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3 Steps For Smashing Barriers To Innovation

Lisa Bodell
 

In the most recent Benchmarking Innovation Impact report by KPMG, “internal politics” and “lack of vision or strategy” were cited as top barriers to innovation. Based on conversations with thousands of global leaders and employees over the past decade, I would add “no time provided to generate new ideas” and “lack of incentives to innovate.”

One of the techniques that my team and I designed to resolve challenges like these is called Overcoming Barriers to Innovation. It’s structured to open up dialogue about why people aren’t innovating so you can identify the sources of their resistance — and solve for them. Lead your teams through this exercise when there’s a significant decrease in innovation activity or if you’re establishing a culture change.

This technique can be facilitated remotely for individuals or in-person with teams of three to four people. In my experience, you’ll get the best results if you include senior leaders, the innovation team and people from every level of the organization.

Step 1. Identify and explore barriers to innovation. To move beyond excuses and identify solutions, start by asking teams what prevents them from making innovation part of their workday? In addition to the four answers above, you may hear statements like “leadership doesn’t implement our ideas” or “it’s not a priority for my org.”

While you may feel defensive or want to ask follow-up questions, stay objective and focus instead on listing each response on a whiteboard or flip chart. Keep encouraging people to share obstacles until the majority of participants have contributed.

Step 2. Discuss most common barriers and agree on top three. Once you’ve captured all the barriers, ask people to make a case for the ones that are the most problematic. Discussing why something is a barrier will help you discover the root problems for low engagement around innovation.

For example, if a problematic barrier is “lack of time for innovation projects,” people might share that their day is so dominated by meetings that they can scarcely order lunch — let alone generate innovative product ideas.

Or perhaps you’ll hear that “innovation” isn’t among the performance review criteria, so why should they dedicate energy to something that won’t impact their career? This type of feedback and commentary will be valuable when you generate solutions for the top barriers, so try and capture every word.

Step 3. Generate tactics for overcoming barriers. Start off by asking if anyone has ideas for how to eliminate any of the three barriers? Encourage people to think big and to not be constrained by workplace rules or norms. If the room is silent, toss out a few ideas of your own. For example, “if you were empowered to say no to certain types of meetings, would that free up time to innovate?” Or “if a category on your performance review was ‘demonstrates innovative behavior,’ would you regularly prioritize innovation?”

Keep working out solutions to the three barriers until the majority of the group is in agreement with the changes. Then, either implement them or get buy-in from someone who can.

When product teams at Intel used this technique to address barriers around innovations to existing products, they discovered a communication disconnect between leadership and product teams. Using the framework, they were able to overcome those barriers by clarifying the definition of an “innovative improvement.”

These kinds of discoveries make for quick wins and they demonstrate the type of innovative problem-solving that we want our employees to engage in. This technique equips you with a formula for identifying their innovation obstacles and resolving them on the spot. Taking time to understand and address your employees’ barriers shows that you hear them — all while reaffirming innovation as a top business priority.

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