Eight Ways Your Innovation Program Can Go Wrong

Innovation & Creativity Model ©2006 Dave Pollard & Meeting of Minds
(see explanation at end of this article)

The Doblin Group, whose model of the Ten Types of Innovation I’ve described before, has written an interesting article on eight ways innovation programs can go off the rails. They are:

  1. No shared understanding of what innovation is, how it works, how to achieve it.
  2. No clear innovation process, or at least none that works routinely and reliably.
  3. No clear diagnosis of where and how to find innovation opportunities, and how best to leverage existing strengths.
  4. No stated innovation mission that will open up new possibilities and inspire talented teams.
  5. No promising innovation projects — specific high potential initiatives that seem like winners.
  6. Limited experience or expertise in running innovation projects.
  7. Few deep insights about unmet customer needs, especially of the kind innovators can use.
  8. Difficulty choosing the right concepts and the right number of concepts for development.

This is a very wise list — I have seen companies’ innovation programs fail for all of these reasons. When we advise clients on innovation, we first come to agreement on what innovation is (or, in some cases, show them what innovation is, by taking them to visit a highly innovative company), and lay out and teach them an innovation process that they can make a continuous part of their organization’s way of operating.

Probably the hardest step is showing clients where and how to find innovation opportunities. A combination of (existing and potential) customer visits (using ‘cultural anthropology‘ observation techniques), visits to companies in other industries that have initiated innovations that might be applied to our client by analogy, and secondary (online) research including a continuous environmental scan, can be helpful in surfacing such opportunities, and the “where to look” checklists of Drucker, Porter and Christensen are also useful. Nevertheless, it takes a certain kind of mind to be able to perceive truly innovative possibilities from such a broad range of data. Perhaps this is why innovation consultants often end up doing ‘double duty’ as subject matter experts as well — actually coming up with many of the opportunities for their clients themselves, despite having vainly tried to teach their clients how to do so for themselves.

In my experience, only two factors will normally cause organizations to establish a compelling and well-articulated innovation mission: an urgent need to do so (financial difficulty or a serious competitive threat), or exceptionally visionary leadership (a CEO who sees the value of continuous innovation even though the company is already doing well).

A lack of good innovation projects can reflect either a lack of skill (or effort) identifying opportunities, or a lack of skill qualifying those opportunities. Qualifying opportunities requires a combination of creative and critical skills to explore, evolve and think through each opportunity — separating the most promising from the rest, combining several opportunities into one or two that really create a novel and valuable customer experience, and getting past incremental thinking and premature ‘black-hat’ thinking to identify prospects that are truly bold and innovative.

Obstacles 6 & 8 on the list above are often connected. Innovation takes a significant time investment, and also requires a willingness to tackle resistance in the organization — from those who are threatened by innovation, those who see innovation projects as detracting from incremental continuous improvement efforts and day-to-day process improvement and problem-solving activities, and those who see innovation projects cannibalizing R&D budgets that could otherwise be spent enhancing existing products and services. This is why innovation often needs to be carried out by a separate incubator or entity of the organization, free from turf and budget wars. And once the opportunities have been identified and fleshed out, there needs to be a rigorous process to assess the economics, feasibility, and strategic and cultural fit of each idea, and then to test, pilot and scale each idea, so that ideas that are not viable or suitable are ‘failed’ early and inexpensively.

A lack of insights about unmet customer needs (needs of both existing and potential customers) suggests that the organization is either not spending enough ‘face time’ out with customers (over-relying instead on secondary, in-office customer information like help line data and surveys), or not paying attention (observing, interviewing and listening) when they do spend that ‘face time’ (and in the process, assuming, usually incorrectly, that they know what customers need). If the organization is already struggling when it initiates its innovation program, this shortage of ‘face time’ can be hard to overcome, since employees may be so busy ‘fighting fires’ that they just don’t have time to spend identifying unmet customer needs. Or, at the opposite extreme, they may be so customer focused that customers come to see them solely as providers of what they currently do well, to the point that both they and their customers become ‘blind’ to unmet needs that the organization might be able to address with a bit of innovative effort.

It’s important for companies embarking on innovation programs, and their advisors, to be aware of and alert for these eight innovation ‘traps’, and how to deal with them when they arise.


A note on the charts above: Over the past couple of years on this weblog I’ve introduced several models of innovation, reflecting my experience and evolving thinking on the subject. I thought it was time for me to integrate them into a single model, which I’ve done above. The top part, the organizational innovation model, shows the six steps in any organization’s innovation process, and within the ‘honeycomb’ the activities that go on continuously throughout all six steps of the process (including activities such as environmental scanning). It also shows the importance of outreach to customers (especially the most perceptive, ‘pathfinder’ customers), co-workers and communities (i.e. everyone affected by, and worth involving in, the process) at each of the six steps (including involving them in ‘thinking ahead’ programs, cultural anthropology and tapping ‘the wisdom of crowds as appropriate). It’s a generic model that can apply to organizations large or small, public or private, innovating in separate ‘incubators’ or as part of integrated operations. I’ll be writing more on this model in the weeks to come, especially as it relates to innovation programs in small, entrepreneurial organizations.

The lower part of the chart, the personal creativity, is likewise a synthesis of several articles and models I’ve presented recently. I thank Bengt J”rrehult and the authors of Presence, whose personal creativity cycle and U-model respectively got me thinking about this subject and how it interrelates with group innovation. The above model also incorporates my twenty learning/discovery capacities of re-becoming indigenous, because it occurred to me that those capacities are substantially about enabling personal creativity, something indigenous creatures seem to have in abundance. This process also breaks down into six steps, with the centering activity of self-awareness prevailing throughout the six steps, and another set of activities (shown on the periphery of the lower part of the chart) representing the activities each individual undertakes to involve others in each step of the personal creativity process. To the extent these ‘others’ are also the customers, co-workers and communities of the organizations in which we work, this model I think elegantly dovetails with the organizational innovationmodel above it. More on this, as well, in the weeks to come.

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3 Responses to Eight Ways Your Innovation Program Can Go Wrong

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