Is Management the Enemy of Innovation?

May 2, 2019

A couple of weeks ago I spoke at a conference in Stockholm, Sweden about how to bring new ideas into an organization. At the end, a woman in the audience raised her hand and asked a question: What do you do when management kills your great idea?

Hands down, when I talk about innovation and how to launch budding concepts, this is the question I get the most. While the grim reaper of ideas comes in lots of different forms, (in the Swedish scenario it was brand guidelines) a risk-averse management common denominator.

Management: friend or foe?

Without management, we wouldn’t have business. Companies simply can’t scale without process and structure. But many internal cultures take this to the extreme and end up with a command-and-control style. As you go up the chain of command in an organization, people look to squeeze out inefficiencies and risk. They may also be looking to secure their place on the corporate ladder and squash any risk that may create a backslide. In fact, research points out that leaders who bring too much creativity to their job may jeopardize their chances for advancement. It’s no wonder that new ideas shrivel on the vine.

Then there are companies who truly value innovation, but can’t get their teams to step up to the plate. They’ve used rewards, incentives and hackathons, yet employees plod along with the status quo. They’ve added more diversity to teams, and provided physical space and stimulation to help people think outside the box.

And yet, things still don’t change.

Measure what matters

What both employees and managers need is to begin measuring what’s happening to they have a true understanding of the landscape. When I start working with clients to up their innovation game, this is the first exercise I have management do:

  1. Make a list of every idea your team brings to you. It doesn’t matter how little or crazy they are, add it to the list. The point isn’t to get ideas that are right the first time, it’s to get ideas. Period. Because before you can have great ideas you have to have more ideas.
  2. Prioritize them. What’s most important for your team to accomplish? Understanding your most important objectives will make it easier to prioritize your ever-growing list.
  3. Make a backlog. Just like strong teams need a “bench” to draw from, you’ll need the same thing for ideas. Your total list will include concepts to conquer your immediate needs, but also things people think up but you can’t see to fruition for one reason or another. What you’ll find over time is that when you feel creatively stuck, you can draw inspiration from this backlog.
  4. Create progress columns. Great innovation doesn’t just show up on your doorstep. It’s takes a chain of continual small steps to turn into big outcomes. Tallying the ideas that your team brings to you and then charting their course to completion gives you tangible evidence of how “idea-ready” your department or company is. It will also show you what kinds of ideas fly, what flounder and what fails. You may begin to witness some very interesting trends over a few months.

See your true colors

Many leaders and companies promote innovation and claim they support it. But here’s the big take away you’ll get if you take the four steps above and put them into action:

  1. I’m not getting any ideas. If you’re getting fewer ideas than you expected (or none at all), ask yourself: Am I crushing people’s courage or passion? How willing am I to listen to the ideas that people bring to the table? It’s hard to put judgement to the side in a hectic day and simply listen to people. Remember, it’s rare that the best idea is the first idea. People need to learn how to refine and iterate but they won’t get there if you don’t listen to their ideas in the first place.
  2. I get ideas, but they don’t go anywhere. If projects get stuck in the Ready column, you’re showing progress because people are willing to expose themselves by coming forward. But a lack of progress shows there’s no channel to get traction. Start tracking why things don’t get rolling. Were they spur-of-the-moment ideas and people don’t have commitment to them? Was it an I-can-suck-up-to-my-boss-with-this-idea kind of idea? Track these hurdles as closely as you do the ideas themselves.
  3. Nothing makes it across the finish line. If you’re gaining ground but never deliver, then revisit the things in the Ready column. Ask people what happened to the ideas they cared about. You’ll hear things like this: I got pulled into another project. My manager wanted me to focus on something else. I had my review, and a couple of things came up in my review that indicated that I needed to “get back to work.” Without a culture that supports innovation, then innovation won’t happen. The most successful companies in the world know the only way to get something done is to make it a priority. Managers don’t track innovation because it’s hard. But I know one company that values innovation so much that they’ve made it a specific section of their employee performance reviews. When people understand how they’re measured, they change their behavior to match it.

We have to manage as if we expect great ideas from everyone, not just the lone geniuses in our organizations. This is the only way that management can address its own mental hurdle about innovation and ensure that its employees stay passionate about the work they do. Ready to get started? Download this spreadsheet and track how well ideas fare in your organization.  

Need help getting more ideas from your team? Let’s talk.

Photo credit: Pixabay

About Carla Johnson

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Carla Johnson is a world-renowned storyteller, an entertaining speaker, and a prolific author.

Over the last two decades, Carla has helped architects and actuaries, executives and volunteers, innovators and visionaries leverage the art of storytelling to inspire action. Her work with Fortune 500 brands has served as the foundation for many of her books.

In her latest project, Fast Forward Files, she contributes to a larger collection of thoughts by some of the world’s greatest minds -  Shazam co-founder Dhiraj Mukherjee, activist and entrepreneur Heather Mills and behavioral designer, technologist and mental-health champion Peter Trainor. Consistently named one of the top influencers in B2B, digital and content marketing, Carla regularly challenges conventional thinking. 

Today, she travels the world teaching anyone (and everyone) how to cultivate idea-driven teams that breed unstoppable creativity and game-changing innovation.