The Biggest Obstacle to Innovation

There are many candidates for the biggest obstacle to innovation. You could try lack of management support, no employee initiative, not enough good ideas, too many good ideas but no follow-through just for starters. My nominee for The Biggest Obstacle to Innovation is:


All of the other examples are really excuses – but we get away with using them because we’re comfortable with how things are. One of the big problems with innovation is that it means change. Well, personally, that’s one of the great things about innovation if you ask me – but it’s a problem for a lot of people. If we’re comfortable, change is usually seen as bad – and this kills innovation.

I started thinking about this because John and I have been having a lot of talks recently with various people about public sector innovation. I’ve given talks to three different public sector organisations recently about innovation and how to spur it. We’re also starting a new research project with a government agency. And of course, we’re in a public sector University – where getting things can sometimes be a challenge. In the course of all of this there has been a lot of discussion about public sector innovation. Some of the factors that lead to inertia in this context include:

  • No profit motive: there is not imperative for public sector organisations to make money, and in fact, making too much of a profit is usually frowned upon.
  • A deeply entrenched non-innovative culture: that comfort level is usually much higher in public sector organisations.
  • No threat of failure: when is the last time you heard of a university going out of business? Or a local government?

So inertia can be an even bigger problem in the public sector than it is in business. A big part of it is the threat of failure – when a firm goes out of business, most of it’s economic connections are broken, which opens up space for new, more innovative firms to gain a foothold. How can we get around this problem?

We are in the middle of launching an initiative that provides a hint. Just over a month ago John and I were invited to a meeting involving people from three different local government agencies, the two of us, and a few people from a consulting firm. The idea that we were discussing needs to stay secret for a bit longer, but it’s an interesting opportunity to design a research survey looking at innovation. If you do the math, you’ll see that there were representatives from four different public sector organisations at this meeting, and one commercial operation. Going into the first meeting, I was very skeptical of anything coming from it. And yet, we’re launching the project next week!

How did this happen?

While all of us have different agendas in this project, we also share some common objectives. We intentionally set up the project to work quickly, and the group sponsoring it needs to have results by July. Consequently, all of us have found ways to work around the normal bureaucracy. The other key is that we’re treating it like an experiment. We have figured out a way to test our idea without sinking too much money into it. If it works, we’ll have the scope to scale it up substantially. If it doesn’t, we’ll see what we can learn from it.

I think that a big factor is that everyone involved has a bias towards action. I ran across a great post from Valeria Maltoni this morning, which expresses my sentiments on this very well:

I have a bias for action, always have. This need to do is becoming particularly obvious at this time, especially with all the talk that goes on.

We think together a lot, more ideas bubble to the surface, more desire to see something good done.

We live in an age where there should be no excuses, no reasons why we cannot act – on our dreams, on our work, on making something amazing happen.

That struck me because I’ve said very similar things in my presentations to public sector organisations. One of the critical components of an innovation culture is a bias for action. That’s what gets around inertia.

How can we build this in public sector organisations? There some good ideas at this site from the UK which is specifically designed to encourage public sector innovation. These are the sorts of resources that we could use here in Australia – or anywhere, really. Here is how they frame the issue:

It is the public sector’s job to keep coming up with ideas to improve the quality of life for citizens and to promote economic growth. This could be everything from transformational innovations like the Open University and NHS Direct, to more incremental changes in local service delivery which nevertheless generate major savings and improvements; for example using the ideas of patients and front-line staff to redesign NHS wards in order to help control infection.

While I’ve primarily focused on public sector innovation today, I think that there is a general point here. Inertia kills innovation in all kinds of organisations. The problem may be more acute in the public sector, but it is widespread in industry as well. One way to combat inertia is to change the culture – particularly through encouraging and rewarding people that show a bias for action. We’ve managed it on our little experimental project, against great odds. If we can do it, so can you.

Here is one of my talks on exactly this issue – it runs for about 14 minutes, and you can run it as an audio slideshow if you wish to by hitting the green arrow (it requires the most recent version of flash to work):

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

10 thoughts on “The Biggest Obstacle to Innovation

  1. I agree that inertia is holding organisations back from being innovative.

    From my experience I have found that unless there is a pressing need or a problem of survival none wants to innovate or become creative. So a problem must be at hand to break ‘inertia’ automatically.

    Most often organisations don’t see the problem and therefore they might be led to see the problem for themselves.

    Secondly, I feel most organisations are run based on the principle of ‘conformity’. So, how can we ask the same people who believe in conformity to be innovative (two opposite concepts). Though it is perfectly possible to hold the two opposing views together to forge ahead only a few can do that.

  2. Nicely articulated focus on inertia.

    Inertia, with the organisation or in a person, stems from the not really having a complete picture. Most times, we are comfortable with the way things are because we have not paid attention to the complete picture.

    The minute a person looks into the mirror, there is an incentive to take action perhaps one sees a desire to take initiative. That initiative will drive the kind of experience you have articulated with the project. Would like your thoughts…

  3. Thanks for the comments Dibyende & Syamant. I think that you both raise good points. Conformity is definitely an issue, and I agree that it runs in opposition to innovation. One of the ways around this as managers is to make sure that people are rewarded for executing novel ideas.

    I also definitely agree that inertia comes from not seeing the whole picture. The idea that things will just coast along as they currently are is increasingly dangerous to hold. Most organisations are in fairly turbulent environments these days, and when that is true, comfort with the status quo can be deadly.

  4. Thanks Tim for your inputs. It is indeed ironic that with all the technology investments that companies have made, the larger challenge of the complete picture is still not addressed. Do you foresee any changes in the way companies address this issue?

    More than technology these are changes that connect to the cultural side of the organisation. Perhaps providing a complete picture creates the roadmap for each person’s self initiated mirror analysis and then perhaps initiative ?

  5. I think you’re on to a critical issue – many of these problems are addressed as though they are IT issues, when in fact they are cultural. We have to figure out how to stop making that mistake first…

  6. Hello Tim,

    I’ve just finished reading Switch by the Heath Brothers and one of the ways they propose to battle inertia and motivate people towards a change is what they call ‘shrink the change’ as in starting with small incremental steps towards your goal.

    Specific small wins that build on each other towards something longer lasting.

    It’s common sense that to create a new habit it’s better to start in small steps and it holds true whether you’re one person or a group of 10, 100, 1000 or more because we all have brains that function the same way but most of the time I think we just forget this basic principle especially when we just see things at the 30000 foot level.

    How to shift from the big picture to the ground level I think is critical and that’s our challenge.

    Switch is an absolutely wonderful book and it’s worth reading and keeping Tim!

  7. That’s an interesting angle Jorge. I haven’t read either of the Heath Bros. books yet, but I ought to. It certainly seems like a sensible approach.

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