Why Your Company Struggles to Innovate


Jeffrey Phillips, a friend of mine in Raleigh, North Carolina is a savvy adviser to companies on the topic of innovation. In a blog post today at Innovation Excellence, Phillips shares his top recommendations to companies who want to differentiate themselves from the competition. Excerpts from the blog post are cited below to provide a framework for you to consider with regards to your own situation. {Commentary in brackets represent my thoughts/contribution.)

The strange concept to me is that many executives want more innovation, but they don’t understand the investments, or perhaps recoil from the costs. Many mid and senior level managers want to do more innovation, for growth in their own careers, more differentiation of products and services, and simply to expand their horizons. But they don’t have any indications that if they do more innovation that the innovations will be favorably received. So two groups, that talk frequently to each other, have deep desires for more innovation, and both are waiting for the others to make the first move.

When everyone wants something and yet no one feels free to act, it makes sense to unpack the barriers and explore them.Innovate on Purpose

First Barrier – Immediate Results

While executives want innovation, to help differentiate the company or grow new revenues and profits, they also don’t want to risk distraction from existing revenues and quarterly promises. Potential revenue or differentiation is just never as interesting as near term results. To counteract this issue, we need to establish priorities and re-balance investments and commitments, or reduce the stated demand for innovation. 

{What are the priorities at your company? Are investments and commitments aligned with the need to make an impression in the short-term, or do they need to be matched with innovation initiatives?}

Second Barrier – Clear Goals

3M’s stated goal of driving 30% of revenues from products released in the last 3 years is a good example. It’s clearly stated, measurable and stakes out an important need for a continual stream of new products. Yes, it can be jockeyed, by claiming that an existing product is a “new product” because it has new features. But which argument would you rather have?  The debate about how “new” a substantial portion of your portfolio is, or why you are losing market share?

{Innovation can only be understood to be successful when “success” is well-defined and embraced by all.}

Third barrier – Time and Resource

After years of lean, Six Sigma, right sizing, downsizing and outsourcing, most people are working more than ever, and don’t have much slack time to take on innovation projects, especially when those projects may require new tools or new ways of thinking. If we can’t turn a project quickly with minimal risk and minimal investment, we probably won’t do it at all. 

{What will your “ask” be to upper management to allocate necessary time and resources? Do you have data that supports innovation as a good return on investment? How much time do you think should be invested on innovation on a pro rata basis?}

Fourth barrier – Internal Focus

If your firm can’t afford the internal resources and people necessary to innovate and sustain quarterly results, you can find incremental services for innovation from third parties, whether this is “open” innovation or something you choose to outsource. I’d argue that you should outsource the management and extension of existing products and services and in-source innovation of new products and services, because that’s where the growth lies.

{Too many companies have dysfunctional research and development teams that get bogged down in “skunk works” and function in a silo-like environment. By creating and pursuing horizontal work processes–whether they are interdepartmental or involving external strategic alliances, your organization can overcome the navel gazing so typical in larger, bureaucratic companies.}


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