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Are you killing innovation?

Thursday, April 13, 2017

It may come as a shock to you that the number one barrier to innovation in your organisation could be you: the boss.

If your staff were to draw the “informal organisation chart” for your company and you find yourself on the top of the chart marked “chief idea killer” instead of CEO, then you probably are killing innovation in your organisation.

We in T&T are a vibrant and innovative people. Just our carnival culture is a testament to that fact. If only we are able to bring that innovative culture into our workplace, we could be more competitive and able to work our way out of the current slump. Some companies are doing just that even now and we will spotlight one of them here.

But first, let’s take one element of the Carnival—the steel pan culture—and see what we can learn about innovation and how we can apply it in our work place.

Innovation needs stimulus

If you go back in history and see how the steel pan movement evolved, you will recall how the people felt oppressed following the Canboulay Riots in 1881, when authorities banned stick fighting and percussion music and suppressed their musical expression.

In 1937, their creativity eventually found an outlet through the birth of the steel pan when an orchestra of frying pans, dustbins and oil drum was formed in Laventille.

Today, steel pan is celebrated as one of the most innovative musical instruments, and people from all over the world make a bee-line to Trinidad every year to play in Panorama.

The stimulus for this innovation, ironically, came from the oppression of natural self-expression of the people. It lit a fire in people to find an outlet for their musical expression. Innovation happened out of human necessity. When people are stifled from expressing themselves in one form or the other, they will find other avenues for finding their expression.

Similarly, if an organisation stifles the innovative spirit of its employees, they will find an alternate avenue, outside of the organisation to express their creativity and innovation. This may perhaps explain why so many young men and women in our society find an outlet in pan yards, in calypso tents, in the arts and in their communities, instead of in their own organisations.

Sometimes the stimulus comes from an external force, as in the case of the steel pan. Other times we may have to create our own stimulus, our own “burning platform”, if you may, in order for people to get creative and innovative. There could be no better time than the current economic climate for us to get innovative in our work environment. Because, for some companies, it is an existential threat.

Arbitrary rules stifle innovation

Arbitrary rules, or red tape, as they are called, create an enormous barrier to innovation. The most dangerous seven words in business is “we have always done it this way”. Predisposition to maintaining status-quo is the antithesis of innovation.

Innovative people find a way to break arbitrary rules in order to innovate.

When Tesla came out with their first all-electric car, people in Detroit derided it because it was not a car made in Detroit according to their standards. However, last year, when Tesla announced that they were going to launch their Model 3 at $35,000, more than 400,000 cars were pre-ordered within weeks, even though the car is not expected to be delivered until end of 2017. If a company or industry attempts to maintain status quo for too long, some outsider is going to come and disrupt the industry in ways that you never imagined.

Don’t let your arbitrary rules prevent you from seeing the future, or seal your fate.

Innovation requires self confidence 

If ideas and suggestions are constantly turned down by the bosses, employees will eventually lose their interest and self-confidence to come up with new, innovative ideas.

In order for a company and its people to gain self-confidence in innovation, they have to try and succeed in small, incremental ways.

One of the companies that has managed to do just that over the years is the Label House Group Ltd in Trinidad.

Located in Frederick Settlement Industrial Estate, Caroni, this company is a leading supplier of packaging solutions to the Caribbean and Central America markets. Over the past 40 years, they have won many awards and has been exporting to over 25 countries, servicing a number of industries.

At the Eighth Americas Competitiveness Forum in 2014, Kieron Swift of the Council for Competitiveness and Innovation presented a paper titled Four Innovative Companies of T&T where he highlighted how Label House seeks innovation in what it does. It does not have a department dedicated to innovation or R&D in the traditional sense. Instead they drive innovation through business development.

According to Swift, “That department takes into consideration new markets and new products, and the associated research needed to develop those two areas. They do not have a fixed R&D budget. They take business development as the growth engine of the company, and they look at (innovation) in terms of the market and/or products.”


What lessons can we learn from our own steel pan movement, and other examples above, in order to reinvigorate innovation in our own companies?


No 1: Innovation requires stimulus. And if the stimulus is not found inside the company your people will seek it outside.


No 2: Arbitrary rules stifle innovation. Look carefully at your organisational policies and see if there are archaic ones that are stifling innovation.


No 3: Innovation requires self-confidence. Whenever you see someone trying to do something different that could be beneficial to the organisation encourage them and support them. Even if they fail trying.


Inspire innovation in your company culture to create competitive advantage and long-term growth.


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