This Is Why Innovation Programs Fail
July 13, 2021

This Is Why Innovation Programs Fail

by Brian de Haaff

"Innovate or die." It is unclear who first said this. But the quote is often attributed to Peter Drucker, the pioneer of modern management theory. The statement is striking for its brevity and boldness. Without a willingness to adapt and grow, you will perish. This is true for your business, relationships, and your own personal development. The secret to staving off decay? A steady stream of new ideas.

Great ideas are sustaining — providing the fuel we need to envision and live out a brighter future.

Most CEOs today will tell you that they are investing in major innovation efforts. You are probably familiar with some of the tactics — hackathons, crowdsourcing, research labs, cross-functional centers for excellence, innovation outposts, and accelerators, to name a few. These programs look different at each organization, but the goal is typically the same. Company leaders want to identify and implement new ideas in order to drive organizational success and longevity.

But investing in innovation is no guarantee that companies will actually be able to increase revenue, find new markets, or establish competitive differentiation. While most everyone agrees that innovation is worthwhile, few know how to manage or measure it.

Many companies find themselves stuck in "innovation theater." They proclaim a (genuine) commitment to new ideas and launch various initiatives — but nothing substantial ever materializes. One common reason for this is that the organization lacks the necessary tools to carry out these efforts. In a recent survey by McKinsey & Company, only 21 percent of executives felt that they had the knowledge, experience, or resources to pursue new opportunities for business growth.

Everyone wants to innovate, but it is up to company leaders to empower the team to come up with great ideas and pursue the most viable ones.

This starts by putting a structure in place to share, vet, prioritize, and act on insights that can drive the business forward. It also requires defining a clear innovation strategy and giving people the tools they need to take action. When everyone in the organization values growth and understands the process for offering and implementing new ideas, innovation can flourish.

Building a new innovation program (or improving an existing one) is a complex process. Here are some of the biggest roadblocks to establishing a strong culture of innovation — with potential solutions:

Purpose

Roadblock: Different groups within the organization (knowingly or unknowingly) work towards conflicting goals and priorities.

Solution: You need a clear vision and unified strategy. Whether you are trying to build a new product or improve specific KPIs, first capture the specific needs of your innovation program. What do you want to improve and why? What types of efforts will you invest in? How will the company source, conceptualize, fund, and implement ideas? Be sure to clearly tie high-level business objectives to any initiatives you are considering. This gives everyone a holistic view of what you are all working towards and clarifies how the company will pursue promising opportunities.

People

Roadblock: Team members are skeptical that leaders will listen and take action based on their suggestions.

Solution: It is hard for people to modify habits and commit to new ways of working if they have not seen a blueprint for success yet. To make innovation a priority for everyone, be inclusive. The entire team should feel comfortable participating in the innovation value chain — generating, developing, and disseminating ideas that will lead to company success. Some companies hire a chief innovation officer (CINO) to lead this effort, while others create dedicated innovation labs or teams. Some simply identify champions within the organization who can encourage greater cross-functional exchanges of information and support.

Process

Roadblock: There is no process in place for submitting, assessing, or garnering executive support for ideas.

Solution: Establish an easy and consistent way to capture and evaluate ideas from team members, customers, and partners. Some teams define an "innovation pipeline," a clear process for deciding which insights to pursue and how to implement them. Some teams want to integrate idea management with their roadmapping process. Others want a standalone tool for innovation programs. This is why we offer ideas portals in both Aha! Roadmaps and Aha! Ideas. Teams can gather, manage, and prioritize suggestions in one place.

Planning

Roadblock: Testing new ideas and delivery planning stalls due to lack of resources.

Solution: The planning stage is crucial for assessing costs, defining scope, assigning tasks, and establishing a timeline for delivery. Some companies establish an innovation program office (IPO) to oversee these activities. Besides selecting the initiatives that will have the largest impact, these groups typically secure funding and train team members. Another important part of this planning is to look ahead several years so you can determine how to scale your efforts over time.

Progress

Roadblock: It is difficult to gain executive buy-in and support from the broader team.

Solution: Establish and track innovation KPIs. You can monitor financial metrics such as revenue growth, new customers, and cost reduction. Or keep track of other benchmarks such as how many ideas the team generates or how many requests are shipped over a given time period. Creating a scorecard to measure impact also gives you a quantitative measure of performance. This can transform skeptical company leaders into innovation champions who are more willing to fund future efforts.

To deliver more innovative solutions to your customers, you need to innovate within your own organization first.

Remember that most innovation is incremental — it takes time to experiment with novel ways of working and realize the full value of an idea. Yet there can be real and immediate joy in adopting an innovation mindset now. When you commit to improvement and see it realized, you can feel pride in your work. This fulfillment then carries over into the success of the team and the organization. You have the power to effect that positive change.

What do you find most challenging about gaining traction with new ideas?

Start innovating for the future — start a free trial.

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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