Managers Don't Really Want to Innovate

05/03/2012 12:42 pm ET | Updated Jul 03, 2012

Innovation may be an organization's life blood, but still its success rate in most companies hovers at just 17 percent. Even innovation leader P&G succeeds less than 50 percent of the time.

What prevents companies from innovating better? One possibility is that managers don't really want their people to innovate, no matter what they say otherwise. Take time utilization: How many hours per day, week, or month are you encouraged to think creatively, or work on innovation? Companies, like 3M and Google, that allow employees to carve off a certain percentage of their paid time for innovation are rare. Most other firms want their people to stay focused on today's business -- and only work on innovation in their spare time. So in the end, it's a mixed message: "We want you to innovate, but only after you've done your real job."

Based on my experience, there are at least three (largely unintentional) reasons why managers send mixed messages about innovation.

First, managers need immediate results, often reinforced by short-term incentive plans or the regular expectation of earnings improvements. Innovation may take a long time to produce returns, which conflicts with these short-term requirements. So even though managers know that innovation is necessary, most do not have the patience to wait years for results. Consequently, they say that innovation is important, but they don't back it up with time or resources.

Managers may also fear that innovation will cannibalize current business. I've seen managers slow down investments in new products because customers might switch to something less expensive or longer-lasting, or otherwise impact existing results. In other words, while managers might want to disrupt their competitors, they are less comfortable disrupting themselves.

Additionally, managers are often schooled in slow, continuous improvement. Approaches like Six Sigma have helped companies squeeze out inefficiencies, but also tend to reinforce existing processes with an eye towards doing them better. On the other hand, innovation requires messy experiments instead of methodical analysis. As a result, managers who have grown up in a continuous-improvement culture may be uncomfortable with change that doesn't happen step-by-step.

If you recognize these mixed messages in your organization, here are a couple of ideas for picking up the pace of innovation:

Talk about how innovation is avoided. Politely and respectfully ask your manager or senior team about their commitment to innovation. Share the mixed messages you've perceived and provide examples of missed innovation opportunities. Remember that most managers are not intentionally trying to prevent innovation -- so discussing the dilemmas will make decision-makers more conscious of them.

Work on innovation with colleagues. Instead of working alone, partner with co-workers to achieve an explicit innovation goal. For example, one divisional leadership team decided to spend every Friday morning focusing on how they could develop business for "the year after." By carving out the time, and reinforcing to each other the legitimacy of working on something without a short-term payoff, they were able to make more progress than any of them could have made alone.

Obviously, trying to change your company's innovation culture won't be easy. But that's what innovation is all about.

To what extent does your company really want to innovate?

Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online.