6 ways to stifle a culture of innovation

by Bruce Zetter on September 18, 2014

The bigger the idea, the greater the risk of failure.

Bruce Zetter, PhD, is the Charles Nowiszewski Professor of Cancer Biology at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School and a member of Boston Children’s Vascular Biology program. He has made significant contributions to cancer research and worked as Chief Scientific Officer at Boston Children’s Hospital.  A frequent advisor to biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, Zetter will be master of ceremonies at Boston Children’s Hospital’s Global Pediatric Innovation Summit + Awards (Oct 30-31, 2014).

By now, we have all seen a surfeit of articles on how to foster a culture of innovation in the workplace. Unfortunately, with our words, actions and tone of voice, most of us do just the opposite; we stifle innovation at every turn.

For the record, I run a cancer research lab at Boston Children’s Hospital, and innovation is our stock-in-trade, the one quality on which our performance as scientists is measured. There are no silver medals for coming in second in science. Yet even professional innovators can stifle the creative urge in their colleagues, their direct reports and even in their supervisors.

It’s easy to thwart a culture of innovation. Here are a few ways it can be done:

  1. Just say no. New ideas start out as fragile buds. They can easily be nipped. You have worked hard and become a supervisor. Now, you can be the person who stands between an idea and a new concept being realized. What a wonderful power. Just deny people the opportunity to work on any new idea, especially one of their own. This will keep things just the way they have always been.
  2. Say something negative about the quality of the idea. Saying no is a good way to stifle innovation, but calling the idea dumb, naïve or silly is better. Who will return to you with a new concept if they risk being put down? This stifling strategy works best if done in public. It will stop them, and everyone in the vicinity, from ever coming forward with a new idea again.
  3. New ideas start out as fragile buds. They can easily be nipped.

  4. Say that it is too risky or too difficult. Innovation is inherently risky. In fact, the bigger the idea, the greater the risk of failure, so it is best to avoid new ideas, especially the big ones. Besides, if it were easy, someone would have done it before. Of course, this kind of thinking may ensure mediocrity or possibly repetitive near-excellence, but at least there won’t be any big failures.
  5. Say that it costs too much. Blaming the cost is a very insidious and successful strategy for squashing innovation. You could probably squeeze out a small amount for a pilot study, but what’s the point. It probably won’t work out in the long run. Remember that idea for the computerized watch you thought would be too expensive? Apple just made it! Blaming the budget is a good way to hide your true fear—innovation itself.
  6. Enjoy the status quo. The easiest way to stifle innovation is to discredit its importance. In other words, to be completely satisfied with the way you and your team are doing things now. What has worked before will definitely work again and again and again. Just do the same thing but more of it. Complacency dooms innovation.
  7.  Stay busy, every minute of the day. Have you ever noticed that when you say to a colleague, “How are you?”, they no longer say “fine”; they say “busy.” Staying occupied has become a value unto itself in our culture.  Innovation requires some time to think, time that could be better spent doing routine work. If “busy” is your primary stated value, you are doing a good job of stifling innovation.



If, by now, you would like to stifle innovation less and encourage it more, it is not as difficult as you think. Here are some useful tips:

  • Embrace new ideas, even when not your own.
  • Encourage innovative thinking (i.e., seemingly wacky ideas) with positivity and enthusiasm.
  • Show them the money! Innovation is not the place to skimp. Invest in your vision and in your future. Find ways to economize in more mature endeavors.
  • Value creativity as much as you value productivity. Provide opportunities for group and individual breakouts where the goal is to foster new ideas, and find ways to implement them.
  • Practice innovation outside of work. Like anything else, innovation works best when it becomes a habit. Encourage it at home, in yourself and your loved ones, especially in children. Encouraging and empowering them to take risk can bear fruit for them today and for all of us tomorrow.
  • Innovation comes when you least expect it and from the most unlikely sources. Look for it everywhere, open yourself to it, encourage it in others. Just say yes.
  • Get inspired. Attend Boston Children’s Global Pediatric Innovation Summit + Awards. Register now!

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