6 Barriers That Limit Innovation

So innovation is in your blood or you like to bring new ideas to life and promotes an innovative culture at your organization. However, in spite of your best intention, the encouragement from colleagues, and even the nod from senior management, you might still find that your ideas or the ideas you support still wind up getting thrown straight into the waste bin. The “innovative projects” you try to kick-start will get scrapped before they can even begin, or products from these projects will get written off because nobody wants them.

So what is the problem then? I like to borrow the phrase “Why Everyone Wants Innovation, But No One Wants to Change?” from David A. Owens. Owens is a professor at Vanderbilt Business School who teaches a Coursera course on innovation, “Innovation for Managers.”

In this course, Owens explores the forces that limit innovation and identifies six key constraints faced by not only innovators but also intrapreneurs and innovation managers, which prevent them from building a culture of innovation at their organizations.

1. Individual constraint

We often associate creativity with artistic activities such as drawing, painting or composing music. Many people therefore mistakenly think that they aren’t creative because they aren’t artistic or aren’t pursuing any artistic endeavor. Because of this, we stop working on the skills to be creative. We no longer approach problems from different angles and give up on finding new solutions to solve problems. Our brain loves this because they like certainty and simplicity. They look for shortcuts and patterns to simplify given data. Once we learn a solution to a problem or a right way to do certain things, we stick to that solution.

Another form of individual barrier is our failure to communicate ideas to gather feedback, refine our ideas and get support and buy-in for them.

When was the last time you do something creative? What was it?

2. Group constraint

As well as the constraints we put on ourselves, innovators meet with another, more difficult barrier – the one put in place by groups around you.

To some extent, we all want to be accepted and respected by people around us. To achieve this, we might hold back on bold – perhaps even crazy ideas – ideas that might risk us looking stupid in front of our peers. If the majority of the group prefer approach A, would you openly reject that and propose approach B? Not likely.

If the group prefers a top-down approach or dissuades individual creativity, it’s easy to feel unappreciated and demotivated. In these cases, you have two choices – remain and do what has always been done or just leave altogether.

Has this happened to you?

3. Organizational constraint

With the exception of startups or companies that build themselves around innovation (like Google or Amazon), most large organizations are biased towards routines, repeated processes, and the need to be certain.

There is nothing inherently wrong with that approach. One common saying often heard in the startup world is “fail fast.” Nobody wants to fail or admit that something they have suggested is a failure. Can top managers in large organizations openly suggest “failure” as one of the tactics to cultivate an innovative culture? More importantly, can large organizations afford to fail often? We shouldn’t expect them to.

The ideas and the hypothetic innovative products, therefore, need to be aligned. Often, we fall in love first with our ideas without thinking about an organization’s strategy, especially if that strategy is poorly defined or communicated. Strategies are discussed in board meetings and passed down later. They might change so often that eventually nobody knows what to follow, or come wrapped up in some a corporate language that fails to appeal to the individuals. It’s nevertheless important to take the time to understand them so that you and your organization are on the same page when it comes to innovation.

Does it sound familiar to you?

4. Industrial constraint

Moving beyond the internal constraints from the individual, group, and organization, your innovation will have to face another bigger test- putting it out into the wider world.    There are all manners of questions that you need to ask yourself, preferably at an early stage, to ensure your innovation can survive in the marketplace.  Can your organization build the product internally or need third-party vendors? If working with vendors, how much knowledge do you have to share with the vendors? Can you sell the product as a stand-alone? Alternatively, you need to combine it with other vendors or partners to offer a joint solution to the end customers? Will these vendors and so-called partners try to steal the secret sauce of your innovation, develop their own version of your product and compete with you in this field?

More importantly, are there customers for this new product? Is it costly for them to adopt the product? Is it easy for them to do so?

If you build it, will they come?

5. Societal constraint

So, you have moved past the individual, group, organization, and the market. The next thing you need to ask is: will your innovation get accepted by the society at large? The answer is no unless you take the time to examine the beliefs and values held by the contemporary society that determines the worthiness of your innovation.

For you, it’s innovation, but for the majority of others, your innovation requires them to change. A change to people’s existing workflow could be achieved. A change to people’s behavior takes time, but it is possible eventually. You can change people’s thinking with the right influence. But changing their deeply held values and beliefs is incredibly difficult, and it’s why fields like human cloning and stem cell research have been held back for years now, despite the money and resources poured into them.

6. Technological constraint

Another reason is simply that innovation is difficult to put into practice. It’s hard enough to consistently deliver quality results relying on existing technologies under predictable time and budget, let alone while also fumbling into something new.  Maybe you don’t have the right technology or resources to carry out the innovation, or they just aren’t practical at the present time.

Take a look at SpaceX, an aerospace manufacturer and space transport service founded by Elon Musk. Let ignore Musk’s personality traits and other human factors, can you imagine the resources need to implement Musk’s ideas? Even with the spent resources (Musk put nearly $100 million from the sales of Zip2 and Paypal, his two previous companies, into the SpaceX venture), they failed to launch the rocket multiple times.

What are your takes on the barriers to innovation?

See the entire course’s videos and lectures here at Coursera website.

If you want to have an insider view of how large companies approach innovation, read my interviews with innovation managers and directors from some of the world’s largest organizations like Cisco, PWC, and Atos.