What stops Us from Creating Breakthrough Innovations


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Have you ever been part of an innovation project that started off with big ambitions and dreams about coming up with disruptive innovations which are expected to be game changing and end with a me-too or a watered down incremental innovation to an existing product category?

I have been part of a few such projects which start with much fanfare and later on become run-of-the-mill projects with no breakthrough’s to show for. I was always interested to understand why is this so?

Why do well-intentioned people, who have all the motivation and incentives to create breakthrough innovations, end up watering down their intentions and at best come up with an incremental innovation and at worst have nothing to show for their efforts?

I have found answers to this question in two different books:

  1. Orbit Shifting Innovation by Rajiv Narang & Devika Devaiah
  2. Creative Change by Dr. Jennifer Mueller

Rajiv and Devika argue that just like physical objects are subject to the earth’s gravitational pull, so are innovation efforts subject to “Mindset Gravity”. They argue that

“Mindset gravity creates gravity tunnels that condition and trap communities, organisations, and even countries and civilisations. It consciously and unconsciously blocks attempts to conceive, pursue, and sometimes even attempt orbit shifting innovations. ”

They have identified 4 layers of gravity that can hold people from creating breakthrough innovations that they so want to create:

Organisational Gravity:

Organisations accumulate gravity with frightening ease with success. In the pursuit of efficiencies, organisations quickly and easily want to create best practices based on their successes in the markets and these best practices then quickly become templates of how things are done around here and before you know it, anyone who attempts to do anything that doesn’t fit the template quickly becomes an outcast and in most cases, is either ostracised, institutionalised or let-go.

Industry Gravity:

All players in the industry slowly start to think alike. Every industry creates a belief system about what is possible and what is not for that particular industry. This could be the belief that they are highly regulated and hence creating breakthrough innovations is extremely difficult or that gaining market share is slow and a painful process or that their customers are not ready for any radical new products. This is the reason why industry defining innovations generally come from someone either at the fringes or someone from outside the industry. Examples of these new entrants creating new industry standards abound.

Country Gravity:

Every country has belief systems that can be limiting. For example, the Swiss are known to be the master craftsmen when it comes to precision watch manufacturing. China seems to be the country that is the fore-runner for manufacturing and Germans are known for their amazingly well-engineered cars. What this means is that if an Indian team wants to design a better car than a German car and manufacture it in India, there is already a lot of gravity that will pull them down, as the prevalent belief is that Indians cant design better cars than the Germans or better watches than the Swiss. It takes a brave leader to even try and break this gravity.

Cultural Gravity:

Organisations and employees in developing countries are usually in awe of their counter-parts from the developed countries. They have better infrastructures, better education and much more resources. All of this leads to the belief in the employees of developing countries that they can’t compete and out-innovate their peers from the developed countries. This is prevalent within MNC’s as well. The reverse is also true. The employees of the parent company of the MNC think that their counter-parts from the developing countries are not capable of creating better innovations than themselves. These are cultural belief systems that hold back entire cultures from attempting breakthrough innovations.

This is one set of reasons, why creating breakthrough innovations is extremely difficult.

Dr. Juergen Mueller, in her book – creative change offers another interesting reason why creating breakthrough innovation is difficult – she argues that while we might say that we want innovation and value creativity, we inherently are not wired to appreciate or even accept creative solutions that have the potential to lead to breakthrough innovations.

She argues

“Our ability to recognize and to embrace creative solutions is, to put it mildly, dysfunctional. The sad irony is that we are more likely to reject an idea because it is creative than to embrace it”.

She also argues that lack of breakthrough innovations is not a lack of creative ideas problem but an idea evaluation problem. It is also the lack of the ability to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty that leads to predictable outcomes for innovation projects.

She has identified two kinds of mindsets that people who evaluate and fund these innovation projects could possess – one has the possibilities for leading us to breakthrough innovations and the other to cause the various levels of gravity that we discussed above.

– Why/Potential Mindset:

When the decision maker is in this mindset, they are looking at the potential of the idea and explore and understand what problems does the idea attempt to solve and try to understand the various aspects of the ideas. In this mindset, they are much more open to creative solutions that could potentially lead to breakthrough innovations, as they are much more tolerant to uncertainties.

– How/Best Mindset

When the decision maker is in this mindset, they are looking at the implementability of the creative solution, they are looking at the practicality of these solutions instead of looking at the potential. They are not open to ambiguity or uncertainties. They want ideas that they are sure about the organisations capability to implement. This typically leads them to fund ideas that are known and are incremental in nature rather than innovative in nature.


While both the books offer good ideas and solutions to overcome these biases in their respective books.

However, I think that before we look at implementing any of these ideas being suggested, it is critical for us to reflect and decide where is our limiting belief coming from. Once we have an answer to that question, we need to test this answer and only when we are convinced that we know what stops us, should we look at some of these creative solutions that the authors offer in their respective books.

And these should just be used as conversation starters within our teams. We should remember that each one of us and our teams are unique and what works for someone else might not work for us. So, it is important to personalise some of these ideas and not be limited by them but to truly work towards creating breakthrough innovations.

We need more breakthrough innovations today, than ever. And maybe, it is your team that will deliver it !

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Mukesh Gupta
I currently work for SAP as Customer advocate. In this capacity, I am responsible to ensure that the voice of the customer is being heard and play the bridge between customers and SAP. Prior to joining SAP, I have worked with different organizations serving in different functions like customer service, logistics, production planning & sales, marketing and business development functions. I was also the founder-CEO of a start-up called "Innovative Enterprises". The venture was in the retail & distribution business. I blog at http://rmukeshgupta.com.


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