The Barriers to Innovation

The Barriers to Innovation
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It's hard to be an innovator. You have to come up with cool new stuff, make it work, and get people to use it. Not easy! Depending on your situation, there can be barriers, active and passive, to being a successful innovator. Lots of people in business and government love to talk about how they're innovative, and how they foster innovation. Hah! In all too many cases, what they actually do is build and sustain barriers so strong and so high that innovation is nearly impossible.

If you look at my earlier posts on innovation, you may think that I'm a cynic. The reality is that I'm an enthusiastic, life-long believer in innovation. My sarcasm is targeted exclusively at the hollow, creativity-killing rhetoric that too often passes for support for innovation.

What about big companies who innovate? That's most rumor and self-promotion, rarely a reality.

What if you're a small company trying to innovate? The barriers are mostly put up by the large businesses that dominate the field in which you want to innovate.

Will the big business itself innovate? In spite of all the talk, probably not. It's likely they want to be seen as modern, with it and innovative. It's highly unlikely that they actually want change. This post goes into some detail about the reality behind giant companies that supposedly are great innovators. Why can't big companies innovate? Who knows, but I think the attitude of the pointy-haired boss is a hint:

There is lots of information and a few stories about how to out-fox the giants that want to keep you down in my book on building a growing business from a startup. But it's tough. The big guys hold most of the cards.

Governments are the main source of "passive" barriers to innovation. The barriers are usually in the form of regulations -- regulations that can quickly morph into active barriers once you get caught in the cross hairs of one of these innovation-killing agencies.

You think those regulations are no big deal? The current code of federal regulations is massive, and getting bigger every day. Here's a quick glance at its size:

Of course, no government agency will ever admit that what they are doing is preventing innovation. They are protecting consumers! Enforcing fairness! Doing good stuff, the peoples' business! That's what they say. Sometimes it's even true. But in most cases, what they are really doing is protecting existing businesses and professionals from competition. They do this by putting increasingly burdensome and expensive barriers to new products and services entering the market, and competing with the establishment.

Regulatory barriers to innovation are everywhere, in nearly every industry. Why isn't there a huge outcry? Simple:

  • The companies and people that are on the "inside," benefiting from the barriers, vociferously support "protecting consumers" or whatever the b.s. cover story is.
  • The people who would benefit from the innovation don't see the innovations, because they don't exist yet, and so can't really lobby against the barriers.
  • It's just the way things are. Who has the energy to "fight City Hall," particularly when the innovative benefits don't exist yet because of the barriers?!

The barriers are everywhere, preventing innovation or worsening convenience and price. The barriers are in old, tangible things like a store being able to sell liquor or a car company being able to sell its cars. More importantly, they're in newer, life-issue things like nearly every aspect of healthcare.

Barriers to innovation in healthcare are massive, and getting worse. The barriers aren't called that, of course. The government agencies are protecting our health and privacy! But when you lift the covers, it is easy to see that what is really going on is a rapidly metastasizing federal bureaucracy that prevents life-enhancing products and drugs from being invented, and massively increasing the cost and slowing down the relatively few innovations that squeeze through the gauntlet.

We're clearly in the middle of an innovation bubble. Everyone says they want it. Companies and government agencies claim to be fostering and promoting it. I'm someone who has worked in the innovation trenches for decades. I try to innovate myself, and help others to do it. It's not easy. That's why I get so cynical about all these innovation-smothering institutions who are so loudly in favor of innovation. Their words say one thing and their actions say another. All their innovation amounts to is a pile of marketing rhetoric, an attempt to make themselves appear to be modern.

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