Even the most promising companies can find themselves bogged down by a mysterious inertia where innovation efforts don’t meet expectations.
It’s tempting to think that this challenge is limited to large companies, however even entrepreneurial startups can be weighed down by inertia that can stop them from achieving their full potential.
Although there are many reasons why companies can struggle to profit from their innovation efforts, one of the most overlooked and underestimated reasons is the natural tendency to treat innovation as a special event or program to develop new products and services. However, this approach leaves out important considerations that can cause the effort to backfire down the road to execution.
A Case Study
To foster cross-functional innovation, a company held an innovation retreat for their marketing and research and development functions to brainstorm ideas for new products. While the sequestered environment did propel people to come up with new ideas with action steps, the program did not address the bigger issue of what would happen when participants went back to their “regular” jobs.
The consequence? Under the burden of returning to well-worn work habits, the energy and commitment necessary to overcome inertia and realize the full value of the brainstorming session drained away. In fact, innovative ideas were well on their way to being completely extinguished as everyone’s priorities were focused back on “business as usual.” The bigger problem was that the company’s competitive position as an innovation leader was now being seriously threatened by competitors who developed an entirely new concept for addressing customer needs in their market.
When the CEO and top executives recognized that they needed to break habitual thinking about defining innovation as a separate program and began to address the many ways that innovation was either fostered or neutralized on a daily basis, they were able to break the company out of its inertia, take advantage of new opportunities, tackle challenges in new ways, and regain their position of what we call “innovation leadership.”
The Crux of the Issue
We’ve found that the more that top leadership regards innovation as a separate initiative, process or program, the more likely it is that the company will not generate the expected return on investment. This is because individuals and groups in the organization can perceive innovative ideas as distracting and even threatening to their success.
To release the hold that innovation inertia can have on your company, here are a few questions to ask:
1. What assumptions are we making about the source of the inertia? Areas to explore include conflicting priorities, unresolved misunderstandings and clashes, lack of resources, and critical knowledge, skills, and abilities.
2. To what extent does the frequency and quality of communication and collaboration enable us to quickly pick up on emerging opportunities and challenges in the business environment?
3. How resilient and agile are we when we encounter inevitable setbacks?
4. Which policies, procedures and other cultural practices reinforce the “every day behaviors” that are most important for transforming innovative ideas into focused action? Conversely, which of our policies and procedures could inadvertently reinforce inertia?
5. How well do we engage our external stakeholders including customers, strategic alliance partners, outsource providers and suppliers in developing and executing innovative ideas?
While going through this assessment by yourself can provide you with new insights, discussing these questions with other stakeholders can yield surprising and valuable perspectives. For example, when we interviewed groups of employees across the company, the CEO learned that they weren’t inclined to act on ideas from innovation sessions because it would interfere with objectives on their performance reviews.
Innovation Leadership as A Strategic Commitment
Breaking free from inertia and getting out of an innovation rut hinges upon boards, CEOs and senior executives shifting their perspective of innovation from one focused principally on developing new products and services, to a broader strategic commitment woven into every aspect of your company’s strategy and execution.
The key is to recognize how many ways top leadership commitment to innovation is conveyed and to actively shape this so that all of the messages are congruent. Monitoring and adjusting messages and actions on a frequent basis is especially critical as business conditions rapidly change.
When your organization and its stakeholders perceive that innovation is more than a program, defying inertia is no longer an impossible dream and your company can soar to new heights of success.