How CEOs Can Defy Innovation Inertia

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.”

Questions to Ask

To increase the power of your own organization’s innovation engine, here are some questions to ask:

    • How consistently do we communicate a compelling vision and commitment to enterprise-­wide innovation as the principal driver of customer and stakeholder value?
    • Which formal and informal cultural practices (including reward systems, policies and procedures) reinforce the “everyday behaviors” that are most important for transforming innovative ideas into focused action? Conversely, which of our formal and informal cultural practices could inadvertently reinforce inertia and inhibit innovative thinking and action?
    • To what extent does the frequency and quality of communication and collaboration enable us to quickly pick up on emerging opportunities and challenges in the business environment?
    • How can we better engage external stakeholders including customers, strategic alliance partners, outsource providers and suppliers so that they are jointly developing and executing innovative ideas with us?
    • When innovation stalls, what assumptions could we be making about the source of the inertia? Areas to explore include conflicting priorities, unresolved misunderstandings and clashes, lack of resources, and critical knowledge, skills, and abilities.
  • While going through this assessment by yourself can provide you with new insights, discussing these questions with other stakeholders can yield surprising and valuable perspectives. For example, when we interviewed groups of employees across a company, the CEO learned that they weren’t inclined to act on ideas from innovation sessions because it would interfere with objectives on their performance reviews.

    Congruence is Critical

    Taking an active role in shaping and reinforcing enterprise-­wide innovation is more than ever a critical ingredient for how CEOs can consistently enable their companies to create new value, and gain and maintain competitive leadership in their markets.

    The key is to recognize how many ways top leadership commitment to innovation is conveyed and perceived, and to actively shape these forces so that all of the messages are congruent. Monitoring and adjusting messages and actions on a frequent basis is especially critical as business conditions rapidly change.

    When your organization and its stakeholders perceive that innovation is more than a program, defying innovation inertia is no longer an impossible dream and your company can soar to new heights of success.

    Pamela S. Harper is founding partner and CEO of Business Advancement Inc (BAI) (, a consultancy established in 1991 to help companies accelerate innovation. D. Scott Harper is a senior partner with BAI, and is experienced in moving products to market from concept generation through development and release.



    Pamela S. Harper and D. Scott Harper:
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