Nicholas Pell
Dec 17, 2011

Six ways we kill innovation without even trying

David Owens addresses six major obstacles to innovation in his new book, Creative People Must Be Stopped: 6 Ways We Kill Innovation Without Even Trying  The problem, says Owens, isn’t that anyone is actively opposed to innovation. Rather, the six ways are objective and subjective obstacles to innovation present in any society. These obstacles are not insurmountable; however, they require some degree of work on the part of innovators to find a way around.


The Individual


The individual is perhaps the easiest obstacle to overcome. Owens himself puts it very simply: “you simply need to train people to use the tools and processes that help them ‘think differently.’” Using Apple as an example of a company that overcame this is perhaps too obvious, but it’s also illustrative of the deeper problem. Apple’s success largely relied upon one man’s ability to think differently: Steve Jobs. Jobs often gave directives about what to make a product do, allowing his engineers to figure out precisely how it would be done. Whether or not Apple will be able to maintain its success without Jobs remains to be seen.


The solution Owens proposes raises an important question: Can anyone actually be trained to think differently? For example, can Steve Jobs train another innovative thinker or just someone really good at thinking like Steve Jobs? The jury is out. However, it seems worth pondering the role of abstract thinking and problem-solving courses for engineers and scientists. Finally, there is an entire discipline dedicated to strategic future planning. Perhaps all engineers and scientists should be trained in the basics during their studies -- to say nothing of private companies paying for employee training in the same.


The Group


A thousand monkeys in a room might be able to produce Shakespeare, but 1,000 Da Vincis in a room can only make Da Vinci. A company’s culture can have a lot to do with this: It seems little mistake that most innovation now comes from smaller, hipper companies with a more open culture and a willingness to let employees be themselves on the job. Nothing stifles creativity faster than creating a cult of yes men.


Companies like Google and Facebook stand as exemplars of the new, more open office culture. Some things stand out about both companies: Workers show up in t-shirts and jeans. Bikes abound. Cubicles are eschewed in favor of looser work areas. There’s a sense of playfulness about the design that puts workers at ease. All of this makes it easier for people from different backgrounds and disciplines to come together with fresh ideas to new problems.


The Organization


Organizations need two main things for innovation: Resources and strategy. R&D must be funded, but the company also has to be profitable. Opening the process up potentially leads to option paralysis, the problem of too many choices. Closing it down too much opens the door to products without adequate field-testing.


Option paralysis, however, might be a red herring. The Open Source movement shows that the old adage about “too many cooks in the kitchen” isn’t always true. Look for more companies to model their R&D on the Open Source movement in the future. Not only does it save money, it also allows a greater number of eyes to examine a project. Provided that those eyes give feedback in a controlled and strategic fashion, start ups and Fortune 500 companies alike should have little fear about looking to the Open Sourcers as an organizational model.


The Industry


All industries exist in a state of some tension between creativity and profitability. Leonardo Da Vinci is known for great ideas, many of which he sketched out in painstaking detail and nearly none of which were practical at his time. Today, the issue is less technological than it is financial. Innovative products must sell or they cease to be products.


The solution here seems to be a bit of feedback between the innovator and the capitalist. Innovators sometimes know what will sell and sometimes don’t. Conversely, the successful businessman knows how to bring a product to market and make it sell. Communication between business and creative departments is key. An organization cannot stand with just one side of the coin. Nor can it stand when both sides are adversarial. Instead, they must see each other as complimentary, offering what the other doesn’t. This is another area Apple seems to have mastered.


The Society


Ethics stand in the way of innovation. However, this seems little reason to throw ethics out the door entirely. Human cloning, stem cell research and fracking are three areas where ethical implications are worth considering. Still, “it’s a slippery slope” is never an answer. Finding out where the line gets drawn is most of what law is about. Ethics should serve as a guide to how to innovate as well as how to find new innovations that erase old ethical problems by making them irrelevant.


The Technology


Of course, the ultimate limitation on innovation is what technology is possible. However, the idea of what is impossible and what is actually impossible don’t always gel. Again, Apple is instructive in this regard: Not only did Jobs often demand that his engineers move mountains, he demanded that they do so on severely truncated time frames. His engineers often surprised themselves with what they could get done in such short periods of time.


The lesson: Technology and the individual are more closely related than most think. The individual needs training to know what is currently impossible, what is difficult and what is unprecedented. None of these are synonymous.


No Easy Answers


None of this is to suggest that the answers to the above problems are easy. Indeed, the challenges for all sectors of business are great. Thinking about problems constructively necessarily entails thinking about solutions. The tension between problem and solution is one of the biggest engines of innovation. Rather than running from the problem, innovators would do well to run headlong at solutions. It might surprise some to find what other problems they solve along the way.