Working in large companies nowadays is interesting. On the one hand, leaders now understand that they need to innovate. On the other hand, they are struggling to balance the demands of running their core business, with the exploration of new opportunities. In publicly traded companies, this tension is at its most acute. The demands of quarterly reporting take up a lot of time and resources. So as much as they may want to innovate for the future, the demands of running their current business can be overwhelming.
This paradox creates a dissonance within leaders, especially in markets or industries that are facing disruption. What really brings this dissonance to the surface is when some entrepreneurial employees inside the company start asking for time and resources to innovate. Leaders know that they need to create space for this to happen. So the question then becomes, why are they not doing it? To resolve their dissonance around innovation, leaders start making excuses. I spend a lot of my time in conversations with leaders and I have heard every excuse in the world. Below are five of the most common excuses I hear:
- We Are Already Doing It: This is when leaders argue that there is no need for concern, the company is already innovating. Improvements to our current products are a form of innovation. When we take our current products to new markets, that is also innovation. So there is no need to worry. I once heard a leader say that what she had was a communication problem. She needed to help her employees understand that what they were already doing is innovation. Once they understood this, they would stop asking for time and resources to innovate.
- We Don’t Need To Do It: If I succeed in convincing leaders that they are not already innovating, the next excuse is that their company does not need to do it. This is disruption denial. I have heard leaders say that in their industry they are the leading company, so they do not need to innovate. When I point to examples of other leading companies that have been disrupted, the response is that these companies did not have the barriers to entry that their company and industry have. So even if we are not already doing it, we will be fine.
- We Don’t Have Time For It: After debating at length, I sometimes succeed in convincing leaders that they not already innovating and that they do need to it. This is when leaders move to their next excuse. With all the work we are already doing inside the company, there is no time for innovation. The roadmap is already packed with activity for this year. All our employees are at full tilt delivering against this roadmap. So when will they find the time to innovate. Indeed, the fact that we are so busy is an indication of how successful we are as a company. We have a lot of customer demands to meet.
- We Don’t Know How To Do It: If I work hard enough and succeed in convincing leaders that they need to make time for innovation, their next excuse shifts the blame to their employees. Even if we give them the time and resources to innovate, our employees don’t know how to do it. They don’t have the right entrepreneurial mindset to drive innovation. Whenever we give them a chance to innovate, they don’t come up with any breakthrough ideas.
- We Know It Doesn’t Work: This the final nuclear excuse. Once leaders run out of excuses, they go for the jugular. They challenge the innovation methods I am bringing to the table. They argue that all these lean innovation and design thinking methods don’t work. There is not one company in our industry that has used these methods to launch a multi-million dollar business. We know that these methods don’t work. This is why we are not doing it.
As you can tell, leaders come up with a number of excuses for stifling innovation. The interesting thing is that I have sometimes heard all five excuses stated by the same group of leaders in one meeting. While making excuses helps to ease their dissonance, it does not help their companies prepare for the future. The leaders I have seen succeed at innovation, acknowledge the paradoxical management challenges they are facing and actively seek solutions. In the 21st century, companies need active and engaged innovation leadership from executives.