It's not always clear that the organizations that call for innovation actually want it. In this episode of Marketing Smarts, professor and author Dave Owens discusses the constraints that hamper creative thinking—and kill innovation.
A few years back, I was attending a conference, and it seemed like every time I turned around, I heard someone touting the benefits of—and dire need for—innovation. "We've entered the age of the 'innovation economy,'" it was said. "Today, innovation is the key to differentiation," we were told.
Things haven't changed that much in the intervening years. Just this month, Forbes magazine proclaimed, "Innovation Saves the World," and Governor Martin O'Malley of Maryland insisted, "Less regulation, more innovation key to job growth."
Innovation has long been cloaked in an aura of hype and has, therefore, always filled me with skepticism. It caused me, under the influence of innovation myth-buster Scott Berkun, to write: "No matter how ubiquitous the invocation of innovation, actual innovations are fairly rare, and, as far as success in business is concerned, rarely necessary."
Of course, it's not always clear that the organizations and leaders who claim and call for innovation actually want it. As a matter of fact, if you judge them on their behavior, rather than their "messaging," it would seem that they are more bent on preventing the emergence of the truly innovative than promoting it.
The person who has most recently highlighted this apparent conundrum is Professor David Owens of the Owen (no relation) Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University. In his book, Creative People Must Be Stopped! Six Ways We Kill Innovation (Without Even Trying), he identifies six distinct categories of constraint—individual constraints, group (or cultural) constraints, organizational constraints, industry (or market) constraints, societal constraints, and technology constraints—that hamper creativity and the innovation it can spawn.
Now, Dave (as I've always known him) did not write this book to help individuals and organizations better constrain innovation. Instead, as we discuss in this episode of Marketing Smarts, he wanted to provide a diagnostic framework that one could use to identify the specific constraints at work when innovation appears to be stymied within an organization or when a product, which on the surface appears genuinely innovative, never takes off.
Whether you are trying to foster innovation in your organization from the top down, introduce a new idea from the bottom up, or teach an entire market how to "think different" about a particular product, it's important to have a clear idea of the specific limitations that you will be facing.
"The world behaves as if creative people must be stopped," Dave explains, "and if you know that, you can become strategic about it ... If I have a good idea, and I know how it's going to get killed, I can actually take evasive action!"
Coming back to the title of the book, I asked Dave if creative people should sometimes in fact be stopped. After all, company resources are often limited and focus is frequently key to success. Can you really have creative people running around and mucking things up?
Dave conceded that some types of creativity—"blind creativity that doesn't try hard to understand the world in which [it's] intervening"—should in fact be stopped. But he added the following caveat, "If you make something, you change the world in some way; it's really an intervention in the world. If you do that carefully, responsibly, you should not be stopped."