Innovation management: some sure innovation killers

We read a lot of interesting things about the “Do”, “Tips” , “Secrets” and “Best practices” relative to fostering innovation, leading an innovation team, and turning ideas into execution. Once a while will not harm, this post is about the “Don’t” a leader should avoid with a view to sustain innovation.

Don’t misjudge it: not being cynical (I don’t imagine a single manager collecting all the below “Don’t”), I wanted to make a blink of the eye to the mistakes each of us  do, probably unintentionally, in the course of managing an innovation team.

  1. Don’t listen
    This one is the cornerstone of management, it’s one of the best way to discourage initiatives in your innovation teams; listening is not so easy, there are several ways where creative people may think that they are not listened to: for example by not welcoming incremental innovations which requires all the more attention to be perceived as you are focused on a silver bullet approach, a kind of “innovation big bang”; or by  being too critical, claiming for creative ideas and shooting down everyone brought to you; not listening is also not being available, not being concentrated intently on your collaborator concern, jumping from their topic to your unrelated topic, therefore not respecting the time they share with you (“when your employees know that you respect their time, they’ll reward you with terrific performance”); it’s also a question of time avaibility when innovation flourishes outside the normal planning cycles support, and requires immediate but unreserved fundings and resources.
  2. Make feel like you’re the only one who can read the future
    Innovation is about the future. Acting like you’re  the only one to have the vision forward, not acknowleding contributions, or formulating the future in a so complicated way so that each member of the innovation team understands it in a different way,  and shape a different desired end-result, is destructive. “Mystifying is not enlightening your audience, fuzzy visions produce fuzzy results”, it prevents team members to feel engaged, to initiate the creative tension, and let  you insular.
  3. Short-circuit team leadership
    Not passing through innovation team chart will diminish the legitimacy of the team leader: bad occurence of this are micromanagement, or imposing someone new in a team without explaining the reason why; team leader will feel really uncomfortable, and everyone will look at the new guy like your “eyes and ears”, making him feel uncomfortable as well; “don’t tell what you do, and don’t do what you tell” is always bad! In the case of new product development, it is all the more damaging that it will prevent “the team to lead the team” and affect its self-initiative in the creation process.
  4. Ensure you exclusively talk to the upper level
    Systematically not involving team leaders when reporting to top management will not improve your control but disconnect you; as Michel Fiol puts it: “Leadership is not power based management or established, it states naturally with the capacity to develop autonomy of the team members and to create co-leaders”.
  5. Avoid post-mortem
    Not all ideas can make it along the innovation process, and get commercialized; some good ideas have to be killed to keep the product simple and focus, or to balance the innovation portfolio. When you want to stop a project, not facing the team in charge with your decision, letting the project die alone by cutting resources, and not analyzing the lessons learned, are devastating actions.
  6. Take the benefit, not the risk
    Nothing is worse than leader taking credit for what was accomplished with their teams: team members will resent it, they will be less likely to further execute, and bring the innovation to the next steps.

You may think those are very obvious things not to do, but think of everyday: are you sure you didn’t skip over one or the other, not paying attention? There are many roles (futurist, matador, tinkerer, jester, bulldozer: different roles or “hats” that innovators must play) and characters (a full house of innovation, 9 innovation characters) in the innovation process, people are not interchangeable commodities. Creative people and ideas makers, because they connect so deeply with the outside world, are often highly sensitive people  who require careful management so as to bring everyone in his right role at the right time. “Trust is everything in innovation”.

If you’re part of an innovation team, it’s also your responsibility to prevent the innovation leader falling into these pitfalls: “exploit your boss strength and listen to learn” are good ways to shape the relationship in the right direction.

This list of “Don’t” focuses on management interactions with innovation teams. To get a broader picture on how innovation can fail, Innovation: the classic traps (Nov 2006) by Rosabeth Moss Kanter is a must-read. It shows how strategy mistakes (hurdles too high, scope too narrow), process mistakes (controls too tight), structure mistakes (connections too loose, separations too sharp), and skills mistakes (leadership too weak -which the present post goes back over-, communication too poor) can undercut waves of innovation. “It’s inevitable that history will fade but not inevitable that we lose the lessons” says Rosabeth: she identifies 4 Innovation Remedies to prevent innovation quest from derailing,  reviewed in “Innovation: 9 tips and 4 remedies“.

Keeping these remedies and “Don’t” in mind, innovation can succeed:  “corporate entrepreneusrhip doesn’t need to be an oxymoron anymore“.


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