How To Stifle Innovation

By Tony Vengrove

This post is an adaption of an article that originally appeared on Intrepid Now.

I recently reacquainted myself with a great book, The Change Masters: Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the American Corporation, written by Rosabeth Moss Kanter in 1983. Given the prodigious rise of innovation, entrepreneurship, and intrapreneurship in the past decade or so, it’s safe to say this book was ahead of its time.

I say this because as I reread it, I came upon a list I had completely forgotten: Kanter’s 10 Rules for Stifling Innovation. While written in a tongue-in-cheek manner, she clearly nails how executive leaders so easily squash the creative spirit out of organizations. As you read the list, ask yourself if these insights are still relevant today:

1. Regard any new idea 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 layers or management to get their signatures.

3. Ask departments or individuals to challenge or criticize each other’s proposals. (That saves you the trouble 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 that people count everything 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 of 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 that you have made. And get them to do it quickly.

10. Above all, never forget that you, the higher-ups, already know everything important about this business.

Brilliant, yes?

While much has changed in the corporate world since 1983, the command-and-control leadership style was still in full force back in those days and accepted by many as a successful, if not important, leadership style. Perhaps that’s why the concept of fear isn’t articulated in Kanter’s list, although you might opine it’s implied between the lines. Fear, after all, is central to the command and control style: If you don’t do as I say and deliver, there will be consequences—severe consequences.

In Art of the Idea, John Hunt states, “Fear might be a strong catalyst for entrenching obedience, but it’s a lousy motivator for fresh thinking.”

How true!

Creativity and innovation can’t be bullied into being. Like a turtle, conditions need to be safe and secure before employees will stick their necks out and engage with the creative process.

Kanter’s list also infers that innovation isn’t a process-driven system that can be managed like other business systems. It’s a unique beast. Innovation requires a different style of leadership—creative leadership. Kanter isn’t finding fault with process, she’s indicting poor leadership and poor culture.

If it’s so easy to stifle innovation as Kanter demonstrates, shouldn’t it be just as easy to un-stifle it? Here’s how her list reads if you simply embrace the opposite behavior. I shall call them Vengrove’s 10 Rules for Un-Stifling Innovation:

1. Evaluate any new idea with possibility – look for reasons why it might work, why it’s on strategy, why it’s aligned with consumer insight.

2. Embrace a flatter organizational structure that makes decision making more efficient and productive. Don’t make the process of sharing and advancing ideas burdensome—your employees already have full plates.

3. Don’t allow people to criticize other people’s ideas or proposals without first articulating something positive.

4. Praise and reward people for having the courage to share their ideas. Offer criticism in context of objectives; explain criticism in terms of why something is off strategy. (That keeps people focused on finding solutions to your concerns.) Let them know you embrace and accept failure—that failure is part of the innovation process.

5. Embrace problems as a way to catalyze creative thinking and creative problem solving.

6. If you’re going to control anything, control the objectives and strategy. Then empower people to figure out how to best achieve your goals. Align them on what’s important, and then get out of the way.

7. Communicate about changes early and often—involve the whole organization. Embrace the spirit that people won’t always agree with your decisions, but they’ll know why you made your decisions.

8. Make it easy for anyone to gain access to information they need to advance their work. Data is not the entitlement of the market research department.

9. Embrace diversity and invite a wide-ranging group of people to the innovation table.

10. Above all, never forget that you, the higher-ups, don’t have all the answers or the best ideas.

That’s a pretty good checklist for leaders seeking to develop their creative leadership abilities. If you’re struggling to get your innovation agenda unstuck, perhaps the first step to take is self-evaluation. Are you promoting any of Kanter’s stifling behaviors? If so, what are you going to do about it?

Most employees are begging for change and the opportunity to work for a company that embraces rather than stifles innovation. If the actions of leaders set the tone and culture of the organization, then it’s up to leadership to demonstrate the desired behaviors they want to see in others. That means you can make a huge difference. That means you can help un-stifle innovation. That means you can start now!

Founder, Miles Finch Innovation LLC

Miles Finch Innovation helps companies navigate the messy territory of corporate innovation. We’re strategic thinking partners who can help you get unstuck and identify creative solutions to your toughest challenges. We also love to train and speak on the subject of Creative Leadership. Email us or call us at 860-799-7505 to learn how we can help you you unlock the creative potential of your employees.

The Best of Lead with Giants – August 2015

There are some great reads in August’s edition of Best of Lead With Giants! This

Best_of_LWG_150monthly compilation serves to advocate uplifting leadership and to change lives by showcasing the leadership wisdom of the Lead with Giants community.

This month’s best of includes writing by, Jone Bosworth, Chery Gegelman, Ron McIntyre, Sarah Monahan, Dan Forbes, Linda Fisher Thornton, David Dye, Kimunya Mugo, Rita Joaskolla, Brandon Schaefer and David Hamman. You’ll also find Tony’s recent post, Navigating Transitions: Letting the Story Unfold.

We’re happy to be included in such great company!

To learn more about the Lead with Giants community, click here.

Navigating Transitions: Letting the Story Unfold

By Tony Vengrove


Despite the frenetic pace of 21st Century living, the prospect of a major transition often makes us hit the brakes so we slow down and create space for highly judicious thinking. Although we live in an age where anything seems possible, with more and more people chasing entrepreneurial dreams and accepting the risks associated with them, navigating transitions has the tendency of taking our eyes off of the long-term prize to focus excessively on the short-term.

The trepidation that comes with taking those first few steps into unknown territory can become so paralyzing that we become possessed with judging every step we take versus keeping our focus on the finish line. And if those first few steps don’t go as planned, boy isn’t it tempting to quickly retreat to known territory?

Mark Nepo, in Finding Inner Courage narrates a wonderful parable that’s relevant to navigating transitions:

There is an old Hindu story. In it, there is a boy who wants a drum, but his mother can’t afford a drum, and so, sadly, she gives him a stick.

Though he doesn’t know what to do with it, he shuffles home and begins to play with the stick. Just then he encounters an old woman trying to light her woodstove. The boy freely gives her the stick.

She lights her fire, makes some bread, and in return she gives him half a loaf of bread. Walking on, the boy comes upon a potter’s wife whose child is crying from hunger. The boy freely gives her the bread.

In gratitude, she gives him a pot. Though he doesn’t know what to do with it, he carries it along the river, where he sees a washerman and his wife quarreling because the wife broke their one pot. The boy gives them the pot.

In return, they give him a coat. Since the boy isn’t cold, he carries the coat until he comes to a bridge, where a man is shivering. Riding to town on a horse, the man was attacked and robbed of everything but his horse. The boy freely gives him the coat.

Humbled, the man gives him his horse. Not knowing how to ride, the boy walks the horse into the town, where he meets a wedding party with musicians. The bridegroom and his family are all sitting under a tree with long faces. According to custom, the bridegroom is to enter the procession on a horse, which hasn’t shown up. The boy freely gives him the horse.

Relieved, the bridegroom asks what he can do for the boy. Seeing the drummer surrounded by all his drums, the boy asks for the smallest drum, which the musician gladly gives him.

While there are many insights to glean from this charming story, the main lesson I’d like to share regarding transitions is that transitory stretches almost always require patience and a willingness to let things unfold at their own pace.

As Nepo points out in his analysis, if the story ends when the boy asks for the drum but gets something else, we’re left with a lesson about “not getting what we want, but accepting what we are given.” Similarly, if you end the story at each point where the boy gifts his possessions, the lessons learned are quite different. It’s only when the whole story unfolds that we’re given the treat of complete closure.

By “letting things unfold” I don’t mean to imply that deep thinking and planning aren’t critical, of course they are. But plans are created to help people and organizations achieve a goal. The goal should always trump the plan. Plans are developed using the best available information at the time of their creation. As they are executed, new information is captured, markets shift, things change.

I used to work for a CEO who loved to remind us that, “You never make the plan the way you planned to make the plan.” The point being, the road to your finish line will be filled with unexpected turns, twists, and surprises—embrace them. Smooth transitions rarely happen; expect rough patches and embrace a spirit of flexibility and resilience.

Early on in my adult life, my Father taught me to work through important decisions and transitions by folding a piece of paper in half and creating pros and cons lists. It’s a simple exercise that worked effectively on several occasions and I still use it today. However, during the time when I was leading a corporate innovation team, I began to add another layer to the exercise: visualization.

The pros/cons list might be effective in helping to make decisions associated with transitions, but navigating the execution of a transition requires a more holistic view. Take the time to visualize and write down what success will look like and feel like if you effectively transition from point A to point B. Similarly, capture what failure would look and feel like. Ask, “Why will I succeed and why might I fail?”

When you complete this exercise you position yourself to let things unfold. You’ll be able to recognize emergent shifts or events that indicate you’re heading down a wrong path and need to course correct. Similarly, you might determine that although you’re not achieving results as fast as you’d like, you’re still on the right path, so steady as she goes.

Some might not like that last sentence; most of us are hard-wired to make things happen on cue per our predetermined timeline. It seems in today’s society we all want our drum right now. But, sometimes, maybe often times, there’s great learning and growth in achieving what you want when you’re forced to take the long road and let things unfold organically.

Founder, Miles Finch Innovation LLC

Miles Finch Innovation helps companies navigate the messy territory of corporate innovation. We’re strategic thinking partners who can help you get unstuck and identify creative solutions to your toughest challenges. We also love to train and speak on the subject of Creative Leadership. Email us or call us at 860-799-7505 to learn how we can help you you unlock the creative potential of your employees.

Seven C’s Lightening Round with John Bell


A tradition on The Stories of Creative Leadership Podcast is to ask our guests to share a pithy quote about each of the Seven C’s of Creative Leadership. In our last episode, we spoke with John Bell, author of Do Less Better: The Power of Strategic Sacrifice in a Complex World. It was a fantastic conversation with many, many useful insights about creative leadership, leading change, and fostering creativity. You can catch the entire interview here.

“I’ve got to tell you, I love those Seven C’s–it’s a terrific checklist for anyone who wants to break through with creativity.” -John Bell

Here’s what John had to say during his lightening round:

Communication: “This is about vision. The domain that leaders envision must be a better place for their business, their employees, and their customers. But don’t stop there, if you are a leader with creative juices don’t be afraid to be the team’s player/coach.”

Curiosity: “Rather than the question ‘Why?’ I prefer the question, ‘Why not?’ Why not establishes a place to go. So when you and your team have proven you can break through the seemingly impossible there’s nothing that can stand in your way.”

Creativity: “Step one for creative leaders is to create a culture in which big ideas are worshiped. In my business this was critical because without that culture we would never have been able to thrive against the big giants.”

Connecting: “When everyone understands that lateral thought doesn’t have to be a logical thought then there are no bad ideas. So this brings out more ideas from more people, so you get the snow-ball effect.”

Culture: “When creative leaders establish a creative culture that delivers, you have a team of believers who see the unseen.”

Change: “Ditto my last answer.”

Courage: “I think this is another way of saying you don’t have to be an entrepreneur but you have to think like one.”

Don’t forget to join us on The Stories of Creative Leadership–a podcast series devoted to uncovering the leadership attributes and behaviors required to lead innovation and change. You can follow the series HERE.


BELL-NOWAbout John Bell: John is a retired consumer packaged good CEO and global strategy consultant to some of the world’s most respected blue-chip organizations. A prolific writer, Bell’s musings on strategy, leadership, and branding have appeared in various marketing journals and publications such as Fortune and Forbes. He has served as a director of several private, public, and not-for-profit organizations.


Unleash Your Creativity

The Back Story of my Chapter from Energize Your Leadership: Discover, Ignite, Break Through

By Tony Vengrove

-A sprinkle of creativity is a miracle (1)

As a self-proclaimed innovation omnivore, I’m inclined to follow my heart and permit my curiosity to trail-blaze a path into unchartered territory. That spirit led me to a wonderful group of global leaders who came together to publish Energize Your Leadership: Discover, Ignite, Break Through.

I find the story of the how the book came to be just as inspiring as the book itself. Most of us met online in various Twitter chats, Google hangouts and such. A smaller group first recognized a lack of energy, excitement and sense of purpose in the leaders they interact with each day. After examining that insight for some time the idea for the book emerged and they began to recruit a larger group to participate.

I’m forever grateful to Alli Pollin who thought it wise to ask me to get involved. I “met” Alli digitally after hearing her interviewed on a podcast and thereafter began to converse and share ideas on social media. When the content team determined they needed to find someone to write a chapter about creativity, Alli generously extended an invitation to me to join the cause; I jumped at the chance.

The 16 authors involved are scattered across the globe. I’m still amazed we were able to incorporate as an LLC, agree to a budget and contribute our own capital, create a master plan for the book, stick to a schedule, communicate only via conference calls and email, and pull it all off. Personally, I think it’s a bit of a miracle—collaboration at its finest!

Our book is about energy. As Chris Edmunds states in our forward, “Energy is a vital quality…that is present when people are engaged, enthused, aligned, and valued.” Sometimes energy is abundant and easily accessible, sometimes it’s like a flickering pilot light struggling to ignite into a flame.

“Unleash Your Creativity,” the chapter I wrote for the book, features a story about how my creative energy was sapped and in desperate need of being reignited.

Something almost divine attracted me to an event a few years ago: a local artist was giving a talk on the tremendous success he enjoyed after taking creative action on a serendipitous idea. The timing couldn’t have been better. I had been stuck in a rut and was in need of something to re-energize me and put me back on track. Creative inspiration might be just the thing. I signed up immediately.

On the day of the talk, I’d come down with a nasty head cold and the thought of curling up in bed under the covers sounded far more appealing than trudging outside to then sit in a room full of people for a presentation. But I felt obliged to show up for at least part of the event, so I bundled up and made my way to the venue.

My head cold threw me a curve ball that night. After feeling so excited to attend the event, I suddenly didn’t want to be there. When the talk turned into a hands-on group exercise, I felt dread and thought about leaving. Thankfully, I didn’t get the chance to sneak out and in staying and participating in that hands-on exercise I ultimately found the inspiration I so desperately needed. (You’ll have to read the book to get the full story!)

Creativity can be fickle that way. Sometimes we know exactly where to go to find inspiration, other times we need to quiet our mind and our inner judge to allow inspiration to find us. Quite often it’s in unexpected places, at unexpected moments. When we’ve lost our leadership mojo, what’s often most needed is a clear mind that creates space for our creative spirit to get up and dance. That’s why I love to say creativity is a miracle cure for the leadership blues.

In Energize Your Leadership, we share 16 personal stories intended to reach versus preach. Through our storytelling we hope you’ll find inspiration and the message you were meant to hear. Everything we do creates either positive or negative energy and we wish for you to become a positive energy force for uplifting leaders around you. In doing so, you’ll not only energize yourself, but those around you—and that’s how you can inspire and change the world.

I invite you to learn more about our book at It’s available on Amazon and Kindle along with other online retailers. I’d love to hear your stories about how and where you found inspiration to energize your leadership—please share with us using the hashtag #EnergizedLeaders.

Founder, Miles Finch Innovation LLC

Miles Finch Innovation helps companies navigate the messy territory of corporate innovation. We’re strategic thinking partners who can help you get unstuck and identify creative solutions to your toughest challenges. We also love to train and speak on the subject of Creative Leadership. Email us or call us at 860-799-7505 to learn how we can help you you unlock the creative potential of your employees.