Ten Rules for Stifling Innovation

In the summer, professors get to read books they’re too busy to look at during the semester.  I’m now reading a classic 1983 book on business innovation: The Change Masters, by Rosabeth Moss Kanter.  It’s amazing that she gets everything right; her key points are in best-selling management books being published today.  (See my June 9th posting “How long will it take?” for another story about how long we’ve known how innovation really works.)

Kanter analyzed six companies in depth; four of them were innovators and two were not. Somewhat tongue in cheek, Kanter proposed a list of ten “hidden messages” that the non-innovating companies sent their employees every day, writing “Imagine something like this hanging on an executive’s wall, right next to the corporate philosophy”:

1. Regard any new idea from below with suspicion-because
it’s new, and because it’s from below.
2. Insist that people who need your approval to act first go
through several other levels of management to get their signatures.
3. Ask departments or individuals to challenge and criticize
each other’s proposals. (That saves you the job of deciding;
you just pick the survivor.)
4. Express your criticisms freely, and withhold your praise.
(That keeps people on their toes.) Let them know they can
be fired at any time.
5. Treat identification of problems as signs of failure, to discourage
people from letting you know when something in
their area isn’t working.
6. Control everything carefully. Make sure people count anything
that can be counted, frequently.
7. Make decisions to reorganize or change policies in secret,
and spring them on people unexpectedly. (That also keeps
people on their toes.)
8. Make sure that requests for information are fully justified,
and make sure that it is not given out to managers freely.
(You don’t want data to fall into the wrong hands.)
9. Assign to lower-level managers, in the name of delegation
and participation, responsibility for figuring out how to cut
back, layoff, move people around, or otherwise implement
threatening decisions you have made. And get them to do it
10. And above all, never forget that you, the higher-ups, already
know everything important about this business.

8 thoughts on “Ten Rules for Stifling Innovation

  1. Hello and nice to read your blog.

    I’ve just got your ‘Group Genius’ from my company’s new project called ‘Eager to Learn’ (my company located in Thailand)

    I will finish and review this book as soon as possible.
    (We call this ‘Book Briefing’ – sharing and summarize or review the book on Intranet Knowledge Based Website)

    By the way, I will continue read your blog every free-time I have 😀

  2. hi keith,

    thanks for the post!

    it is sad, but true, that these (and several more) innovation-inhibiting management behaviours are still practised so widely.

    here are some suggestions of my own for the list:
    11. uphold the age-old principle of punishing people who are associated with failed projects (that will demotivate everyone from
    supporting innovative ideas)
    12. insist on seeing financial data on every idea proposed (you can kill any idea with financial forecasts)
    13. do not make innovation part of anyone’s annual goals (to make sure that nobody has an incentive to pursue it)
    14. insist that everybody take on innovation tasks in addition to their current projects (who cares that they are all working at 130% already?)
    15. never venture beyond your established mindset (change is uncomfortable!)



  3. […] If you are looking for a ‘how-to’ on completely killing innovation (whilst destroying an innovation culture) in your organisation, it really is hard to go past Harvard Business School professor, Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s 9 rules for stifling innovation. […]

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