Killing Innovation – A Manager’s Guide

I wrote a short article the other day about innovation and someone took umbrage at one of my lines that the public sector (as the traditional hierarchical bureaucracy) has 1001 ways to kill a good idea and that we need to move towards a model that has 1001 ways to advance a good idea.  Innovation can often be really difficult for managers who are under time and budget constraints to get the job done rather than look to do things differently. 

I came across this blog post which describes 5 questions that can be raised by a manager to kill innovation.  The beauty of responding with a question is that it makes the innovator have to justify their innovation to you through logical reasoning based on your own assumptions – a phantasmagorically circular way of killing innovation slowly but surely. 

I think we are now up to counting 1035 ways to kill innovation (although we cheated because we started at 1001)!! 


5 Responses to Killing Innovation – A Manager’s Guide

  1. Frank Connolly says:

    I thought your 1001 way to kill innovation in the public sector was a conservative estimate. We talk the talk, but rarely walk the walk in this area. We want to be challenged and openly say so, but when the challenge comes we don’t want THAT challenge.

    Innovation involves change and that change involves pain. We know intuitively (some of us anyway) that innovation is the way forward, but we have no stomach for the associated pain.

    So in the interim at least we’ll still keep taking about innovation ….

  2. Nerida Hart says:


    I agree with Frank – the public sector is so completely risk averse they are almost incapable of making a decicson, let alone being innovative. I truly suspect most innvation (if and when it rarely occurs) happens ‘under the radar’. I could list one hand hand (perhaps even 2 fingers 8-)) the managers I have worked for who had even one creative bone in their bodies.

    How do we change this? I don’t know that we can. The public sector has always worked on the minus accounting side – i.e. if you do 9 out of 10 things well you sit at minus 1, not + 9. Noone is going to stick their neck out in this environment.

    Frank is right – we just keep talking about it 8-(

  3. Robert Miller says:

    It is so true, it has made me depressed, I am going home straight away. I’m an Innovation Manager. It is the bean counters that always ask these questions that nobody can answer, they use their imagination as a contraceptives.

  4. Tim Semloh says:

    I agree. A couple of years ago, I got an advertisement in the mail to go to an MIT short course (Sloan School of Management). They were even more blunt than usual, calling innovation an inherently disruptive process, one that must be balanced and allowed for under fairly controlled conditions. The scheduled MIT course was on innovation, by-the-way.

    A friend told me that lower level jobs often have trick questions to screen out the creative types. Quants (those who quantify) are legion in the business world, if only because they get results. At least this is quite true in the short term which is extremely important in most businesses, a la ‘the terrible value of the unforgiving moment’.

    Even in the hard sciences quants, like 19th Century’s Lord Kelvin who did measure and quantify so much, and innovators fight as if cats and dogs. The solution is in the term “rubber room”, I last heard this euphemism a year ago from a then girlfriend’s father. He recalled seeing it for what it was, this happening circa 1957, and instead opted for a career in teaching. (Upon retiring becoming a minister a few years ago if his stability is seen as an issue.)

    Sealing off innovators is one solution, and allowing them to infiltrate freely is a situation that in most companies needs to be monitored, being honest here. It is rare for a true innovator to become top dog for a long time, and the exceptions like Walt Disney, the person, are interesting as they often have a reputation for fierce, terror clients and bosses long after their deaths. The Briggs Meyer class is INTP.

    I put in a rare resume a few years ago to Genentech, but the HR did not like it. They greatly prefer resumes in blue paper color. Looking around the campus (Fairfield, CA), everyone seemed to be in buttoned down snazzy dress suits, with lots of recent immigrants, taking a break under the glass towers where they worked.

    Go figure that in 1976 blue jeans, beards, weird outs on the intercom and in the halls, all set in a decayed industrial plant in South San Francisco, was the scene. The weird outs even happened while visiting buttoned down VC types from Japan and Germany came around. The President, Robert Swanson, even would stop at a sink while touring them around, and fix a leaky faucet in front of them as that was his job with everyone having many hats! Apparently it was not staged, either.

    I am amused by the scenery. The intellectual property situation is even worse for many a very big idea recently innovated, in an aside.


  5. Thanks for that long comment back Tim and also to the others about your comments. Having left the large bureaucracy of the public service some months ago and given the time and space in a smaller organisation, I’ve found that the people here are somewhat more receptive to trying new things out. Partly that is due to some newer structures being put in place and also that one of the corporate values is being entrepreneurial: would not be too many public service organisations that have that as a stated value!!

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