By Theodore Kinni
Theodore Kinni has written, ghosted, or edited more than 20 business books. He was book review editor for strategy+business for 7 years.
Companies spend a lot of money on innovation. According to an annual study by PwC Strategy, the top 1000 corporate R&D spenders invested $647 billion in their quest for innovation in 2014. That’s more than the individual GDPs of all but the 30 most prosperous countries in the world.
Given this level of spending, I assumed that these companies—the so-called Global Innovation 1000—were getting a pretty hefty return on their investment. But I was wrong about that: Year after year, Strategy& reports that there is “no statistically significant relationship between sustained financial performance and R&D spending” among these enterprises.
That didn’t make a lot of sense to me, until I realized that the lack of correlation probably wasn’t between innovation spending and corporate success as much as it was between innovation spending and innovation success. Unless your R&D spending actually generates some kind of commercially viable innovation, it’s not going to translate into financial performance, is it?
To see why companies might not be getting much of a bang for the big bucks that they spend pursuing innovation, it’s well worth taking a look at Creative People Must Be Stopped: 6 Ways We Kill Innovation (Without Even Trying) (Jossey-Bass, 2012), by David A. Owens. In the book, Owens, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management and consultant, points out that corporations often provide surprisingly unfertile fields for innovation because of six different and increasingly challenging kinds of constraints: individual, group, organizational, industry, societal, and technological. (As if the six constraints aren’t enough, there are multiple pitfalls within each category.)
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Any one of the six constraints can kill innovation efforts dead, so you should get to know all of them (and you can take this survey to find out which ones you or your company might be particularly vulnerable to). But the first two—individual and group—are particularly relevant for frontline and middle managers who are trying improve the innovation results of their teams.
Individual constraints: We are all inherently creative, but many of us develop personal habits that stifle our creativity. These habits include looking at the world around us without actually seeing it, explains Owens, and adopting assumptions that limit our thinking.
To reclaim your innate creativity and encourage the creativity of others, Owens says that you should focus on three tasks: First, develop your ability to perceive the world by broadening your sources of data, using “practiced empathy” to understand how other people see the world, changing your perspective, and enriching the setting in which you work. Second, enhance your ability to think creatively by reformulating the problem, using multiple problem-solving approaches, setting ambitious ideation goals, and exploring possibilities (rather than searching for the best idea). Third, develop your ability to better express what you think by staying mindful of your favored ways of talking, looking for new ways to communicate and sell your ideas.
Group constraints: Groups can supercharge innovation efforts, but they can just as easily inhibit creativity. Consider the limiting effects that social cliques can have on the behavior of high school students… and other people who should be considerably more mature and independent.
Owens says that you can capture the benefits of group creativity—and avoid its stifling effects—by paying attention to four tasks. First, eliminate the fear of criticism, mistakes, and conflict by, for example, suppressing idea egoism and laying down ground rules for “good” fights. Second, overcome barriers between people by mixing up group membership and purposely ignoring organizational traditions and taboos. Third, provide an environment that is conducive to creativity by giving people multiple modes of expression and automating the documentation of ideas. Fourth, eliminate procedural barriers by articulating the process, communicating the current phase and status, and enforcing the needed behaviors for each phase.
Unfortunately, enhancing innovation at the individual and group levels isn’t all there is to creating a significant correlation between innovation spending and financial performance. But it’s a start. And who knows, if you can meet the challenge on the individual and group levels, maybe you’ll get a chance to broaden your innovation horizons.
Queue it up: Creative People Must Be Stopped: 6 Ways We Kill Innovation (Without Even Trying) by David A. Owens