5 Barriers to Innovation

13th July 2018 - Jo Garnham-Parks

You probably know that it’s imperative for your business to innovate in order to retain its competitive edge but have you ever tried to change an organisation and its culture? Hard, isn’t it? Let’s take a look at the 5 barriers to innovation that could be affecting your business.

1. Risk Aversion

As humans, we’re naturally averse to running towards risk. Who wants to spend money on an untried idea to see if it works? The most successful organisations in today’s market, that’s who. The saying, “nothing ventured, nothing gained” first appeared in the 1300s and still very much stands true today. The likes of Uber and Airbnb threw out the traditional modus operandi and completely disrupted their respective markets by taking risks and challenging the way we do things. Now, that doesn’t mean every idea is worth trying or that you should risk the future of the business on every idea but nobody ever innovated anything without taking a risk.

hourglass with red sand

2. Focussing on the Past, Not the Future

Some organisations habitually play the game of finding things that could go wrong with a new approach. How many times in a meeting have you heard: “we’ve never done this before,” “this failed when we tried it before” or  “we know what works let’s just keep doing that?”  However, the over-focus on risks often results in innovations being stopped or diluted.  Of course it’s important to manage the risks but we simply have to balance these against the potential benefits. If we do focus on the past this creates a culture where innovation is killed rather than nurtured.

3. Self-Censorship


How often have we all sat in meetings and particularly brainstorming meetings thinking of an idea but too nervous to come out with it because it perhaps seems slightly random, not fully thought out or simply that others will criticize the idea? I know I certainly have. But how many of those half-formed ideas had potential? Adults are acutely anxious of being thought foolish and so censor ideas that might be great. Young children though simply don’t have that filter. Just recently Princess Charlotte displayed this with a quip to paparazzi and reporters telling them “you’re not coming!”  I’m sure most of us with children can remember a time when they came out with uninhibited thoughts.  Going through secondary school and into employment we unlearn this and modify what we say for fear of being mocked or ridiculed.  As I’ve reflected on how I operate I’ve come to realise that I now prefix my original thoughts with ‘I know this may sound stupid but …’.  That’s my get out clause if people don’t like the idea! But we shouldn’t need to be self-deprecating all the time. Meetings need to ebs tructured so that idea generation and idea critique are separated, allowing for a more comfortable environment for people to express ideas.

4. Time – a Help

I would imagine for most people there just isn’t enough time in the day for everything. Time is a scarce and precious commodity. Taking time out to think, to reflect, then think some more is a luxury most of us feel we don’t have. As soon as I’m awake I have a number of pieces of work clattering through my brain all of them with competing deadlines. When I’m in these moments, and let’s face it, it’s often most of the time, it’s difficult to carve out this time to reflect.  However, I’m now going to contradict myself.

4b) Time – a Hindrance

Sometimes I find that too much time doesn’t trigger the same kind of urgency of thought that a time pressure gives.  There’s a general assumption that stressful situations are bad but the response is an important physiological phenomenon.  It’s been medically proven that primary stressors can, in fact, step up your performance to meet the challenge in front of you.  Whilst no-one would want this on a permanent basis (and for others, this doesn’t work for them) the ability to use the stressor cognitive process of problem-solving and emotional coping techniques can be a thing to harness, providing this does not move into distress.

In summary, pressure generates ideas but time allows you to refine them.

5. Silo Working

Most companies, and indeed our own, tend to have silos in some form or other. Partnership and collaboration are at the heart of what we do yet we experience silos where business in one part of the organisation exists in a vacuum without taking into consideration the impact that their actions have on the entire organisation. Car manufacturers wouldn’t make a vehicle without involving mechanics, engineers, interior designers just like a drama performance wouldn’t be put on without the set and costume designers, lighting engineers etc.  So, why do we sometimes innovate in these vacuums?  On many occasions products have been developed only to fall at the last hurdle because somebody hasn’t involved a key team within the business.

2 robots separated from each other by an invisible wall

One anecdotal tale has a plant machinery company in the US asking an engineer to look at the cost of a circular washer with four holes for bolts at a cost of $13.63, the total number required were in the region of 60k per year.  The holes in the washers were drilled one at a time. The engineer noticed that if they could drill all 4 holes it would bring the cost down to $2, a $120k saving in just one year, the finance director was delighted. However, this adaptation would require a small positioning change of the washers. The engineer went ahead with the commissioning of these new washers., but, on delivery, the engineering department hadn’t consulted the design team at an appropriate juncture so the re-design of the washer could not be accommodated leading to 60k washers that couldn’t be used and an unhappy FD.

I’m sure these barriers and others resonate with you.  At IVE, we have a number of solutions to help breakdown these barriers in and across teams on our existing Creative Leadership for Business programme. We also offer bespoke programmes tailored uniquely to you and your business. We’ve advised Government and a range of businesses, from global down to SMEs so we’re confident we can find the right package for you.  Get in touch with Drew@WeareIVE.org for more details.

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