Barriers to Innovation  

The Greatest Idea in the World Is Only As Good as the Process that Put It Together

POSTED BY Chris Huffines AT 1:33 P.M. Sep 22, 2015

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The Apple Watch is, as usual for Apple, a trailblazing product that not only showcases a new product, but opens up a path to grow a new area of technology. It is also another example of true innovation struggling against internal and external forces, all of which try to hamper innovation, harming sales and damaging the development of exciting technology. As with other examples, the Watch is proof that process is just as important as the innovation when it comes to implementing great ideas.

The forces against innovation can be categorized as barriers that are either internal or external to the innovating company. The internal barriers center around the internal culture, decision making, and resource allocation of the innovating company. The external barriers are those caused by human nature or the transformation of the innovation from idea to product. Each is unavoidable, but all are surmountable.

The internal barriers are the barriers built by a company's choices or ability to foster disruption within its ranks, and they are a natural consequence of success. For example, successful companies master one culture and set of skills and metrics, those that have brought them success. These are not the skills that encourage innovation, but rather those that encourage the status quo. When AT&T started its Worldnet Internet service, the new service was stunted by being forced into the mold of the existing customer relations paradigm, not the high-growth startup mold originally envisioned. Successful companies develop an organizational inertia, where the actions that have succeeded in the past are reinforced; deviations such as innovation are not encouraged, simply because they are not based on proven past success. This is doubly true with regard to disruptive innovations, which will by definition damage or destroy the existing product line(s) of the company. Supposing that innovation is allowed, it then must compete for resources within the company.  Existing product lines and overhead, properly, use significant amounts of company resources.  In addition, each innovative idea must compete for resources with other innovative ideas, each of which has its own pros, cons, and champions.  In the worst cases, innovation can be actively sabotaged by partisans of other new ideas or the status quo.  Individually, or en masse, the potential barriers can be formidable.

In addition, there are external barriers. First, similar to the company, the people in those companies have their own inertia, where individuals are reluctant to embrace change. Unfortunately, human nature creates and perpetuates these barriers. Second, there are failures in execution. Even obviously disruptive innovations may suffer from bad luck or poor choices that delay or even damage the implementation or brand of the innovation. The Google Glass and Facebook's ongoing privacy problems are examples, as are the extremely public descriptions of the Watch's perceived failures. In these cases and many others, a good idea has been damaged by its champions or by the market as a whole.

What is the solution?  The barriers are inherent in the structure of companies seeking to innovate; making them impossible to avoid without moving outside the company. The solution, therefore, is to go outside the company. Outsiders are not beholden to the existing power structure, which make them largely immune to the direct effects of internal barriers. With sufficient backing by company executives who brought them aboard, an outsider group bringing in a structured innovation system should overcome the internal barriers. In fact, those companies that refuse to use outsiders only solve the problem of internal barriers by creating tiger teams insulated from company politics and provided with an unusual degree of power and autonomy, essentially captive outsiders. Saturn started  as one such entity within General Motors. However, as Saturn shows, the risk of capture by the company culture and power structure remains high. In other instances, such as the dedicated "energy chain team" set up by BMW when designing their hybrid power train, the team and its work becomes central to the concept of the product.

In addition, while a company will specialize in the skills associated with its existing product lines, the outsiders aren't so bound. They have the time and incentive to specialize in skills focused on invention and innovation. By using a structured invention service to do innovation well, the company can focus on mastering the execution side of the equation to make the most of the innovation, thereby doing both better. This harnesses the external barriers to serve innovation. In addition, when both parties, the executor and innovator, evaluate and build the inventions generated by a structured invention system, the dual viewpoint leads to stronger, more innovative inventions.

And that is the good news. The fusion of the two viewpoints turn what was the problem of barriers to innovation into a powerful springboard that elevates the best ideas. Which, at the end of the day is the point.

TAGS: Chris Huffines | Innovation | Invention | Process