The barriers to innovation

And actions to overcome them.

I’ve been working in innovation for fifteen or so years. I work mostly with charities (although the barriers to innovation listed apply to every organisation regardless of sector).

Back in the early days there were just half a dozen charities exploring what innovation was and how they might develop their innovation strategy. The innovation managers would meet and exchange notes. It was like a mix of support and therapy as whilst we were all approaching innovation slightly differently with different objectives many of the barriers to innovation were the same.

Fifteen years on there are many more charities investing in innovation. For some it is purely about product development, others incremental and cultural change, others are seeking radical change and some are tackling all of these approaches. Regardless of what approach an organisation is taking, (there isn’t one single right approach) I see the same barriers to innovation getting in the way of success. I’m outlining them here with some suggestions on how to mitigate or overcome the barriers.

  1. Fear

Innovation isn’t certain, many new products, processes and ways of working will fail at first (perhaps for ever) and its part of the process which is what makes innovation interesting, exciting, frustrating and difficult in equal measure.

The single biggest reason why most organisations and individuals do not achieve their full potential is fear. This is not just fear of failure though. It’s also fear of success. ‘What if it doesn’t work?’ stops us in our tracks as quickly as, ‘What if it does work and my role/the organisation/life as we know it changes?’

In regard to fear, it can help to understand a bit about how humans work. We crave certainty because it feels safe. When we have uncertainty our bodies see that as a threat to our survival and at a basic level our response is either fight, flight or freeze. So, whilst we might ‘say’ that we’re ready to innovate we (and I mean individuals, teams and whole organisations) are fearful of the reality of venturing into the unknown and so we pull back. We consciously or unconsciously stall innovation by saying things like, ‘let’s draft an innovation risk register, I’d like to see another business case/financial model, or we need to get board buy in.’

There are no guarantees that any new idea will work. If we are genuinely embarking on innovation, you must be ready for and handle the fear. Accept that uncertainty is an important and inevitable part of learning, development and progress.

The reality is that none of us have a crystal ball and there is more learning from small experiments to figure out if something will work than endless remodelling of business cases.

Action: Create a safe environment to test and learn. Lead by example and share failures.

  1. Lack of leadership – Innovation must be led from the top.

Often, trustees, chief executives and directors do not have a shared understanding of what innovation means in their organisation, what is involved and what success looks like. When there isn’t clarity on the strategic purpose for innovation it’s hard to agree on what is priority.  Consequently, it’s safer (see point 1) to continue to do what they have always done and innovation dies on the vine.

Action: Ensure there is a shared understanding and buy in of the strategic drivers for innovation, why it’s important, what success looks like and what the measures are. Noting that failing and learning and feeling comfortable with uncomfortable is a core part of any innovation programme.

  1. Short term thinking

Most charities calculate on a one ­year return on investment. Any new innovation is expected to have immediate impact. Under the pressure to deliver return quickly we conduct inadequate research and rush processes, leading to failure, the idea being ditched, and innovation being perceived as not working.

Whilst this is shifting and I’m seeing more investment and more understanding that innovation success is a long-term strategy, there are few (if any) visible examples of larger charities that have deployed strategic innovation and shown it is successful. No one has ever committed to it for long and consistently enough. (If you have an example – please share!)

Whilst again there has been a shift, not nearly enough organisations have a research and development budget: expenditure with no income against it for testing.

Action: Part of your innovation strategy is defining longer term measures. It is unrealistic to expect to see a return on investment in innovation in the first year. It’s more realistic to see a ROL – return on learning that can be implemented into future innovation experiments.

Have a budget for innovation with no income against it for testing.

  1. Lack of resource/capacity

Linked to thinking in the short term, charities are apprehensive about investing in something that does not have guaranteed return on investment. The irony is that this means they often take a scattergun approach to innovation or under-resource it (meaning that it is even less likely to deliver success). Then innovation doesn’t deliver the impact that it should or could and is retired.

An example that I’ve encountered several times over the last few years is the idea of training people to lead on innovation development in addition to their current role.

This is different from upskilling people with mindset, thinking techniques and belief that innovation is part of their role (this, in my opinion is a good idea). I mean a project group to drive an important strategic innovation business driver in addition to their already busy role. What happens is that people are overwhelmed and stressed, their day-to-day work suffers, the innovation project moves slowly and runs out of momentum and innovation is declared as unsuccessful.

But at least we tried. And the organisation continues to do what it has always done. (Linked to fear as its ‘safer’ to do what we’ve always done – see point 1)

Action: if you’re going to do innovation then properly commit to it. Have adequate budget/resource to give it a fair go.

  1. Lack of collaboration

Internal budgeting and structures don’t always facilitate collaboration between teams. Individual income targets mean people fight over budgets and in a fundraising context are reluctant to ‘share’ donors, even if the return for the organisation could be potentially higher if teams worked together.

Collaboration starts with know, like and trust and achieving a common goal together. When we know like and trust our colleagues it oils the wheels for collaboration. This is harder when working hybrid or remotely. Isolated at home we miss out on the informal chats while making a cuppa, we don’t overhear conversations about project opportunities or build relationships over drinks after work.  Know, like and trust takes longer when we see people less often and collaboration is harder.

Action: Budget for more team away days and socials than when everyone was in the office together. Consider some specific training on collaboration skills.

  1. No time

I know you haven’t got time or space to focus on something now that won’t give you a result for five years when there’s urgent and important reactive activities to do right now.

There is an understandable focus on here and now. However, if you don’t start to make time to take a more long-term view and develop and test new ways to deliver services and generate income, in a constantly changing world your organisation will struggle to survive.

For example, for fifteen years I’ve been talking about your ageing core donor group and the need to develop new fundraising products to appeal to a younger demographic. Fifteen years can go quickly! If you’re not doing this now time is running out.

Action: You have to make time to think longer term. There’s no easy way to do this. Just do it. Because before you know it another fifteen years will have gone by.

“When is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago. The second-best time is today.”

  1. Lack of focus

If an organisation is not clear on where to focus, it can easily spend time on activity that won’t make a difference. It’s easy to become distracted by new products and new technology, but if it isn’t helping you achieve your mission then you should not be investing time and resource in it.

Do you have a strategy with clear priorities and measures? If not, you’re in danger in going off track and not making the impact that is required.

Action: Have a long term business strategy, ensure everyone is signed up to is and clear on their role in it. Revisit it regularly to sense check it’s still the right direction.

  1. Lots of ideas, no delivery to market

Having ideas is not a problem for most organisations but having relevant ideas and progressing them can be incredibly hard.

A repetitive sticking point is that people say they want to be innovative. They come up with ideas and then don’t do anything. Lots of workshops people get excited then they get stuck in organisational treacle and business as usual and nothing happens – which is demotivating.

Action: Be clear on your innovation strategy and what you want ideas about, allocate adequate time and resource to progress with the ideas. Don’t have a workshop unless you’re prepared to reprioritise to enable the actions to happen.

  1. No clear process

A process is critical to filter and drive ideas forward, if there isn’t a clear process and responsibilities ideas slowly die in organisations.  People lose momentum and enthusiasm, and nothing happens.

Action: have some process or framework to enable ideas to progress (and to stop the ‘great’ ideas that are not strategic taking up time and energy).

  1. Lack of urgency

People tend to focus on the here and now and the immediate problems they face to get through the current financial year. They put off the time to think about innovation to tomorrow.

The global pandemic forced us all to innovate and I saw so many organisations adapting fast. However, now I see and hear people are ‘returning to normal.’ There is no normal. No one is the same as before the pandemic. We have fallen back into business as usual. Perhaps we believe that if we do nothing, we’ll will be OK, or it seems too difficult to think strategically with so many immediate day-to-day pressures.

Action: Create a burning platform and urgency to your innovation.

Fifteen years on, not much has changed. The same barriers to innovation exist.

In my experience, the two biggest barriers to innovation that continue to stop people achieving the results they want, are lack of time to think and lack of confidence to change. If you can prioritise time to think and build your confidence and the confidence of your team and organisation to manage the fear associated with change it will unlock many of the barriers to innovation listed above.

That’s why I focus my work on supporting leaders and managers to make time for them and their teams to think alongside developing their confidence and skills to make change happen.

I do this in a range of ways including facilitating mastermind groups, coaching, training and team days. I help you and your team develop your mindset, knowledge and skills and provide support to turn your strategies and good ideas into reality.

Ways I can help you

You can get my book – The Innovation Workout with practical tips and tools to help you innovate here.

Sign up to my regular email here with practical tips and tools to help you think differently and take action.

Work with me – book a discovery call here and we can chat about how I can help you.

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