When Innovation Fails

In business we speak a lot about “innovation” — how to foster it, how to drive it, how to implement it. But what do we mean when we talk about “innovation”? A recent WSJ article broached the subject and, rather accurately in my opinion, revealed what we have all known for some time: even when organizations are not necessarily doing anything groundbreaking or new, they still call it “innovation.” Just because it just sounds grander.

Incremental changes are referred to as innovations. Tweaks to products are considered innovations. Reorganizations to “better serve customers and markets” or to “align internal capabilities” are intended to make companies more innovative; in fact, they are often touted as innovations in and of themselves. We have missed the point. These are not “innovations” – rather they are simply “improvements.”

Here’s what we usually see: Management decides that they need to innovate. Individuals and teams form a working group, establish a charter, and set out to work on innovation improvement initiatives. The results are usually a rehash of something they are already doing, perhaps with some improvements on the margins, all complicated by Gantt charts, red-yellow-green dashboards and issue logs. If, after some time, these “innovation” teams paused and reflected on their efforts they might even feel some sense of accomplishment — because anything other than achievement would indicate that their efforts were a colossal waste of time.

Trust me, I know firsthand.

Earlier in my career, I was appointed to an “Innovation Board.” It was a novel concept, and the aim was to find “new and innovative ways to increase revenues significantly.” The 15 people on the team were assembled because we all (supposedly) had “been around” and were known for questioning the status quo. We were also relatively senior — principals, directors, and senior managers. We brainstormed, broke into teams, and came up with the ideas that would “make the next market.” Very quickly, we also realized that a team of four (since we had broken into four smaller teams) didn’t have all the answers. Fast forward to the end result: a lot of time, some frustration, and a bunch of small improvements — but little in the way of innovation.

So where did we go wrong?

First, we lacked enthusiasm. None of us went into the process with a sense of passion that we could, or even should, find something new and different. We were appointed, and as we all know, when you are tapped on the shoulder, you don’t say no, lest you jeopardize your next promotion.

Second, we were all senior. Way too senior. Yes, a senior leader’s perspective is useful, but much more important is that of the many customer-facing people who are dealing with these issues everyday, trying to fix what is broken, seeing what others are doing, and who know (almost without thinking about it) what is wrong with how the company does what it does. They have less to lose by challenging and questioning, and it doesn’t form the basis of what made them successful. Conversely, how eager are leaders to challenge that which made them successful in the first instance?

Third, no-one knew what we were trying to do. Who cared if we had spent 100 hours working on building something new and exciting? The other 14 people, maybe. And those who did know about our little initiative? They looked at us as though we had all the answers; by being placed on the “Innovation Board,” we were seen as the innovative thinkers — and, as a result, others were left feeling that they lacked what it took to generate fresh, game-changing ideas. How wrong.

The way we tried to create innovation — organizing, prescribing, and delegating it — didn’t work. Yes, these groups may improve things — maybe even a lot of things — but rarely is this “innovation.” Producing the next product (like the iPod) or creating a new market (Instagram, without a big team) that had never existed before — that is innovation. Microsoft creating the Surface — not so much innovation, and more catch up? Thinking once an innovator, always an innovator — not a path to success.

Innovation does not come out of a controlled situation. If you want more innovation, allow more chaos. Follow these steps to create that chaos.

1) Use only volunteers. Who in your organization feels excited about trying to build that next product or market? Let THEM — the people on the front lines, who are doing their day jobs, who happen to know your business better than anyone else — into the process.  Jim Whitehurst of Red Hat figured this out. Others have too.

2) Sponsor an environment that encourages risk-taking. It’s fantastic if an employee takes initiative and risks making innovation. What do you do if they fail? Are they punished? You can be certain if an employee is punished for taking a risk toward innovation, that other employees will not be taking any risks.

3) Make time for brainstorming. It takes time, and sometimes it takes creating a particular environment to get employees into an innovative mindset.

This approach will foster some truly transformative ideas, and there will be an enthusiastic base of supporters ready to turn those ideas into action.

Now that’s a novel approach. Maybe, dare I say, an innovation.

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Russell Raath

Russell Raath

Russell Raath is a senior engagement leader at Kotter International, a firm that helps leaders accelerate strategy implementation in their organizations.

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comment_post_ID); ?> I am a senior citizen who has lived in many areas of the US, the farthest south being Virginia DC area. There are several church plants in the area--some failed, some doing well. One of the sadist failures was a plant in NW Washington near a large Presbyterian Church (I had been an elder in the church, so I knew the area) where changes in church doctrine was driving many away from the PCUSA churches. There were many mature Christians who lived in the area who were very willing to participate and give generously to the church. Its failure was a loss. The pastor and his wife lived in a VA suburb, wanted something that would appeal to their tastes, which included "praise music". There was a professional piano teacher and several people who had sung in choirs in the area. Their suggestions were completely ignored. Forget that there was joyous participation in singing hymns and silence by many for the praise music. The experienced church leaders that were attending were expected to seek the wisdom of the pastor who did not live in the area rather than have any role in leadership. There is another church plant in Northern Virginia that seems to be going the same way. My take: the pastors should get past their high-school and college days culture and get to know and appreciate the people of the community. Do not try to reproduce Intervarsity or Campus Crusade. Hymns are not a sin and "uneducated" (never graduated from college) should not be ignored as uninformed or stupid. People who have served in and/or live in the area are needed in leadership and not just to serve coffee and give. We all need to pray together and serve God in the community in which there is to be a plant. Glenna Hendricks
— Glenna Hendricks
comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
— winston
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright

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