Three Ways to Fail at Innovation

Three Ways to Fail at InnovationThree blog posts that caught my eye this week demonstrate three different ways that you can fail at innovation:

  1. Ignore the small innovations: James Todhunter wrote an excellent post yesterday defending thinking about improvements as innovation. You should read the whole post, but here is a highlight:

Breakthrough innovation, incremental innovation, minor improvement—these are all points on a continuum of value creating solution generation. Incremental innovation is very beneficial to an organization trying to develop the core competence needed to support a high-performance innovation system. Specifically, incremental innovation delivers both short and long term benefits. In the short term, immediate business benefits can be realized—extended revenue life of a product, increased market share, better contribution to margin, etc. In the long term, incremental innovation provides a low risk platform to hone the basic innovation skills needed for successful, repeatable breakthrough innovation practice.

I don’t have much to add to that – I think he’s right. Which leads to the second way we can fail at innovation:

  1. Ignore the big innovations: As Todhunter points out, innovations occur along a spectrum. If you focus too much on one end of it, your long-range prospects aren’t good. The problem is that the two ends of the spectrum require different management skills, and different ways of envisioning the future.

Mike Masnick makes that point in an excellent post which discusses why Yahoo! missed the rise of Google:

Whenever we talk about innovation and things like patents, one common refrain is that no innovation would occur without patents because big companies would immediately copy the technology and destroy any up-and-comer. We’ve pointed out plenty of times that this simply isn’t true. For a truly disruptive innovation, big companies often won’t even notice you until you’re way ahead of them — at which point copying is fruitless. Hell, for nearly the past decade now, Yahoo’s tried every which way to “copy” Google, and it got them nowhere in terms of actual market share (actually, it got them so little that they recently gave up and outsourced it all to Microsoft).

Copying ideas is simultaneously easier than we think and much harder than we expect – which is part of why the debates around copyright and patenting are so vociferous. But overall, I think he’s right. Executing ideas is often very hard, which in turn makes it difficult for other firms to steal your idea. As Masnick points out, they usually too busy ignoring your big innovation to actually try to do it themselves. This leads to the third way to fail at innovation:

  1. Focus only on idea generation not idea execution: The latest version of this comes from a Fast Company post discussing R&D expenditures and patent filing. It shows (with some really nicely constructed graphics) that the US is spending a lot on R&D relative to the rest of the world, but is not patenting at an equally high rate. Innovation is about more than R&D, and about more than patents. So when they conclude:

It’s indeed troubling that we spend so much money on research that can’t readily be turned into world-beating products. So we should worry about the chart above–but just not for the obvious reasons.

I’m not at all convinced that anything that they are measuring is actually innovation. R&D contributes to innovation, and patents, used wisely, can also contribute to innovation.

But innovation is about successfully executing new ideas to create value, something that is captured by neither R&D spending nor patent filing.

These three common problems are all pitfalls into which many organizations stumble. You need to avoid all of them if you are going to successfully innovate.

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Tim KastelleTim Kastelle is a Lecturer in Innovation Management in the University of Queensland Business School. He blogs about innovation at the Innovation Leadership Network.

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5 Responses to Three Ways to Fail at Innovation

  1. Very interesting ideas, said in a nice and clear way to understand. The third way is so much important for so many people, who only focus on the easiest part of the creative process, which is to think how to do things instead of doing them.

  2. Dedee Wojtal says:

    Very insightful, well-written article

  3. Nice article. I believe they are all true, but are also rather hard to prevent. The problem with small innovations is that either an R&D department or any individual that is working on innovation is not able to distinct it as something new/innovative anymore as they are so into it. Documenting steps is a way to notify them, but in turn this slows down the creative process.
    Regarding the big innovations it is usually sheer arrogance creating the lack of motivation to stay on top of it. But, then again, this helps providing work for the consulting industry.

  4. With regard to #3:

    Here in Germany, it has become fashionable for universities to claim that they do innovation. This claim is based simply on the argument that they do research.

    In order to explain the difference between the two, I like to use the following quote:

    “Research means converting money into new knowledge. Innovation means converting new knowledge into money.”

  5. Mike W. says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more about idea generation vs. idea execution. I have entire site dedicated to simple step-by-step brainstorming articles (, so I’m clearly a fan of idea generation. But if you don’t develop a plan to implement the ideas you come up with, you’re wasting your time.

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