False: Einstein said, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results," (this quote is of unknown origin).

Truth: most business writing basically says the same thing over and over again.

Here’s an example: The Guardian's top 10 most viewed business articles of 2014 reveals the following spectacular insights: the enormous wealth gap continues to widen, there is an uptick in widespread surveillance, and, oh, look, many marketing departments can't seem to do the simplest things right. None of this is particularly shocking or even news, but it does lead one to wonder how the same mistakes are made over and over again, especially in some of the world’s biggest and most well-known companies.

In i4cp's latest white paper, Four Easy Steps to Kill Workplace Innovation, we take a somewhat tongue-in-cheek look at the business practices that most negatively impact innovation. As you might suspect, we don’t cover anything that is all that surprising, or, unfortunately, unfamiliar. Lack of support, lack of time, confusing goals, and a culture of fear are among the top-four creativity killers, and I suspect that if a random person were asked on the street to name the main ways companies stop employees from being creative, at least one or two of these aforementioned killers would make the on-the-street list.

That’s what's strange--and insidious--these negative practices are not uncommon. In 2014, the Huffington Post published a piece titled "9 Iconic Brands that Could Soon be Dead," with a brief analysis detailing the factors behind each particular failing practice or decision (or lack thereof). They were:

  1. Quiznos: Failure to change their business model and pricing after competitors adapted to the market;
  2. JC Penney: Shifted their business model to appeal to a more upscale clientele, which alienated their core market;
  3. Zynga: Aggressive and ruthless management style leading to disgruntled former employees, bad investments, was tied too closely to another company;
  4. Red Lobster: Could not adapt to a changing marketplace (i.e. the growth of fast-casual dining);
  5. BlackBerry: Inability to read market demand;
  6. The WNBA: Inability to read market demand;
  7. Volvo: Competitive pressure;
  8. Martha Stewart Living Magazine: Tied too closely to a failing brand;
  9. Abercrombie & Fitch: inability to read market demand.

It's overly simplistic to assign just one reason for any company that is the size of the nine listed above to fail, but it illustrates that despite the obvious nature of some business research and writing, these lessons still aren't being learned. Certainly any large organization has at least one employee who recognizes when the organization is headed in the wrong direction (and most likely, more than one employee), but when there is a culture of fear, as discussed in Four Easy Steps to Kill Workforce Innovation, those employees do not feel safe voicing their concerns.

So what’s the problem? Do leaders forget that business model innovation is just as important as product innovation? Look again at those companies listed above—each one has at least one competitor that is thriving, so it isn't the product that’s the problem. Most likely, there’s something internal to those companies that stopped them from innovating and adapting to the marketplace.

In many cases this is due to a culture of fear, and the bad news is that of all four of the ways in which companies kill innovation listed in our white paper, a culture of fear is probably the most difficult to overcome.

The very nature of such a culture makes it complicated to address, let alone change, as it tends to discourage any type of candid dialogue about what’s really wrong. However, it can be overcome (with some courage, hard work, and luck) with efforts such as changing communication structures, commitment to transparency, having policies that protect anonymity, and rewarding rather than punishing those who raise red flags.

It’s all well and good to have the research and know the right answers, but quite another thing entirely to be able to use that information to affect change in your organization. That requires skill, intent, and candid conversation. By analyzing the data, answering the questions, and identifying the practices that really work, business research can provide the roadmap, but the journey (and the timing) is up to you. Is it time to step up and get started?