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Six innovation killers for small businesses

Brian O'Connell

Are entrepreneurs innovation killers?

At first glance, an unbiased, informed observer would say that statement falls largely in the “crock” category.

After all, who better to drive innovation in the workplace than a startup business owner?

But that’s why academic researchers get paid to take more than a “first glance.”

On the subject of entrepreneurs and innovation, that’s exactly what a Vanderbilt University business professor did, and what he found might turn the tables on what economists, venture capitalists and consultants (and even the entrepreneurs themselves) think about ideas and innovation.

David Owens, a management professor at Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management, started that journey with a single question: Why do some great ideas fail and others succeed?

It’s all about what Owens calls “constraints” – emotional, technological, financial or logistical obstacles that stand in the way of executing a great idea.

To illustrate his point – and to guide new business owners toward the innovation path they need to be on, Owens has come up with a list of six innovation constraints that, as he puts it, fosters innovation instead of killing it.

Acknowledging those constraints is only the first step. Recognizing there are myriad opportunities in those constraints is the real key to success.

“Constraints are the parameters within which you must work. And for a creative person that’s actually a blessing,” said Owens.

So where does Owens go with his theory? Here’s a look at all six of his “innovation constraints.” They’re a bit high-minded, but worth a closer look:

The Individual

Failures of innovation are failures of ideas. To meet this challenge, you simply need to train people to use the tools and processes that help them “think differently,” and this will enable them to become better at generating and recognizing good ideas.

The Group

Even if you have a roomful of da Vincis, the group’s social climate will determine whether an innovation succeeds. The prescription that follows from this diagnosis is clear: Fix the group’s climate and you will fix innovation.

The Organization

If a company or organization doesn’t have a strategy for innovation, or if it doesn’t have a structure that allows for the free movement of new ideas, or if it doesn’t have the human, monetary or other resources to expend on developing an idea, then it’s unlikely to nurture potential innovations within.

The Industry

Innovation fails when a firm competing among a group of rivals in an industry fails to produce an innovation that customers in that market are willing to adopt. When buyers do not adopt a new offering because they fail to see the utility and value of it, you may be able to call that idea “creative,” but you cannot call it innovation.

The Society

An innovation cannot succeed if a society does not see its ideals and aspirations embodied in it. Consider human cloning. It is technologically possible and might arguably have certain benefits. However, societies around the world have banned the practice on the grounds that it is morally and ethically repugnant.

The Technology

For an innovation to succeed, it has to be technologically feasible. The way to avoid failure is to advance our understanding and control of matter and energy through the use of science and technology. In other words, innovation is what we already know as research and development.

Above all, Owens advises entrepreneurs to stop thinking about innovation in simply product terms. Instead, he wants business owners to let their minds – and their company’s knowledge talent – to roam free.

“We often think of innovation as product innovation, but we don’t often think of it as creating new processes or new services or even as changing our ways of thinking about things,” said Owens.

If you want to dive in further, refer to Owens’ book, Creative People Must Be Stopped: 6 Ways We Kill Innovation Without Even Trying.

If you’re failing to innovate, or more likely per Owens, innovating to fail, give it a read over the holidays.

Here’s hoping it sets you on that path to idea fulfillment in your business.

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