One of the questions I get asked most frequently is “What do I do when my boss won’t let me innovate?”

I recently came across this video interview (above) with Seth Godin, renowned as being one of the most important marketing experts of modern times and the author of 18 bestselling books. In it, he gives some excellent advice on why everyone needs to develop the mindset of an entrepreneur, and how to become better at dealing with the fear of failure.

But the part which stuck with me (and is the reason I am highlighting it to you) comes at 16:20 minutes into the video, when the interviewers asks him “When you’re at the bottom [of the totem pole], and there are people above you acting as the roadblocks [by not giving you permission to try something], who should you go after?”

Seth’s response is a golden nugget of insight which applies to so many innovation programmes:

I feel the whole “my boss won’t let me” thing is a problem and I start with this:
if you’re saying that if you go to your boss and say: “may I do Blahblah”
that your boss says “No!”, well of course she says no.
She says no because what you’re really saying is:
“if I do this and it fails it will be your fault, and if it succeeds I get the credit, okay?”
No boss will do that, so that’s a crutch [excuse people use]

Seth brings up an interesting point here, which is that different people in the company have different objectives, and this will affect how they perceive new ideas like innovations. In many cases, and especially in larger, more established companies, the primary objective of people in management is to keep operations running smoothly and reducing the risk of disruption. Their mindset is focused on management, as in managing the steadiness of the business. Therefore “bosses” of employees, unless they’re senior stakeholders in the company, will often have a reduced interest in things which are out of their control and could risk their performance, of which new ideas being run by one of their team members are a good example.

From this boss’ perspective, if something goes wrong, their boss, which could be the head of the company, will place the blame on them as an individual for not keeping their team in check. And if an experiment goes well, either their whole department or the individual with the idea gets the credit. So the downside of an idea failing is worse than the smaller upside of it succeeding in their eyes.

It’s only when you get to people who have a leadership position do you usually get into a changing mindset, where the management of the business is joined by growth of the business as a value driver. This is where new ideas and innovation becomes more of a positive capability again.

It’s the difference between a manager mindset and a leadership mindset.

It’s also a topic which I covered in a previous interview with Gijs Van Wulfen, about how to get your managers to listen to your ideas. I recommend you listen to that interview as well, but the main point is that a manager won’t be open to listening to new ideas unless not listening to ideas is in itself a bigger risk.

So what can you do to get that permission from your boss? Here are my 3 tips:

  1. Get them involved: One of the most important lessons in getting innovations off the ground is to not treat senior stakeholders as gatekeepers who only say “yes or no”, because then that’s what they will become. Instead, involve them in the development of the idea, not just in critiquing it but also building on it and refining it
  2. Reduce the perceived up-front risk: All ideas start out rough (and often quite ugly to other people). And the truth is that without a bit of experimenting and feedback, it’s almost impossible to say whether an idea is good enough to turn into a successful innovation. So instead of asking for permission to develop the idea, inform your boss of what little budget and time it will take to get a better idea of whether the idea might work or not. This will come across as a lot less risky, and the first stage can often be achieved in a few weeks, or sometimes even days and for a very small budget.
  3. Choose your moment: As Gijs Van Wulfen said, you need to pick the right moment to raise your ideas. Even if you think they’re amazing, if you pick a moment when your boss isn’t receptive to ideas, then they’re likely to go nowhere.

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Chief Editor of and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as the world's #7 Innovation blogger in 2014, I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love.