Google, Three Forces Blocking Innovation, & What To Do About It

Forbes article talks about the new rules in place for Google’s 20% Time; the time they give employees every week to work on new innovations. And I agree they needed to put some structure around it to align with strategy. Makes sense. Everyone knows the success rate of new products is extremely low. Businesses also spend billions of dollars on change management and that success rate is abysmal too, with 70% of all efforts failing to achieve their objectives. So even Google’s innovation needs some structure. Here are three considerations for Google and everyone else seeking to be more innovative; invisible forces that must be dealt with; forces that impede movement towards anything new and innovative. And a few countervailing measures to consider, too.

The Tyranny of Expertise – Success brought by deep expertise in a particular area (such as a product category or a way of doing things) often becomes a roadblock to further innovation. The late Cynthia Rabe, former Chief Innovation Officer at Intel, referred to it as a paradox in her book The Innovation Killer. People start off as a “learner”, progress to “knower”, and then to “expert”. Then, intrinsic and extrinsic rewards compel experts to protect their expertise and the status quo, thus blocking new products or new ways of doing things.

Countermeasure – Focus on the ABCs of behavior change. Don’t just do the typical antecedent work, identify and reinforce the new desired behaviors and discourage the old ones until they become extinct (check out The Behavior Breakthrough by Steve Jacobs)

Process Blindness – Karl Dunker defined functional fixedness (recently popularized by Daniel Pink in his book Drive) as a cognitive bias or inability of individuals to use components given to them to complete a task beyond the original purpose of those components (see the experiment known as The Candle Problem). Similarly, people in an existing process, particularly those heavily vested by high repeatability processes, are often unable to identify new products or new and better ways of doing things because they can’t get beyond the original design of products or their work environment.

Countermeasure – Innovate or improve using cross-functional teams. When doing cross-functional work, as in an E2E™ initiative or new product foray, those heavily vested in the process are restricted and people from other functions are tasked with seeking the new innovations (contact us about a cross-fertilization event to spark your innovation initiative).

The Challenge of CultureCulture is nebulous and conceptual for most people but it’s real and exerts considerable negative pressure on innovation. For the most part, culture exists in a group or organization for three purposes: 1) to give it identity; 2) to differentiate it from other groups or organizations; and 3) to protect and preserve it (particularly identity and differences). It’s this last purpose that causes all the problems. Like an immune response, culture will surround new things and kill them.

Countermeasure – Much like individual behavior change focuses on consequences, so too does culture change. Even more so. To begin changing the culture, leaders must identify the new behaviors and reinforce them long enough to overcome the organization’s “consequence-memory”; the tendency to go back to the old behaviors and seek the old positive consequences (see us about a culture change strategy).

These three forces are mostly invisible. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Nor does it mean they can’t be dealt with and overcome. But ignoring them or pretending they don’t exist will only continue the already high failure rates for innovation. If you’re going to put structure in place for innovation, deal with these three forces.