Do Humans Get In the Way of Innovation?

innovation, execution, companies, human behaviorUnicorns, those wild magical beasts in folklore are sought for their healing properties and because they are so elusive. Rather like the quest some companies are on regarding innovation. Innovation is supposed to be the sustainer and life saver of companies. But there is something gumming up the works…there are humans in the way.

Why is innovation so hard?

A question with quite a few answers but we might be missing something crucial. People create innovation. People talk about innovation. We have talked about it on our Twitter chat, #KaizenBiz many times.

Is the work of innovation too boring?

There are many possibilities here ranging from individual behavior to breakdowns in the process. According to Tom Agan, companies are spending too much time ideating. As in, spending a part of or even an whole day coming up with new ideas for the company. Agan’s point is that time would be better spent on looking at ideas the company already has and then identifying and clarifying the best ones for the company to implement.

Another perspective is put forth by David Hasell. He writes that “the secret¬† path to innovation” lies with the reticular activation system (also known as the extrathalamic control modulatory system). This structure in your brain, is believed to be involved in behavioral motivation, mediating the shift from sleep to wakefulness including periods of high attention plus managing the dampening of loud noises and other intense stimuli. Hasell’s premise – if you activate the RAS on a regular basis, people in the company will begin to build an awareness for certain activities and ideas.

Akin to Agan’s point,¬† have written The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Problem. They ask if the execution part is too “humdrum” and therefore people don’t expect it to be work. In the book, Govindarajan and Trimble posit that people forget and/or dampen their enthusiasm when it gets to the implementation part of of the innovation process.

What if it’s really about how we understand ourselves and the way organizations are collectively “us?”

On an individual basis, there are many reasons people don’t follow through. In a parallel fashion, implementing an idea is much like goal completion. Some possible theories why organizations don’t execute their ideas well:

  • Too busy fantasizing: Research has shown that people get so caught up in the fantasy of what the result of their efforts will be that they neglect to do the work. The team that held the ideation session were so excited and enthusiastic that they got caught up in the dream.
  • People may misunderstand the business goals and/or the process or not want to change the status quo: Poor communication can derail a project before it has started. It may even be that certain revenue streams are still performing well so there isn’t enough motivation to explore something new.
  • Fear of unknown: The process of innovation is experimental by nature. You don’t know if a new product, service or process improvement is really going to work or make money. Without high-level sponsorship, the idea will remain an idea.
  • Mistrust of leadership: Ideas may not get implemented because it is perceived as a fad or chasing a dream.
  • Too robotic: Psychological research has discovered that a lot of our everyday behavior is robotic. People in companies may get caught up in the everyday work and not connect it to the innovation process, thereby, losing motivation and meaning.

Stop chasing the unicorns

There are probably more reasons why companies fail in their efforts to innovate. It makes sense to learn more about human behavior and then prepare an implementation process that takes the idea beyond the talking stage. Given that it is hard to know when something is going to truly disrupt the marketplace, paying greater attention to how new ideas get transformed into tangible things…the human thinking, feeling and acting…will make the innovation process cleaner.

How does human behavior play a role in the innovation process? Join us on the Twitter chat, #KaizenBiz on Friday, May 2, 2014 at 5pm GMT/12pm ET/9am PT to add your insights and expertise to our conversation.

What are your top 3 reasons why innovation is working well in organizations?

How could ratcheting down the rhetoric about the necessity to be innovative actually encourage more innovation?

Ideas only become innovations when they are implemented. Could the day-to-day work of executing an idea be off putting as it is not as sexy or stimulating as ideating?

How would understanding how our brains work and human behavior help companies get over the hurdle of executing their great ideas?

What would you put in place to bring ideas into actual products or services?



1 thought on “Do Humans Get In the Way of Innovation?

  1. Before looking at human inertia and ingenuity, I like to take a look at the context people work in, say, process and efficiency. What if there was a way to turn innovation success from a typical rate below 20% to over 80%?

    Turns out if we start with identifying customer needs and desired outcomes, we can leapfrog inefficiencies inherent in ideas generation, filtering, disillusionment, testing, (which still has a place in business) and develop desired solutions in a more focused manner. This is basically how the outcome-driven innovation process works better, according to Anthony W. Ulwick. More at As a starting point I recommend the success stories and the whitepaper.
    Disclosure: not affiliated, no commercial interest to declare.

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