P45 IDEO’s Advice on Overcoming Barriers – Part Two.

Listen to the Innovation Best Practices podcast

  • In a previous podcast I shared some advice from one of the founders of IDEO, Tom Kelly from his book The Art of Innovation. IDEO is typically one of the top ranked innovation companies in the world.
  • In this podcast, I share some advice they have on dealing with some of the more common barriers to innovation. This is very helpful and relevant advice for most of you that are listening to this podcast. Some or many of these innovation barriers or inhibitors exist to some degree in almost every company that I’m aware of.
  • I will go through each of the barriers he outlines along with his suggested solutions. I will add to this my own personal experience with these innovation challenges.
  • The first barrier is hierarchy-based innovation. Tom states, “innovation and structure are like oil and water. Forcing ideas to start at the top or rigidly follow a vertical path through an organization tends to weigh down new projects. There are just too many obstacles.”
  • Another dimension of hierarchy-based innovation is, in my experience, often an innovation killer. In a hierarchy organization, the more senior the manager supposedly the smarter they are. So when you’re in a room with a group working on innovative ideas and a senior manager says something like “I don’t think that would work” referring to an idea under discussion, then there’s a pretty good chance that the idea under discussion just died. Not too many people are willing to challenge a senior manager, certainly in a group situation and where hierarchy is powerful.
  • A strong hierarchy-based culture assumes the more senior the manager, the smarter they are. Even if others don’t necessarily see them as smarter, and they often do not, the junior people can be intimidated and even fearful about a wide variety of possibilities, including their careers.
  • Personally, by nature I resist this kind of culture and behavior. During my time as vice president of marketing at Gallo, I would often find myself disagreeing with Ernest Gallo, the company chairman and founder, in a group meeting. Very few people disagreed with him—he could become a fiery Itialian. Usually if Ernest said he didn’t like something, everyone else in the room would follow like a herd of cats – except me. If I disagreed, I would always speak up with the first words being “Ernest, with all due respect……”, which I sincerely meant, and then shared with him a contrary view.
  • Tom Kelly suggests that a bridge from this hierarchy-based approach is a merit-based approach. This works if a company truly values ideas from any source and is willing to evaluate them objectively instead of how much hierarchy power a person has.
  • Tom’s next barrier is bureaucracy, which is often integrated into a hierarchy based system. Bureaucracy brings the added dimensions of paperwork, extensive step-by-step approval processes, and always needing legal perspective. There may come a time when some of this – and I underscore some of this – is actually helpful. It definitely is not helpful in the early stages of an idea’s life. In this stage, you need to play with possibilities and have freedom to go wherever new ideas take you.
  • Tom states that the bridge from this barrier is what he calls autonomy. This is essentially where the innovation process is extracted from the broader company culture to the greatest extent possible. Individuals or groups are given considerable autonomy to follow an exploration wherever it takes them. This is especially helpful for disruptive innovations which can often produce ideas that change the rules of the game in whatever category of business the company competes.
  • In an earlier podcast, I talked about how some companies are experimenting with creating startup like business units either inside or slightly outside of an existing larger company. The intent is trying to create and emulate the more free-flowing culture of startups as a way of nurturing successful innovation.
  • The next barrier he puts forth is called anonymous. It is a company where it seems to always be business as usual. There is little change of any kind. People seem to be almost on autopilot as they operate the business. There is not much interpersonal engagement. This can be the case in many older, mature businesses. They don’t have competitors threatening to put them out of business. Urgency as low. Life is blah but it’s okay.
  • Tom’s alternative is a company that is more like friends and family. The good organizations go out of their way to make you feel welcome and comfortable. People are not into the hierarchy dance. They can poke fun at each other. They recognize that ideas can come from anyone. There is respect for both the person and the ideas they share. There is honest engagement.
  • Granted this is a dramatically different company culture. As positive and attractive as it is, it is still not easy to bridge from an anonymous culture to this culture.
  • Interestingly, his next barrier he calls clean. This is a company culture where there are policies about having clean desks and there are strict rules about what you can do with your space. To a large extent, people are successful by playing by the rules. Not surprisingly, a culture that puts a high value on playing by the rules has a very, very difficult time developing out-of-the-box thinking, which almost by definition breaks the rules.
  • Tom’s alternative or bridge from the situation is what he calls messy. Messy can mean careless, unfocused, and lack of caring. In this case, it means an organization that can handle chaos. When it comes to innovation, internal chaos can often result when a disruptive innovation starts moving from a rough idea stage into prototyping and even the marketplace. By definition, disruptive innovations often require new processes, values, and capabilities. Maybe most of all it requires new rules and processes. Ail of this can be unsettling.
  • An organization that is run by strict rules thinks it’s doing the right thing. They think they’ve identified the best and most efficient way to do things and they want everyone doing the same thing the same way. What they fail to recognize is that they are putting a cork in personal initiative, stifling creativity and innovation, and maybe most importantly putting them at significant risk of a competitive innovation damaging their business.
  • His next barrier he calls experts. You may remember my earlier podcast titled “the curse of the expert.” In an organization of experts, only the views of the experts seem to count. And those who are labeled experts want it that way because it helps protect their position and image. As I shared in that previous podcast, experts know something but they definitely don’t know everything and often far from everything. They know a part, often a very small part, of all there is to know on a particular topic.
  • Tom’s alternative is to make sure that non-experts and what he calls tinkerers have the space and freedom to become an integral part of innovation. A previous podcast addressed the subject of open innovation. With open innovation a very wide variety of interests and expertise are invited into the innovation process. It’s a powerful way of dramatically expanding the number of quality ideas considered in the innovation process. Interestingly, there are several studies indicating that the estimates of supposed experts are less accurate than the collective estimates of people with lot lower levels of expertise. One such study compared growth estimates made by senior economists to estimates made by the general public – the general public’s estimate was more accurate by a wide margin.
  • Changing gears, the main value of this podcast is its identification of cultural dynamics that can significantly inhibit innovation. In my experience, the two that are most troublesome are a strong hierarchy based culture and a culture that strongly embraces bureaucracy. Interestingly, it’s often common to find both existing in a culture at the same time. When this happens, innovation becomes very, very difficult.
  • I suggest that you can benefit from the insights in this podcast by looking at your own company culture. A good friend of mine became president and CEO of a company where the culture had been the previous president and CEO made it clear that he was the smartest person in the company. His predecessor did not need to know what you thought. My friend brought a dramatic change. When the managers brought an issue to him, they were expecting that they would be told what to do. Instead they were asked what they thought should be done. And in many cases my friend agreed with their course of action. Having talked to some of his direct reports, I can tell you this was a very welcome surprise.
  • A strong hierarchy built will make innovation difficult every time. A culture built on bureaucracy where there are forms to be filled out and approvals to be gained before anything meaningful can be done also reduces chances for innovation success. And then when things are agreed to, there are tracking forms and forms for forms – it’s never-ending frustration. If this describes any aspect of your culture, consider becoming an agent of change if you want innovation to thrive. Successful innovation typically requires the freedom to play with possibilities. Take a look at your business and see what you need to do to make this possible.

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