7 Non-traditional Barriers to Innovation

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A friend of mine recently asked me: What do you think are the biggest barriers to innovation? If you look at the literature on innovation many folks cite insufficient support from the CEO, inadequate funding, the pressure of quarterly earning, a culture of following, and fear of risk. I expect that these explanations are valid, but given how complex it is to truly innovate, I wanted to offer up a somewhat different list — based on experiences in helping companies innovate, and drawing from some previous posts I’ve done.


In my opinion, benchmarking may be the single most detrimental method of analysis when it comes to innovative thinking. At its core, benchmarking is about comparing yourself to what is — not what could be. You don’t get Crest Whitestrips — because they did not exist before P&G made them happen. Of course, any market analysis should include an understanding of current competitive offers but to focus on comparing your product or service to what other people are doing frames the solutions within an already known product — which by definition is likely to constrain solutions to me-too status.

Lack of Willingness to Cruise the Edges:

The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed, a quote attributed to cyber writer William Gibson. If you look at extreme tasks — you can usually find an interesting set of solutions which might give you some idea of what might become mainstream in time. For example, Dr. Robert Ballard the explorer best known for discovering the Titanic created the Inner Space Center in Rhode Island, which has huge, high definition screens that allow the scientist to follow the progress of two ocean going research ships in real time as they make discoveries around the world. One ship, the Okeanus has two robot vehicles they can deploy for undersea exploration, and the newer one, the Nautilus has four. As you may remember, Ballard explored the Titanic with robots.

Ballard says, “Why should I move my body to a research site, when I can just move my spirit?” His lab, and the ships are connected to internet 2, which has bandwidth 10,000 times as fast as the retail internet. This allows them to share a rich, high fidelity information space for collaboration and problem solving. Looking at a place like this “at the edge” you can see a lot about how cognitive work could be redesigned and what the future might hold. (My friend John Hagel has also recommended this approach — see his EdgePerspectives blog.)

This process of looking for extreme tasks is the antithesis of benchmarking, which hovers around the center of today’s capabilities.

Lack of Desire to Ride Exponential Trends:

We know now that the cost of human gene sequencing is decreasing faster than Moore’s Law. So what will this exponential change in costs mean to everything from crime prosecution to identity management? Which organizations, and functions will change with these massively cheaper and more capable, biologic screens? This is just one technology that is moving at an exponential pace. Ray Kurzweil’s book The Singularity is Near, documents many such trends — and as Ray notes, it is possible to “see the future” if you watch for the confluence of exponential trends in technology.

This process of examining the exponential trends is not anything like traditional technology forecasting which tends to look at straight line projections of improvement — not coherent disruption due to multiple exponential forces converging.

Too Cheap to Buy Your Way Into the Future:

Alan Kay, the man who invented the overlapping windows interface I’m using now and almost every modern computer uses said, “Any firm can buy its way into the future 5, 10, or more years. They just need to spend the money, and the military does it all the time.”

He is right that for many technologies which are on the exponentially improving pace that Kurzweil talks about can often be bought by large companies as a way to experiment now for a future to come. The apocryphal story of Steve Jobs inventing the iPad first, and spinning off the iPhone was due to the fact that he was designing for a world with cheap, high quality screens. He was early for the iPad, so he first launched the iPhone. My belief is that if Jobs  had not been trying to buy his way into the future, he never would have seen the possibilities. Today, firms could design work for when there is very cheap bandwidth. For example, they could install some of the most advanced video conferencing throughout a facility to see what it will be like to have an always on, high definition, real and virtual workspace. From what I’ve seen in Ballard’s lab, it will be different and more productive. Now is the time to buy your way into the future to see it.

This is not the same as building prototypes. This notion of buying your way into the future is to design real work and real actions but with technology that costs too much today, but will be cheap tomorrow. You want to live in the future, not just have a window into a mock up of it.

Lack of Contract Innovation:

If there is a new product or service locked within a firm, there is often no way the inventor, or innovation team can force the organization to make a decision. Back in 1992 Ray Ozzie (the current chief software architect at Microsoft) started Iris, a company funded by Lotus — to create Lotus Notes. If Lotus stopped the funding, Ozzie and his team had struck a deal in which Iris owned the intellectual capital, and therefore could take their invention to anyone — including Microsoft. This gave Iris a way to make sure that Lotus would not kill them through lack of action. Many innovations languish because the innovator has no ability to force a decision from the parent company.

Underestimating the Sales Cycle:

It always takes longer than you think to sell something new. This delay in sales often makes companies cut and run when they might have had a winner if they could only have seen the early revenue coming in. It takes time to help people see the new value. For example, Steve Jobs funded Pixar for 10 years before he brought it public.

Lack of Slack:

Often, the very best people have not time to innovate. Google, brilliantly, asks people to take 20% of their time and use it to create new things. This is forced organizational slack. Even if people find the time by working on the weekends, there is an expectation that any Googler can step back from his or her job and find the time to innovate. That idea, and challenge are so cool it fosters creativity.

What do you think?

Original Post: http://www.sviokla.com/ideas/7-barriers-to-innovation/