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Every major company knows the truth about innovation: create or cremate; innovate or liquidate. Yet, most do not have in place anything like the innovation systems they need to survive. Many have no innovation system, and seem not to know that such a thing exists.
Frankly, innovation is tough, very tough. From my experience most new ideas fail, and ‘most’ is a huge number. The figures vary between industries, but this is a good indicator: 1 in 400 new ideas will make it to implementation. That’s a 0.25% success rate.
Why is it so poor? Because the opportunities for any idea to be killed off are more than legion.
Here are just some kill points along the potential trajectory of what would have been a successful idea.
A vast number of innovations have been generated because someone understood an apparently valueless piece of information in a priceless way. If that person had been denied access to information, they would never have been able to generate the idea.
At this point there are multiple possible reactions to that awareness. The control freaks will rejoice: ‘You mean all I have to do, to prevent staff running off with ideas that they couldn’t have generated without working here, is deny them access to information? Thank you.’
More enlightened leaders may think: ‘You mean all I have to do, to enable staff to generate ideas that could help us survive and thrive here, is to give them access to information? Thank you.’
Information is essential for the generation of innovation. ‘No info; no innov.’ Information is the raw material of ideas. If you want ideas to survive you must give staff access to the information necessary to thrive.
In an information rich environment, those who have the methods to generate ideas float and swim on a sea of abundance. Those devoid of method, plod along the sea bed, unaware of the water, wondering where all the ideas are coming from.
Organisations that ‘get it’, equip their staff with methods to generate ideas; they are trained to create massive value with a few thoughts.
A secondary type of method manslaughter is method madness, the provision of the wrong, or ineffective methods – such as ‘brainstorming’, ‘word association’, and ‘lateral thinking’. Let’s take the latter. Ask any proponents of it to give you a live demonstration. ‘Can you generate some ideas for me now?’ you might reasonably ask.
You already know they won’t. Why? Because, as they will say in their defence: ‘It doesn’t work like that.’
Just how useful is an idea generation method that can’t – well – generate ideas?
Here’s some great news: there are now methods that you can use to generate vast numbers of ideas, systematically, reliably, in real time, on demand. Effective idea generation methods are essential, without them creating the volume of ideas necessary to strike gold is just not possible. To avoid strangling innovation, ensure that your staff have methods so effective that they can generate ideas, systematically, in real-time.
Death by ‘Dr No’
For any idea to be accepted ultra worthy of further development in any organisation, almost always, the line manager of the idea generator has to say yes.
What happens to the idea if the manager are ‘too busy’? Or they are worried that it will create extra work? Or concerned that their boss won’t like it? Or they are an abominal no-man, (or woman)? Or they are the type who can see the cost/risk of everything and the value/reward in nothing? Or they just got out of bed the wrong way? Or – a thousand and one capricious ‘reasons’.
What happens? The idea suffers Death by ‘Dr No’.
Let’s assume none of the above apply, and the idea is sent step-by-step upstairs. Then we have a repeat of the situation each time: the idea could be subject to death by any number of ‘Dr Nos’.
Each time someone makes a yes/no decision about an idea, the chances of that golden goose egg being scrambled rather than incubated and hatched is present. The larger the number of yes/no decision points before an idea gets the go-ahead, the greater the chance that one ‘Dr No’ will kill the future of the company.
If you have ever wondered why start-up companies are hugely more innovative than enormous companies that have (relatively) unlimited resources, here is a major factor – the big corporates have long and complex decisions chains that kill off nearly every idea. Only one ‘Dr No’ has to say no, even if all the others would have said yes.
To avoid strangulation of innovation by in-house ‘Dr Nos’, reduce the number of decision points, require anyone with idea veto power to state, in writing, to the idea’s creator the reasons the idea was rejected. When people are faces with choice of a yes decision, asking for further development, or having to justify their ‘no-itis’, it’s amazing how many ideas start flowing.
When you hear reports of corporate collapses, lack of cash is the cited central cause. Is it the real cause? Did they run out of money? Yes, they did, but was that the actual cause?
If a company finds that its competitors have a better offer, it is going to be harder to conduct successful marketing. Sales are going to decline. The company leaders will go in to ‘cost-cutting mode’ and that will kill off any innovation that could have saved the company. Sales decline further as yet another competitor enters the market with yet another better, cheaper, faster offer. Sales decline further. More cost-cutting ensues. Good staff start to see the writing on the wall and start penning their CVs. That depletes the talent pool, which in turn makes innovation even less likely – the downward spiral continues until the company runs out of cash.
Was cash-flow the cause of the collapse or just the last visible symptom to emerge after all the causes had already done their damage. Corporate collapses are reported to be caused by cash-flow problems, but in a vast percentage the real cause has been, entirely preventable, innovation strangulation.
Professor Nigel MacLennan runs PsyPerform, a leadership coaching practice. He is a visiting professor at the University of Bolton.