How to kill innovation, in five easy steps

Innovation is the life blood of most organizations in the 21st century, but most of them regularly do things to snuff out innovation wherever it rears its head. Here are five of the main culprits.

We live in an era of innovation. If you're standing still, you're going backward.

This is especially true in the technology industry, but it's also true to varying degrees in most other industries since new technologies and new discoveries are pushing civilization forward at a rip-roaring pace. At some point, the pace will settle down a bit and there will be time to consolidate and wring out efficiencies, but it's not happening anytime soon.

If you're in an industry or an organization that needs innovation to survive and thrive, then you'll only succeed by letting go of control-freak tendencies and operating according to a different set of principles that will unleash people to think creatively and act independently.

Unfortunately, it's easier to mess it up than to get it right, and the result is that employees end up confused, frustrated, and stifled. Here are five things that a lot of leaders and companies do to stifle innovation. Keep in mind that a lot of these things are done for good reasons — organization, systemization, and efficiency. Nevertheless, the effect is the same.

1. Don't give ownership of projects

It's no secret that a lot of companies are not organized to succeed. They are organized to maintain the status quo or to consolidate power for the people who set up the organization — and if the people in charge are nincompoops, then nothing gets done. In these types of organizations, projects are often handled by a committee rather than establishing a project leader. Different people or teams have to generally all agree on the same course of action for the project, and then each has to do their part to carry it out. That sounds wonderful and egalitarian and all, but it usually breaks down because smart people are naturally going to have different ideas for how to do things, and if everyone isn't pushing in the same direction, then projects stagnate and falter. The better thing to do is to put a single person in charge of a project (companies like Apple call this the "directly responsible individual" or DRI) and designate a set of team members to be part of the project and give them clear goals and objectives for their piece of it.

2. Create too many layers of management

There's a tough balance to maintain between too much management and not enough. On one hand, lots of studies have shown that the job satisfaction of most employees is closely tied to their relationship with their manager, so you need to have enough managers for people to get plenty of 1-on-1 attention and direction. On the other hand, if you have a ton of middle managers running around, then employees feel too far removed from the organization's true leaders, which hurts morale, slows down communication, and adds too much overhead to simple processes. If you want to create a culture of innovation, then you have to find ways to flatten your organization and create less hierarchy, while making sure every employee still gets a little bit of time with the boss on a regular basis in order to stay energized and on target.

3. Ignore brainstorming rules

The basic rules of brainstorming have been around since Alex Osborne coined the phrase in 1939, as part of his method for creative problem solving. However, it's amazing how many organizations attempt to engage in brainstorming without following the rules and end up killing some of the best ideas because of it. Osborne once said, "It is easier to tone down a wild idea than to think up a new one." In that spirit, true brainstorming should be always be a negativity-free process that encourages people to throw out their wildest ideas without fear of them being quickly shot down or ridiculed. Some of the craziest ideas could morph into something amazingly useful. You can find lots of variations of the brainstorming rules on the web, but my favorite are the ones that the Walt Disney World "imagineers" use:

Rule 1 - There is no such thing as a bad idea. We never know how one idea (however far-fetched) might lead into another one that is exactly right. Rule 2 - We don't talk yet about why not. There will be plenty of time for realities later, so we don't want them to get in the way of the good ideas now. Rule 3 - Nothing should stifle the flow of ideas. Not buts or can'ts or other "stopping" words. We want to hear words such as "and," "or," and "what if?" Rule 4 -  There is no such thing as a bad idea. (We take that one very seriously.)

4. Rely too heavily on data and dashboards

The ability to track the performance of all kinds of things — from sales to inventory to assets to processes — has revolutionized business since the rise of the computer. It has enabled workers to make faster and better decisions, and it has driven major productivity gains and made business processes far more efficient. However, it's also easy to use data as a crutch and to go too far with the business dashboards that we use to monitor the latest reports. If you're paralyzed to the point of not being able to make decisions because you can't get enough data or the data is inconclusive, then it's a problem. Beyond some of the basic data, such as sales and customer traffic, a lot of the data requires sophisticated analysis (because it's so ambiguous) and many of the truths it contains are relative — or worse, they hide other truths. The best leaders still trust their gut, no matter how much data they get, and know how to balance the objective numbers with a certain amount of emotional intelligence, especially when it comes time to make the tough decisions.

5. Under-resource your hidden opportunities

I'm never a believer in unlimited budgets — even for huge opportunities or things that absolutely must be done. Having too many resources makes people sloppy. When you have to get something done with fewer resources than you think you need, it often sharpens your wits, forces you to hustle, and leads you to break through barriers. However, there are also times when a lack of resources can simply strangle a promising project or product. This is where good leaders earn their pay. They don't just keep throwing the same amount of resources at the same stuff out of habit. They look at the whole portfolio and regularly realign resources in order to chase new opportunities — even ones that may seem to be obscure long-shots — and see if there are parts of the organization that can outperform the status quo, if given a shot.

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Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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