How to Overcome Barriers to Innovation In Your Organisation


Every organisation wants to innovate and they all have people with enough ideas to fuel their innovation efforts, but somewhere these ideas get stifled and innovation ends up remaining an intent only. So, what is it that stops organisations to innovate and is there a way to systematically remove these barriers?

Overcoming the Bias for Creativity:

Dr Jennifer Mueller, in her book Creative Change has shown that we are inherently biased against creativity, as individuals and as organisations. She explains that when it comes to evaluating interesting & creative ideas, we can fall into one of two mindsets – How/Best mindset and Why/Potential Mindset.

The How/Best mindset is our default mindset and gets triggered every time we want to evaluate any idea. This typically explores if we know how to implement the idea and how easy or difficult will it be to execute on this.

Most creative ideas by definition are creative and hence, it is not easy to know in advance how they will pan out and so we can’t have a clear answer to the question – how best can we execute this idea. And since, we are not confident about this, we generally tend to ignore or not invest in these ideas. It is exactly these ideas which have the potential to become innovations that can provide us the breakthrough we need in our business.

The Why/Potential mindset is one where we want to explore the potential of the idea and why this idea makes sense. This mindset allows us to explore the potential of the idea and take the next step.


Leverage the Power of Story

People need to know that it is ok for them to innovate. No, they need to know that they are expected to come up with ideas that can fuel innovations. The way this can be done is through telling them corporate folklores or stories that lead people to the belief that

“People Like us, do stuff like this”

There is a famous story of how a retailer tells the story of a customer service rep actually gift wrapping an item that he clearly knew that was not bought at this retailer. This is also the story about how Ritz Carlton enables their employees to spend up to a certain amount, if needed, to delight a customer in need. Some of these stories become legends in our organisations and have a bigger impact on how people behave than anything that we as leaders may say or do.

Empower Line Managers

I truly believe that the culture of the organisation is built by the first line managers. These are the one’s that are closest to the people who are doing the actual work. If they do not appreciate their employees trying to work on creative ideas, irrespective of whatever the organisation tries to do, they will not be able to enable grounds-up innovation within their organisation.

So, as a leader, we need to be very careful in whom we chose as the first line managers and then spend as much effort as possible to train them to learn to behave in a way that can enable the organisation’s values and strategy. It is clearly the most important activity that an organisation could do. Again, corporate folklores about managers going out of their way to do what is right for the organisation will also go a long way in getting them to behave in a way that is expected.

Reward Attempts at Innovation

There are a lot of people who try creative ideas and fail. I know that while every organisation wants to innovate, nobody wants to fail. This is a clear dichotomy because, innovation, by its very nature is a journey into the unknown and when you are exploring unknown territories, you are bound to fall now and again. So, it is not only important to recognise and award successful innovations, but also to recognise and learn from the times that it did not work out. I am sure that there is a lot that we can learn from every attempt that we have at innovation. Someone said nicely, that the motto of any team that wants to succeed at innovation should be

Learn fast and Learn Often.

So, it is important to recognise the people who attempted something interesting and learn from their efforts.

Embrace Constraints

One of the best ways to get creative is to create artificial constraints.

I was part of a project once where the project leader created a constraint on the cost of the product that we were creating, the time that we have to come up with the prototype, the resources that we at our disposal and also the customer segment that we were to address. With so many constraints, almost in every area of the project, one would assume that it would be extremely difficult to make progress.

We were, and you would too, be pleasantly surprised that once we embraced the constraints, it became much easier for us to focus on the project and come up with interesting and creative ways to solve the problem that we were trying to address.

At times, not having enough constraints could be what is stopping the team from being truly creative.

Create Space and Time: 

It is well-known that our environment has a significant impact on each of us and the kind of work that we do. There are a lot of examples of extremely creative people having specific kind of environment and coupled with a specific kind of routine that helps them to get into the zone of being creative.

The same way, having a specific space and time to be creative allows your employees to put themselves in a certain frame of mind, which then becomes conducive to creative work. This is one of the reasons, almost all the R&D labs and development labs have environments where employees could go out for walks or have a specific space for creative work and enough areas and time to play.

Process Beats Talent:

My mentor, Porus Munshi, says this very well:

“Process beats Talent. Every time.”

Having a clear process for enabling people to be their creative best will always beat trying to hire the most creative person that you can find and letting them to be their creative best.

It is not enough to have a process that enables people to bring their creative best to work, but we also need to have a process to learn from every attempt at innovation, a process that can guide the teams and their managers on how to navigate the organisation to get their innovation in front of the right people, a process to ensure that these people are in their “why/potential” mindset while evaluating these creative ideas, a process to recognise and reward people taking this journey.


So, in conclusion, there is a lot that an organisation (or a leader of the organisation) could do to enable their teams to bring and give their creative best to the organisation. If the leaders do a good job of creating the right environment, have the right process and create the right constraints, good innovations coming out of that environment will be a given.

PBTO49: Our Bias Against Creativity and How to Overcome it with Jennifer Mueller

Who is on the show:

In this episode we host, Dr. Jennifer Mueller. She is the author of a recent book Creative Change, and is a faculty of many top business schools including the Wharton School, Yale School of Management and NYU’s Stern School of Business.  Her paper, “The Bias Against Creativity,” went viral and was downloaded over 65,000 times—receiving more than 100 media mentions.

Why is she on the show:

He book Creative Change, tackles a very important topic. While it is a no-brainer that almost all organisations would like to innovative and come up with creative solutions, not many are able to do so. As we explore the reason, it does turn out to be this bias against creativity. So, if organisations want to become more creative and spur innovations, it is important to not only understand more about this bias, but also put in place all the needed triggers and processes to ensure that we dont get stuck in this bias. In my opinion, her work is critical for organisations to be able to build up an innovation process that could deliver innovations on a consistent basis.

What are we talking about:

In this free-wheeling conversation, we talk about:

  • What is the bias against creativity? Who has this bias? How can we find out if we have this as well?
  • How can we, as leaders and people who decide what ideas get funded in organisations, ensure that we don’t fall prey to this bias?
  • How does one go about building a culture of Innovation
  • What changed in her belief as a direct result of her research?
  • What does she do in order to continue to learn and stay on top of her game?
  • And what she thinks is so obvious but we all still miss.
Why we are biased against creativity and what can we do about it? In conversation with Click To Tweet

How can you reach her:

You can reach him on twitter at @jennSMueller or through her website.

What stops Us from Creating Breakthrough Innovations

Have you ever been part of an innovation project that started off with big ambitions and dreams about coming up with disruptive innovations which are expected to be game changing and end with a me-too or a watered down incremental innovation to an existing product category?

I have been part of a few such projects which start with much fanfare and later on become run-of-the-mill projects with no breakthrough’s to show for. I was always interested to understand why is this so?

Why do well-intentioned people, who have all the motivation and incentives to create breakthrough innovations, end up watering down their intentions and at best come up with an incremental innovation and at worst have nothing to show for their efforts?

I have found answers to this question in two different books:

  1. Orbit Shifting Innovation by Rajiv Narang & Devika Devaiah
  2. Creative Change by Dr. Jennifer Mueller

Rajiv and Devika argue that just like physical objects are subject to the earth’s gravitational pull, so are innovation efforts subject to “Mindset Gravity”. They argue that

“Mindset gravity creates gravity tunnels that condition and trap communities, organisations, and even countries and civilisations. It consciously and unconsciously blocks attempts to conceive, pursue, and sometimes even attempt orbit shifting innovations. ”

They have identified 4 layers of gravity that can hold people from creating breakthrough innovations that they so want to create:

Organisational Gravity:

Organisations accumulate gravity with frightening ease with success. In the pursuit of efficiencies, organisations quickly and easily want to create best practices based on their successes in the markets and these best practices then quickly become templates of how things are done around here and before you know it, anyone who attempts to do anything that doesn’t fit the template quickly becomes an outcast and in most cases, is either ostracised, institutionalised or let-go.

Industry Gravity:

All players in the industry slowly start to think alike. Every industry creates a belief system about what is possible and what is not for that particular industry. This could be the belief that they are highly regulated and hence creating breakthrough innovations is extremely difficult or that gaining market share is slow and a painful process or that their customers are not ready for any radical new products. This is the reason why industry defining innovations generally come from someone either at the fringes or someone from outside the industry. Examples of these new entrants creating new industry standards abound.

Country Gravity:

Every country has belief systems that can be limiting. For example, the Swiss are known to be the master craftsmen when it comes to precision watch manufacturing. China seems to be the country that is the fore-runner for manufacturing and Germans are known for their amazingly well-engineered cars. What this means is that if an Indian team wants to design a better car than a German car and manufacture it in India, there is already a lot of gravity that will pull them down, as the prevalent belief is that Indians cant design better cars than the Germans or better watches than the Swiss. It takes a brave leader to even try and break this gravity.

Cultural Gravity:

Organisations and employees in developing countries are usually in awe of their counter-parts from the developed countries. They have better infrastructures, better education and much more resources. All of this leads to the belief in the employees of developing countries that they can’t compete and out-innovate their peers from the developed countries. This is prevalent within MNC’s as well. The reverse is also true. The employees of the parent company of the MNC think that their counter-parts from the developing countries are not capable of creating better innovations than themselves. These are cultural belief systems that hold back entire cultures from attempting breakthrough innovations.

This is one set of reasons, why creating breakthrough innovations is extremely difficult.

Dr. Juergen Mueller, in her book – creative change offers another interesting reason why creating breakthrough innovation is difficult – she argues that while we might say that we want innovation and value creativity, we inherently are not wired to appreciate or even accept creative solutions that have the potential to lead to breakthrough innovations.

She argues

“Our ability to recognize and to embrace creative solutions is, to put it mildly, dysfunctional. The sad irony is that we are more likely to reject an idea because it is creative than to embrace it”.

She also argues that lack of breakthrough innovations is not a lack of creative ideas problem but an idea evaluation problem. It is also the lack of the ability to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty that leads to predictable outcomes for innovation projects.

She has identified two kinds of mindsets that people who evaluate and fund these innovation projects could possess – one has the possibilities for leading us to breakthrough innovations and the other to cause the various levels of gravity that we discussed above.

– Why/Potential Mindset:

When the decision maker is in this mindset, they are looking at the potential of the idea and explore and understand what problems does the idea attempt to solve and try to understand the various aspects of the ideas. In this mindset, they are much more open to creative solutions that could potentially lead to breakthrough innovations, as they are much more tolerant to uncertainties.

– How/Best Mindset

When the decision maker is in this mindset, they are looking at the implementability of the creative solution, they are looking at the practicality of these solutions instead of looking at the potential. They are not open to ambiguity or uncertainties. They want ideas that they are sure about the organisations capability to implement. This typically leads them to fund ideas that are known and are incremental in nature rather than innovative in nature.


While both the books offer good ideas and solutions to overcome these biases in their respective books.

However, I think that before we look at implementing any of these ideas being suggested, it is critical for us to reflect and decide where is our limiting belief coming from. Once we have an answer to that question, we need to test this answer and only when we are convinced that we know what stops us, should we look at some of these creative solutions that the authors offer in their respective books.

And these should just be used as conversation starters within our teams. We should remember that each one of us and our teams are unique and what works for someone else might not work for us. So, it is important to personalise some of these ideas and not be limited by them but to truly work towards creating breakthrough innovations.

We need more breakthrough innovations today, than ever. And maybe, it is your team that will deliver it !