Let your corporate innovators reach their full potential
Have you also witnessed too many great ideas and ambitious innovators not being used to their potential? Two recent articles offer an explanation, and we have some advice for you!
September 6, 2022
A recent HBR-article (“Don’t let hierarchy stifle innovation”, Timothy R. Clark, August 2022) and a McK-study (“Fear factor: Overcoming human barriers to innovation”, Furstenthal, Morris and Roth, June 2022) focus on some of the greatest barriers of innovation: the fears that hold many innovators back and the hierarchy that can stifle innovation. The fears investigated by McK include the fear of (negative) career impact, the fear of uncertainty and losing control and the fear of criticism. These are also natural behaviors, but also something that innovators must learn to live with. Innovation is inherently uncertain, and so are the career paths of innovators. As one of our clients said after having been part of an idea team that entered incubation full-time: “why didn’t you tell me that this would change my life!”. This was meant as a positive note, but for many, it can be a daunting task to engage with something that has the potential of changing your career path entirely – or setting you back.
How to kill great ideas
Through our work, we have seen these barriers in the organisations and the people we work with. Great ideas and intentions end up not being pursued due to these barriers – to the disappointment of both managers and innovators. Innovators hesitate to bring forward their ideas or discontinue at the first sight of opposition. And managers are surprised that no really ambitious ideas ever see the day of light. Here, the barriers are the fear of criticism and the hierarchy that stifle innovation. We are used to few interactions with managers, and typically, these interactions include a high level of preparation, long-term planning but short windows of interaction, and a go/no-go decision at the end of it. This setup is almost tailored to kill ideas and demotivate innovators. Ideas evolve constantly and innovators need frequent sparring to align on progress. They need to spend their time on progressing their ideas, not preparing meetings.
Pushing past the barriers
So what to do to get past these barriers? The articles offer some great advice, and in addition, we have put together some of our own:
- Keep ideation an open, engaging and judgment-free zone. This one is a no-brainer for most Nosco-clients as the platform strongly supports this principle. Everyone is equal on the platform, and managers have full access to everything that is being shared. This makes it crucial that no judgment is passed at this stage, and that managers, if active (which is of course recommended), keep it to acknowledging and supporting comments. When managers are active during ideation, it sends a clear and strong signal that they support innovation and that they are on equal terms as the employees.
- Practice frequent feedback. If we leave innovation decisions to make or break-meetings, we put enormous pressure on the employees and miss out on great opportunities because too much must be conveyed in too little time. Instead, we recommend that we get used to presenting ideas and getting feedback much more frequently. This helps innovators to get used to taking in input from others, deciding what should be applied and making their own opinions about the next steps. In this way, the anxiety around the “big meetings” is lowered and managers can be involved when needed, and are not surprised about the outcome. In the incubation projects we run in Nosco, we favor short “end-of-business-day” meetings that have the purpose of checking in, instead of reporting. Rather than only meeting at the gate meeting, we recommend that managers have these check-ins at least 2-3 times before a gate meeting.
- Make it clear that innovation is business. In too many companies, innovation is still seen as on top of the regular business, potentially contributing but often disconnected from “real business”. Creating a strong link between innovation and business can help lower the fears and hierarchical barriers as innovation’s importance is clearly established. This can be done by explicitly including innovation in business strategy/-ies, but it should also be done in the language and terminology used by the innovators. Using innovation-specific words (I am sure you can think of a few) can alienate the rest of the business. Instead, we propose to use words such as business model, progress, revenue models, impact etc.; words that the rest of the business uses and acknowledges as important.
- Don’t put innovation in a corner. This point is strongly related to the prior. Innovation is and should be closely linked to the rest of the business. This does not mean that innovation should operate at the same terms, but it also does not mean that it should be left all to itself. Taking innovation seriously by defining clear KPIs, strategies and governance structures will send a clear signal to everyone that this is serious, and it will provide innovators with the comfort of knowing what is expected from them. Results, however positive they may be, must be communicated widely to ensure full transparency and lower the barriers for others to engage in innovation projects.
Thilde is an experienced consultant with a background strategy, business development and innovation within large corporations. She is the “whisper in the ear” of campaign managers and is specialised in communication and mobilisation. Thilde also has a long-term connection to Copenhagen Business School, acting as a lecturer and examiner within innovation and strategy.