In this 4-part series, we take a closer look at factors that will help organizations remove barriers to innovation and tap into accelerators that have the potential to unleash transformative growth.
My journey to look more closely at the state of innovation began in February, 2021 during a very confusing time when most of us were grappling with the impact of the global COVID global pandemic. In my COVID cocoon, I started to think about the connection between innovation and culture. As we turned inward and relied more on virtual meetings for collaboration, I wondered how workplaces were creating the culture, belonging and connection needed to enable collaborative and innovative cultures.
At that time, I was also getting ready to launch an innovation lab on behalf of a customer and had reservations about how these strangers would come together to innovate virtually. Could we really get the act of innovating done in this new world?
To fuel my curiosity, I spent a good portion of 2021 doing one-on-one interviews with innovators to better understand the accelerators and barriers to innovation – through the eyes of the people on the front lines doing the innovating. The throughline in many of the interviews was a feeling of sadness and pain that was shared when innovation “goes wrong.” Many were still grieving (and rightfully so) “failed” attempts to push change within their organization through innovation projects from years prior and COVID gave us a chance to slow down, reflect and feel the pain. Some innovators were still shouldering the burden of ideas aborted too soon that challenged their organization and died early deaths. Others were frustrated by unrealistic expectations of measuring innovation through an ROI lens only without enough runway to get buy-in to meaningful and impactful innovation projects off the ground.
Some soundbites from my interviews:
“We had those difficult conversations, and frankly, debates, where people could speak their truth completely, without any fear. And then that team got disbanded in pretty much one fell swoop when the leadership changed. It totally changed the tone. It was no longer “what's possible?” It became bureaucratic with everyone wanting to get promoted. And that was it, [our innovation project] ended.” (Innovator at F100 technology company)
“[When your idea threatens the org] that's the next battle because it becomes a war of attrition… it is very easy to throw stones. I've been there and I would come home from a meeting, you know, just really fuming, with people gassing me, because new people joined the meeting, and they don't know the idea or background… they [were there] only to say no.” (Innovator at F100 food manufacturer)
“I had a nine-figure business and the guy running the $45 billion business would look at me say, you know, if it's not a billion-dollar business in the first year, I don't know if we're really that interested. And my point to him was, well, I hate to tell you this, but PCs weren't a billion-dollar business their first year either.” (Innovator at F100 computer manufacturer)
After many horror stories from so many different industries, I was compelled to launch a survey and uncover the data that would nail the culprit to the wall – bad culture! I expected to find what I felt in my soul to be true – corporations with lousy cultures can’t innovate. And that there must be many disgruntled innovators waiting to share this finding in an anonymous survey. I went to bed anticipating a blockbuster trends report that was going to identify culture as the big barrier to innovation in 2022 [insert shock and awe here].
Then the survey results came back. I could see how naïve I was because the answer couldn’t have been more clear: innovators overwhelmingly felt that they had healthy cultures to support innovation (even during the pandemic). When asked “how satisfied are you with your culture to support innovation,” only 18% said it was below average and 82% thought it was “OK” or better. Within the satisfied innovators, 23% said they were “very satisfied.”
Additionally, many gave their organizations credit for fostering cultural best practices:
78% said they work in an environment where it is safe to “fail” in the name of innovation
53% said their organization valued experimentation
47% all said they could learn from projects, involve the customer (47%), and have a clear problem statement to test ideas (43%)
Trying to make sense of the conflicting data led me to a new understanding: you can still have a strong culture but lack the ability to execute. This became the essential theme of the 2022 report – not as exciting but more impactful in helping organizations identify the real barriers and try to do better.
When asked “what do you perceive, if any, as barriers to innovation at your organization?” the following answers came back:
It seemed there were three important barriers were weighing down innovators much more than culture: 1) Not enough investment, 2) No clear ownership, and 3) No clear process. And sadly, one factor we missed in this question, but which surfaced later in the survey: 54% had no metrics to measure innovation other than ROI, which we now know is a significant barrier.
While these factors all fall squarely in the “execution” bucket and not the “culture” bucket, there is a silver lining: we can accelerate innovation with process, tools, and clear accountability.
What started to bring the execution problem into better focus was a particularly polarizing question. When we asked if survey respondents agreed with the following statement: “My company has lots of ideas but lacks the ability to execute when it comes to brining these ideas into commercialization or production,” respondents were split down the middle.
This was a fascinating discovery that we will explore in part 2 of this blog series where we dig into the barrier – lack of clear ownership and accountability.