Are You Falling Into These Innovation Traps?

4 experts weigh in on common mistakes companies make


According to Deloitte, innovation is among the top five priorities for 96% of companies. For those 4% who don't count it as important, they should. Innovation is the only way to keep up with a world that is changing at a more startling pace each year, what with constant innovations in AI, Big Data and IoT across all industries, to name just a few.

Innovation is notoriously slippery. While it's needed, many companies make grand declarations about innovation changes throughout the company, but the follow through is often weak and intangible. Just 40% of companies in the same study said that they had a well-defined action plan to execute and implement their innovation strategy.

So what are the biggest traps companies fall into when innovating and are you making them? We spoke with four industry leaders about their thoughts:

Zoë Regent, Director of Innovation & Business Development at Save The Children

I think that you can get a really amazing insight and a really powerful, strong idea, but then things get watered down as they go through the process. The innovation team can lose line of sight and ownership of ideas and they get subsumed into BAU. By the time the idea gets to the point of delivery it's been watered down so much so it's unrecognizable and it's lost its potency.

Other traps include too many stakeholders and poor decision making process. And not enough appetite for actual risk - people I've worked with in innovation and some stakeholders have been enthusiasts for innovation, so they talked the talk and they said they want to see the different stuff. But when it comes to actually doing it, they don't want to take the risk, they don't have the right level of confidence.

Dr Tammy Watchorn, Head of Innovation at National Services, NHS Scotland,

For me, not calling it a programme is a good start (and don't have a 'culture change programme' either). I have been asked, in the past, to produce giant charts of what I'll innovate and by when. It's not a job for someone to do, it's not a brief for someone to write or a set of agreed upfront projects to deliver. Using traditional methods and language can make it much harder for people, teams, and organisations to think about how you might do more innovations in an innovative way.

Also, don't implement a linear process to capture and review ideas. Innovation funnels can: end up knocking back ideas that seem a bit 'whacky' and approving ones that sound familiar so you end up really with lots of 'improvement' projects: not really start with what problems are you need to solve (but ideas people have had to change their bit of the workplace); demotivate staff who's ideas are rejected; don't really tackle the organisational barriers that may stop the innovations (demotivating staff who's ideas are accepted).

For me, it's more a set of principles, supporting tools and ways of working to enable the real problems to be identified, new ideas to be thought of; collaborations to be developed for prototyping and developing new solutions and ensuring the organisation is ready to enable the innovation and the blocks have been removed.

We need to be able to try and fail (and learn from the failure). Of course, there needs to be an element of governance, but most people can be trusted to do the right thing so don't overly worry about this. When you're doing innovation, you are much more likely to properly de-risk something that is entirely new, so the risk of something going horribly wrong is vastly reduced. The idea you have may, of course, not quite work out, but by using different processes and tools suited to iterative development you are likely to know early what ideas are likely to fail and cull them before you go too far (and of course learn from it).

Parul Kaul-Green, Head of Innovation and M&A, AXA UK & Ireland Group

There are few things that come to mind;

One of the biggest traps is treating innovation as a programme rather than a continuous activity of experimentation, validation, iteration, and industrialisation. The problem with a programme-based approach is that it is seen as a fad by other 'traditional' functions and subject to cuts post efficiency reviews. This also creates negative emotions in the employee base with resentment against the “cool kids” in innovation.

Another aligned matter is fair and transparent attribution of benefits to the activity of innovation.

Once a certain experiment has been deemed successful and industrialised, the benefits are likely to be attributed to core business line, with a cursory pat on the back to R&D.

Finally, there is an age-old problem of innovation being seen as threat to existing business and therefore instead of supporting commercialisation of innovation, existing business (current money makers) try to kill it with scepticism, process, and apathy- The Kodak story

The best way to counter any or all of the traps to have treat innovation as a core function with a strategic vision, design, and infrastructure.

Most importantly have a cohesive glide path to commercialisation/ implementation strategy.

Tom Culver, Senior Innovation Advisor, RTI International

Some of the traps that we often see are companies assuming that people at different levels of the organization have the same vision for what innovating means. It's not just vertical silos, like 'Oh marketing thinks about it one way, R&D technologists think about it another way' - those have existed for a long time and I think people are figuring out how to work across those. But one of the unacknowledged traps is a failure to take a rigorous look at the horizontal silos that exist, it's just assumed that everybody knows and understands the basic competencies and has the same competencies around innovation. But that's not the case.

Even HR practices are all around competencies in the job position, not around innovation skills. So innovation skills are not part of the hiring process, unless they're hiring an innovation manager. One of the traps is that they don't know how to define what is innovative, so they don't know what an innovative person even looks like.

Another trap, I think, is that companies sometimes assume that if they keep searching they'll find some magical innovation process that somebody else used that's going to be perfect for them. Of course, no such thing exists. You have to create those. So there's an expectation to not just be innovative, but to innovate around how you're innovating.

One trap is that once a process has been put in place, companies don't want to do anything to it. The issue is, once a company invested money and time training staff, they don't want to alter the process because they aren't going to or can't afford to reinvest in changing it. But companies need to be constantly reinvigorated. This is different than a quality program or something else where you have changed management or whatever, but there's identifiable, very reassuring metrics to quality that everybody can get behind. There's ISO certifications for it, and so there's this notion that once you get it in place you hold it and with operational excellence you improve it, but you don't reinvent it. I think innovation can be flexible with the changing landscape and business models. As such, you have to be able to re-envision and reinvigorate innovating process and approaches in a pretty dynamic way.

Hear more from Zoe, Tammy and Parul at our Chief Innovation Officer Summit in London, April 25 & 26.

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