How to diagnose creative failures in organizations

One of the first things I do when asked to help organizations be more creative is diagnose where failures happen. The word innovation is so vague that even executives and groups committed to it don’t understand what to look for or where the problems are, if there are any at all. The best definition for innovation is: significant positive change. It’s impossible to get significant positive change in one fell swoop. Even the most brilliant idea has to work it’s way through an organization and there’s no guarantee that good ideas can survive.

As a fundamental rule, the more gates and gatekeepers you have, the harder it is for even great ideas to make it to customers. You can’t have conservative management and innovation at the same time. Innovation demands risk. It’s no surprise entrepreneurs drive many of the new ideas in the world, since they have very few people (with the authority to kill ideas). In most workplaces the reason not much progress happens has far more to do with politics, bureaucracy and culture, all things born of management, than any lack of innate creativity among employees.

What you need to do is follow the life of ideas in your organization. When a new idea is suggested what is the path it has to follow to make it to customers? The idea has to survive from it’s birth in someone’s mind, through meetings and proposals, through prototyping, through the organizational bureaucracy, through budget battles, and finally make it out into the world to customers. Where is the bottleneck? Where do most ideas die? To understand this life you need to make a map of the lifecycle.

The idea lifecycle

Every organization is different and you can make your own list of gates, but here is a simple one to work from. Ask yourself where your own ideas, ideas from your team, or ideas anywhere in your organization tend to die. That’s the point where work needs to be done to improve the number of ideas that survive to the next stage.

  1. Idea
  2. Pitch
  3. Proof of concept
  4. Prototype
  5. Plan
  6. Commitment of resources to the plan
  7. Navigation of the bureaucracy
  8. Execution
  9. Release / Launch

In many organizations the bottleneck is surprisingly at the pitch. Despite all of the rhetoric, the culture is negative and kills new ideas as they’re born in meetings and conversations. And the skillset of pitching is underdeveloped. There’s no reason to worry about breakthroughs and transformations if people are both bad at pitching and leaders are bad at listening to them. If people are afraid to propose ideas, the problem isn’t creativity, it’s stifling management.

Innovation also depends on experimentation. To do something new demands taking risks somewhere in the organization, even if it’s just at the cost of a few hours of an employee’s time. Healthy organizations have many experimental ideas in play, giving people room to explore whether an ideas has merit or not before it’s rejected (or accepted). 

If most new ideas fail at the prototyping stage, then you likely need to hire different people. It’s product designers who have the strongest training for converting good ideas into good plans. Even if  your organization isn’t focused on design, their skillset for developing ideas is likely the key deficit you need to fill to move more ideas further down the pipeline.

Once you’ve identified where the creative bottleneck is, you can ask questions about how to improve the number and quality of ideas that make it through that step. Perhaps different people need to be the gatekeeper. Or the size and shape of the gates need to change.

And of course each idea and project are different. There could be lessons to be learned that are purely about the way the project was developed, rather than a fundamental problem with the organization. Project debriefs or postmortems should be common enough that people with new ideas can look back on previous creative projects and read about what the people who worked on it would have done differently.

If you liked this, checkout the free summary of the bestseller, The Myths of Innovation.

[Note: Post updated 3/4/2014]

3 Responses to “How to diagnose creative failures in organizations”

  1. Mitch Stokely

    Thanks Scott. Good insight. As a tech innovator who has designed and built many types innovative website software tools that later translated into positive returns on investment I can tell you Money is the number one killer. Ive found ironicallt that very small corporations with fluid or engaged business owners encourage the most innovation as they are less concerned with the impact of temporary costs involved in innovation. The more layers of middle managers the more concerns there are for expenses. Anything that doesnt fit into a cost slot as far as employee hours spent is considered wasted time. Thats why so much innovation really occurs in small companies. Sad but true.



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