Innovation Failure Points – Strangled in the Crib

by Jeffrey Phillips

Innovation Failure Points - Strangled in the CribI am going to start a multi-part post today thinking about innovation’s failure points. Too often all we hear about are the innovation successes, yet if the statistics are right, there are far more “failures” than successes. I believe it is more interesting and more informative to consider the failures rather than the successes, in that every failure is instructive, while most successes are situational.

So, rather than looking at a successful result and assuming the process was valid, let’s consider innovation as a series of interconnected links, and find the likely failure points for innovation in that chain. As we look at weak links in the innovation chain our first stop is at the beginning.

While we all claim to want more innovation, all too frequently innovation is strangled in the crib. As innovation consultants, we receive calls on a regular basis to talk to prospective clients who need innovation help. I suspect that about one-third of the firms we speak with who express an interest and a need for innovation never get beyond the investigation stages. There are a number of reasons for this.

First, most organizations don’t have the bandwidth or intestinal fortitude for innovation. What they want is a “quick win” to demonstrate that they are “innovating” and that will suffice. What’s interesting about these simple innovations or “quick wins” is that if they are so apparent or so evident, why haven’t they been done already? Many of our initial sales discussions are educational events for our prospects. I find that to be part of the process. Together we are exploring work that the firm doesn’t do well, and doesn’t have much experience with. That means we need to discover the rationale for the work, the internal skills and capabilities, and the assistance needed. As we discuss scope and effort, many firms determine the investment is larger than the firm is willing to bear.

Second, there is a tremendous amount of inertia within most organizations that is difficult to overcome. Even if you can find the resources and the funds to conduct an innovation effort, the existing processes, commitments and work schedules make it difficult, if not impossible, to get up to speed with an entirely new project or process. When teams consider the disruption to their regular work, combined with the need to learn new tools and investigate new markets, the work and the resistance to the work seem almost overwhelming.

Third, in surprising number of firms, the strategic goals of the firm are murky at best, unclear at worst. In these cases, when there is no clear strategy, any idea may possibly be a good idea. Without clear strategy, getting direction and understanding what’s important is difficult. Innovation teams spin their wheels, leaping from one concept to another concept, never quite sure which ones are the best. Very quickly the team realizes it is spinning its wheels and demands clarity or disbands.

Fourth, there’s innovation “for show” and innovation “for go”. Right now any Fortune 500 that’s not talking about innovation is already behind the curve. Pick up any quarterly report or annual report and you’ll see a tremendous amount of discussion about innovation. A significant portion of the talk is “for show” – a head nod to the Street to signal that the firm understands innovation, but not a commitment to actually do anything. Innovation for show is about a marketing push to raise the firm’s stature, but not about commitments to innovation teams or processes, and will quickly create even more cynicism about innovation.

Fifth, there are the sacred cows. No senior executive wants to see their “cash cow” or stable business upended by some crazy new idea, so most executives will agree for innovation in someone else’s patch. These barriers get built up to defend existing businesses to the extent that there’s often no opportunity for innovation other than external, white space innovation. Since the work doesn’t impact existing businesses, executives feel free to withhold support, funds and resources. Having established an environment where failure is almost inevitable, even the most sincere innovation teams will drop the tents and head home.

Innovation is probably one of the most difficult initiatives to get started, and many programs die in their infancy, before they really have a chance to get started. Strangely, once proven, innovation initiatives can be very hardy and weather the cutbacks and storms associated with the ebbs and flows of business. The first failure point for innovation is right at the beginning – understanding what it takes to innovate, and committing the people, resources, funds and executive involvement necessary to get it off the ground.

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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and