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Lead Your Team Managing

Overcoming the 5 Biggest Obstacles to Innovation

Overcoming the 5 Biggest Obstacles to Innovation
Credit: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

Every company, particularly in the tech field, wants to "innovate." Breaking with tradition and bringing the new-and-improved versions of products to the market sounds like an impressive goal, but it's not always easy to accomplish. Business leaders shared what they believe are the biggest innovation obstacles modern companies face, and how to overcome them.

For many technology companies, any given project — whether it's developing a new product or creating an updated version of an old one — can take months to complete. The problem with this process is, if something's not right with the end result, you may find you've just wasted a year or more of your time, said Sacha Labourey, CEO of CloudBees, an enterprise Jenkins company.

"If you [work for] months and find out you've missed your target, that's costly," Labourey said. "For companies that produce software, what works is to have really small iterations, not onboard [people] for 18-month projects."

Labourey advised breaking up your projects into intense, two-week stages where your team only focused on a single feature or element of the final product. This type of project management is also known as agile methodology, and is often used by software developers to catch and correct any potential flaws quickly. The goal is to improve the overall work process by removing as much friction as possible, Labourey said. [Creativity Is Not Innovation (But You Need Both)]

"Moving to such a process requires you to change the way you operate," he continued. "You can work in a very efficient manner along a two- to four-week cycle, where you implement, push to production and measure the impact. [But] you need to be on-the-spot at all times for the team to understand what's at stake."

"Look [at] the individual parts of a system that require change," added Kirby Wadsworth, chief marketing officer of business application development company Mendix. "Break down the challenge into subcomponents, assign small teams with defined timelines, celebrate small successes and follow up with rapid iteration."

Are you making room for innovation in your day-to-day operations? Dan Pickett, CEO of networking and IT services company nfrastructure, said that companies often get caught up in meeting short-term performance criteria, which leaves no time for innovative thinking and collaboration.

"Professionals need to set aside time for innovation on a consistent basis — and the time needs to be prioritized," Pickett said. "The enterprise needs to know how to spot innovations, and have a conduit for developing innovative concepts. Work to create a simple agenda defining how to funnel innovative ideas through."

If you think that all good ideas come from the C-suite, think again. Gail Levy, CEO of hydrogen-rich water company HFactor, said that putting up "walls," and only listening to the executive team for inspiration will actually hurt innovation more than it helps.

"Sometimes the best ideas come from team members who aren't packing the pedigreed credentials or working in the C-suites," Levy told Business News Daily. "The companies that have risen above others challenge their staff to be innovative in an all-inclusive community. Executives must constantly collaborate with staff at all levels and make each person feel no idea is bad or too far-fetched."

In age when companies have access to mountains of data on nearly every facet of their business, it's easy to say that your organization needs to be data-driven. But Adam Tishman, co-founder of customized mattress company Helix Sleep, reminded business leaders that it can be hard to keep up with the speed of incoming data, and taking the time to collect and analyze each point can hinder their ability to move quickly. Therefore, finding a balance between the two — and determining which data are most important to hone in on — is the key to not getting bogged down.

"Put processes in place at both the individual and company level that encourage finding the happy medium between speed and data collection," Tishman said. "What we've found at Helix Sleep is that everyone is naturally more inclined to favor moving fast, or to favor in-depth data-driven decisions. When discussing any business innovation, we force debate over this topic at multiple stages of the process to ensure [optimal] momentum."

Change is at the heart of innovation, and yet, as a company grows bigger, shaking up the status quo becomes a little more difficult than when it was in the early startup phase.

"Even when everyone agrees [a change] is for the better ... you are affecting the habits and routines of hundreds of individuals, as well as the legacy platforms that they have been using," said James Ontra, CEO of presentation management company Shufflrr. "We are all creatures of habit and treasure the consistency of routine. Innovation usually breaks that routine and can sometimes feel like a threat."

Mark McDonald, co-CEO of Android app developer Appster, noted the intense focus growing companies have on enhancing their current processes and core revenue streams can sometimes get in the way of change, too.

"As most innovation requires disrupting the core revenue streams ... a firm needs to have a robust culture of embracing change to innovate," McDonald said. "[Our teams] are encouraged to ask forgiveness rather than permission on most improvements.Innovation isn't a top-down process that comes from an 'innovations' department — it needs to be something the whole company culturally appreciates the value of."

Ontra agreed, and said that entrepreneurial attitudes should be rewarded within a team. When someone brings forth a new process or idea, let him or her run with it, he said. Have the team member flesh it out in writing, and if the idea has merit, ask him or her to test it, along with some other colleagues. 

"Inclusion is also important, as it empowers individuals and gives them a sense of ownership," Ontra said. "And in the end, if it works, it turns into a team win."

Nicole Fallon
Nicole Fallon

Nicole Fallon received her Bachelor's degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University. She began freelancing for Business News Daily in 2010 and joined the team as a staff writer three years later. She currently serves as the assistant editor. Reach her by email, or follow her on Twitter.