For years, I opened my CEO workshops with this question:
“Are you an innovative leader helping your company remain competitive in a fast-changing business environment?”
As soon as I asked it, every hand would go up. However, when I asked for a success story about an innovation or a product improvement, I would only hear stuttering and stammering.
Eventually I realized that executives raise their hands because they want to be seen as innovators, but the reality was that they were long on promise and short on performance. I don’t fault these leaders—their hearts are in the right place. We all want to be innovators, but when it comes to making it happen, we often falter.
What’s the innovation problem?
We see examples of extremely innovative corporations, like Apple, Amazon, Uber and Google, but they are notable because they are not the norm. The norm is that corporations are good at a few core things, but when the market changes, they are slow to respond—and often aren’t able to respond at all. Maxwell Wessel wrote a great article in HBR literally titled "Why Big Companies Can't Innovate.”
As a corporate anthropologist, companies usually call me in when they are going through one of these crises, so I have the good fortune and tremendous challenge of working with smart executive teams right at the moment when the things that have worked so well for them in the past aren’t working so well any more.
Over decades of doing this kind of work, I have seen many reasons firsthand that stand in the way of innovations. Here are a few of the themes I see over and over: