Innovate July 2017

Innovation Roadblocks


Written By: David Whitney, Assistant Director, UF Engineering Innovation Institute

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines innovation as “The introduction of something new; a new idea, method, or device.” To delve a little deeper into the meaning of innovation, I found this definition of innovation from the Business Dictionary: “The process of translating an idea or invention into a product or service that creates value — or for which customers will pay.” My experience with innovation — from time spent either in a university classroom or inside a corporate boardroom — is that successful innovation occurs when problem-solving solutions satisfy the needs, wants and expectations of customers. 

The term “ideas” is not found in my definition and description of innovation. Instead, “problem-solving solution” highlights what I believe is one of innovation’s key functions and purposes. So, whether it is “ideas” or “problem-solving solutions” — and whatever the definition and description of innovation — the process and practice of innovation is about how proposed problem-solving solutions are transformed via an organization’s commercialization process and launched into the marketplace as “a new idea, method or device.”

Most leadership teams in organizations understand the need for innovation. That’s because innovation is an important driver of growth, with nearly every organization facing continuous pressure to grow, almost all growth opportunities associated with innovation have obstacles and challenges that must be overcome in order to achieve successful growth-oriented results. Even the most innovative organizations recognize how difficult it is to build an innovation framework and culture that produces successful innovation outcomes. And although innovation methods differ from organization to organization, an organization intent on producing successful innovations should focus on identifying problems, align proposed innovative solutions to identified problems, select which proposed problem-solving solutions should be commercialized, and allocate the often scarce resources that are required to conceive, build, test, improve, finalize and launch successful innovations.

Alas, innovation roadblocks are also part of the process and practice of innovation. Roadblocks can detour the most promising problem-solving solutions. This reality requires organizations to identify and overcome the obstacles and challenges ingrained in innovation. Examples of innovation roadblocks include:

  1. Leadership’s Lack of Knowledge Regarding Innovation – Some leaders fail to see innovation’s value because they are wary of innovation’s inherent downsides. Innovation is expensive, it is risky, it does not come with guarantees of commercial success, it most likely will disrupt an organization’s culture and it can change an organization’s position and brand identity in the marketplace.
  2. Uncertainty Involving Innovation’s Processes and Practices – Innovation can be anyone’s domain. There is no requirement that innovators must be subject matter experts in fields associated with their problem-solving solutions, nor are innovators required to be trained in the processes and practices of innovation. Anyone can innovate and all are welcome to try, given that innovation doesn’t have prerequisites or preconditions.
  3. Change is Difficult – Many organizations are held captive by a “We’ve always done it this way” syndrome. This is a powerful innovation roadblock that runs deep and wide in some organizations. A relatively painless and actionable solution for overcoming this type of innovation roadblock is to simplify an existing procedure or practice. Often, a simplified solution can have a positive effect on an organization’s awareness and acceptance of innovation’s value and benefit.

I am familiar with innovation roadblocks as both a teacher and practitioner of innovation. Not only do I teach innovation to college students, but I am also a student of innovation and I additionally work with organizations that pursue and produce innovative products and solutions. Serving in these roles gives me an opportunity to study how organizations are effective or ineffective when it comes to addressing and navigating innovation roadblocks.

Organizations that are ineffective at innovation often see roadblocks as hard-to-hurdle barriers. The difficulties of overcoming innovation roadblocks are prevalent because the roadblocks themselves are structural and systematic in nature. In that case, the organization has a weak innovation culture or the organization lacks the leadership necessary to conceive, construct and commercialize successful innovations. For those types of organizations, overcoming innovation roadblocks is challenging, slow and complex. That is due to the organization lacking an executable innovation strategy along with not possessing an organizational structure that is able to overcome the challenges and obstacles inherent in the process and practice of innovation.

Organizations that are effective at producing successful innovation face roadblocks, too. Identifying and overcoming those roadblocks is part of the challenge associated with innovation. For organizations that possess a culture of innovation and/or have the leadership able to conceive, construct, and commercialize successful innovations — most innovation challenges and obstacles are found in day-to-day operations. When that is the case, decisions are made in order to optimize and deploy available and limited resources. And, the organization’s innovation processes and practices are performed so that a continuous assessment of a myriad of risks associated with innovation marketplace, economic, financial and regulatory is performed.

Whether an organization is effective or ineffective at innovation, my advice is to keep it simple when identifying and navigating innovation roadblocks. Organizations that are effective at producing successful innovations have an innovation culture; the effective organization’s focus is to implement practices and processes of innovation by having leadership commit enough funding and allocate enough resources to support efforts to commercialize problem-solving solutions. Here’s how successful organizations identify and navigate innovation roadblocks:

  1. Create and Cultivate an Innovation Culture – Flatten the organization’s departments and reporting lines, dismantle or reduce silos, transform the organization’s “fixed mindset” into a “growth mindset.” Encourage collaboration not competition among departments, create, incentivize, reward and celebrate multidisciplinary teams. Even their failures.
  2. Be Laser-Focused on Implementation– By being laser-focused on implementing innovations, organizations are able to increase the traction their innovations get in the marketplace. Achieving traction demonstrates that successful innovations are not about ideas but instead about how problem-solving solutions are successfully implemented.
  3. Funding and Resources – Leaders should provide just enough funding and allocate just enough resources to seed the organization’s innovation activities and initiatives. With just enough funding and just enough resources, individual innovators and/or innovation teams will most likely figure out how to secure subsequent funding or how to use ingenuity to identify and deploy necessary resources.

By having an innovation strategy and being laser-focused on implementing an innovation action plan, organizations can successfully navigate innovation roadblocks. The most effective leaders do so by continuously shaping a workable balance between how to support innovation while not neglecting day-to-day operations. Organizations that are effective at innovation find ways to maintain this balance, doing so reflects an innovation culture in which people are trained and committed to successfully executing the organization’s innovation strategy and action plan.     For organizations seeking to identify and navigate innovation roadblocks, both innovation success and effectiveness are difficult to achieve if:

  1. The organization’s culture is not designed and/or operated to support and advance innovation initiatives and activities.
  2. Leaders are fearful of taking risks, even calculated ones, and hesitant to abandon the status quo because they fear the organization will lose its way.
  3. A system of collaboration and a willingness to collaborate does not exist.
  4. Leadership fails to simultaneously run day-to-day operations while advancing the organization’s innovation processes and practices. Doing both helps the organization achieve innovation success.
  5. The organization fails to have measurable goals. Without measurable goals, an organization will find it difficult to gauge whether or not its innovation initiatives and activities are successful.

Whatever the definition of innovation, roadblocks can detour an organization’s efforts to produce successful innovation outcomes. To successfully navigate innovation roadblocks, leaders must first start by honestly and openly communicating a clearly understood vision of the organization’s innovation mission. Doing so aligns the organization’s people, resources and strategies with efforts to cohesively launch and implement innovative problem-solving products and/or services that, by one definition of innovation, “Create value for which customers will pay.”

By having an innovation strategy and being laser-focused on implementing an innovation action plan, organizations can successfully navigate innovation roadblocks.

 

About the Writer:

David Whitney serves as the assistant director in the UF Engineering Innovation Institute. Whitney previously served as the Entrepreneur in Residence in the University of Florida’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering and teaches both undergraduate and graduate students in the College. The courses, Entrepreneurship for Engineers and Engineering Innovation, use real-world examples and the experiences of entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs and innovators to teach engineers how to change the world. In addition to his roles at UF, Whitney is the co-chair of Innovation Gainesville 2.0, a regional-based initiative in which people and organizations collaborate to strengthen Gainesville’s innovation economy by bringing 3,500 jobs and securing $250 million in capital investment to the region.

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