Identifying and Removing the Barriers to Innovation

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

Many companies aspire to be innovative, and they religiously copy the practices of industry leaders. However, these companies rarely achieve the same success.  Why?  They layer the copied processes and tools on to existing infrastructure without first addressing what’s keeping them from being innovative in the first place. One CEO summed up his company’s dysfunctional approach to innovation succinctly: “We say innovation is our top priority, but we don’t effectively allocate our time, resources, and efforts to walk the innovation talk.”

Before you identify and implement your industry’s leading innovation practices, you should first review your entire business system to identify all of the current barriers to innovation. To holistically assess your business, look at four key components: leadership and organization, process and tools, people and assets, and culture and values. 

Commonly Observed Barriers to Innovation
1. Leadership and organization: Not walking the talk

Many company mission statements list innovation as a core value. But when executives ask only about daily sales or improvements in inventory turns, guess what their people focus on? 

2. Processes and tools: Too little or too restrictive
In many companies, employees are told to go innovate, but they are not given the tools and resources they need to do so. Other companies go the other extreme by implementing rigorous processes that squeeze the life out of would-be innovations instead of nourishing good ideas so they can evolve into better ones. As an executive of one integrated oil and gas producer acknowledged, “We are so focused on compliance or project development process that we lose sight of the primary reason for executing the process: get the project developed!” 

Effective innovation processes:
• Allow divergence and exploration at the front end.
• Synthesize individual ideas into bigger platforms before selecting individual ideas to develop further.
• Use experiments to test critical assumptions and refine the business model before locking it in.
• Adjust evaluation criteria throughout the process to reflect the stage of development of the innovation.

3. People and skills: Isolating innovation responsibility
Companies often pay lip service to the need to harness innovation talent throughout their organizations, but in practice they restrict innovation to a few areas or departments, typically R&D and marketing. Numbers are not enough; diversity matters too.

4. Culture and values: Fear of failure
Many companies suffer from a fundamental cultural flaw: fear of failure. These organizations do not consider failure to be an option. They stigmatize and punish unsuccessful risk takers. In contrast, Google reinforces the importance of innovation by allowing employees to spend 20% of their time working on their own projects. They also maintain active e-mail lists to collect ideas from all employees. While most of these efforts will not result in successful products or services, the ones that bubble to the top will.

Innovative companies stress the importance of organizational culture when it comes to innovation. As one executive shared, “Real and continuing innovation comes about as a result of a deeply ingrained culture of innovation.”

Overcoming the Barriers
As you identify your organization’s specific barriers to innovation, you will also identify remedies for overcoming them. When you do, remember:
• Don’t just treat the symptoms: identify the root causes to come up with better remedies.
• Don’t focus on only one issue at a time: come up with a portfolio of tactics to build a system that fosters innovation.
• Don’t blindly copy best practices: identify the specific strategies that will work for your organization.

On the Road to Success
If you want sustainable growth, you have no choice: you need to proactively improve your organization’s innovation effectiveness. There is no magic bullet for doing so and it can’t be done overnight. The good news is that many companies have succeeded in building a culture where innovation can flourish. These organizations create clarity about their reasons for innovating, know where they need to focus their innovation efforts, and develop a clear approach about how to get results. Conducting an innovation diagnostic and taking steps to systemically overcome your organization’s barriers to innovation will help you get the job done.