How many ideas should move from selected to implemented?

In his excellent new book, The Future of Management, Gary Hamel acknowledges that there are many barriers to innovation, but singles out three that he believes can be particularly destructive, because they’re practically invisible to most leaders.

In his excellent new book, The Future of Management, Gary Hamel acknowledges that there are many barriers to innovation, but singles out three that he believes can be particularly destructive, because they’re practically invisible to most leaders:

Creative apartheid: Despite the urgency of innovation today, many CEOs still believe that creativity is narrowly distributed to a relative handful of people, the “creative types” who are relegated to product development or R&D, where they can be kept safely out of the way of those whose job it is to “run the business.” Hamel points out that creativity, like intelligence, musical ability or eye-hand coordination, is an aptitude that can be strengthened through instruction and practice. “In the colorless corridors of corporate-dom, hardly anyone lives up to their creative potential. Why? Because they haven’t been given the tools and the time to exercise their gifts, and aren’t held accountable for doing so. As a result, companies regularly waste prodigious quantities of human imagination – a profligacy that’s hard to defend when the winds of creative instruction are blowing at gale force. R&D departments and new venture units have their place, but a small conclave of ingenious souls is no match for an entire company filled with employees or giving full expression to their creative urges.”

The drag of old mental models: Hamel contends that large companies are not necessarily hamstrung by being risk-averse, but by the drag caused by outdated mental models, and the emotional capital invested in the organization’s existing strategy. “The real barrier to strategic innovation is more than denial – it’s a matrix of deeply held beliefs about the inherent superiority of a business model, beliefs that have been validated by millions of customers; beliefs that have been enshrined in physical infrastructure and operating handbooks; beliefs that have been hardened into religious convictions; beliefs that are held so strongly, the non-conforming ideas seldom get considered, and when they do, rarely get more than grudging support.” To make matters worse, senior executives, who tend to hold on tightest to outdated dogmas about “the way we do business around here,” are the ones who get to decide which ideas go forward and which get spiked. That must change, Hamel warns.

No slack: In the last decade, many companies have become obsessed with becoming lean, with wringing all of the slack out of their operations and processes. The problem is that when you wring all of the slack out of a company, you wring out the innovation as well. “While the folks in R&D and new product development are given time to innovate, most employees don’t enjoy this luxury. Every day brings a barrage of e-mails, voice mails and back-to-back meetings. In this world, where the need to be ‘responsive’ fragments human attention into a thousand tiny shards, there is no ‘thinking time.’ And therein lies the problem. However creative your colleagues may be, if they don’t have the right to occasionally abandon their post and work on something that’s not mission-critical, most of their creativity will remain dormant.” This points to the depth of cultural change that must take place in order for innovation to take hold in a large organization. It’s not enough to just “bolt on” an idea management system; if employees don’t even have time to think creatively, how can they come up with breakthrough ideas to populate such idea repositories?

Hamel closes this discussion of innovation barriers with a series of questions for would-be management innovators:

  • How can you enroll every individual within your company in the work of innovation, and equip each one with creativity boosting tools?
  • How can you ensure that top management’s hallowed beliefs don’t straitjacket innovation, and that heretical ideas are given the chance to prove their worth?
  • How can you create the time and space for grassroots innovation in an organization that is running flat out to deliver today’s results?

Great food for thought. Gary Hamel’s books are always a treat to read, filled with important ideas and insights, and The Future of Management is no exception. Highly recommended reading!

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