Look at the charter of any large organisation and you’ll find the word ‘innovation’ superimposed over images of young, vibrant people drawing mind maps. You’ll find ‘innovation’ in the annual reports, the company website, in the job descriptions and of course you’ll find it all throughout the promotional material.

The one place you probably won’t find it is in action. Innovation means Making Things Better, which involves Making Things Different, which is where it usually grinds to a halt.

Most organisations blame the external world for their lack of innovation: ‘Our clients are conservative, they don’t want us to change… and given that we operate in a strictly regulated environment… and what with the current economic situation and political uncertainty…’ you get the idea.

Pretty convincing stuff… until you realise that the organisation giving all these excuses is operating in the exact same world as their competitors, many of whom somehow manage to innovate in spite of external pressures (if not because of them).

More often than not, the greatest barriers to innovation are internal; the self-imposed limitations of the organisation itself.

The structural obstacles are easy enough to spot: ‘We don’t have the time or the resources, and we’ve never managed to get an idea past our legal and finance departments. We don’t have a process… or we have so much process that ideas die of old age before they make it out of review. No-one has responsibility for innovation and even if they did we’d never let them take the risk …’ etc, etc, etc.

Of course, structural limitations can be overcome: in fact, most (if not all) of the world’s truly innovative organisations have diminished or even done away with most (if not all) of ‘em in one way or another.

It’s the cultural barriers you have to watch out for. You know the sort of thing: ‘We don’t trust each other enough to share an idea, let alone a project. We’re afraid of failure, of change, of ridicule and of the boss. We encourage conformity and punish any kind of deviation from business as usual…’ and so on.

These are a little harder to shift because they’re deep, subtle and so old that everyone just accepts them as part of the DNA. But every single one of them is a learned response to the way these people have been treated in the past; we only ever get the behaviours we reward.

Imagine what would happen if an organisation decided to reward innovative thinking. If one day they started to encourage debate, indulge curiosity and nurture idealism.

What kind of organisation would that be?

The kind that didn’t have time to talk about innovation because they’d be too busy doing it.

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Written by Jason Clarke

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Celebrated author, adventurer, gold medal Olympian and popular TV chef; Jason is none of these things. He is, however, one of the most sought-after creative minds in the country. As founder of Minds at Work, he’s helped people ‘think again’ since the end of the last century, working with clients across Australia in virtually every industry and government sector on issues ranging from creativity and trouble shooting to culture change and leadership.