Creativity killers: Six ways innovation dies

In an excerpt from his new book, “Creative People Must Be Stopped,” Vanderbilt University management professor David A. Owens says understanding the constraints that limit innovation may offer the best route to a breakthrough.

Creative People Must Be Stopped Book Cover

[Editor’s note: The following is an adapted excerpt from "Creative People Must Be Stopped" by David A. Owens (Jossey-Bass, Nov. 22, 2011)]

OwensStandingInnovation is an imperative for 21st century businesses. Yet it is systematically stopped in organizations, often by the very people who say they want it and who stand to benefit from it.

To understand why innovation succeeds or fails, I began combing through the enormous quantity of books, articles, and cases devoted to innovation and creativity. I quickly found that these writings seemed to approach the topic from wildly divergent and often unrelated perspectives. Worse, the perspectives offered by one thinker or researcher conflicted with the insights of others.

Finally, after years of academic and applied research, coupled with my hands-on experience at the Palo Alto design firm IDEO earlier in my career, a pattern began to emerge. There were, I discovered, six basic perspectives on what impedes innovation. The key element in successful innovation was recognizing these constraints and figuring out the smartest ways to work within them—or overcome them entirely.

The Individual Constraint
Failures of innovation are failures of ideas: individuals either did not generate good enough ideas or didn’t recognize their good ideas for what they were (and chose an inferior one). Intuitively this makes sense—without a good idea to base it on, innovation won’t happen. To overcome this constraint, you will need to train people to use the tools and processes that help them to “think different,” and this will enable them to become better at generating and recognizing good ideas.

The Group Constraint
Innovation can also fail because of an adverse emotional or cultural climate in the innovation team. Research in group dynamics has identified the kinds of social dynamics that reliably kill, among other things, the engagement, risk-taking, and creative expression necessary for innovation. Recognize that even if you have a roomful of creative da Vincis, the group’s processes and social climate may determine whether an innovation succeeds. Here the prescription for overcoming the constraint is equally clear: fix the group’s climate and process, and you fix innovation.

The Organization Constraint
When a firm doesn’t have a strategy that demands innovation, if its structure doesn’t allow for the free movement of new ideas, or if it doesn’t have the human, monetary, or other resources required to develop new ideas, then it’s unlikely to routinely innovate. Look at big bureaucratic organizations like governments, educational institutions, and commodity producers in mature markets and the case is easy to make: here, the problem of innovation is the problem of organizing people in a way that won’t systematically kill it.

The Industry Constraint
Innovation fails when a firm competing among a group of rivals in an industry fails to produce an innovation that customers in that market are willing to accept and adopt. In this perspective, innovation fails when a market does not adopt a new offering, usually because the utility and value of the change are not clear.  You might call a product idea “creative,” but if people in your market don’t adopt it, you cannot call it an innovation.

The Societal Constraint
An idea is sure to fail if society does not see its ideals and aspirations embodied in it, or if it does not see it as safe. A good example of this argument can be found in the case of human cloning. Plants and animals have been successfully cloned in the past, so we might assume that human cloning is technologically possible and arguably would have certain benefits. However, most societies around the world ban the practice on the grounds that it is morally and ethically repugnant. Clearly, innovations that are discordant with societal values and run afoul of regulations are unlikely to succeed.

The Technological Constraint

The premise here is simple: some things are just hard to do. It is hard to keep a body alive during brain surgery, to derive energy from the splitting of uranium atoms in a controlled and safe way, or to plug an oil leak fifty miles offshore and one mile beneath the surface of the ocean. This perspective makes a strong and reasonable case for the view that for an innovation to succeed, it has to be technologically feasible.

Taken together, it becomes clear that for any innovation to succeed, it’s not enough to simply come up with a great idea or important new technology; true innovation must satisfy each and every one of the six types of constraints.

Owens Innovation Chart

Consider the case of an inexpensive product called Sow-N-Gro, a spongy black round mat of organic material that fits into the bottom of potted plants. According to the product packaging, the Sow-N-Gro material “retains moisture, promotes root growth, [and] releases nitrogen.” At first glance, this innovative product, assuming it does what the packaging claims, would seem destined for immediate success, particularly in a consumer segment concerned about synthetic chemicals and excessive fertilizer use.

Unfortunately, early success was elusive.

At the individual level, someone had come up with a promising idea and recognized it as a good one, so it seems that individual constraints were met. Inasmuch as the innovation made it all the way from the “aha!” moment to production, we have to assume that it survived group constraints and won backing from people who helped fund and develop the idea. The Sow-N-Gro organization was created to commercialize the concept, and it possessed the skills and resources necessary to manufacture the material and get it in front of the retailers and distributors who would facilitate retail sale and adoption. This suggests that organizational constraints were met. The raw material was abundant, and the processes for matting and packaging it were relatively inexpensive. Because it had never been used in this industry before, it had no direct competitor in the “no chemicals” home gardener market, thus satisfying the industry constraints. The fiber was easily sterilized and therefore met all health code requirements that might impede importing it into the United States, thereby meeting a key societal constraint.

Despite all this, Sow-N-Gro didn’t fly off the shelves. Where had the innovator and the organization gone wrong?

Clues to the answer may lie in the negative reaction Sow-N-Gro elicits from people when I pass samples around in seminars and workshops. At first, when I pass the disk around the room and people look at it, sniff it, and feel it, they are mostly sold. Where can they buy some of these organic plant disks? Then I show them the product packaging. As that gets passed around, there is invariably a gasp as someone reads the statement of what the product contains: “Sow-N-Gro is 100% Recycled Human Hair.” Suddenly the enthusiasm for the product vaporizes. The poor person holding the material at the moment involuntarily flings the mat onto the floor in disgust. No one seems to want anything more to do with it after that (except to make jokes about one of the bald men in attendance).

Fundamentally, Sow-N-Gro, an economically and technologically sound product, fails at the societal level—at least in our culture—by clashing with the values of the people it was designed for. So oblivious to this constraint were the manufacturers of the product that they actually boasted about Sow-N-Gro’s fatal flaw on the front of the packaging. Beyond casting light on what exactly went wrong with Sow-N-Gro, this diagnosis suggests what should be done to give the innovation a better chance of success.

If we can identify the key constraints for a particular innovation, we can usually come up with ideas for interventions that increase the odds that our innovation will succeed. Quite often the knowledge we need is already at hand.

What we need is the kind of vision correction that will enable us to see in advance the vital factors that determine our chances for success when we embark on an innovation. This is just what the constraints framework is designed to provide. And by learning to analyze these constraints in advance, by turning from retrospective analysis to proactive strategy development, you can dramatically improve your chances of innovation success.

Published Nov 11, 2011 in Vanderbilt Business Intelligence
Copyright 2011 Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management