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3 “derailers” that can wreak havoc on your company’s ability to innovate

The key to fulfilling your company’s potential for innovation is to catch and curb "derailers" before they derail your team.

6 min read



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As leaders, we work hard to equip our employees with the tools they need to excel. In a climate defined by rapidly shifting technologies and emerging markets — in which 84% of executives believe business growth is contingent on innovation — leaders are eager to promote an entrepreneurial spirit within their organizations, or “intrapreneurship.”

On one hand, this leadership instinct is smart. As Richard Branson says, “[Intrapreneurs] drive new projects and explore new and unexpected directions for business development.” To break down barriers and do things that haven’t been done before, intrapreneurs rise above challenges, leverage resources and keep overhead low.

But if you really want to prepare your people for intrapreneurial success, you’ll have better results if you focus on counterproductive habits. More than positive qualities, it’s these “derailers” that predict intrapreneurial failure. By curbing the destructive habits first, you can protect positive qualities from disruption and position your team to innovate.

The 3 derailers that are holding back innovation

Counterproductive behaviors can jeopardize the progress of even the brightest organizations. I’ve provided psychometric research to entrepreneurial companies with a wealth of innovative potential only to find that the strongest predictor of success is the absence of unproductive habits.

Three bad habits that are holding back employees (and often their colleagues) are unconscious neglect, overprotection and devaluation, according to my research.

  1. People who take part in unconscious neglect are careless and impulsive with their work. They dash off email responses that come across as abrasive, and they show up late. Simple carelessness like this can complicate relationships by demoralizing teammates and destroying trust.
  2. Habitually overprotective innovators avoid sharing ideas for fear that they’ll be stolen or out of insecurity. This behavior hampers innovation because it suppresses risk-taking and keeps innovative ideas from assessment, development, and improvement.
  3. And employees who routinely devalue their work fail to appreciate the source of their success. Instead of building on and perfecting existing assets, they fall into a cycle of scrapping projects, only to start again from scratch. Their habit of looking ahead to the next new thing without investing in the practical application of the present achievement wastes company resources. By never finishing anything, they alienate peers who could help bring the ideas to fruition.

How managers can undo derailers to maximize intrapreneurship

The key to fulfilling your company’s potential for innovation is to catch and curb derailers before they derail your team.

1. Diagnose your team’s triggers

A health care organization I worked with had observed many counterproductive behaviors among team members. Before we could treat the derailers, we had to diagnose what was triggering them.

We discovered that employees weren’t sure what was expected of them. The workforce was anxious and uncertain. The loss of trust and confidence in leadership led team members to act out and keep ideas to themselves. All they needed was clear direction from leadership.

To diagnose triggers among your team members, get to know them. For each employee, find out what type of environment brings out the best or worst in him or her. Identify what inhibits the employee’s ability to execute or innovate and what fears get in the way. Discover what past schemas the employee is holding on to and what he or she needs to let go of or accept. And if the employee is overcommitted, determine what can be delegated or removed from his or her plate.

2. Create learning goals alongside employees

Leaders who actively help employees pursue learning goals and create a safe space to learn will reap the benefit of engagement. When employees are encouraged to take responsibility, they connect what they’re learning to their own success and take discretionary efforts to own their work.

When leaders at Google are goal-setting, they use “objectives and key results.” The objectives outline where they want to go and what they want to do, and the key results are measurable milestones that define how the objectives will be achieved and quantified. According to Google, it’s typically best to have “about three key results per objective.”

But before you and your employees can set those specific goals and success metrics, you must engage in clear, open communication. In your regular check-ins, ask team members what they’re excited about learning and why, what information would help them do their jobs better or even what subjects they’re passionate about, and make learning plans from there.

3. Help your employees prioritize

One particularly burned-out leader I worked with felt like she was firefighting her way through the day. We determined that setting strategic priorities and sequencing her tasks would allow her to focus on the most important tasks rather than scramble to address one seemingly pressing issue after another.

Organizing her work so that it correlated to the way she processed freed up her headspace, allowing her to be more energized, less drained, and more in control — which led to a higher-performing team overall.

Prioritizing is one of the most energy-intensive tasks the brain undertakes, so it’s vital to establish a habit of listing strategic priorities at the start of the workday before distractions fill up the schedule. Help employees do the same by regularly checking in with them to see whether they’ve laid out their top priorities for that specific day.

As a manager, you’re so focused on what your team should be doing that it can be easy to miss all the derailing behaviors that are undermining your efforts to innovate. Put these three tips into practice to help your team reduce negative habits and create space for positive, innovation-driving behaviors.


Kerry Goyette is president of Aperio Consulting Group, a corporate consulting firm that utilizes workplace analytics and implements research-based strategies to build high-performance cultures. She’s a certified professional behavior analyst and certified forensic interviewer with postgraduate studies in psychometrics and neuroscience.

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