John Nottingham and John Spirk (Nottingham Spirk) in “The Corner Office”

Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of John Nottingham and John Spirk, co-presidents of Nottingham Spirk, an innovation consulting firm based in Cleveland. They ask clients to narrow down project teams to those who own the ideas.

To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.

Photo credit: Librado Romero/The New York Times

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Bryant: What are some things you’ve noticed in some organizations’ culture that can impede innovation?

Spirk: One thing we sometimes see is that everyone from the C-suite level on down talks about innovation, and they will go through the motions. They’ll give titles to chief innovation officers and the like, but they won’t follow through.

Many times, that’s easy to identify because you can go to people below the C-level people and ask them: “Where’s the priority? What’s the urgency? What’s the mission?” They don’t know because they were never given that. It’s like it’s set up to fail from that standpoint. Our feeling is that many times the directives aren’t there to follow through on. And a directive to us is establishing a budget for it. Then it’s serious. But many times there are no budgets for innovation.

Nottingham: And too often we see groups that say: “O.K. Today we’re going to be creative. Let’s shuttle into a room and have a brainstorming session.” And they’ll have this clipboard, the sticky notes and all kinds of techniques.

Bryant: What are other things you’ve noticed?

Spirk: One is lack of speed. The meetings have to happen. The sign-offs have to take place. The budgets have to be approved all the way through the system. If those don’t happen, that will bog things down.

Nottingham: The analogy we use is that you’re in a Jeep S.U.V. on one side of a pond of quicksand, and way on the other side is the place you want to get to. That’s the goal. And you rev up your engine and start moving and you’re negotiating this tricky pond. If you pause to think about it for a while, you start sinking in the quicksand and all of a sudden you disappear.

Spirk: The other thing that is absolutely critical for success with companies is to have an internal champion. Not the C.E.O.; that’s a given. There has to be a champion inside. And they have to have the ability to do it without any penalties or risk to their career for trying new things.

Bryant: Other things that can slow innovation?

Spirk: I’ll tell you there’s nothing more frustrating than to sit in on a conference call, and we’ll have maybe three people on our side, and there will be 15 or 16 people on the other side of the call. The bigger the company, the more people tend to be on the call. And once we kind of figure that out, we have a talk with the company because that is no way to innovate. It just does not happen with 16 people on a weekly conference call.

We’ll tell them that we need to narrow the team down, and get the key people involved — the ones who own the project. Not just people who are watching it, but the ones who own it. And there’s usually only two or three who truly own it.

Nottingham: The more people you have in a meeting, the more you have the opportunity for a naysayer — “Wait a minute, what if it doesn’t work? What if it doesn’t happen?” All of a sudden the dynamic just slows down.

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Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times‘ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on that he started in March 2009. In his book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.

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