How CEOs Can Defy Innovation Inertia

CEOs play a pivotal role in leading their organizations to continuously innovate and generate a steady stream of new value. As part of this, one major challenge they face is balancing the many opposing forces, which can inadvertently result in a mysterious inertia that stalls these efforts.

March 20 2013 by Pamela S. Harper and D. Scott Harper


Even when drawing upon best practices that can propel innovation, it’s easy to be unexpectedly blindsided by issues that seem to come out of nowhere. This is because innovation requires changing established practices and patterns of “business as usual.” Reinforcing new behaviors requires developing and reinforcing new beliefs.

For instance, at a recent conference, Campbell Soup Company CEO Denise Morrison stressed that company leaders need to approach innovation as “a focal point, not a hobby.” She went on to emphasize the importance of a multidisciplinary approach to evolving culture to foster and enable innovation, but acknowledged “culture is hard to do.”

Leading through the push and pull between new and old behaviors requires catching the many habits of thought and action at all levels of the organization that can send mixed messages about the company’s true commitment to innovation.

From Retreat to Office

Many companies prioritize innovation by scheduling special programs or events. For example, a company may hold an innovation retreat for its marketing and research and development functions to brainstorm ideas for new products and to foster cross-­functional innovation. In the sequestered environment of the retreat, participants generate new ideas and action steps. However, all too often gatherings like this do not address the bigger issue of what happens when participants return to the patterns and rhythms of “regular jobs.”

The consequence? Under the burden of returning to well-­worn work habits, the energy and commitment necessary to overcome inertia and realize the full value of the brainstorming session drains away. In fact, innovative ideas can be completely extinguished as focus turns back to business as usual, with serious business implications.

We once encountered a company where this pattern of inertia had led to an erosion of its competitive position as an innovation leader so that a second company that came along and developed an entirely new concept for addressing customer needs in the same market ultimately outpaced them.

At the first company, digging into the causes behind stalled innovation efforts revealed a number of issues, including performance review and compensation practices, that rewarded compartmentalized objectives over collaboration, disagreements over how the initiative should be pulled off, and a lack of clear metrics that allowed the organization to know whether they were succeeding.

The CEO and top executives of this company recognized that they needed to break habitual thinking that defined innovation as a separate, siloed program, so they began to unravel conflicting priorities and address the many ways that innovation was either fostered or neutralized on a daily basis. This realization allowed them to pull the company out of its inertia, take advantage of new opportunities, tackle challenges in new ways, and regain its position of what we call “innovation leadership.”