REPLACE Big Data Show logo
April 30 - May 1, 2025
North Javits Center | New York City

Why Innovation Stops - Fear, Culture, and Middle Management

Innovation is so important to business that no-one can agree on it. A quick search turns up four types of innovation, eight types of innovation, ten types of innovation, and twenty-three types of innovation. There are innovation wheels, innovation grids, Venn diagrams, word clouds, and color charts.


But there’s one thing most people do agree on: innovation is a challenge. According to McKinsey, 84% of CEOs believe innovation is critical for growth, but only 6% are satisfied with their innovation results.


So… If a data-driven, AI-enabled future is an innovative future, what might stop it?


What are some of the most common things holding innovation back today, and what can we do about them? To find out, we asked five leaders from very different companies, in very different roles.


The fastest way innovation dies is through fear…

“Bureaucracy, matrix organizations, layers of approvals – all will structurally dissuade and eventually kill innovation,” says Jen Grant, COO at data app company, Cube. “But the fastest way innovation dies is through fear. Fear of ridicule, fear of being shot down, fear of getting fired, which can be boiled down into fear of failure.”


When you work in a monoculture

“The most common reason for the lack of innovation in business is culture,” says Stephen Gee, CEO of executive leadership community, Blend. “In particular, a combination of limited cognitive diversity in teams, combined with an environment that fears failure. Without diverse perspectives and experiences, teams struggle to generate a broad range of ideas or challenge the status quo effectively.”


Your leaders just won’t listen

David Boyle, director of audience growth company, Audience Strategies, believes it’s a rigid adherence to processes and hierarchy that “often hampers” the creativity necessary for innovation. This also “often fails to recognize the contributions of junior staff and people from outside of the core corporate culture, whose fresh perspectives are crucial for breakthrough innovation.”


Or middle management play it safe

Alex Whittles is founder and CEO of governance, auditing and disaster recovery company, Power BI Sentinel. He says the door to innovation slams shut when management seek to avoid risk.


“Look at machine learning, for example. It’s often unclear what the possibilities will be until research has been conducted and proofs of concept created. However, there is no guarantee of success, and it often requires multiple cycles to understand the potential. This requires up front investment, trust, and a certain acceptance of risk for the reward to be realized. The blocker is often middle management, who can prefer the safety of stagnation over the risk of change.”


How to turn it around

If that’s what’s wrong, how do we make it right? “Organizational leaders must be convinced that innovation is the only way to guarantee growth, success, and long-term organizational survival,” says Flavio Villanustre, LexisNexis Risk Solutions’ CISSP, CISO and SVP of technology. “And they must commit the necessary resources and investments to that process, even if that could hurt short-term financial results in favor of the long-term view.”


Think different

An enormous part of that investment is people. “Cultivating a culture that embraces cognitive diversity, encourages fresh thinking, and enables teams to learn from failure is key for organisations to successfully deliver meaningful innovation to market,” says Gee.


Emphasize a bias for action

“The most innovative companies create cultures that encourage risk and lessen the downside of failure,” says Grant. “Google in the 2000s encouraged risk-taking and released flurries of new products. At Box, in the 2010s, one of our values was ‘take risks, fail fast, get stuff done’. And later, in the 2015s, we defined one of Looker’s values as ‘do’ – to emphasize a bias for action vs. research or approvals. Visible support for taking risks leaves space for failures, which then leads to amazing innovations.”


Use all the tools

And if your management culture can be a little cliquey, Boyle says employees should look at breakthrough innovations to, um, breakthrough innovation. Like language models, for example.


“They offer young outsiders the ability to refine, articulate, and elevate their ideas with a sophistication previously reserved for suits way higher up the ladder,” says Boyle. “By leveraging AI tools, businesses can democratize innovation, ensuring every idea, regardless of its origin, has the chance to be heard and developed.


“We helped one young woman at a global entertainment company get the attention of her CEO with a well reasoned argument about why and how they should do a partnership deal with a major global TV show. Strategy, research and creativity all coming together. 100% AI-supported. Viva la revolución!”


And never, ever stop

“The innovation process is so delicate and requires such a perfect balance of conditions that it can be easily disrupted and derailed,” says Villanustre. “For innovation to stop, just do nothing. What’s hard is to get innovation going and to keep it going.”