVERYONE in their industry. What a great opportunity! If they ‘crack the code’ before anyone else, they win! But while I saw that as an incredible opportunity, the leaders didn’t. I left that session thinking about how frustrating it would be as an employee working for a leader who was so firmly caught in the victim loop that he or she was unwilling to explore options to get out. It comes down to this: You can’t be a leader in your industry if won’t step out in front of the pack. Don't put up barriers that don't actually exist.


I believe leaders today recognize that innovation is key to helping their businesses grow and prosper. What we need to do now is align strategy, behaviour, and language to kick-start it. If we are purposeful to put the right process, people, and leaders in place, innovation will result.

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