ATD Blog

Stuck in the Middle: Why Innovation Dies and What to Do About It

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Innovation is increasingly viewed as the key to future success for today’s companies and as the engine that creates new businesses. 

Ample research bears this out, from a 2010 IBM survey of CEOs citing creativity as “the single most important leadership competency for enterprises seeking a path through … complexity” to a Conference Board report released in February 2015 that identified “creating cultures of innovation” as a key strategy to meet organizations’ top challenges. Research from Deloitte, PwC, and CapGemini, as well as numerous academic studies, affirm the need for innovation. But research also reveals a tough reality: most organizations are not good at innovation. 

Executives, managers, and OD and HR professionals are largely unsure how to drive innovation or foster the leadership skills needed to innovate. Organizations struggle in spite of efforts to foster innovation cultures and teach innovation processes or tactics. 

A 2014 survey by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) found a striking gap between need for innovation and the ability to deliver it. Nearly everyone who took part in CCL’s 500-person client panel said innovation is a key driver of success (94 percent), and 77 percent reported their organizations have made attempts to improve innovation. Even so, just 14 percent were confident about their organization’s ability to drive innovation effectively. 

Why do innovation efforts stall and innovative ideas die out? 

Innovation: A Leadership Challenge 

Business leaders often assume the goal of innovation is to generate ideas, when in fact almost all organizations are not short of ideas. Ideas are commonplace, but they require a problem in need of solving, and something must be done with them! 

Knowing what to do with ideas is the bigger challenge to effective innovation. Ideas don’t get aired, elevated, or sold well throughout the organization. They are not championed or pursued. They lose traction, don’t receive resources, or fail to make it to the right people or place in the organization. Typically, after an idea falls on deaf ears once or twice, the ideator gets the (usually unintended) message that no one is interested. 

This is a leadership challenge at all levels of the organization—and it’s a critical issue especially in the middle of organizations with department, functional, or divisional managers. A boss dismisses an idea or stifles conversation and exchange. One manager routinely shoots down ideas, because they don’t fit into his current priorities. Another’s personal resistance to change prevents him from welcoming innovation. Or the well-intending boss just can’t move it forward due to other work pressures. 

None of these innovation-killing behaviors is necessarily intentional. These leaders are charged with running the operations and getting results. They don’t know what to do with the ideas or solutions that fall outside their strategic priorities and operational status quo. 

So, understandably, innovation gets stuck in the middle. 

Leading From the Middle 


Leaders at different levels have different roles and responsibilities in leading innovation. The things an individual contributor should pay attention to are different than the focus of the executive team. This is obvious in other aspects of business, but is often overlooked when it comes to innovation. 

Individuals are responsible for ideation and creation. Their role is to seek and generate novel solutions and approaches, find sources of inspiration, push across boundaries, and participate on innovation teams. Team leaders or project managers must also be able to facilitate group innovation processes and seek resources from outside their unit. 

On the other end of the corporate structure, executive leadership is responsible for shaping culture and strategy so “new, different, and disruptive” ideas are supported throughout the organization. This involves modeling behavior and communicating the vision for innovation. Perhaps the hardest job is finding ways to stay connected and hear or see “unfiltered” concepts and ideas. 

Leaders in the middle—managers of units or functions or departments—are all managers of managers. They are the bridge between top leadership and the people who are close to customers, partners, and suppliers. They are immersed in the implementation of the work of the organization. Because of where they sit in the organization, they are a great source of innovation potential, if they can effectively navigate the tension between “status quo” and “doing something new.”

The innovation responsibilities for leaders in the middle of the organization include:

  • Supporting and protecting innovators from other parts of the organization: Creating a protective umbrella over their people to ensure that the discomfort, risk, and potential disruption of the innovation efforts don’t cause others to try to shut them down.  

  • Building a case for grass-roots innovations: Ensuring due diligence in building a case for innovations, helping to define and communicate them effectively to different audiences, and being a champion of new ideas. 

  • Managing or initiating structural changes and changes to strategy to accommodate promising innovations: Managing the pipeline of new products, processes, and services. Handling conflicting demands for resources and obtaining resources. 

  • Setting the tone for innovation: Modeling behavior and driving communication that sets the tone and determines interest in and support for innovation.

  • Facilitating constructive cooperation between groups working on similar opportunities: Working across organizational boundaries to connect ideas with ideas, ideas with people, and people with people; and knowing how to influence, connect, and collaborate with people who have different innovation styles or preferences. 

How to Foster Innovation Leadership 

Leaders must act in ways that promote and support innovation. People in learning and development functions can guide the process in a number of ways. 

First, remember that innovation skillsets, toolsets, and mindsets are not fixed. People from all walks of life can increase their ability to innovate and lead innovation. The research and our practice clearly shows that people can and do get better at the skills required for creative and innovative thinking. 

Second, be sure to look at the entire innovation equation. While middle managers are typically a neglected and important group, individuals and teams still need training and support to take on their innovation roles and responsibilities. The commitment of CEOs and other top leaders remains necessary to create cultures of innovation. Structures and policies (including offering training and factoring in innovation behaviors in talent management decisions) are also needed for innovation to become an organizational capability that fuels its future gains, goals, and dreams. 

Third, acknowledge the tension between innovation and operational efficiency. Organizations must balance managing current business with the countless ways they could create new opportunities. Often, promising new ideas are ignored or postponed due to the pace of daily operations and the pressure to hit short-term targets. But, innovation and operations can, and must, coexist. Leaders throughout the organization will benefit when they approach paradoxes, conflicting priorities, and competing interests from a polarity-thinking rather than problem-solving mindset. 

Fourth, emphasize the role of organizational bridge building. Leaders need to communicate, influence, and collaborate up and down the organization  chart; across the silos; among the different geographical locations; to other stakeholders in the organizational ecosystem; and to other demographic groups. Since innovation is a team sport, no one person, level, or function can launch an innovation in an organization. Mid-level leaders need help and the support of others to make innovation happen, which means stepping out of their territory and connecting with others to champion solutions. 

Finally, focus on innovation as a process. Innovation in organizations is not a random or unstructured activity. Innovation requires people with innovative mindsets working together towards a common target to understand and clarify the challenge, generate and refine ideas, develop solutions and plans, and implement the innovation to realize a quantifiable gain. 

These four steps—Explore, Ideate, Craft, and Implement—focused on a target make up CCL’s “Targeted Innovation” process and can be applied to any innovation need. When leaders understand how innovation works, they can see what is missing and, as with any other leadership challenge, create a strategy or plan to make it better. They can also appreciate and leverage the different skills, perspectives, and contributions that are needed along the way. 

Make the Middle a Hotbed of Innovation

Without investing in the middle, innovation won’t move through the organization. Ideas won’t be connected to other ideas. People won’t be connected to others who hold a piece of the puzzle they are trying to solve. Innovation, whether with large, game-changing new products, processes, or markets or small-scale, but valuable, solutions, will not take hold. 

In contrast, when organizations understand the unique role leaders in the middle play, they can begin to un-stick innovation. By developing their innovation skillsets, toolsets, and mindsets, these leaders will give innovators and ideas needed attention and energy. They can turn the middle of the organization from a graveyard of ideas into a hotbed of innovation.

About the Author

David Magellan Horth is a Smith Richardson Senior Fellow, senior designer, and subject matter expert on creativity and innovation at the Center for Creative Leadership. He is co-author of The Leader’s Edge: Six Creative Competencies for Navigating Complex Challenges (2002) and co-author of the Leadership Explorer™ series of tools, including Visual Explorer™ and Leadership Metaphor Explorer™. Internationally recognized as a skilled leadership development trainer, executive coach, and innovation practitioner, David is former Chairman of The Creative Education Foundation®. David also is co-author of the CCL white paper Innovation: How Leadership Makes the Difference .

About the Author

Jonathan R. Vehar is a senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership, where he works with organizations to develop leadership and innovation solutions necessary for growth.  Jonathan is one of the Center's subject matter experts in the area of innovation, and is referred to as an "innovation geek" in Forbes. Fast Company calls him an "innovation thought leader," and  Investor's Business Daily referred to him as an "innovation guru." Before joining the Center for Creative Leadership, Jonathan spent 14 years as the president and cofounder of a global training and organizational development firm focused on leadership skills necessary for innovation. Jonathon is co-author of the CCL white paper Innovation: How Leadership Makes the Difference .

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