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Is Your Company's Immune System Killing Innovation?

Posted by Gary MacDonald on Aug 13, 2010 9:45:00 AM

The innovative ideas that represent your company’s future often appear in a raw and flawed state. They are murky and a bit vague, imperfect in some way.  They’re also fragile and easy targets for an organization’s “immune system.” 

InnovationThe same organizational antibodies that suppress potentially harmful actions can also dispose of valuable innovations before they have a chance to mature.  What distinguishes successful, world-class companies such as Intel, Google and EMC from “also-rans” is a culture capable of separating marginal ideas that need to be eliminated from true innovations to be nurtured. 

Can you think of 10 ways to kill an idea?  How about 20?

When I facilitate AIM’s Fostering Innovation seminars, it’s not unusual for a team to generate – in less than ten minutes - as many as 50 ways to kill an idea.  They’re often relayed from long-ago but not-forgotten personal experience.  It’s easy.  Anyone can do it.  And it’s habit.  When you add non-verbal communications such as tone and body language, to the actual words being said, anyone possesses a potent enough arsenal to do the job quite handily. 

Early suppression of innovations can compound into a cultural reality, requiring innovators to make a heroic effort to push an idea through all the active and passive barriers.  How many people possess that assertiveness and stamina?

This does NOT mean an organization should implement every proposed initiative.  In fact, a high percentage ultimately won’t make sense.  But the critical point is that they are allowed to mature.  Instead of “Yes, but…,” think and say “Yes, and…”  Instead of “It costs too much” think and say “How can we show a stronger ROI on this?”  And look interested and enthused throughout.  Create forums, ground rules and a culture that supports, develops and selects the next generation of initiatives in your business.

Innovation and risk tolerance are cornerstones of long run viability and effectiveness.  Oddly enough, it is often commercially successful companies that are most vulnerable to the suppression of these qualities. 

First of all they’re busy meeting all those urgent customer demands.  The longer run nature of innovation seldom has the same urgency and can easily be crowded out. Secondly, success and stability can lead to a certain organizational complacency.  As the author Jim Collins puts it so succinctly “Good is the enemy of great.”  Entrepreneurial thinkers within the organization tend to quit and leave or quit and stay.  And your organization is the weaker for it.

Keep an entrepreneurial flair alive and well in your organization by creating avenues and time for the advancement and vetting of ideas.  Recognize and stop the comfortable and easy habit of killing them off prematurely.  Don’t allow for contributions to the process, insist upon them.  Then, with a balance of patience and persistence, you’ll see those raw ideas develop into the gems that strengthen your business.

I welcome your comments below.

Topics: Associated Industries of Massachusetts, AIM, Management, Innovation

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