Innovation management: The main roadblocks and how to overcome them

Les obstacles d'un programmes d'innovation participative

Innovation is disturbing. It upsets the status quo and may encounter difficulties in making a place for itself in the company’s natural environment. Unless a company’s real DNA consists of constant disruption and continuous questioning, there are internal forces that aim to create walls where bridges are needed. Sometimes these are human behaviors, be they conscious or unconscious ones. Sometimes these are influences that come from external sources. Practically all of us in charge of innovation management have experienced these roadblocks. Here are the most common ones against which you will have to fight.

Politics, turf wars and lack of alignment might kill your innovation management program

Innovation is a notion that may remain unclear internally and everyone has a different vision of it. For some people, communicating on Facebook is an innovation in itself! Faced with the diversity of these approaches, there are often departments, subsidiaries or business units that are convinced that they are innovating enough, and that any new initiative getting a little too close to their backyard could create internal competition, depriving them of useful resources. After all, if it’s been working this for years, why change?

This mechanism of turf warfare involves spending more time finding subterfuge and organizing counterattacks in a guerrilla mindset, rather than agreeing to testing, experimenting and co-creating in a positive state of mind. The enemy is even more dangerous when it is internal and elusive!

Along the same lines, companies sometimes crystallize innovation and change by creating a dedicated position, like the director of digital transformation, the change manager or the digital project manager. Lying in wait, intractable people, skeptics and disengaged people are expecting only one thing: that these are purely political, symbolic positions and that they will quickly become inoperative if they are ignored. This may be problematic because it embodies change and reappraisal. The corporate version of the banana peel from cartoons!

When an initiative is launched, there is always a risk of disturbing the established order. If the organization is not ready for it, it creates internal turmoil that can be crippling. To avoid this situation, it is necessary to align expectations and messages with the innovation management strategy implemented. Change management requires trust and results. To achieve this, the involvement of top and middle management is essential. They may not be able to avoid all the political quarrels and turf wars, but they need to get involved well in advance, well before the situation gets bad and ends up getting out of hand.

Cultural issues in innovation management

The culture of large corporations is generally based on operational excellence and predictable and constant growth. Creators of change who attempt to conduct experiments are rarely welcomed with open arms, especially when they are working on an idea that might “cannibalize” stable businesses or disrupt the existing distribution model. This is where company culture plays a crucial role. It is unrealistic to want to transform everything without the support of general management supported by the cross-sectoral work of human resources and internal communication. Imposing innovative working methods before even preparing the ground internally is both a real risk but often a guarantee of failure. Especially since large groups have good memories: many employees and managers remember all the historic attempts at innovation management that have not been successful.

Influencing the culture of a company is sometimes an impossible task. To do this, we must not fight head-on, but instead create new places where motivated and willing employees may come together to work on constructive projects. The goal is to form sub-cultures within a large culture that will be more permeable to change, and which will be able to act as a step-down lever.

To move forward more quickly, it is also possible to have it both ways, hoping to create a ripple effect. On the one hand, we develop collaborative innovation, intrapreneurship and multidisciplinary creativity projects, and on the other hand, we move the culture internally with projects and new initiatives, ranging from updating the vision, to training provided to executives, as well as the renovation of workspaces and teams. Everything must be carefully marked out and structured so that the change of culture is not perceived as a brake or an obstacle, whereas it must support collaborative innovation.

Inability to act on signals sent by the ecosystem and the market

When an innovation comes from a competitor, it is already too late. The red flag is raised and the battle is lost. But the war has only just begun. Businesses need to stay on the lookout for visible or invisible signals that involve potential change. While the actions of direct competition are generally monitored well and under control, indirect competition and market activities, whether in France or abroad, should not be underestimated.

Most companies are aware of the arrival of disruptive start-ups in their industry and of changes in the purchasing behaviors of customers. The problem is acting on these signals. What mechanisms exist to establish collaborations with external suppliers or start-ups, or to do a quick pilot test with a feature or a business unit? Too many companies wait for the annual strategy to be published and formalized before adapting to the changing dynamics of their market. However, it is precisely the opposite that must be done: this must be anticipated, even created.

This inability to act on the signals makes steering the ship excessively cumbersome and complex. All the more so when the decision to innovate is made in reaction to an external threat rather than because of a good idea coming from within.

Lack of budget

Innovation is expensive. But it also pays off, and even more. The budget question is often a false roadblock and an easy answer to block or slow down an innovation management process. Indeed, in many big companies, especially in sectors such as aerospace and cutting-edge technologies, there are dedicated research and development departments with their own budgets, able to bring about new ideas that the company will be able to leverage and market. This is, moreover, an assumed role.

But not everyone has an R&D laboratory at their disposal, as is the case in commerce, hotels and financial services, for example. And it is true that the budget question may arise legitimately. Traditionally, the budget devoted to innovation management has been sufficient to develop concepts, research trends and train employees. This is useful, but this is not a vector of transformation. What matters is doing something that has a real impact on the company.

Therefore Rick Waldron, a former Nike executive who led the company’s innovation accelerator until 2008, said that with a budget of less than a million dollars, his role was to advocate in favor of investing in innovation rather than doing the innovation work itself. A useful initial resource, but far from being enough, because it will then be necessary to release more resources to launch a real innovation management program.

Behind this classical approach, we see that it is nevertheless possible to do better with less through corporate innovation. It is as if the principle of innovation itself were disrupted by innovation. A sort of autoimmune reaction in the end. Indeed, it is not the budget that creates an idea’s value. It’s culture, good ideas, the will to work together, the desire to contribute and the pursuit of personal satisfaction. So many levers that are priceless if they are used well. And whether you have 300,000, 2 million or 10 million euros in your innovation budget changes nothing, provided that the ideation process is initiated and supported, and it produces tangible results.

Yes to innovating. But for what?
The problem of vision is raised behind this question. Do employees have a clear idea of the type of innovation they are supposed to bring to the business? Are they looking for ideas to streamline their day-to-day processes and serve their customers better, or to develop new business models around existing products? Without a coherent strategy and a clear vision, efforts related to innovation end up getting lost. We must therefore be clear about expectations: who can participate, why and how? Communication must be constant and solid between the internal teams and the business units they need as partners.