Can a barrier to innovation also be a driver?
Research suggests that, in terms of organizational characteristics, barriers to and drivers of innovation can sometimes be one and the same
Pinpointing the antecedents of innovation – in other words, recognizing the unique and consistent factors that allow for or actively encourage innovation – has been an ongoing area of interest for management researchers for several decades now, resulting in an almost endless array of conclusions, theories, and managerial implications. In an effort to make sense of this massive body of research, scholars at the Turku School of Economics in Finland recently highlighted an important but overlooked problem – namely, that management scholars have a tendency to compartmentalize between drivers of and barriers to innovation. In other words, there is a tendency amongst researchers to assume that those unique factors which drive innovation are separate from those which hinder it. Consider, for instance, the issue of workplace autonomy, which is often seen as a driver of innovation, regardless of context. Autonomy is presented in contrast to rigidity, a separate workplace characteristic often considered to have a dulling impact on innovation. In neither case is it considered that either of these factors could have the opposite effect, with autonomy somehow stunting innovation and rigidity enabling it.
In reality, fostering or obstructing innovation is a much more complex process, and a binary analysis rarely makes sense. This is undoubtedly the case with trying to determine specific conditions that can lead to innovation in an organization. As an example, consider the characteristic of having a shared vision within a team or organization. Most scholars and managers would agree that developing and refining a shared vision is crucial for fostering innovation, and the majority of research studies have confirmed this. But is it not possible that having a shared vision might also be a hindrance? Might it possibly lead to a culture that takes for granted certain foundational principles, and therefore never bothers to re-open discussions around these principles? Even more problematic is the possibility that a shared vision leads to a culture of groupthink, in which all members of a team or group are prone to making the same assumptions and reinforcing the opinions of the group in order to maintain harmony.
This same dynamic could also be said for a number of other mediating characteristics, such as possessing a high level of group diversity, facing considerable time constraints, or having a high level of technical knowledge. Most of us would tend to place these characteristics into either the “hindering” or the “enabling” categories in relation to innovation. But contrary to this demarcation (much of which is dependent on deep-rooted biases and limited experiences), the reality is that any of these characteristics could be either an enabler of or a barrier to innovation – what Blomberg and Kallio (2017) refer to as “either-or” factors. The dependent variable is not so much the characteristic itself, but rather the hundreds of other situational and contextual variables that can influence a team or an organization.
The primary managerial implication of this is simple to grasp but hard to put into practice: managers must accept that there are no clear formulas for fostering innovation. What might work one day will not necessarily work the next, and what works with one team might not work with another. Having a workplace bias that values autonomy over rigidity might be effective in the majority of situations, but it might have a mostly negative impact on situations or projects that require a more rigid and hierarchical structure, such as building a relatively simple template-based product in a short period of time. The key takeaway from this observation is that innovation is a multidimensional and highly organic process, and that fostering innovation requires high levels of tactical, operational, and strategic flexibility. Managing this balancing act is challenging for even the most experienced and agile managers. And while it might be tempting to draw clear lines of demarcation around innovation-related characteristics, with the intention of better managing these processes, such a rigid view of innovation management is likely to have, at some point, a counter-productive impact. More to the point, assuming that innovation can be managed in a predictable and mechanical fashion is to miss the entire point of innovation management, that it is a dynamic and often unpredictable process requiring a multidimensional and highly flexible approach in terms of management.
Figure 1.1 (adapted from Blomberg & Kallio, 2017)
Blomberg, A. & Kallio, T. (2017). Antecedents of organizational creativity: drivers, barriers or both? Journal of Innovation Management 5(1), 78-104.Tags: Innovation management, Journal of Innovation Management, Team innovation, Turku School of Economics