Four Easy Ways to Crush Innovation and How You Can Avoid Them
Before you skip over this because you aren’t a Chief Innovation Officer, answer this question: Is there anyone in your life that you’d rather not squelch their creativity and in fact would rather help it flourish? If you answered yes, then whether you are a parent, teacher, executive, or coach, this is for you. Achieving success in today’s world depends more and more on the ability to innovate, and yet I don’t hear a lot of people talk about what smothers innovation. I read about organizational hindrances and stereotypical frustrations, but I don’t hear about the behaviors within you and me that stifle it.
I led a workshop for a client recently and touched on some of the biggest innovation crushers I’ve seen in my research and practice. For each of these 4 innovation crushers, we have Flippen 360 Profile scales that indicate someone’s predisposition, so with the client we were able to take the insights even deeper by leveraging the data.
A lot of people I know and work with are great critical thinkers. They are good at seeing where things can be improved, they effectively identify 2nd and 3rd order effects of decisions, they can zoom in on what’s broken and how to fix it, etc. I even like to think of myself as someone who demonstrates many of those things.
The challenge here is that with most people, it’s a reflex. Uh-oh. A reflex means you really don’t control it. It just happens. It’s just natural. Dictionary.com calls it “an involuntary response to a stimulus.” So think about it: Stimulus = someone else’s idea; Response = critique.
So should you just blow smoke and tell everyone they’re a genius and say that every idea is golden? Of course not, but by identifying your reflex you can choose to start with positives, you can be better aware of your body language (especially the “analytical face”) and you can choose to ask questions such as, “So are we just brainstorming here or are we trying to finalize a decision?”
Speaking of questions, you might think, “I know better than to shoot ideas down, I simply ask questions.” You still make me nervous. There are good questions and bad questions. Good: “This is really fascinating—How did you come up with this?” Bad: “How will this possibly be taken to market?” Good: “What are your thoughts on ______?” Bad: “Have you not considered ______?”
Most of the time, people with an idea (especially creative types) simply want to be heard. They’d prefer a “Wow, this is really interesting, tell me more” or “Yeah, love the energy you’ve put into this, let me think about it further” or even just “Great thoughts, I’ll note them for sure as we move forward.” As a recipient of an idea or opinion, we feel like people are asking us to tell them point by point what we agree or disagree with. There’s a time and place to do that, but many of us assume (or it’s simply our reflex) that people are asking us for a critique when they weren’t.
Another challenge with being Hypercritical is that at best, people are annoyed, and at worst, people are wounded. So this isn’t just about whether an idea is or isn’t novel, it’s about being in tune with the fact that, especially for leaders, you have the power to control people’s happiness…and sometimes even their self-esteem.
True story: I had a client named Paul who scored low on one of our Self-Confidence measures in our profile and in a follow-up session I asked him, “I’m curious, where do you think that comes from?” I thought he would say, “Well, as a child I experienced trauma…” or “During middle school…” (almost all constraints come from middle school, right!), but he didn’t. Without hesitation, Paul replied, “My boss. He’s very demanding and critical and that’s why I lack confidence.” Whoa. I personally think that Paul’s insecurities stem from more than just his boss, but in Paul’s perspective the boss is the sole factor. I also had worked with Paul’s boss, who is indeed Hypercritical, so I could see the pattern that Paul was suggesting. That’s a little scary for many of us as leaders, but I’d rather you have influence than not have it. Just make sure you use it well, and if you are Hypercritical be especially careful with more sensitive people.
The most common objection I hear to this is, “If I don’t tell them my concerns or what they were missing, then they’ll think that I like the idea and then they’ll be confused or disappointed when I don’t move forward.” Notice that none of my suggested substitute responses were, “Yes, that’s perfect!” I’m simply saying that people want to be validated and to feel like there is a place to bring ideas, and most people do understand that moving forward with any idea is a more complicated endeavor.
If you are hypercritical, be aware that you can push away “idea people” and that your comments can be conversation killers and brainstorming killers. Other people will find someone to use as a sounding board—it just won’t be you! A thick-skinned friend or colleague that you banter back and forth with may very well tolerate it, but most people will tire of the barrage of questions and cross-examinations and the end result is that you will stifle innovation (even with good intentions).
2. Kneejerk Resistance
This Innovation Crusher is captured well by a scale in our Flippen 360 Profile named Need for Change and Variety. Someone that scores lower on Need for Change and Variety isn’t completely averse to change, but they are more likely to have a more resistant first response to unexpected change.
The key phrase here is “first response.” I know a lot of change-resistant people that are true team players and would never be rebellious or volatile—but their first response to unexpected change can still be resistance. They may not even argue against it, but their body language and lack of enthusiasm still sends the message that they were thrown off and likely have some concerns or questions.
A common objection I hear to this is, “I’m very creative, so surely I don’t struggle with Kneejerk Resistance.” Being creative means you enjoy discussing and pursuing your ideas. Key word: your! I haven’t met the person yet who fights against his or her own ideas! Those don’t count here because this is measuring how much we reflexively resist ideas we aren’t expecting, thus ideas or directions or opinions from others.
If you struggle with this, people will tire of your reflexive resistance. They’ll see you as someone who is rigid and doesn’t want to try new things. When seeking a sounding board, they’ll gravitate to others who they can feed off of and who will play with their ideas and show some excitement. To remedy this, make sure your first response isn’t resistance, whether in words, body language or lack of response. And look for ways to counteract this tendency by being more spontaneous in general. Show people more of your free-spirited side and you’ll be less likely to stifle innovation.
I asked a client recently about a colleague of hers and what she would suggest the colleague work on. She said, “He’s hard to sway.” That statement really exemplifies this Innovation Crusher.
Being stubborn can show up in a lot of ways. One person might be very black and white with opinions: “There’s no way…”, “I guarantee you…”, “We’ve tried that before…”, “That won’t sell…”, etc. Even if you are right, you won’t win with those comments. A friend of mine’s wife says (to him, not to me), “Do you want to be right or be happy?” Maybe that’s a good lesson here! You may be right, but you will still frustrate people and push them away.
Another way that Stubbornness shows up is always having an explanation/reason/excuse. Someone brings you an idea and your reflex is, “Well the reason we haven’t done that in the past is…” and “We can’t do that now because…” and “the 94th reason why that wouldn’t work is…” Yuck! Be careful of explaining away others’ ideas, or else you may be left without others’ ideas!
A common objection to this one is, “I’m not stubborn!” In fact, I was taking our Profile once and the word stubborn is one of the items on the survey and I had to decide if it described me. I was sitting at home at our computer and my wife was behind me watching television. I thought to myself, “I’m not stubborn. Strong-willed, yeah, but not stubborn.” Then I asked, “Honey, am I stubborn?” [pause for extended silence] I turned around and she was shrugging her shoulders sheepishly and nodding. “What? I’m not stubborn. If you present an idea that makes sense to me, the timing is right, and you’ve done your homework, I can totally switch gears.”
Those are three pretty big hurdles for most mortals to jump over! So am I illogical or belligerent? No. But am I perceived as being stubborn, as being hard to sway? Yes!
If you are “stubborn” like me, be careful of bulldozing people with win-lose language. Slower can be faster, so be patient with people who aren’t yet on the same page with you. Really put yourself in their shoes and voice their objections to demonstrate that you are weighing their concerns. Build more consensus and more buy-in, while fighting against the perception that you are hard to sway.
4. Being Disconnected
This is one that seems different from the other three. And it is. The other three all happen in the moment of responding to someone’s potential innovation. This one happens before you even have the discussion.
Think about leaders who are a talented, driven, analytical, organized people…BUT they aren’t connected to their people. If I’m one of their people, there will be an air of intimidation. For less secure people, there could even be an environment of fear.
Clearly these people will be less likely to approach leaders who they feel disconnected from. The pipeline isn’t open enough, so even if the leader didn’t struggle with any of the first three items above, he or she would never have the chance to prove that!
I’m also much more motivated to create and innovate for a leader who I respect and am connected to. I’ll “lose sleep” over that leader, meaning I’ll allocate brain space to ideas to help the organization and even wake up with ideas at times. But if my leader is distant, I may still think about a few ideas, but my passion will be much lower.
If you struggle with this, reach out to people more. Don’t let your more personable side get overshadowed. Be more intentional about one-on-one conversations to connect with people. Further realize the benefit of likeability and nurturing. And find more common ground with others.
If you have questions about how The Flippen Group could speak to the innovation environment in your organization, Contact us. We’d be honored to help.