There are many inhibitors to innovation within organizations, innovation here defined as:

the application of creativity to bring about some sustainable change or transformation which positively addresses the perceived expectations (wants and needs) of stakeholders – for instance, of customers in terms of ethical standards and functionality – and which can be meaningfully measured for its impact and value.

Amongst the seemingly endless catalogue of potential or actual inhibitors we can include low tolerance for failure, reluctance to invest, defensive position towards competitors, lack of trust and, of course, the lack of supportive leadership. Largely, these can be addressed through applying a good standard of stakeholder management and care – with perhaps the exception of the unsupportive leader in which case – get another one, or get another job! But, on reflection, there is novel inhibitor that quite literally hides in plain site – plateau thinking.

Plateau thinking, simply expressed, refers to the almost universal tendency to work towards some fixed goal characterised as being the point at which the plan is complete, the report written, the ‘t’s’ crossed and the ‘i’s’ dotted, where matters of incommensurability are fully and satisfactorily adddressed, all issues dealt with, critics convinced, and so on, and so on. Here’s an example: you spend considerable time and effort researching some question or problem, you carefully analyse your findings, you consult other sources of similar research, you might even consult any relevant theories. Eventually, after much hard work you write it all up and issue it as a complete and final document. It’s great. It’s a fine piece of work. It’s the end of a difficult slog. You are to be congratulated.

There’s just one small problem. That completed piece of work remains relevant for a nanosecond, if that. In the space it takes you to print it, or back it up, or email it to a colleague, the world has moved on and somewhere, someone else has gone just that one step further.

So what’s the point, you might be thinking? The risk of plateau thinking throws into sharp relief the need to develop an embedded discipline of continuously questioning accepted norms and beliefs, policy and protocols, processes and systems – the way we do things. This may sound like a tedious proposition, but in a world characterised by speed of change, transformation – and you know all the rest having heard it a million times – to fall into the habit of plateau thinking is to mentally stand still even when you think you’re running!