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Why Innovation Departments Often Don't Deliver Results

Innovation thrives best when individuals and teams are empowered.

Key points

  • The definition of innovation in the modern workplace is to solve problems, issues, and challenges that are unsolvable without novel ideas.
  • Organizations must avoid the temptation to concentrate the responsibility for innovation all in one department, and empower individuals instead.
  • Practicing failure can make people less afraid to take risks, and thus becomes a seed of innovation.

Innovation and creativity have become all the rage lately in corporate America[1]. It seems that many companies have awakened to the realization that they need to be more creative and innovative in order to compete in the ever-changing landscape of today’s world. And that is a good thing. A powerful and important realization.

Unfortunately, the method chosen to attain the goal of innovation is often misguided because it involves creating a separate innovation department. And that‘s where it all goes wrong. Innovation and creativity are things that should not be departmentalized because they are best originated in the individual and team solving a problem, not some far-off department that is removed from the problem.

Making matters worse is that many companies mistakenly look at innovation in light of an immediate return on investment—even though most innovative and creative ideas take years to mature[2]. So instead of having an innovation department, here are three things that can be done instead which will yield far greater creativity and innovation from staff and colleges alike:

1. Innovation Needs Empowered Individuals and Teams

The very definition of creativity and innovation in the modern workplace is to solve problems, issues, and challenges that are unsolvable without coming up with new and novel ideas. That is the whole point of innovation: to solve issues that are otherwise unsolvable by the very people who are having those issues in the first place.

So when you hand over the keys to one department to innovate, it makes the others turn off their innovation and creativity drive. It becomes someone else’s job—someone else’s responsibility. So why bother? The great tragedy in innovation departments is that it removes the individual and team from the creative and innovative process and turns it over to an unrelated department. Innovation thrives best when individuals and teams are empowered to create novel solutions to their own particular problems.

Instead, we need to empower individuals and teams to use creativity at work to spark innovation. We need to encourage staff to solve problems that have meaning to them. Looking at things that often may get in the way of innovation—perhaps its an existing pathway or established way of doing things—and allowing individuals or teams to then redefine these pathways in ways that are meaningful to them can be very productive.

Maybe it’s redefining an approach to working with a certain process or a certain vendor. Maybe it’s a different payment method for a good or service. Perhaps it's defining internal roles or new team dynamics that are better suited for the job at hand. No matter what the idea, transcending hurdles that may be in the way of innovation are a worthwhile task.

Another idea that may work is time set aside for innovation and creativity. Perhaps it’s a 15-minute-a-week meeting to talk about silly ideas—the type we usually soon forget about. After all, what if one of those ideas turns out to be great? Allowing a set time to problem-solve in an unconventional way may yield some incredible finds—especially when we lessen the pressure to “get it right”[3] and instead allow for creativity to take hold.

2. Innovation Needs Champions to Succeed

Oftentimes when innovation departments are started, they are off in isolation somewhere. At best, they are receiving problems to innovate far after a problem is solvable anymore. In other words: too little too late. And at worse, they are innovating something that is not useful or practical. So instead of a silo innovation department, try to champion creativity instead.

Championing creativity and helping individuals and teams come up with ideas that solve real and tangible problems can be one of the most effective tools in your arsenal to uncover innovation.

You can try to encourage folks to write things down. When we write things down instead of merely thinking about things, we activate a special circuit inside our brains that allow us to look at the ideas we have written down in a new and fresh way[4]. It is not merely enough to think of how to innovate—it must be written down. Encourage and champion those around you to write things down, and creativity and innovation will flow.

Another thing you can try to champion creativity is to allow for flex work. Studies have shown that when folks can be in their own environment free from the commute to come into the office, creativity and innovation are heightened[5]. Allow for folks to define where they feel they want to work in order to contribute. If people have to be on-site, allow for some changes to the routine of working in the same areas if possible or change the areas where breaks are given. A change of scenery can go a long way toward sparking a creative and innovative idea.

Finally, you can also practice failure. When we practice failure, we allow for things that seem at the surface like bad ideas to find their own course. Sometimes they turn into good ideas. Sometimes they don’t. But the very fact that we try them allows for innovation to occur. We need to begin to practice failing so that it takes the sting out of the failure. And when we fail more, we become unafraid to take risks. Those very risks may be some of the most profound seed of innovation we can come up with.

Spreading innovation and creativity throughout a company is a worthwhile and important goal. But avoiding the temptation to concentrate it all in one department is critical. After all, it is people and teams who innovate, not departments. The tools above will help any organization with challenges that pertain to innovation and will help create an organic and innovation culture. The world is changing at chaotic speeds, and having access to the tools that allow innovation to take hold can act as the antidote to chaos, bringing calm and meaningful results.


[1] Kouchaki et al. (2017). Take 5: How to Empower Employees to be More Creative. Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

[2] Christensen, C., Kaufman, S., Shih, W. (2008). Innovation Killers: How financial tools destroy your capacity to do new things. Harvard Business Review.

[3] Morin, A. (2020). The Fear of Taking Risks May Be Holding You Back in Life. These 2 Mental Strength Exercises Will Help You Conquer That Fear. Inc. Magazine

[4] Bashan, N, The Creator Mindset: 92 tools to unlock the secrets to innovation, growth, and sustainability. (McGraw Hill, 2020) The Creator Mindset.

[5] O’Donnel, E. (2021). Commuting Impact on Creativity Long commutes harm productivity and innovation. Harvard Magazine.

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