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Professor Christopher May
Professor of Political Economy, Lancaster University
Professor Christopher May

Why is innovation NOT happening in your organisation?

Authors: Professor Christopher May Professor Chris May, Lancaster University

27 March 2014

Having set out in previous posts how we might start to understand innovation, in this post I look at why innovation may not be happening in your organisation. Building on the work we have done in small workshops with The Work Foundation partners to develop a nuanced account of innovation, at a recent conference with partners and CIPD Milton Keynes Group members - we asked groups to work on the question: ‘what barriers are there in your organisation to fostering innovation?’

This produced some interesting and instructive results which I summarise below:

  • The question of culture
    One of the key problems many of the audience identified was the difficulty of fostering a culture of innovation in their organisation. Some of our participants identified this as the need to develop a stronger belief system (or mindset) around innovation that sees it as a valuable component of ‘business as usual’. A lack of a belief system together with poor communication between individuals, teams departments and units will constrain innovation. If diversity is key to innovation, open channels of communication between diverse elements are also essential. Moreover, without a sensitive system for capturing innovative ideas (and valuing / evaluating them? them) any ideas that do emerge may evaporate before they can be explored and utilised. Organisations which are overly hierarchical and/or bureaucratic may find that innovation is stifled. A lack of leadership around an agenda of innovation, perhaps unsurprisingly means innovation may fail to be fully realised.
  • Fear of change
    Innovation risks failure therefore organisations that only reward ‘success’ may have difficulty developing and capturing innovative ideas within their teams. Where risk aversion is prioritised innovation(s) may be regarded as ‘too risky’; where blame is too easily allocated, few may be willing to suggest innovations – it’s safer to stick with the status quo. If the normal operating environment is see as good enough there may be little appetite for innovating: ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’. Therefore, where complacency has set in innovation will not be valued because it will be seen as unnecessary. This fear of change will also reflect a lack of trust in teams and the organisation more widely; where trust is lacking there is little incentive to suggest innovations that do not reflect current practices, products or services.
  • It’s just a distraction!
    Thinking about and developing innovation can be regarded as a distraction from the ‘day job’. When time is tight,, time for reflection or thinking about innovating may be downgraded or even identified as a ‘waste of time’. And if organisations have already been subject to considerable change(s), the prospect of inviting more change through innovation may not (without careful support) be welcome; colleagues may already be suffering from ‘innovation overload’. Sometimes this may manifest itself as a conflict of interests between different parts of the organisation and without a clear process for resolving these conflicts innovative possibilities may by ‘stuck in committee’ for some time.
  • The unknowns
    Understanding the scale and scope of any proposed innovation may be hampered by the (un) availability of suitable metrics for measuring the impact of an innovation. This can be particularly problematic when a case is being made for change; what potential indicators of success can be identified, and indeed what would the impact of a ‘successful’ innovation look like?. Unfortunately, by its nature an innovation may not be suited to measurement by previously used metrics, and here the issue around risk aversion and trust may then halt the process.Without clear, measurable impacts, it is difficult to make the case to free up time and resources, especially when organisations are at full capacity.
  • External constraints
    Externally, legal and regulatory structures may constrain and shape the potential for innovating; some things may require negotiation with regulators, others while interesting may be illegal! External factors may therefore stifle or limit scope for innovation but the issue is whether they should be allowed to overly shape the internal conversation around innovation potential. Certainly a focus on the law of intellectual property and the capturing of ideas through the patent system may lead to a narrower range of people involved in innovating, and may also undermine a culture of open innovations where insights and ideas are shared and co-created.

None of these barriers need be fatal to developing the innovative potential of your organisation. Raising awareness of possible constraints to innovation can help you navigate around them, dismantle them or (best) avoid them appearing in the first place.
I’d like to thank our audience in Milton Keynes for these insights and look forward to your responses to this blog post. Are there other barriers that you have seen in your own organisation? Have you experienced these barriers and found fixes that you would like to share?

See the storify from the event below: