Failure To Launch: Leadership Vacuums and Overcoming Barriers to Innovation

You want to innovate. You want your company and people to embrace new ideas, get ahead of the curve – and competition. You want to be progressive, thoughtful and creative.

But you’re stymied by barriers to innovation that get in the way. They bog down your team, repel creativity and leave the organization wanting for more. Projects can’t get started. Initiatives don’t leave the gate. There’s a general failure to launch.

For some organizations, innovation is the much sought-after Holy Grail of thoughtful, productive creativity. Yet for those where innovation ceases to exist, the organization itself often is at a loss to identify the culprit.

In reality, the barriers to innovation often are the same barriers that prevent other progressive initiatives from taking root. In a recent survey, innovation blogger Braden Kelley asked readers, “What is your organization’s biggest barrier to innovation?”

Tops among the 550 (and counting) responses, some 32 percent of respondents said “organizational psychology” – as Kelley put it, “the way people think in the organization, the culture – fear of failure, risk aversion, etc.

Next, 26 percent of respondents said an absence of an innovative strategy.

The rest, in order, were Organizational Structure (15 percent), Level of Trust and Respect (13), and Information Sharing (11).

Yet in all my years, I’ve found one essential barrier not mentioned by respondents here but which supersedes them all, and if well placed and respected, can eliminate most if not all the barriers mentioned:

Leadership – thoughtful, progressive, inclusive leadership. A CEO who sets the vision for the company, establishes policies for innovation, and encourages his team to embrace all in kind.

Leaders of innovation embrace corporate entrepreneurship. They encourage people to step out of their cubes and beyond the safety of just “doing their day jobs.” They expect workers – from the executive ranks to the reception desk – to push back and explore beyond the boundaries of their comfort zones.

They define innovation; after all, it can mean different things to different people. Let people retain their respective, personal definitions. But for purposes of the organization, innovation and the goals sought must be defined from the top. They then must be encouraged to welcome the challenge and inspired to rise to the occasion.

Research around “Most Innovative Companies” (Being updated April 26, 2010 Edition) from BusinessWeek and Boston Consulting Group backed up this intuition.

When asked “Who is the biggest force driving innovation at your company?” some 44.5 percent of respondents said it was the CEO (see slide No. 9). Interestingly, only 3 percent answered the vice president of innovation.

In order to blow through the myriad obstacles that thwart innovation – whether a lack of innovative strategy, structure, trust and respect, sharing of information, or even organizational psychology – the impetus starts in the C-Suite. To be sure, the structure has to be in place, and the organization – and its people – have to know who they are and what their mission is.

Only with the right leader, will the environment and enablers be in place, the resources be made available, and the roadblocks be dismantled. The barriers will be removed. Innovation, in the end, will have the fertile grounds to launch and take flight.

By Robert Brands with Jeff Zbar

Robert Brands is the founder of, and the author of “Robert’s Rules of Innovation”: A 10-Step Program for Corporate Survival, with Martin Kleinman,  published March 15, 2010 by Wiley.