Breaking Down the Barriers to Innovation


By Scott D. Anthony, Paul Cobban, Rahul Nair and Natalie Painchaud

Download the full HBR article “Breaking Down the Barriers to Innovation”  

To catalyze innovation, companies have invested billions in internal venture capital, incubators, accelerators, and field trips to Silicon Valley. Yet according to a McKinsey survey, 94% of executives are dissatisfied with their firms’ innovation performance. Across industries, one survey after another has found the same thing: Businesses just aren’t getting the impact they want, despite all their spending. Why? We believe that it’s because they’ve failed to address a huge underlying obstacle: the day to-day routines and rituals that stifle innovation.

Fortunately, it’s possible to “hack” this problem. Drawing on the behavioral-change literature and on our experiences working with dozens of global companies, including DBS, Southeast Asia’s biggest bank, we’ve devised a practical way to break bad habits that squelch innovation and to develop new ones that inspire it.

Like most hacks, our approach isn’t expensive, though it does take time and energy. It involves setting up interventions we call BEANs, shorthand for behavior enablers, artifacts, and nudges. Behavior enablers are tools or processes that make it easier for people to do something different. Artifacts—things you can see and touch—support the new behavior. And nudges, a tactic drawn from behavioral science, promote change through indirect suggestion and reinforcement. Though the acronym may sound a bit glib, we’ve found that it’s simple and memorable in a way that’s useful for organizations trying to develop better habits.

In this article we’ll describe a variety of BEANs that firms have used to unleash innovation, the characteristics that make them effective, and how your organization can develop and implement its own BEANs. But first we’ll briefly examine the behaviors that drive innovation and the barriers that thwart it.