Why innovation efforts fail

failedman.jpgAs I’m on the home stretch of finishing the first draft of the book, I’ve read nearly 100 books on innovation, plus various studies, papers, magazines, and more than 100 interviews with innovators of various kinds. One trend I’ve found is the high number of innovation efforts within established companies, and how rarely they have any effect.

Established companies try to retrofit innovation into organizations by things like task forces, committees, portals and suggestion systems.

Have you seen these efforts in action? I’d love to hear why you think they worked, or didn’t. I’m cynical and here’s why:

  • Task forces and committees are seperate from the real teams. Unitl the teams doing actual work are rewarded for being progressive, innovation doesn’t reach products no matter what the task forces do. All the true barriers are still in place.
  • Suggestion boxes go to the same people who vetoed the last five good ideas (Imagine Darth vader with a suggestion box). The problem with innovation is rarely finding ideas: ideas are easy. Instead its finding someone in power with the convinction to take risks and empower creative teams.
  • Innovation and change must be core values, not layers or addendums. You can’t make a company innovative by sprinkling magic innovation dust in the hallways. Instead you have to grow a culture, and hire individuals, that are comfortable with risk, and reward managers willing to support the creatives who report to them.
  • Who has the power to stop innovation? Eliminating the real blocks can be more effective than trying to add some magic new mojo to the organization.

Can you name the innovation leader in any field that got there by committees and task forces? Most innovative companies don’t need any special innovation effort – they built a culture of exploration and risk taking, perhaps out of competitive necessity, as their way of getting good work done.

Innovation efforts that work:

There are a few things I’ve seen in my research that established organizations have done that work.

  • Pilot project. Organizations that form a new project team, give them big goals, and get out of their way. Once they succeed, they come back into the fold as a seed of innovative teamwork that other projects can copy, emulate, or build on. (See skunkworks)
  • Risks and Rewards. Innovation comes with the price of risk. In organizations led by risk takers, innovative cultures are natural as they feed off the leader’s willingness to try new ideas. If a leader is open to change and supportive of his most creative thinkers, innovation will come naturally.
  • Avoidance of innovation for innovation sake. Not everyone needs to innovate. Only certain projects at certain times need to reinvent, retry, or radically change. If everyone is asked to innovate all the time, no one is really innovating: it’s nonsense. It has to have a purpose and a reason, aligned with a strategy.
  • Culture and environment. Innovative organizations, even large ones like 3M, have a long history of supporting individuals in the pursuit of their ideas. 3M invented the “10% work on your own project idea” that Google has made famous. Big companies can be innovative just as small ones, provided the culture and environment support it. Big organizations need long cycles for any culture change, but it can be done by starting small and growing.

So what have you seen work, or fail? I’d love to hear some opinions.

10 Responses to “Why innovation efforts fail”

  1. Peter

    Here here! I think that the culture of any company will govern how innovation will be handled. For example the company I work for has a 25 year history with people who have been here from the beginning. Management will think very carefully about whether to embrace certain types innovation based on not wanting to rock the boat, or knowing that the backlash from long time employees will say “We’ve done it that way for 25 yrs what change now?”.

    Implementing innovation is the key and I agree that long cycles and patience is required. But, how frustrating for the innovators that see how change can benefit the company but because of culture are forced to wait. Unfortunately, I have seen many people leave companies because of that very frustration and therefore the company looses good people with great ideas.

    Good post!

  2. Craig

    1) Great Blog I really enjoy reading it.
    2) I’m really looking forward to reading your book on innovation.
    3) I think you are dead on in the importance of culture for innovation.

    Why innovation I have seen fails…..

    1) Projects with no “buy in” from the people who have to use it or design it.
    2) It’s someone elses idea not your own.
    3) Critical feedback loops are for looks not results.
    4) Results aren’t planned to be measured and reviewed.
    5) In at 8 out at 5 mentality.
    6) The biggest innovators are handcuffed with red tape and other menial problems.
    7) “Group think”
    8) Dominating individuals “squish” others and their ideas.

    Why innovation I have seen suceeds….

    1) Management understands that innovation requires failures and redesigns. (Support in time, money, people, etc is crucial for innovation to occur. Without these resources innovation shrivels up and dies simply because it is not adventagous for individuals to continue working on them.)
    2) The best people are working on the biggest opportunities (Jim Collin’s idea) not the biggest problems.
    3) People working on the project are personally invested (time, money, ideas, emotions) in the project. (Absolutely key.)
    4) Trust in the innovators knowledge, skills, and abilities.

  3. Scott (admin)

    Thx Craig – good list.

    One thing that comes up again and again is leadership’s acceptance of risk: if they are willing to give their teams room to make big mistakes, and trust them with that much rope, many of the problems other organizations complain about endlessly go away. Trust for a team is one of those things no book or formula is going to give the guy in charge.

  4. Scott (admin)

    Hi Peter – I’ve seen similiar things. Although often when creative folks leave places out of frustration they’ve often better off: they’re acknowledging that the environment they’re leaving doesn’t match the environment they need to be happy, and at least looking elsewhere for it – instead of continuing the hope that the company will change to suit them.

    I’m not saying everyone should get up and leave, there are good fights to stick out, but most companies, and their customers, don’t need innovation as much as some creative minds would like.

  5. Scott D.

    The irony of the list posted above is that your own principles are not innovative. They are a summary of the same messages we have read in all the books and articles on innovation.

    I would rather see you push the envelope on how a company can be innovative. For example, management should create a “failure camp”. Team leaders who are responsible for the company’s biggest, boldest failures go to a one-week offsite to learn from their mistakes, set a vision for more bold projects, etc.

    As Edward Tufte would point you, your very general points would be enhanced with exciting and innovative examples (particulars).

  6. Scott (admin)

    Few innovations in history required particularly innovative management methods – many success stories hinge on the basics of good leadership: a clear vision, willingness to take risks, and trust in the people closest to the work.

    Failure camp could be interesting, – but if when you return to work managers aren’t willing to try new approaches and make changes, it’s just a camp – not the breeding ground for innovation. The important element isn’t the camp: it’s the willingness to change.

    I bet you if any manager actively seeks out new ideas and regularly implements some of them, he’ll have plenty of people on his team bringing him new ideas. While this isn’t dramatic, exciting or innovative, it’s the truth: its how innovation, as best I can tell in my research, actually happens.

    Dramatic, fun, innovative things like hack day, or “run a start-up” camp, can certainly spark new ideas, but those sparks land back at work and grow or die for very basic reasons.

    And failure camp, as you’ve described it, is probably misaligned to promoting innovation: those big bold failures were probably waaaay more innovative than products that were moderate successes – it’s the leaders behind those big failures that may know more about innovation than the leaders of projects who aimed only for incremental, predictable ambitions. To penalize them for taking risks (would you be happy about being invited to failure camp?) runs against the grain of how innovative companies deal with failure.

  7. Rajan

    Enjoyed reading this piece . Here are a few ideas and comments based on my experience .

    There are many many reasons why Innovation in large companies fail , let me focus on what has worked for me and what I have seen . I championed innovation in Electronic Design in a Large Indian company in the 90s… Over time , after many twists and turns , the COmpany is among the top 5 Product Design companies ( Hw/sw ) in the WORLD sitting in India and is busy doing M&A in Scotland , Ireland and US !

    Innovation is all about meaningful Change that creates incredible Value over time . The challenge is it is ‘Obvious ‘ to you , the Change Agent / the Champion , the Tempered Radical … but it is Just not Obvious to others….

    So what do you do ?

    First and foremost , get the timing right and have a good support system – essentially people above , below and wherever – that could provide you the much needed information , political support and emotional cushion when the going gets rough ..

    Be very passionate , but at the same time be aware that Your passion could make you attached to your cause and Blind you …. Be a little careful with your ego …

    Develop a “thick skin ‘ and let it protect your sensitive nature which made you propose and champion change in the first place !

    Cultivate friends outside your work place and even outside your industry to hang out with … Can be a great stress reliever

    learn to be comfortable with Chaos / Paradox and Contradictions . Your best effort will go unrewarded and your ‘ordinary ‘ effort will give you some great breaks ! Take both of them in your stride and keep your mouth shut about what actually gave you success !

    Practise , ‘ Upward Leadership ‘. In Simple terms , you go to your superior / boss who has a stake in the success and show humility , vulnerability and say what could be done and make it sound as if it is your Boss’s idea and wisdom that gave the insight .. The trick is to do it with some genuineness and not fake it …

    Look for ways to connect with the Market /Customer early and show some wins/endorsements … The cold fact is people outside your organziation with real problem and no agenda to bring you down could be a great ally . if they have some Credibility and Cash , so much the better .

    Be willing to change the Game and the style of working ( more process , more Metrics , Formats and Market inputs Meetings Reviews etc ) once the early stage of connecting and getting a few customers is passed and the innovation is ready for the Growth stage .. Be willing to accept what you are ‘Not ‘ good at in the interest of the Innovation you are championing ( this is really hard , and I struggled with it )

    Keep up the good work Scott ! keen to read your book when it hits the stands ..
    Very useful work of working with Real people on Real Problems…….

    Synthesis Consulting

  8. pirduan

    Learnt alot in just one page. Thanks Scott for the post.
    I do agree with you on the “bootcamp”. Most likely from experiences and researches as a Trainer, managers did not transfer their experiences back at work. It’s just another offsite retreat for discussions and fresh air.

    Innovation needs to breed in a culture and continuous-improvement environment.

    Many companies did not budget for innovation; as a result many ideas get vetoed as it costly to implement or piloted. If this essential component is missing, how can a company invest and develop innovative culture.

    Rajan highlighted another significant point. Working in a MNC with global presence, getting everyone in the same page is rather challenging due to different culture and tradition. The open concept practice in the West may not be readily accepted by the East. Asian are still individualistic and work with different emotions.



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