Innovation leaders must master a wide range of skills in order to enhance the innovation potential of their teams. Often, managers are required to play the role of a barrier buster to ensure the team’s creativity delivers bottom line results for the business. Some of the responsibilities they assume in this role include:
- Providing the necessary time, space, tools, and data for your staff to innovate
- Guiding projects along the path of least resistance and avoiding political pitfalls
- Adjusting policies, procedures, and organization practices to facilitate new idea implementation
- Talking your peers through the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that often comes with change
Common Obstacles to Plan For
Being a barrier buster requires you to be able to negotiate skillfully in tough situations with both internal and external groups. Innovation means change, and change can be quite disruptive and emotionally charged. Being able to gain concessions without damaging relationships is a valuable skill. Innovation leaders help new ideas mature and create paths of least resistance so projects can navigate the political, economic, and cultural obstacles. There are countless organizational barriers to innovation that cause it to be slow, inefficient, costly, risky, and frustrating. Being aware of some of the most typical impediments can be helpful:
- The organization lacks the enterprise-wide methods (concepts, practices, tools, language, or skills) for innovation.
- There is not enough funding to form and facilitate innovation projects.
- The organization is overly consensus-oriented, and any dissenting vote can bring an innovation project to a halt. Champions and sponsors give up or leave the company because it is too hard to get everyone onboard with ideas.
- The organization’s relentless commitment to operational excellence prevents anything new and disruptive from being tried and tested. This is a classic example of a strength becoming a weakness.
- Past success has robbed the organization of its willingness to take risks. Leaders play it safe and settle for “me too” strategies just to keep up with the pack, rather than boldly investing in a better future.
- The organization lacks proper incentives for innovation. Idea champions are rarely recognized and rewarded for their efforts.
- People are overworked and simply don’t have the bandwidth to take on their innovative ideas.
- Organization silos prevent cross-boundary collaboration and limit the scale, speed, and impact of innovation.
Barrier busters must be politically savvy to meet these kinds of challenges. They need sensitivity to know how the specific people and their organization are likely to react. Barrier busters help their idea champions or project teams maneuver through complex political situations effectively because they can anticipate the organizational “landmines” and how to avoid them.
Persistence in the Face of Obstacles
Barrier busters are also determined. They don’t stop at the first signs of resistance and refuse to accept “no” for an answer whenever there is hope for success. They are resourceful, looking for the support and resources wherever they can be found. Barrier busters know the difference between the market saying “no,” and an organizational obstacle saying, “no.”
A leader might have learned from the VC role to let go of struggling projects, where customers don’t respond as expected or where the market does not respond positively, in order to move the resources to fund innovation winners. However, as a barrier buster, this same leader knows that organizational protectiveness does not mean the project is struggling in the market. The barrier buster fights for the opportunity to let customers decide which product or service is the business of the future.
History is full of examples of innovators who were told their ideas would not work, but who ultimately found ways to gain the support and resources they needed. Consider what would have happened if these innovators had not persisted in the face of obstacles:
“Man will never reach the moon regardless of all future scientific advances.”
—Dr. Lee De Forest, “Father of Radio & Grandfather of Television.”
“We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.”
—Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962.
“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
—Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.
“The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible.”
—A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith’s paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found FedEx.)
“Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You’re crazy!”
—Response from the drillers Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist in his project to drill for oil in 1859. (source)
Without successful execution there is no innovation, only the unfulfilled promise of a better future. Leaders need to help their teams break down the mental barriers, financial barriers and organizational barriers so their ideas can become a reality. To learn more about the barrier buster role and what is needed to navigate the pitfalls and politics of corporate innovation, download the complete chapter of Leading Innovation Ten Essential Roles for Harnessing the Creative Talent of your Enterprise for the full text on mentorship. In our next installment of the Leading Innovation series, we’ll review the Networker role. If you’d rather not wait, download the entire chapter today.
This blog post is part of the Leading Innovation series authored by Laszlo Gyorffy, MS. Laszlo is president of the Enterprise Development Group, an international consulting firm specializing in business strategy and innovation. He also is an accomplished speaker, certified instructional designer and trainer, and co-author of Creating Value with CO-STAR: An Innovation Tool for Perfecting and Pitching your Brilliant Ideas and The Global Innovation Science Handbook. Laszlo recently developed the One Hour Innovator a cloud-based toolkit that teaches people how to successfully generate and champion bigger, bolder, and better ideas.