In 2013, media firm Thomson Reuters took a big risk; they decided to stop driving growth through acquisition and start driving growth through innovation. While acquisitions had been the company’s main source of growth for years, they were proving to be too costly. Instead, Thomson Reuters decided to tap into a huge source of growth potential: its own employees.
The firm developed something called the Catalyst Fund, which gave employees a platform to present their ideas in front of a panel of company executives (and secure funding to explore them), including the CEO himself. The results from their Shark Tank-esq program was the ability to tap into a bank of creativity that was at their fingertips the whole time. Employees began creating new products and innovating in the realm of organization, saving the company time and money with innovative process improvements. This wasn’t just good news for the company; employees became more engaged, as their voices were heard, helping lead the company to new heights.
Thomson Reuters transformed their company culture to enhance innovation. Unfortunately, not many organizations see the same benefit of transforming their culture to embrace innovation.
According to a report from the National Science Foundation, just 14 percent of U.S. companies are considered product or process innovators. While this low number isn’t exactly inspiring, it’s not surprising either, achieving true innovation takes hard work. There are plenty of hurdles that companies face when they try to innovate, time constraints and budget issues among them.
One of the biggest hurdles to innovation, however, the organization’s attitude toward innovation; the tendency to kill ideas before they even get the chance to develop into something worth pursuing. And it’s a more pervasive issue than most companies even realize.
But before we dive into what’s flatlining your organization’s ability to innovate, let’s take a closer look at what we mean when we say “innovation.”
What Is Innovation?
There’s a common misconception about innovation: Innovation is not just about coming up with new ideas, that’s called ideation; and while it’s an important part of innovation, it’s just that: one part. Think of innovation as a process, where you start by identifying the issue and then move on to coming up with ideas, creating and implementing an action plan, and finally achieving, and measuring results. In sum, the process of innovation involves:
- Defining the issue
Innovation is all about making something better by doing it in a new or different way. The first step is ideation, or coming up with new ideas’ you’ll never see the results stage if you don’t start at ideation. getting new or different results.
There are two sides to supporting innovation, and it is important to evaluate which side your team falls on. There are innovation killers: they name everything that’s wrong with an idea, without acknowledging an idea’s benefits or offering alternatives. And there are innovation enhancers: who will acknowledge the merit of the idea and then encourage the team to brainstorm ways to make it work. Which side does your team fall on? Check out the common tactics of innovation killers and innovation enhancers and see which sounds like the more familiar refrain in your company.
Stifling Ideation: Common Innovation Killers
“It’s too expensive”
The team has been brainstorming new ideas that give some team members sticker shock. An innovation killer will dismiss the idea based on the price tag alone.
“You don’t know all the facts”
Sharing ideas with a team puts the idea sharer in a vulnerable place—at a company full of innovation killers, it’s an invitation for scrutiny and judgment. An innovation killer creates an atmosphere in which team members feel uncomfortable sharing, out of fear of ridicule. An innovation killer is all around negative about any new idea or change, even when it comes down to body language and tone of voice. The result: Ideation halts altogether. What’s more, the innovation killer doesn’t just object to new ideas—they make their objections personal, focusing on what’s wrong with the idea sharer, rather than the idea itself. That’s destructive for true innovation.
“I like it in theory, but it’s not very practical”
An innovation killer expects an idea to be fully formed when shared with the group. This, of course, is an unrealistic expectation—and a dangerous one at that. When colleagues feel that they can’t share their ideas until they’ve addressed every angle (like practicality), the ideation process will move at a snail’s pace.
“That’ll rock the boat”
An innovation killer, essentially, is scared. Scared to make a splash, take a risk, and possibly face criticism for it. An innovation killer doesn’t want to rock the boat—not realizing that that’s exactly what leads to real, life-changing innovation. They are chained to old ways, unsure of how to (or unwilling to) break free.
“Just to play devil’s advocate…”
Playing devil’s advocate may seem like a way to examine an idea from another perspective. But if someone on the team is playing devil’s advocate “just because,” it’s a diversion tactic, not an authentic effort to improve upon an idea. An innovation killer only looks at the negatives of an idea, doing so to the point that playing devil’s advocate becomes a game of wasting time.
Fostering Creativity: Innovation Enhancers
“How do we make it work?”
Every new idea can and will be met with some type of objection. To move forward in the innovation process, though, you must turn an objection into exploration. Saying that an idea is “too expensive,” for example, shouldn’t be the end of the idea but rather the beginning. Either finesse the idea until it overcomes objections or set aside the idea only after your team has determined there’s no way around the objection (and that the objection is a deal breaker).
“Building on that idea…”
An innovation enhancer is encouraging while still acknowledging—respectfully—that an idea needs work. For example, it’s very possible that someone may share an idea without knowing all the facts (that’s why working in teams is a smart approach in the first place). Rather than attack the team member for “daring” to speak up, an innovation enhancer will add their knowledge to the idea, positively steering the ideation session in the right direction while sharing vital information in the process.
“What about reshaping it?”
An innovation enhancer knows that truly great ideas hardly ever start out that way—they undergo lots of massaging, revisions, and input from the group to finally become great. That’s precisely why brainstorming sessions and team meetings exist: to help move good ideas from the realm of “theory” to practical, action-oriented ideas that get results. To get there, an innovation enhancer will encourage the team to look at a seed of an idea with fresh eyes and different perspectives to determine if that seed can truly grow into something more.
Keep in mind, though, that someone who encourages and validates every single idea shared in the group may seem like an innovation enhancer—but that’s really not the case. It’s crucial that ideas are examined carefully before being pursued further. But even “bad” ideas can inspire new ones, which is why an innovation enhancer shifts the ideation conversation, rather than just shutting it down altogether.
“How can we get senior management on board?”
An innovation enhancer knows taking risks when it comes to dreaming up big ideas is necessary—but they are also realistic about the pushback that a risky idea may attract. That’s when an innovation enhancer switches to “strategy” mode. For example, if an idea doesn’t seem like it will pass muster with senior management, an innovation enhancer will work with the team to figure out how to frame the idea so that it’s appealing from management’s perspective, like illustrating how the idea is linked to business goals. Not to mention, senior management at a company with a high-performing, innovative culture won’t be afraid of a little “boat rocking” from time to time. Innovative leaders know that taking risks is a part of the innovation game—as long as their teams fail early and learn from their unsuccessful risks.
“Let’s come up with more good ideas like this one”
An innovation enhancer understands that good ideas tend to snowball—once a team gets on an idea streak, the good ideas can keep flowing. Creativity begets creativity. Going through the process of coming up with an idea activates your brain; the more you work on ideation, the more active your brain becomes. Pointing out every little thing that’s wrong with an idea just for the sake of playing devil’s advocate can throw off the whole group’s ideation groove, halting the creative process. If a group seems like it’s on a roll, an innovation enhancer will encourage the team members to keep on rolling, aware that they can submit their best ideas to greater scrutiny at a later time.
Innovation killers may be more subtle—and more pervasive—than just a single team member who’s resistant to innovation. Seemingly high-performing employees may have a block when it comes to innovation. Often, innovation killers even come from the top, particularly in workplace cultures that unwittingly discourage innovation. Luckily, innovation can be taught, and organizational cultures can be transformed when innovation is linked directly to results.