The 6 Most Common Innovation Mistakes Companies Make


Here is an excerpt from an article written by Scott D. Anthony, David S. Duncan, and Pontus M.A. Siren for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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The problem was clear. The executive team of a consumer healthcare company had concluded that the rise of new competitors meant the company needed to up its innovation game. The company had spent the past two decades focused on implementing Six Sigma processes across the enterprise and it was primed to execute on the best and smartest ideas.

We advised them that solving the problem required a carefully orchestrated set of interventions where we would “fight systems with systems,” making sure we linked a coherent innovation strategy to robust innovation processes, enabling structures, and work to make the underlying culture more supportive of behaviors and mindsets that drive successful innovation.

They chose … spandex.

A creativity consultant said to signal that it was a new era in the organization, all of the top executives should dress up as innovation superheroes. And that was it. No ring-fenced resources to pursue innovation. No tools or training. No special incentives. No definition of specific areas where the company should focus its energy.

The only piece of good news for the executive team is the “intervention” (which failed to have any impact, of course) occurred before smartphones were ubiquitous enough to capture video footage. (If this sounds familiar to some of you it is because we mentioned it to a BusinessWeek reporter in 2007, and IBM created a series of commercials with “innovation man” in them). We have nothing against spandex, and believe fun and play have a big role to play in a culture of innovation. But the real answer is surely more complex.

Because innovation is a system-level problem, a point solution – trying to drive widespread change by doing a single thing – is wholly ineffective. It is equivalent to attempting to turnaround a failing school plagued by disinterested students, overwhelmed teachers, and crumbling infrastructure by painting the walls blue. Soothing, perhaps, but unlikely to have any real impact.

We have seen far too many first hand examples of the equivalent of blue paint on a decrepit school wall. Rather, leaders hoping to boost their ability to drive growth through innovation need to simultaneously direct it strategically, pursue it rigorously, resource it intensively, monitor it methodically, and nurture it carefully.

This is clearly not easy stuff. Many of the most common missteps we see companies make would fit nicely in Steve Kerr’s management classic, “The folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B.”

Here [is one of] the six most common mistakes we see:

Asking employees to generate ideas without creating mechanisms to do something with them. Executives often get fooled by inspiring stories of engineers at companies like 3M or Google coming up with germs of ideas in the 15-20% of their time they allocate to side projects. If your organization does indeed have mechanisms to take idea fragments, process them, and turn them into fully fleshed out innovations, by all means open up the idea spigot. Otherwise, all you create is a long list of ideas that never go anywhere, and substantial organizational cynicism. This doesn’t necessarily mean setting up a department, but at the very least develop a set of criteria by which to judge ideas and have suggestions for how the best ideas can be acted on.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Scott D. Anthony (@ScottDAnthony) is a senior partner of the growth strategy consulting firm Innosight and co-author of Dual Transformation: How to Reposition Today’s Business While Creating the Future.

David S. Duncan is a senior partner at Innosight and a coauthor of Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice (HarperBusiness/HarperCollins, October 2016).

Pontus M.A. Siren is a partner in Innosight’s Singapore office.


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