May 312013

cartoon of business man on high wireSuccess in business is a wonderful thing. But it’s also a double-edged sword.

As companies experience success, their emphasis tends to shift to protecting and maintaining the status quo versus considering new opportunities and products. Unfortunately, clinging to what has worked in the past puts the brakes on innovation. It also puts you out of touch with your customers’ changing needs — a dangerous circumstance in today’s highly volatile markets.

If you’re trying to innovate but not having success, see if any of these apply to your organization.

1. Stuck thinking.
This occurs when individuals and teams get so locked into old ideas, attitudes, and assumptions that they don’t take the time to update them. In addition to favoring the “don’t rock the boat” mindset, stuck thinking also manifests itself in behaviors such as:

  • A lack of diverse sources in your data collection process
  • Little or no conflict during meetings
  • A rush to consensus when making decisions
  • Risk-taking is actively discouraged
  • New ideas are suppressed rather than encouraged

If you haven’t asked yourself within the last three to six months, “What has changed about our customers, our markets and our industry?” you’ve just taken your first step toward anti-innovation.

2. We’ve always done it that way.
When the organizational focus shifts to protecting the status quo, people stop looking for new processes or solutions. When problems arise, people tend to default to the solution that looks most like what has worked in the past rather than exploring new ideas or different ways of doing things.

Compounding this tendency to look to the past is the fact that we are trained from a very early age to come up with “the” right solution. When something threatens the status quo, the brain scans the environment, identifies what worked in the past, and leaps to the conclusion that it will work once again. In a world of rapid-fire change, this tendency to reach into the past for quick solutions does not serve us well.

3. Playing not to lose.
As leaders spend more time protecting current assets rather than defining and executing edge-centric strategy, the organizational mindset changes from “play to win” to “play not to lose.” This subtle shift in attitude has a profound impact on how decisions get made and how people behave at all levels of the organization.

Innovation requires a constant flow of new ideas to keep up with rapidly changing customer needs and expectations. When you play to win, it creates an atmosphere and energy that brings out the best in people. When you play not to lose, people tend to just “suit up and show up,” which does not foster an environment conducive to rethinking how things get done.

4. Customer disconnect.
Who has time to talk to customers anymore? We’re running as fast as we can just to get the product out the door! Besides, we know what our customers need and we know the best way to give it to them, right? You won’t hear this attitude spoken out loud. But if you look closely, you can see it driving behavior on a daily basis. If you’re not talking with customers, it also means you’re not listening. And if you’re not listening, it’s just a matter of time before you’re no longer relevant to their world.

5. The lone ranger approach.
In many companies, one team or small department gets tasked with innovation. That’s like asking a single NASA engineer to develop a new rocket ship to take us to Mars. In the vast majority of cases, innovation is a team effort that requires a combination of skills and talents from all areas of the organization. It also requires open and honest communication across all levels. Innovation does not flourish in isolated silos or hidden corners.

6. Failure not an option.
This represents perhaps the biggest obstacle to innovation and the hardest to overcome. Most organizations don’t tolerate failure very well to begin with. And once the mindset shifts to protecting the golden goose, failure becomes anathema to the organization.

But failure goes hand-in-hand with innovation. If you’re not failing to some degree, you’re not trying or pushing hard enough. This doesn’t mean to disregard risk or tolerate poorly planned disasters. But if all failure gets punished, any attempts at coming up with new ideas, systems, or processes will quickly cease to exist.

7. Follow the leader mentality.
Too often, attempts to innovate occur as a response to a new entry into the market or an existing competitor’s innovation. However, true innovation leads the way rather than attempting to catch up. Don’t ignore what your competitors do in the marketplace. But don’t let it drive your innovation efforts. Figure out where your customers will need you to be in six months to a year and get there first.

8. Weak hires.
Companies looking to protect their success often make a subtle shift in hiring. Rather than new ideas and new energy, people get hired for their ability to “come in and hit the ground running.” Which is another way of saying they won’t rock the boat. As the overall talent level begins to decline, so do new ideas, new thinking, and successful innovation.

9. Lack of know-how.
Employees need to have the appropriate skills and abilities to discover, evaluate, and execute on the best ideas. If you don’t invest the time and money to constantly develop those skills, don’t expect people to innovate on a consistent basis.

10. Unrealistic expectations.
As success begins to slip away, management often begins looking for that one “killer” product or idea that will save the company or at least prolong the life of the cash cow. This tendency to put all the resources into one make-or-break innovation effort usually ends in disaster and disappointment.

Remember, innovation should always link directly to your strategy. And it works when it becomes a way of life rather than a one-time event. Stop clinging to past successes, update your thinking constantly and you will find it much easier to innovate and thrive in today’s hyper-paced world.

About the Author:

Holly Green has a BA in behavioral sciences and Master of Science degree in organizational development from American University in Washington, D.C. She is currently on staff at Webster University where she teaches courses in the graduate program. Holly also teaches for the University of California San Diego, Rady School of Management in the executive education program.Ms. Green is the CEO of THE HUMAN FACTOR, Inc. ( ) She has over 20 years of executive level and operations experience in FORTUNE 100, entrepreneurial, and management consulting organizations. She conducts more than 50 workshops annually for Vistage, the world’s largest CEO membership organization. She is also a frequent keynote speaker for numerous corporate and professional associations. Her book, More Than A Minute: How To Be An Effective Leader & Manager In Today’s Changing World ( ) lends voice to her corporate experience and goes beyond the theory of leading and managing by providing practical action oriented information.

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