Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Why Johnny Can't Innovate

I have had a unique opportunity over the last five years to teach and facilitate product and process innovation to nearly one hundred leading companies, many in the Fortune 500. Each week, I work side by side with thought leaders and senior management from many industries. Over the years, I have noticed a common set of six barriers to successful innovation. I witness these barriers week after week, independent of the specific company I am working with or its industry sector (though each company / sector adds its own unique spice of personality, politics, and process to the problem). This article is the first in a series in which I would like to share some of my observations.

In 1955, Rudolf Flesch wrote of the poorly-developed reading skills of contemporary American children, in his well known classic, "Why Johnny Can't Read". In it, he claimed that the education establishment was failing by teaching reading skills as a “read and guess” method of word association to subject context.

When it comes to innovation skills, we rarely seek out any education or skill training before the need arises to come up with a game changing idea. Most innovation practitioners, in my experience, are self-taught on a just-in-time basis. As a result, bright ideas from thought leaders tend to appear (initially) through serendipity. Consequently, repeatable innovation means guessing, a lot. The practice of innovation, then, becomes an exhaustive experience, which sets up many possibilities for failure. Innovation, taking on the stigma of risk and failure, is avoided as a general practice. It is instead marched out for special circumstances (usually a crisis), which, as a result, guarantees that a prior lack of institutional learning of fundamental innovation barriers, will stop innovation time and again.

So, in the spirit of a similar question asked over fifty years ago (with the understanding that our protagonist can be male or female):
Why can't Johnny innovate?
In my experience, some or all of the following six reasons (in no specific order) will likely stop Johnny from coming up with a great idea.
  • He doesn’t have any incentive.
  • He doesn’t have the time.
  • He’s disconnected from key technical expertise.
  • He’s not trained, adept, or comfortable with proactive, creative thought.
  • He doesn’t have immediate or easy access to critical knowledge.
  • He can’t look beyond his immediate problem-solving needs.
Even in reviewing this succinct list, there are, no doubt, short term measures which innovation practitioners, managers, and executives can take to avoid the more immediate barriers. Such measures, however, rarely translate into sustainable innovation practices or organizational transformation to a highly-effective innovation company.

Over the coming weeks, I will be offering in follow-on articles some of my observations from the field as to how each of these barriers to innovation manifest themselves, and how to mitigate or eliminate their impacts on the innovation practitioner, organization, and company.


Sobana said...

Thanks for the lucid article. The 6 reasons you have provided are great.

Even with enough opportunities to get trained, access to critical knowledge etc, if Jhonny does not have that penchant or passion for innovation he/she cannot innovate.

At the same token, orgnaizations must invest in Innovation training and workshops even if it benefits atleast .5% of their R&D or Product development personnel.
After all, break thru innovations have happened in unexpected quarters in history.

navneet said...

I recently attended an UNCONFERENCE (http://www.barcamp.org/KAMP) at Bangalore. The same question was during Knowledge Cafe as "what comes in the way of idea generation". My response was the following - posted on MY BLOG(http://innovationcrafting.blogspot.com/2007/11/barcamp-km-unconference.html) as well. Just reiterating below "My mind looked at the root of an idea - it has to be some sort of thought - which itself comes to us through some experience. Well once experiences (which can be problems, crisis, normal behaviour, something unique or extraordinary etc) becomes thoughts they can develop into ideas. Obviously it is not about ideas in the mind - the whole problem of Intellectual property is related to so called idea-expression dichotomy - ideas need to be articulated and should be expressed to be considered generated. People mentioned the past experience in an enterprise inhibits people to express ideas again - the psychological safety is an issue most of the enterprises.

However to my mind it is really following two issues

1. There are not enough varied experiences for people to have richness of understanding of reality
2. There is not enough imagination if you have experiences to link one experience with another to generate thoughts that become an idea and then get articulated"

Other responses are at Murali's Blog (http://muralidharanl.wordpress.com/2007/11/24/a-knowledge-cafe/)