Everybody wants to innovate. “Disruptive innovation,” in particular, has become so popular that the term's creator, Harvard Business School Prof. Clayton Christensen, recently felt compelled to clarify what it actually means.
So what is innovation? According to Merriam-Webster, it’s “the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods.” The act — so sitting around dreaming up new ideas isn’t innovating.
In my view, true innovation begins with an exciting new idea, but extends to its execution. And when they succeed, truly innovative ideas have the power to change the world. So, in its fullest expression, innovation is also about spurring — and successfully managing — organizational change.
All of which means that real innovation is really, really hard.
So, instead of adding to the volumes of literature on how to innovate, I wanted to have an honest discussion about the things that keep us from innovating. I asked friends, colleagues, and people I admire (all of whom are successful innovators, but not without obstacles along the way) to share their thoughts on the big barriers to innovation — and how to eliminate them.
Ask any random sample of people what stops them from innovating, and at least one person will mention resources. As the former editor of a free newspaper, I’ve experienced this firsthand. Whether it’s people, budget, time, or technology, not having enough of what you need can make innovation feel like icing on a cake that doesn’t exist.
This is dangerous. It leads to a downward spiral of conservatism: teams that don’t feel they have the time or budget to innovate don’t invest in the future, which leaves them stuck in costly, inefficient, antiquated business models — which in turn leads to continually dwindling resources.
How to neutralize it: Get creative. I asked Erin Sherbert, a fellow former journalist, how to get around the famine problem. “Work longer hours and make less money — basically work more,” she replied. Obviously, that’s not a long-term fix. “But you can innovate without resources,” she added, giving the example of how her newsroom turned scarcity into a compelling blog series about traveling on a budget.
Too few resources means you can’t execute on any of your ideas. Too many, somewhat paradoxically, means you waste them. As Scott Anthony, author of The Little Black Book of Innovation, puts it, “Deep pockets allow companies to spend too many resources following the wrong strategy.”
How to neutralize it: In his book, Anthony talks about “selective scarcity” — constraining resources on certain projects to spur innovation. This actually works, because it also minimizes risk. At Salesforce, we wanted to experiment with a secondary content platform beyond our blog. We chose Medium.com in part because it’s free and easy to use — so if our experiment failed, we could minimize any sunk costs to our budget or team bandwidth.
You’ve heard the term “analysis paralysis”: Too much data tempts us to measure, analyze, report, and optimize across way more metrics than we actually need to, which in turn impedes our ability to act quickly. That’s not to say decisions should be impulsive — just that we should know which metrics actually matter and when to apply them. It’s also important to recognize when to make data-based decisions, and when not to. With many innovations, early returns might not be promising, but they also don’t predict long-term success.
How to neutralize it: Align effort with reality. If your innovation project is low-effort and low-cost — or a long-term play — don’t agonize over early-stage testing.
Imagine you come to a meeting with what you think is an exciting new idea — and then, when you present it, someone says, “Oh, yeah, we tried that two years ago. It didn’t work.” It hurts your ego, sure — but it also makes you think twice next time. Doing your due diligence? Good. Dismissing an idea that didn’t work before, without knowing why it didn’t work? Bad.
How to neutralize it: Given that we never step into the same river twice, don’t let a negative experience dissuade you unless you know (a) why it failed the first time, and (b) whether the same conditions apply this time.
You could have the best idea in the world, but if you can’t sell it to the rest of your organization, your would-be innovation will die on the vine. Consider a 2015 study on integrating innovation at hospitals: it started with the dedicated buy-in of a select few. “When innovations were successfully integrated, participants consistently reported that a small number of key staff held the innovation in place for as long as a year while more permanent integrating mechanisms began to work,” the study says. Those more permanent mechanisms could be either bottom-up, if the rest of the staff viewed an innovation as “intrinsically rewarding” (e.g., it saved them time), or top-down, if not.
How to neutralize it: Start by picking a dream team of doers. Do this even before you know what exactly your idea looks like. Make sure every team member is committed to seeing the project through to completion, even if it takes months or years.
Take it from someone with the word “innovation” in her title: As Content Innovation Lead at Salesforce, Heike Young has a ton of experience turning great ideas into reality. Almost invariably, once her vision becomes real, we wonder how we lived without it (case in point: the popular Marketing Cloudcast, Salesforce’s marketing podcast).
When I asked Heike what impedes innovation, she raised an interesting point: sometimes it’s the short-term vision, not the long-term vision, that’s the hardest part. “The end result seems great, but the ‘how’ is unknown,” she says. “Trial and error is hard!”
How to neutralize it: Once you have the long-term vision, build out at least three “how” pathways — and pursue them all until one rises to the top. When building your “how” pathways, try to create continuums of cost, effort, and realism: you should have a few ideas that are really out-there, some that seem totally doable, and some in between. Especially in large organizations, the opportunities (and barriers) that crop up along the way and move you down a different path can be unpredictable; creating options helps you stay ready.
At every company, large or small, there’s a collective sense of the “right” way to do things. It could be a workflow, such as an internal approval process, or an accepted approach to solving a common problem. Often, these processes exist in order to solve a problem that arose previously; often, they were innovations themselves. But that doesn’t mean reevaluating the “right” way to do things should be off the table.
How to neutralize it: I’m not in favor of violating norms for the sake of it — but I am for creating the space to question our fundamental processes and narratives. One way to do this without creating organizational chaos is to empower a select group (such as an innovation team) to challenge norms within the confines of specific projects.
In one of my favorite books, Thinking, Fast and Slow, economist Daniel Kahneman gives the example of a company that has put millions of dollars into a failing project. Given the choice between throwing additional funds behind the failing project to give it a chance or cut its losses and move in a new direction, many companies will choose the former.
“All too often a company afflicted by sunk costs drives into the blizzard, throwing good money after bad rather than accepting the humiliation of closing the account of a costly failure,” Kahneman writes. (He also notes that while this is clearly a bad decision for the company, it might not be for its internal sponsor, who will pay reputational costs for abandoning the project in a failed state.) Throwing good money after bad, on the most fundamental level, reduces the resources available for innovation.
How to neutralize it: Call it like it is. If you can identify the fallacy, you’re better equipped to avoid it. And then, of course, don’t be afraid to walk away.
I don’t need to tell you about the myriad articles on the benefits of taking vacation (admittedly, a case in which I often fail to follow my own advice). It gives you the space to be creative; it makes you more productive; it gets you promoted. All of these things help you innovate.
How to neutralize it: Start here.
Herewith, the unedited thoughts of Salesforce Design Strategist Lauren Peters:
Uncertainty (or one's insecurities) is a huge barrier to innovation because it triggers so many reactions that are difficult to overcome.
It silences curiosity.
It masquerades as apathy.
It breeds doubt.
It blinds perspective.
It calls the ego for protection.
It paralyzes thought.
It muffles creativity.
It forces you to ruminate on the same ol’ thoughts.
How to neutralize it: “The reason a ‘beginner’s mind’ and ‘design thinking’ have been prioritized is that they embrace uncertainty and therefore combat the plethora of triggers it produces,” Peters explains. “Which is to say that these methodologies embrace curiosity, experimentation, openness, listening, patience, creativity, and empathy.” For some great resources on design thinking, check out the Stanford d.school.
Alexa Schirtzinger is Director of Content Marketing at Salesforce and a big fan of new, preferably slightly scary, ideas.