Top ten tips for preventing innovation

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At a recent presentation in Austin by Seilevel about the goals and methods of requirements gathering, a member of the audience asked “What can we do with our requirements to assure innovation?” That’s a tough question with an easy answer – nothing.

What if the question had been “What can we do to prevent innovation?” That’s a better question with a lot of answers.

Struggling with too much innovation?

Yes, people have been innovating since fire and the wheel it’s a curse we’ve inherited. In modern times, much of that innovation has happened inside companies. 3M had the post-it note, Lockheed had the skunkworks that created the SR71. Google allows their employees to dedicate 20% of their time to whatever interests them – and Google’s employees innovate a lot.

Most companies do a good job of providing incremental improvements to existing products and processes. What are those few who struggle with innovation doing wrong?

Companies with track records of innovation have flawed processes.

  • They fail to screen out likely innovaters in their hiring process.
  • They mismanage their employees, who end up innovating when they should be towing the line.
  • They inadvertantly reward innovation instead of mediocrity with recognition and compensation.
  • They create opportunities to innovate and their employees drive Mack trucks through these loopholes.

Here is some guidance about how to fix those problems:

Top ten tips for preventing innovation

  1. Hire employees looking for safety in their roles. Innovation happens when people stretch outside their comfort zones – don’t let them stretch! Find people who primarily want security and a nine-to-five role, stay away from those troublemakers who want to “change the world.”
  2. Hire incompetent employees. What better way to prevent innovation than to have people who have to focus just to do the bare minimum? For extra safety, try and find someone who can take credit for other people’s work and hide their own incompetence – these people are easier to promote, which will become important later. If we are forced to hire someone who is competent, it’s critical that we make sure that they only have one area of expertise. People with more than one area of expertise, switch-hitters, just cause trouble by talking to people on other teams.
  3. Keep salaries below the 75th percentile. Innovators know their value – and when they aren’t applying for jobs with intrinsic utility to them, they are commanding higher salaries. If we keep our salaries low, there’s much less risk of one of these innovators sneaking into our organization. As a bonus, we’ll save a fortune!
  4. Read The Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley of IDEO. He focuses on the types of people and organizational behavior that encourage innovation. The writing style is very clever – Mr. Kelley writes as if he were trying to encourage innovation – what a riot! He identifies ten personas that contribute to innovation. Put those ten faces on the wall in HR like an FBI most-wanted poster and coach HR to screen those people out.
  5. Treat employees like garbage. Yell at them. Whenever possible, call them at midnight to yell at them some more. They work for us. If they get uppity, make them work on the weekends. Make them dig holes and fill them back up again. Threaten them – especially when they need the job. If you can’t yell, at least be condescending in public forums. Remember we are smarter than they are. Punks.
  6. Reward conservative and marginal successes. The old rule of thumb for office politics was “It takes ten good projects to recover from one bad project.” Stick to it! If we punish people for mistakes when they ‘swing for the fences’, and reward them for marginal and safe projects, they will quickly get the idea. This is the most subtle of all the tips – but don’t worry – people will figure out the reward system and shy away from those risky projects. This technique has the added benefit of propogating itself up and down the management hierarchy. Many organizations get lucky, and do this one accidentally. Wish we were all so lucky!
  7. Micromanage. We’ve been promoted because we understand their jobs so well that we could do them in our sleep. Whatever those pesky little people think, it’s wrong. We know what we want, we know how we want it (not like that, you fool!). Every day we should make sure they do things exactly like we want. Even things like using the right font in their emails can be important. If anything slips thru unmanaged, then we aren’t doing our jobs. Of course, if we have a good boss, he’ll tell us exactly how to manage them.
  8. Only create customer-requested features. Let our customers tell us what to do. Lucky for us – customers don’t have big ideas, they keep us focused on what we’re doing. Don’t let them whine about their other problems – that’s not why we’re talking to them. We just want to know if they like the idea of animated buttons on all the dialogs. Stay away from the unhappy customers – if we aren’t getting the job done now, well, we don’t really care what they say (they are existing customers, we need new customers). We’re here to solve our problems. Oh – and don’t second guess the customer. If they say they want the menu items in alphabetical order, well, that’s what they want. The customer is always right. If Henry Ford had listened, think of how fast horses would be today. Even better, appoint a user-representative, then we don’t have to talk to the customers at all.
  9. Make performance reviews easy. Create some easy-to-measure metrics (like # of sick-days taken, # of powerpoint slides created, # of meetings attended), and use those for performance reviews. People always gravitate toward the metric. We can run the reviews with a minimum of effort, giving us more time to tell them how to do their jobs. Just an hour a year. Some managers can give feedback in 15 minutes.
  10. Build a kingdom. When we have information, that means we have power. With that power, we can grow our organization. The more people we have, the more important we are. We need to make sure that those other teams don’t get our information. They might apply it in ways that we didn’t intend. While we’re at it – make sure our people don’t find out what we know. Not only will it protect us from them, but it will keep them from accidentally discovering a more important problem, or an alternate way to apply what they already know to a new problem domain.

38 thoughts on “Top ten tips for preventing innovation

  1. Brilliant and funny! The great part is that you’ve pegged the biggest point of innovation: it doesn’t act in a vacuum. Systems, culture, HR, compensation, office politics, project structures, and — oh yeah, people all “conspire” to make or break the innovative genes within the company. Loved the post!

  2. “Google allows their employees to dedicate 20% of their time to whatever interests them – and Google’s employees innovative a lot.”

    Do you mean “- Google’s employees innovate a lot” ?

  3. Thanks Macz – fixed the typo.

    Welcome Reddit readers. You’re doing a great job of stress-testing Yahoo (our host) today.

    Richard – Legal department is a great idea. Consider this a bonus 11th tip for the folks who read the comments!


  4. well this was a disappointingly obvious post.
    i.e. hire stupid people and/or convince them to want to do nothing.
    i guess this means one can just copy an innovative company to be
    innovative oneself.

  5. I have seen the enemy and the enemy is us.
    An reader who has requested anonymity

    One commenter emailed me privately, and told me that as much as he/she would like to share the following, he/she believed that his/her coworkers would take offense.  So, with the protection of discretion, here’s an essay sent from the field, on this very topic.  Thanks unknown reader/writer!

    So you want to be part of an innovative team, huh? You hear about these groups that just do these cool things and wonder “why not us?” I dunno what to tell you. I’ve decided if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Here’s my 10 things to do to avoid having to work for one of this fairy weird innovating teams.

    1.      Find a Safe Niche – What you want is a zone, an area, where no one else comes. At least, not without your control. It’s all yours. If you own it, then no one’s the wiser for what to expect. The last thing you want is someone in your area. They might suggest different ways of doing things. New and improved. That could lead to change and that would mean: i-n-n-o-v-a-t-i-o-n. That = Bad(tm). The best way for to be granted solitude in your niche, is to grant, yay, even encourage, others to do the same. Influence any process you can  to drive niche ownership as far as you can. Authority is good. Free thinking is bad. Use words like “lead”, “in charge of”, “not my area”, “don’t want to step on toes”, and my favorite: “czar”.

    2.      Make New Hires Feel Incompetent – When someone joins your team, that’s fertile ground for change. That’s bad. Remember that. Often, management may have even hired them with the idea of “new blood” in mind. Resist this. With all your might. You fought long and hard to get things the way they are. The best way is to break them down swiftly and brutally. My favorite technique is the “Cat and Mouse” strategy. Give your new peer quite a bit of latitude. Don’t tell her your full expectations. Give them latitude, encourage them to explore and make the decisions. Then when they bring the result back, pounce on them for little things you purposefully left out. Belittle or deprecate any hints of innovation. Quietly approve the acts of StatusQuo. Make sure that you treat “old blood” deferentially. Make sure the “new blood” sees that. Never ask the new hire what he thinks of… anything. Tell him (partially) how it is. One way communication. He’s learning the ropes. You know them. He has nothing to offer. “Offering” would be innovative. Some “new blood” types are persistent. Be patient. Put off their ideas or minimize their dreams with statements like “maybe in time” or remind them that these things should be done with “baby steps.”

    3.      Whine About Salary – It’s all about money. OK? Keep that in mind. What you do puts bread on the table. Nothing more. Nothing less. Keep your mind focused on that green stuff and how you can get more of it. Remind teammates to do the same. If you begin to waver, you run the risk of developing a passion for the actual thing you do. That cannot happen. That kind of thing leads to innovation. Queue chorus line: “That is Bad!”

    4.      Read Things Like Top ten tips for preventing innovation -Tyner Blain – Blame management. Foster a brotherhood of This Company Sucks. Repeat the tenets to each other often. Blame the Information Technology group. Blame the shareholders. The board. Blame the janitor. The important part, is that you find blame for the lack of innovation on your team somewhere outside of the team. As long as you can keep yourself and teammates facing outward, angry about a group of people you can do nothing about, you’ll never have to worry about looking inside and changing for “the better.” Genghis Khan understood this principle very well. Look how far he got!

    5.      Treat Each Other Like Garbage – Innovation flourishes in an environment where people are excited about each other and what each has to offer. Positive feedback cycles. You do not want some sort of “look at this cool stuff I did” followed by “yeah, that is cool, look at this cool thing I did.” That could lead to a chain reaction of back-slapping feel-good group-innovation. Keep your peers at a distance. Go dark if you can. Comment, preach, lecture on others’ ideas and projects. If you ask a question, it should be of the challenge format. Just remember OJ Simpson in the court room and you’ll do OK. Never act as if you have something to learn from your team mates. You’re all professionals, well paid ones, you don’t need to really talk to each other. Never bounce ideas off of others. Present your near finished concepts to them. Avoid honest open ended together brainstorming. If someone gets excited, minimize with phrases like “I wanna think about that”, “let’s talk about this after this release”, or “write that idea up, huh?” (you can let it sit in limbo for ever). When you do have meetings (in person or on the phone) make sure you don’t have much to say to each other. None of you really need each other. And no one else has anything to offer you. Team mates should either never be sure of where you will stand on an idea or know that you’ll eternally oppose some of their favorite themes.

    6.      Incremental Improvement – Slow and steady wins the race. Concentrate on the task at hand. Never refactor a sub system. New ways of looking at the problem lurk in there. A stable API is everything. You have to keep each other in check here. When you review/approve changes from teammates, always choose the more-hacky-less-code-rewriteing approach. If they propose replacement modules, remind them about customer commitments to backwards compatibility (this is the unbeatable trump card). Use comforting phrases like “just for now”, “just for the release”, and “lets wait until we’re in the next release cycle to look at that.”

    7.      Manage Your Process – Process is good for killing innovation. Process is safe. Create lots of it. Leap on every single failure as an opportunity to add checks, balances, form signing, and tools. Whenever you have a meeting, if you must talk, dominate it with ideas about process. You can’t go wrong suggesting more process. Anyone who resists you will be seen as dangerous or risky. Point out how well you jump through hoops. You can create a team spirit of hoop jumping by doing this. Never add your support to any effort to remove an element of process. Defend process with all your might. It was put in place for a good reason! Don’t let history repeat itself!

    8.      Ignore The Customer – Stick to your own ideas. Stick to your own agenda. Keep things stable. You really have to watch out for outsiders who write 3rd party extensions to your stuff.They have new ways of looking at things, and that might spark some innovation. Do everything you can to ignore customer mailing lists. Go long periods ignoring things that you could obviously answer. It might lead to a discussion that might lead to a break through. Defer customer suggested feature requests repeatedly. Elevate your own meager ideas repeatedly.

    9.      Never Peer Review – Never ask your peers to give you constructive feedback on how your work affects the work they do. Figuring out how to do better could threaten your niche ownership by exposing your weak points. It would jeopardize your right to do what you want; it might lead to you doing something that made others happy. People who make stuff that other people like are often labeled innovative. And never never never introspect about the group with each other. At least, not seriously.

    10. Build A Culture – Culture is everything. It governs how people think and act in your group. Make sure your culture comes first. You admittedly might see a good idea from time to time. It happens. Just remember, it is more important that your culture stay in tact. Protect that first. If there’s room left over (there won’t be), you can give credence to the idea. If your culture is strong, revolutionaries and their innovative ideas will struggle to gain footing.

  6. If I respond to that, does it create an expectation that I am supposed to reply to all the comments?

    [This reply generated by a bot. Please do not expect Wally Scott to reply in the future.]

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  11. Sort of late to the game, but this is the best article I’ve read on the web about anything in a long time. Very accurate assessment of many modern businesses.

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