What, in your experience, are the biggest barriers to driving an innovation from within?
This is the question Dr. Kaihan Krippendorff asked 150 “internal innovators”—employees leading innovation efforts within their organizations— over the course of three years while conducting research for his book, Driving Innovation from Within: A Guide for Internal Entrepreneurs. He took their responses and then interviewed innovation experts such as Bharat Anand (Harvard), Steve Blank (Silicon Valley), George Day (Wharton), John Hagel (Deloitte’s Center for the Edge and Singularity University), Gary Hamel (London Business School), Roger Martin (Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto), and Rita McGrath (Columbia) to capture their points of view.
His discovery: there are seven common barriers to innovation:
1. Intent: Many would-be internal innovators have simply given up trying; they have abandoned the intent to find and pursue new innovations.
2. Need: Most employees do not understand what kinds of innovations their organizations need (e.g., less than 55% of middle managers can name even two of their company’s top strategic priorities), so for ideas, they look in the wrong places and then propose ideas of little strategic value.
3. Options: Would-be internal innovators often grow frustrated because they become fixated too early on a few, or even worse just one, innovative idea, instead of continually generating a flow of new ideas and managing them like a portfolio of options.
4. Value blockers: It is commonly accepted that innovative ideas are inconsistent with, and therefore disruptive to, a company’s current business model. This established model creates erect value blockers that prevent an appropriate new business model from forming around the new idea.
5. Act: Established organizations tend to ask one to prove an idea will work before giving permission to take action. Yet most new ideas are better suited to the opposite approach: taking action in order to prove the idea. This puts would-be internal innovators in a catch-22: they cannot prove their idea will work so they cannot take action.
6. Team: Scaling new ideas often requires one to pull together a cross-silo team that runs at a rapid pace and is geared toward learning rather than delivering results. Corporations are geared for the opposite: they are siloed, act slowly, and value results (over learning).
7. Environment: Getting support for new ideas is politically complicated because the leadership behavior, types of talent, organizational structures, and cultural norms that help established organizations sustain their core operations also tend to hinder internal innovativeness. Would-be internal innovators struggle to find “islands of freedom” from which they can access the talent, structures, cultural norms, and leadership support that support attempts at innovation.
"Successful innovators understand that, while any one of the seven barriers can crop up at any time, there is usually a natural flow to the sequence of events, a sequence that outlines a pathway of innovation," says Krippendorff. “Their ability to recognize and control that sequence, to the greatest extent possible, plays a big role in their ultimate success. I also realized that if we turn those seven barriers around and look at the obverse, we see solutions.”
To that point, Krippendorff outlines seven steps to building an innovation team, each of which we have begun presenting in greater detail here on ProjectManagement.com:
1. Remove organizational friction: Walk through the five points of organization friction (resources, rewards/expectations, risk-taking, senior leadership support, and organizational freedom), and identify what you must do to address, or at least anticipate, each one.
2. Assemble a cross-functional team: Pull together a team of between five and ten people with the right mix of functional backgrounds, who are learners (high educational level) and unrestrained by accepted dogmas (low tenure). [see “Start Building an Innovation Team”]
3. Align around an important goal: Complete a V2MOM to align the team passionately behind a compelling shared vision, with an understanding of what specifically qualifies as winning and what obstacles you will face. [This acronym stands for: Vision, Value, Metrics, Obstacles and Measures—for a deeper dive, see “Build Team Commitment to a Goal”]
4. Use metrics and data to track the most important thing(s): Decide which leading metrics your team should focus on.
5. Build a scoreboard everyone can see: Decide on a display for your team and individual metrics.
6. Establish a rapid rhythm: Agree on the frequency with which you will review your team’s progress, and set an agenda for that meeting.
7. Generate positive velocity: Celebrate early wins; allow people to strive beyond what is easy by allowing for failure.
Whether you’re an executive, project manager or team member, these are great, actionable steps to support innovation efforts in your organization. And there’s also a great piece of advice to remember for each step of your innovation journey—from Gary Pisano, senior associate dean of faculty development at Harvard Business School and author of Creative Construction: The DNA of Sustained Innovation:
“The all-or-nothing approach to solving problems makes for great theater. It does not, however, bear much resemblance to how actual big problems are solved in society, business, or science. Big problems typically get tackled through a series of small solutions, each of which on its own may not seem particularly important, but that together can have a huge impact.
“We need to be thinking about a big set of ‘small’ solutions rather just a small set of ‘big’ solutions.”
Organizations are ramping up investment in AI, data and analytics initiatives to accelerate business agility, but a vast majority of them are struggling with business transformation in general, and cultural challenges are by far their biggest obstacle to adoption. Those are key conclusions from the 2019 New Vantage Partners Big Data and AI Executive survey.
In the survey, executives from Fortune 1000 companies cited multiple factors impeding their transformation efforts, including organizational alignment, agility and resistance. The common denominator? A whopping 95 percent of their issues stemmed from cultural challenges! Only 5 percent related to technology.
"If companies hope to transform, they must begin to address the cultural obstacles," the report states. And later it concludes, "Firms need to adopt a long-term approach, focusing on the complex cultural challenges as a starting point."
It's a brand new report but its findings are not news — not to people who have been managing strategic projects for a while. Organizations don't want to get left behind in the rush to leverage emerging technologies to execute strategy, deliver value and stay relevant. But the technology can't get ahead of the culture. And that's an old, stubborn truth that can't be automated or analyzed away.
How can companies address these cultural challenges to transformation and strategic implementation?
According to the report, while 92 percent of the companies highlighted the “need for agility” as the primary driver of Big Data/AI investment, 40 percent of these same companies identified “lack of agility” as the principle challenge to business adoption.
So they have to be more agile in their journey to agility? That might remind some of the classic "chicken or the egg" question. But for this dilemma, we know which comes first. Culture.
Project-driven organizations can't fix their culture without meaningful change in how their project teams operate. That starts with a commitment to collaboration, to learning, to autonomy, to trust.
Easier said than done? Of course. There is no simple template to follow or process to plug in. Organizations need people (and not just executives) who acknowledge the issues holding them back; who advocate for the needed changes; who represent the desired future in their day-to-day actions. When they get enough of those people, the culture is already changing for the better. Perhaps you're one of those people!