What are the key obstacles to innovation?

Beware of "innovation theatre"! The real goal is turning ideas into tangible value. Innovation isn't just about game-changing inventions; it requires clear vision, leadership support, and adequate resources. Tackle key barriers to ensure success: from aligning company strategy to ensuring technological readiness. Dive deep to understand customers and stay agile to meet the fast-paced external environment.

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Innovation Management
Leonardo Varella-Cid
Leonardo Varella-Cid
Co-Founder @ InnovationCast
August 23, 2022

What are the key obstacles to innovation?

Some organizations notice the importance of innovation and move to integrate fashionable innovation activities such as hackathons, design thinking classes, and innovation workshops with your core business.

The problem is that getting hung up on playful ideation can muddy the true intention behind innovation, that is, turning ideas into tangible, deployable products, services, or business models. This phenomenon, known as innovation theatre, can deceive you into thinking progress has been made when, in reality, you're only treading water while down-market sharks circle below.

With the threat of forward-thinking startups ever-looming, long-term viability teeters on a precipice. Therefore, optimizing innovation efforts by ridding them of pain points and obstacles must become a top priority.

In the following, we have outlined the common barriers to innovation. Each obstacle is accompanied by a list of symptoms, probing questions, and a solution.

Common obstacles to innovation: identifying and overcoming key barriers

Recognizing the potential pitfalls of your innovation strategy before setting it out is a great way to increase your chances of success. After all, nothing threatens your innovation efforts more than encountering unexpected issues mid-way through.

To help you troubleshoot potential problems, Innovation Leader conducted a study to identify 11 key barriers that plague innovation in large companies. In their comprehensive study, Innovation Leader identified the signs and symptoms of key innovation barriers.

When you embark on a new innovation strategy, start by identifying the potential issues you are most likely to encounter, then work towards mitigating as many as possible. If your innovation efforts are already underway, create a list with the most pressing issues at the top and the least urgent at the bottom.

Before we dive in, grab a pen and paper and prepare to take notes.

1. The company vision is not shared or adequately defined

A shared company vision is critical for a successful innovation strategy. When employees and managers understand how their roles contribute to specific goals, they're more likely to be satisfied at work, become invested in the innovation effort, and feel more confident coming forward with creative suggestions.

Clear objectives enable your workforce to understand the most pressing challenges and help you to gather more relevant ideas.

What are the key symptoms?

  • Lack of executive focus or attention on innovation

  • Lack of employee focus or attention on innovation

  • Lack of common goals across the company

  • Inconsistent understanding of company goals

  • Shifting strategic priorities

What questions should you be asking?

  • Do employees know what the company is trying to accomplish? Do they understand how and by when?

  • Does leadership know what the company is trying to accomplish? Do they understand how and by when?

  • Is everyone invested in what the company is trying to accomplish? Does everyone understand how and by when?

How can you create a shared company vision?

Developing a shared vision between your employees, managers, and other key stakeholders should be your focus. To achieve this, iterate the company goals regularly and ensure they are aspirational yet attainable with a defined time horizon.

When onboarding recruits or training existing ones, it should be clear how roles contribute to the company vision. When it comes to innovation, these roles should be clearly defined, and your innovation activities should be as open and collaborative as possible. This helps your workforce feel included in important decisions and lends a noticeable boost to job satisfaction.

Setting clear innovation goals helps your network understand what contributions are needed. Initiating an innovation program without well-defined goals can cause managers to disregard ideas that aren't relevant quickly. Frequency rejection such as this can have negative long-term consequences on team morale.

2. The company strategy is misaligned with the innovation agenda

When your company strategy fails to align with your innovation agenda, your innovation efforts can impede your chances of achieving long-term objectives. This often occurs when organizations mistake innovation exclusively for game-changing inventions.

Although game-changing efforts should be a part of your innovation strategy, they aren't enough to guarantee long-term viability and industry relevance.

Contrastingly, a narrow innovation perspective with little ambition or creativity can also leave you vulnerable. When organizations get tunnel-vision, they focus too much on providing better services with more bells and whistles to their existing customers and forget to remain vigilant to potentially disruptive technologies.

What are the key symptoms?

  • Short-term results are prioritized over long-term growth

  • There is a culture of risk aversion or inappropriate risk tolerance

  • The company is hung up on finding the next big idea

  • Priorities shift or are vague

  • Lack of discipline or patience for innovation

  • Unrealistic time or budget expectations for innovation

  • The strategy is overly focused on executing or improving the current business

  • Leadership is not focused on innovation; insufficient executive time and attention

  • Inaction resulting from fear of cannibalization of existing business

  • Innovation is held to internal investment hurdles such as ROI and IRR

  • Innovation investments are the first to get cut when facing earnings pressure

What questions should you be asking?

  • In what way is the company likely to fail?

  • What's the risk of not executing the strategy?

  • Do we have the capabilities to execute the strategy? If not, what is required?

  • Does the strategy get us to where we need to be? How do we know?

  • What types of innovation activities are required to achieve the company vision? Are they built into the strategy?

  • Is the strategy attainable with the current business risk tolerance?

  • Do we know what success looks like along the way and how to measure it?

  • Are we set up for success? If not, why not?

How can you harmonize your company mission with your innovation agenda?

The common error organizations make is treating innovation as an afterthought. For modern companies to ensure long-term success, especially those at the top for a long time, innovation needs to act as the compass guiding decision-making.

By making innovation a dedicated corporate function, your innovation strategy can start firing on all cylinders as you innovate simultaneously in various domains. Both a short-term and long-term focus is required for a successful innovation strategy.

Once you've made innovation an independent organizational function, you can start allocating dedicated teams to various innovation activities. With an innovation manager in place, your strategy can be guided and responsibilities assigned, increasing the chances of great ideas becoming a reality.

A robust innovation strategy typically consists of well-defined challenges, a diverse idea generation network, a rigorous selection, validation, testing process, and post-implementation analysis activities.

3. The company culture does not reward innovative behaviors

Once you make innovation a dedicated organizational process, it becomes easier to monitor contributions to your innovation efforts and reward them accordingly.

The data indicates that a significant portion of your workforce is already enthusiastic about contributing to innovation activities. Hence, you'll likely become inundated with ideas and suggestions once you initiate a new innovation program.

Acknowledging and rewarding this enthusiasm is critical for upholding a strong culture of innovation. Your network naturally wants to feel appreciated for significant contributions, and doing so ensures those contributors remain engaged with your innovation efforts.

What are the key symptoms?

  • Employees lack motivation or engagement in innovation

  • Employees lack the necessary autonomy to feel empowered

  • Only success in the status quo is rewarded; failure is not tolerated

  • Cultural norms resist/reject innovation

  • There is a fear of taking risks, failing, or contributing to innovation

  • Employees lack accountability to innovate: "It's not my job."

  • Collaboration isn't occurring or is occurring only in small pockets

What questions should you be asking?

  • Do employees have the freedom to explore and take risks?

  • Is there sufficient trust established for employees to take appropriate risks?

  • What happens when employees fail? Is this what the company wants to happen? How can we change this reaction or response?

  • Do we have sufficient structures in place to promote effective collaboration?

  • What are our real values and identity?

  • What are our desired values and identity? What structures must be built to support the desired - values and identity?

  • Do employees understand our stated values, identity, and structures?

How can you consistently and effectively recognize innovative contributions?

Innovation management software is acknowledged as the most reliable and effective tool for coordinating and analyzing innovation activities. By containing all of your activities in one collaborative workspace, it becomes easy to monitor who's engaging with innovation activities and to what degree, allowing you to accurately reward contributions.

Analysis and debriefing are vital when innovation management is treated as a dedicated function. By including analysis tasks in your innovation processes, you can form a high-resolution image of the contributions that led to the implementation of an idea.

Placing innovation at the front and center of your company by using it as a guiding principle for decision-making and embedding it within job descriptions is an excellent method for recognizing and rewarding innovation. By iterating the importance of innovation to employees, managers, partners, and other key stakeholders from day one, you can align your company values, identify them, and structure your innovation strategy more effectively.

4. Leadership does not adequately support innovation or risk-taking

As previously mentioned, your network likely won't hesitate to make suggestions when you start an innovation program. However, failing to assess key challenges and communicate primary goals can lead to the gathering of irrelevant ideas.

Disregarding input or treating it without due consideration can negatively impact morale. Over time, collaborators will feel that their contributions aren't valid and will cease to come forward with creative ideas.

To encourage risk-taking and creative thinking, leaders must inspire collaborators by regularly communicating the organization's innovation goals, processes, and projects.

What are the key symptoms?

  • Innovation goals, processes, and projects are not consistently understood

  • Employees don't feel empowered

  • Innovation roles and responsibilities are not clear

  • Innovation is inconsistently used, rewarded, or approached across the company

  • Leadership styles don't support collaboration, creativity, risk-taking, or other aspects of innovation culture

  • Leaders don't thrive in uncertainty

  • Responding too frequently with "No."

What questions should you be asking?

  • Is there a common "language" for innovation so leaders can consistently talk to their employees?

  • Is it consistently understood who is accountable for innovation and in what capacity?

  • Can our leaders thrive while solving "unknown/unknowable" business problems? Or have we promoted leaders who thrive just in known/clear business conditions?

  • Do our leaders learn more than they know? Or know more than they learn? Which is best for our desired outcomes?

  • Can our leaders move forward in the absence of data or direction? Why or why not?

  • Are we asking our leaders to do too much? Could our employees be allowed/expected to do more?

How can you support and encourage creative innovation?

For key stakeholders to feel supported in their innovation contributions, managers and leaders must learn how to inspire enthusiasm. Placing top-level managers on training programs allows the importance of innovation to trickle through the company hierarchy from the top down.

When leaders have the skills to inspire innovation, they can start supporting and encouraging innovative contributions rather than directing. This freedom allows you to switch from a traditional leadership structure of excessive control and micromanagement to a more agile approach that rewards adaptive leaders and encourages employee accountability.

Now, innovation managers can take a birds-eye-view perspective of all innovation activities, allowing them to assign roles and responsibilities. By setting specific roles, managers can decide when and where to relinquish control and encourage outside-the-box thinking.

5. Company communications do not articulate or reinforce the innovation strategy

For an innovation strategy to be effective, employees and leaders must equally buy into the company vision and understand the need for innovation. Communication channels must be open and collaborative and clearly convey progress and results.

Many remote or hybrid organizations have faced difficulties with sustaining communication, especially between more distant connections. Fortunately, a wave of new technologies geared towards facilitating frequent, organic communication has swept the globe.

What are the key symptoms?

  • Employees/leaders don't buy into the company's vision or strategy

  • Employees/leaders don't understand or appreciate the need to innovate

  • Employees/leaders don't know how the company is doing in its innovation strategy

  • Employees don't believe that innovation is rewarded

  • Communications to stakeholders do not promote innovation efforts over time (rather than just at the beginning of efforts)

  • Innovators are not recognized

  • Innovation processes are not institutionalized/systemic; information about ongoing progress is hard to access

What questions should you be asking?

  • Are our communications efforts audience-appropriate?

  • Do our leaders get adequate communication?

  • Do our peers get adequate communication?

  • Do all employees receive adequate communication? How do we know they're adequate?

  • Are the communications reinforcing innovation language, process, and behaviors?

  • Are our communications regular enough? Do they articulate "what's in it for me"?

  • Are we successfully breaking through the noise of other company communications and messaging?

  • What stories are being told in the culture about innovation?

What are the potential solutions?

For interpersonal communication to be regular and effective, you must foster purposeful and thriving communication channels. Innovation management software enables innovation managers to develop dedicated channels where collaborators can discuss specific innovation activities.

Opportunities to discuss ideas, share thoughts, explore emerging technologies, spot trends, test, experiment, and analyze should be plentiful. Additional features, such as graphical representations of results and goal-tracking tools, are also useful.

6. The company's investment in innovation is not sufficient to produce desired outcomes

Investment doesn't pertain only to a financial commitment. Organizations must be equally willing to invest in the talent, time, facilities, and tools needed to drive the innovation strategy forward.

Outlining speculative goals without first establishing the necessary foundations is a recipe for guaranteed failure.

What are the key symptoms?

  • The company doesn't have enough expertise or the right type of expertise to innovate

  • Executive time and attention are scarce, leading to indecision

  • The innovation budget is underfunded or nonexistent

  • The innovation budget isn't really "there"; spending occurs on a case-by-case basis

  • People on the innovation team don't dedicate the time required to drive the innovation agenda

  • The company lacks the appropriate physical environment (labs, office space, etc.), tools, or new skill sets to innovate

  • Employees asked to innovate lack the know-how to innovate effectively

  • No budget for training, consulting services, or hiring staffers with the necessary expertise

What questions should you be asking?

  • Are we willing to make the difficult decisions required to fund innovation investments appropriately?

  • Can we access the right decision-makers to find/free up resources?

  • Are we organized correctly to succeed? Which roles and functions are required on the innovation teams?

  • What are our physical space requirements? What new tools or skill sets do we need? Which elements are/are not negotiable?

  • Are the leaders walking the talk? Are we putting resources towards innovation or just paying it lip service?

  • Can we deliver on our innovation strategy if employees spend 5% of their time on it?

How can you ensure your innovation strategy is sufficiently supported?

By both asking and answering the questions above, you should be closer to understanding whether or not you possess the necessary resources for success.

If you're struggling to align your ambitions with your resources, you might consider seeking help from specialist innovation consultants. If you prefer to go alone, assign an accountable resource to the innovation P&L and create a well-defined innovation agenda.

Here, you can define specific weeks, months, or years for innovation and allocate teams. During this time, you should regularly track resource levels and conduct reports. It's important to remember that innovation is a skill that can and must be learned, so expect results to improve as employees gain experience and new skills are acquired.

7. Functional groups and business units are not aligned with the innovation strategy

Attempting to integrate innovation activities with traditional corporate functions such as HR, IT, and Communications is a common error made by large organizations. Because successful innovation is comprised of simultaneous activities with counter-active goals, it's not possible to consolidate your innovation efforts.

As the different areas of innovation (Enhance, Extend, Explore) pull in different directions and require unique resource allocation, they must be managed separately. Without independent management of the different areas of innovation, bottlenecks in your innovation processes can cause delays and ideas to lose momentum.

What are the key symptoms?

  • Frequent delays or stalls due to the absence of, or lack of alignment with, critical business functions (HR, IT, legal, compliance, finance, etc.)

  • Functional groups are not staffed or resourced to support innovation efforts

  • The company has an inappropriate balance of resources on core business vs. new innovation

  • Handoffs across departments or groups are problematic

  • It's unclear who "owns" innovations at different project life stages

  • Lots of projects are abandoned after initial tests and proof points

What questions should you be asking?

  • Are the innovation priorities well understood by the various groups?

  • Do we have the appropriate incentives in place to support innovation and ensure that functions and business units are accountable for doing so?

  • Has leadership had the conversations necessary to align the various groups?

  • Is new innovation prioritized correctly relative to core business operations? Why or why not?

  • Have we developed innovation teams that can be effective across groups? Do team members have the necessary relationships and diplomatic skills?

  • Are innovation roles well understood at the outset of an innovation effort?

How can you ensure all innovation efforts work together in harmony?

By categorizing your innovation efforts, it becomes possible to allocate resources to desired outcomes. Investments in short-term improvements to existing products, for example, will be different from investments in long-term speculative innovations.

By allocating resources to their appropriate functions, you can eradicate resource conflicts before they become an issue. With unique processes assigned to each area of innovation, innovation teams can plan, act, and deliver results per the available resources.

8. The company lacks technological readiness to innovate effectively

Technological readiness is essential for ensuring promising ideas are brought to life within a sufficient timeframe. If inadequate technologies plague processes, turnaround times can be long, resulting in a poor return on innovation. Inflexible technologies and systems can also narrow your innovative horizons. Outside-the-box ideas must be supported by an agile infrastructure to give them the best chance of coming to life and delivering results.

What are the key symptoms?

  • Speed-to-market rates are unacceptable; build, testing, and deployment cycles are too long

  • Innovating on antiquated systems or platforms is impossible or takes too long

  • Core technologies or systems are too rigid to support new ideas

  • The company spends too much effort just "keeping the lights on" and cannot develop new technologies

  • The same resources being used to "keep the lights on" are desired for innovation efforts

  • The company lacks the technology or platform to build scalable solutions

  • Every new project feels like it requires a custom-build

  • The technologies needed to innovate take too long to procure

  • The technologies and skillsets required to innovate do not exist at our company

What questions should you be asking?

  • Is the company serious about innovation if it won't invest in technology upgrades?

  • Are the right conversations happening to get innovation requirements built into system requirements?

  • Are we staffed appropriately to integrate our innovations back into our core business? What alternatives exist?

  • Do we have a good understanding of emerging technologies?

  • Do we have a good process for considering new technologies & integrating new technologies in our company's technology environment?

How can you leverage technologies to support your innovation strategy?

The technologies you use must align with your innovation strategy. Target architectures are valuable frameworks for planning, assigning resources, and streamlining activities to reach your long-term goals. By building this framework, you can better understand which technologies adequately support your innovation strategy and which do not.

By selecting and refining the appropriate technologies, you can streamline the idea implementation process and improve the speed at which new products and services are brought to market. Keeping your virtual innovation environments separate is essential so that building and testing don't interfere with the core business.

9. The company's processes impede innovation execution

All corporate functions—whether that be sales, marketing, or recruitment—employ processes to obtain results as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Innovation processes work in much the same way. This is why it's essential to treat innovation as an independent organizational function so that dedicated processes can be assigned to different ideas. And just like traditional departments, innovation processes require regular improvement and streamlining to ensure that you extract maximum efficiency from your endeavors.

What are the key symptoms?

  • The company is too slow to change; not nimble, not adaptive, not responsive

  • There is too much red tape/bureaucracy to innovate quickly

  • Innovation-specific processes are not known, developed, or utilized

  • Legacy processes stand in the way of innovation (hiring processes, review processes, decision-making processes, etc.)

  • Company policies stand in the way of innovation (temporary staffing policies, legal review policies, etc.)

  • Innovation measurements are inaccurate or inadequate (such as measuring inputs only and not outcomes)

  • The company's ideas/solutions lack creativity or quality

  • The company's ideas/solutions are too crazy to operationalize

  • We spin our wheels on ideation and never get anything done

What questions should you be asking?

  • How can we close the gap between strategy and execution?

  • Are we having the right conversations to close the gap between strategy and execution?

  • Are there businesses we should exit or businesses we should build?

  • What should we be measuring, and how frequently?

  • Which innovation processes or approaches are best to achieve our desired outcome?

  • What exceptions to traditional processes or policies should be made for innovation activities?

  • What is the root cause of long development timelines or stalled innovation?

How can you optimize your innovation processes?

The biggest issue organizations can make when designing innovation processes is to treat the different areas of innovation with the same approach.

The impact an idea could have, the timeframe within which it can be realized, and its likelihood to succeed greatly impact the process through which it must be run. Ideas where success is less certain, must adopt an iterative and incremental approach, whereas your approach to a small improvement to an existing product would be more conventional.

When designing your innovation processes, consider the idea carefully and allocate your resources based on an idea's predicted outcome. For example, trialing new disruptive technologies might be better kept separate from the core business.

10. Lack of customer intimacy is impacting the innovation success rate

All innovation activities typically boil down to a single motivating factor: Developing better offerings for your customers to enhance satisfaction.

To build a better experience for your customers, you must first establish a deep understanding of their behaviors, wants, needs, and aspirations by acquiring quantitative and qualitative data. Only by building this understanding can you develop innovations that resonate with your customers.

What are the key symptoms?

  • The company does not integrate new insights into its innovation strategy

  • We don't know who our target customer is

  • The target market is overly niche

  • Customer preferences and behaviors are changing, but we aren't changing with them

  • The failure rate of innovations is too high

  • Innovation ideas/feature sets don't resonate with end-users

  • Ideas and innovations are overly influenced by our internal lenses and biases

  • The company leads with ideas rather than customer pain points

What questions should you be asking?

  • Who is the target customer, and what are their pain points?

  • What options do customers have?

  • How do customers solve their problems? Can we make it easier?

  • Is there a big enough customer set for the innovation to be successful? How do we know?

  • What are customers saying about our products? Why do they replace our products?

  • Do we understand what's changing about how the customer lives/works, and do we share that information internally?

  • Why would customers buy our product?

How can you leverage customer insights and build more relevant innovations?

Because you're innovating with the end-user in mind, you must acquire as much intel about your customer as possible. Things like customer insight labs, customer journey, and empathy maps are useful, tried, and tested techniques for learning about your customers.

The information you acquire should be infused with your innovation strategy and act as a compass that guides your idea selection and testing activities.

And why stop there? If you're designing with your customers in mind, why not involve them in your innovation efforts? Customers are not only an invaluable source of ideas but can assist with testing and design phases, too.

11. The company can't keep up with the rate of change in the external environment

Technological progress has doused the world in uncertainty. Changes to economic structures, market volatility, and future ambiguity have left static organizations vulnerable to more forward-thinking, agile innovators. As a result, long-term viability now hinges on your ability to implement flexible strategies that can react to unexpected changes.

And with more volatility on the horizon, there's never been a more critical time to bolster your adaptive capabilities.

What are the key symptoms?

  • High market volatility or uncertainty is impacting the ability to innovate

  • New or harsh regulatory environment impacts the ability to innovate

  • Technology advances or new business models from new entrants/startups are challenging industry norms

  • Testing ideas outside of the company's comfort zone or core competencies is too challenging

  • Our direct competitors are first-to-market with innovations

  • Our traditional clients aren't buying our new product offerings

  • We are good at announcing new products at trade shows but very slow to launch them

What questions should you be asking?

  • Is our industry ripe for disruption? Where is the disruption likely coming from?

  • Which adjacent or unrelated industries could disrupt our business?

  • What are our competitors doing to innovate? Who are they partnered with? What acquisitions have they made?

  • What is our sales model? What do our clients expect from our offerings? What solutions are they buying?

  • Why is there a lack of urgency in bringing new offerings to market?

  • What parts of the organization or what processes slow things down?

How can you build a more agile and bulletproof innovation strategy?

To remain relevant in your industry and stay ahead of competitors, your innovation strategy must target all potential avenues. This means innovating incrementally with short-term product improvements and looking ahead with speculative prototyping. If your industry is threatened by forward-thinking startups, you might consider starting a venture fund to acquire new technologies before they become a threat.

If you can access the available resources, buying or renting new technologies might be a faster and more convenient way of improving your offering rather than attempting to invent it yourself. Sometimes, tactical partnerships with third-party technologies can give you a significant edge over competitors when bringing innovations to market.

If your innovation turnaround times place you behind your competitors, consider accelerating your processes by outsourcing testing and prototyping activities. Involving specialist external parties such as regulators, venture capitalists, or legal counselors can further improve speed-to-market times.

Eliminate innovation obstacles with innovation management software

Without proper innovation management, ideas take too long to develop, disruptive opportunities go unnoticed, managers struggle to identify the best ideas, processes fall into disarray, and a chance for innovation falls by the wayside.

Innovation is an award-winning innovation management software explicitly designed to support your unique requirements. Our tailor-made solution offers unmatched customization for all innovation activities, allowing you to streamline your processes and realize ideas quicker and easier than ever.

Ready to build a bulletproof innovation strategy and watch your business thrive? Get in touch to schedule a personal demo today.