Is stress killing creativity and innovation in your organisation?

Around 90 percent of CEOs state that they are displeased with returns of their investments into innovation. Companies invest in innovation projects, hire innovation consultants, run innovation workshops, and send their best and brightest to conferences and courses on innovation, yet fail to see the magic appear. Angered by this, many companies double down, throwing yet more money on innovation, only to see that returns fail to appear.

In my research, I have seen that a key reason for this is the often superficial way we look at innovation. More specifically, we tend to ignore how pervasive cultural factors, such as innovation stress, can counteract investments and top-down engagements. Innovation stress is rarely mentioned as the killer of innovation, yet its impact can be profound. Stress is a reaction to a stressor, and a stressor often emerges as the mismatch between demands/expectations and (perceived) resources at hand. If we perceive that what is demanded of us cannot be met by our resources – inner or outer – we react by becoming stressed. Stress can then lead to a number of negative outcomes, including health issues and lowered productivity.

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Innovation stress is a specific and quite particular case of this. Much comes down to the very notion of innovation. Whilst we all profess to love it, we also need to accept that the concept is far from easy to define or delineate. It can be many things, and for quite a few it is unclear what “counts” as an innovation and what doesn’t. Adding to this is that innovation, particularly today, is often viewed as effectively infinite potential. No matter how much you’ve innovated, you could always have done better…

Now, when top management states to their organization that there is to be a focus on innovation, this is often seen by employees as unclear and ill-defined, and at the same time something impossible to achieve – as you could always have done better. Couple this with a perceived lack of resources, so that the demand isn’t coupled with e.g. a bigger budget and/or less work with reports and sales, and you have an almost perfect recipe for stress. Innovation stress.


A vicious cycle

Some (managers) might take umbrage at this, and state that they make it very clear to their teams and organizations what innovation means, and that they try to make resources available. When this is the case, innovation stress also tends to be very low. There are however, in my experience and as shown in my research, quite a few organizations in which innovation goals are not clearly communicated, where simple and meaningful examples of what kind of innovation is desired aren’t distributed, and where management doesn’t supply people in the organization with the material and temporal resources that innovation requires. Instead, they announce yet another innovation competition, replete with consultants wielding PostIt-notes. When this fails, anger sets in and a vicious circle of innovation engagements and attendant stress has been established.

The lesson is simple: Take innovation stress seriously. Communicate expectations, keep innovation meaningful, and balance demands and resources. See stress levels go down, and innovation go up. It’s not rocket science, but it can make your innovation capabilities skyrocket.


Alf Rehn is a professor of innovation at the University of Southern Denmark and a much sought after keynote speaker. His new book Innovation for the Fatigued is out now. Visit to find out more