Corporate Innovation Is 100% Possible, But Predictably Fails

In the first article in this series, I outlined why innovation in large organizations is more important than ever but is also harder than ever to achieve successfully.

Innovation used to be optional. But the speed of change in technology, customer needs/wants/desires, and global ecological and social systems is so ruthless and relentless that every company needs to deliver successful breakthrough innovations as a normal part of business.

I stake my career on the fact that any executive can be developed into an inspiring innovation leader who uses all their gifts to increase the likelihood that all that energy, discretionary effort, passion, and engagement invested into an innovation program—and the vast costs of time away from Business As Usual, time taken from customers and collaborators, risk capital and innovation funding, and cost—does not go to waste.

Innovation leaders can be built and are not just born.

I also stake my career that any group of average IQ but of some diversity can become a crack, cross-functional innovation team that delivers meaningful and rewarding innovations into the world that return outsized and even exponential performance/profit/impact if they are given the right support, structure, spaces, and tools.

To improve the odds of success when hundreds of thousands of dollars (and the future of the company) are at stake, we have learned to onboard innovation leaders—whether MDs, GMs, Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs), Chief Innovation Officers (CIOs), Chief Technology Officers, Innovation or Marketing Directors, business unit heads, senior product managers, etc.—as well as their innovation team members into the marvelous, quite magical, and rather miraculous process of breakthrough innovation before the program begins.

Rather than doing the same thing over and over again expecting different outcomes, we take innovation leaders and teams through these perils and pitfalls before we start. Otherwise, the odds are stacked against them and those trying to help them, like us. For it is these innovation myths, killers, and blockers that will tank a project every time.

In this article, I will share a list of all the predictable killers and blockers that innovation leaders and senior executives create that will likely scupper any major strategic innovation project and waste crucial resources and goodwill.

Predictable & Common Blockers & Killers Of Innovation In Large Organizations

  • Disruption denial: the belief, stemming from fear, ignorance, or arrogance, that because the company has been successful in the past, it will continue to be dominant without the need for the blood, sweat, and tears incumbent with all genuine innovation programs—which then shows up in, for example, the company using market research to rubber stamp ideas rather than explore future-forward customer needs and to actively hide away the very customer feedback, especially the complaints that, if seen through the lens of innovation, would foretell of impending disruptions and disturbances to existing markets/market share; disruption denial also shows up in what I have called “anti-transformation tropes” designed to protect the leader/organization from its fear of change (these tendencies include “Make X Great Again” and the “Escape Fantasy”)
  • Change and complexity blindness: the inability or unwillingness (they walk lock-step together) to sense customer-driven (and employee-driven) changes that are required to be metabolized into new value-creating products, services, and processes—even though the VUCA world guarantees that all organizations need to innovate continuously to stay matched to the market—as well as the avoidance of investing in the innovation leadership and foresight capabilities to sense-make in complexity which also serves to dismiss the need for the company to innovate/change/transform
  • Short-termism: the requirement for quarterly profit and share price rises (tied to executive pay rewards of course) that divert attention away from the imperative for building mid- and longer-term competitiveness that must come from innovation when a company exists in fast-changing markets—newsflash, all companies do, even if they wish they didn’t—and so the needs of today rob the company of a thriving tomorrow
  • Side-lining of challengers: to avoid the challenges of innovation, execs believe that innovation and innovation leaders (especially challengers and mavericks) are a distraction from *real* business which leads to the sidelining of the very people and projects needed to win in the future—shows up in innovators being put in charge of obscure divisions and territories (the GM position for Azerbaijan just came up) and innovation projects seen as nice-to-have, good for PR and employee engagement, but nothing much to do the real business
  • Inertia: innovation will happen (it’s in the strategy, maybe even in the budget)… just not today/tomorrow/this quarter! This makes execs feel like they are in action, and that innovation is happening… without having to actually do any innovation (with all the uncertainties, complexities, anxieties, and inefficiencies it necessarily brings). This is a massive danger as by the time existing margins have dropped or once-successful products become commodified/obsolete—which happens faster and faster due to technological disruption and rapid customer change—it’s then too late to go on the 2-5-year journey it takes to have and deliver breakthrough innovations into the world
  • Under-investment: execs say they want to innovate but then massively underestimate what it costs, in time, effort, and budget, to interrogate possible scenarios of how the future might emerge, muster deep customer/user insights into new and forming customer types, understand how to leverage emerging capacities of exponential technologies, and explore ways to invent the future of their industry, leaving innovators in the business no way out but failure… while said execs look with envy at companies like Amazon, Tesla, and Apple as they dominate their markets and the stock market through relentless and radical innovation (see penny tight, dollar foolish below)
  • Clinging to noble lies: the senior leaders in the workshops (and meetings) want to protect their scared cows, keep their industry assumptions that feel safe and familiar (what Plato called noble lies), a cling to conventional wisdom while also having the breakthroughs that will create the future and stop them from being disrupted, which is a category error and why Airbnb was not created by Hilton, Netflix not by Disney, Instagram not by Kodak, Tesla not by GM, and Uber not by the taxi medallion companies

  • Unrealistic expectations: treating innovation like it is any other business activity that can return a clear ROI without much investment in customer insight, creativity, sense-making, foresight/futuring, or innovation leadership, which sets innovation programs up to fail as they are expected to deliver within linear processes, timelines, and metrics that are not a fit for the reality of how innovation actually works—which is always non-linear even “spiral” and full of uncertainties and complexities that need time and space to be reflected on and metabolized into value (N.B. if breakthrough innovation was predictable, easy, and linear, it would not be innovation but Business As Usual improvement)
  • Cognitive obsolescence & confirmation biases: when executives and managers get stuck in old beliefs about where value lies in their industry, usually based on past successes and their early-mid career, instead of continuously updating their sense-making with fresh customer and consumer insights, whether from futuring work (like scenario planning), generative market research, or analyzing customer complaints. Confirmation bias and other cognitive biases then ensure that *evidence* is found to confirm that nothing is wrong with existing assumptions, which. as we know, are the mother of all business *&%£$—this shows up most clearly in the assumption that leaders know what the problems to solve with innovation so rush to solve with a brainstorm or one-day off-site rather than engaging in the crucial, challenging, and rigorously creative process of problem definition… which leads to incremental and weak ideas as they come from the same technical mindset that has been trained to rapidly solve problems with known technical solutions—which necessarily generate incremental improvements—rather than rise up to solve what I call “transformational challenges” with breakthrough solutions
  • Customer insight and user feedback minimization: this goes hand in hand with cognitive obsolescence and disruption denial and happens when companies are not aware that deep and penetrating insight into future customer/consumer/user needs, wants, and dreams are what fuel all successful value-creating or exponential innovation, and that insight comes most often from real, caring, and empathic human relationships rather than just data, which is always about the past (no matter how “big” it is) not the future—this shows up in the use of market research to confirm existing assumptions rather than generate innovation-ready insights, R&D folk, industry experts, and technologists mistaking what they find interesting for what their customers/consumers/users do,  and the denial, dismissal, or repression of customer/employee feedback because it is uncomfortable and would require responsibility-taking and genuine change to act upon and leverage as a major source of innovation energy and focus
  • Groupthink & monocultures: the organization recruits and rewards people who think (and often still look) the same as the executives, even while saying we want people to innovate and challenge, which creates a monoculture that kills the proven effectiveness of diversity in innovation (all kinds of diversity)—which can also show up in a refusal to invite and include players from across the system, including low-status employees, vendors/suppliers/agencies, actual and potential customers, and collaborators (e.g. technologists or competitors)
  • Ideation mistaken for innovation: execs, innovation directors, and project teams think that brainstorming sessions, beanbags, post-its, colored walls, awaydays, and a fussball table alone will lead to exponential and disruptive value-creating innovations (newsflash: they won’t) because they confuse ideation with the sustained, rigorous, and deeply insightful creativity and co-creativity required for successful strategic innovation—often shows up when a short workshop or brainstorm is scheduled to solve a problem creatively… but it’s the wrong darn problem!
  • R&D confused with innovation: this happens a lot in technology, engineering, and science-based companies that invest heavily in R&D but do not value or feel comfortable with either service, people, process, and business model innovations and/or the messy human beings that need to design, build, buy, and use new R&D-led and technological innovations for them to become successful innovations—this is almost always driven by the reality that is it far easier (especially to the mechanistic mind) to change lines of code, bricks, and machines on a production line than it is to understand and then change the beliefs and attitudes of the people who need to value fresh innovations for them to be exponentially value-creating successes (leading to a graveyard of apps, technologies, molecules, and widgets that R&D geeks thought were great but customers, not so much)
  • One way to rule them all: execs and their reports assume that the timelines, practices, cultures, rhythms, management styles, structures, locations, and stages that make innovation projects and innovation functions work should be the same as those of the core business—even though the latter is executing and improving existing, proven, and mature products, services, and business models

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  • Perfectionism & piloting-to-death culture: the company has developed a culture of perfectionism, where everything has to be perfect before it is launched, which slows down or blocks entirely experimentation and creativity; then, rather than prototyping an idea in a quick, cheap, and low-risk way, turns it into a pilot that takes years to implement, does not test individual hypotheses, and is easily canceled if it doesn’t work perfectly the first time (which it never can)—this has the potential to devastate employees who have been told that they could be creative and contribute to shaping the future and are then let down by control freakery and constant blockages, which is why I tell clients not to bother innovating at all if they don’t mean it and aren’t going to empower their people authentically
  • Excessive creativity, chaos & incoherence: rather than too much order, control, and perfectionism, the company mistakenly believes that innovation means letting everyone ideate and invent all over the place, leading to wasteful replication, chaotic creativity with distracting and de-energizing incoherence and conflict, and the increased likelihood that an exec will stop all innovation it as it begins to undermine the effectiveness of the current business model with so much chaos as a thousand seeds start to grow
  • Sloppy prototyping and foolish experimentation: executives think that innovation requires free-wheelin’ experiments rather than rigorous, “smart experimentation” so that an idea is developed without minutely understanding the hypotheses that need validating on the journey of implementation, and whole innovation “molecules” are prototyped and piloted and when some of the innovation “atoms” aren’t quite right, as they always will be, its too late and too hard to adapt and evolve the elements that aren’t right so the whole innovation is written off
  • Lack of purpose and vision: innovation is driven by the desire to be like Apple/Tesla/insert brand* or by a desire for profit alone rather than being galvanized by a deep and compelling purpose of service to current and future customers (users/patients/employees etc) and a vision of how the world could be radically improved for them by the company’s innovations—both of which are needed to propel innovation teams through the confusing, exhausting, and demoralizing times that all innovation necessitates and to ensure innovations actions and activities are strategic and coherent, delivering value to the consumer/user as much as profit to shareholders through products that benefit the company but not the customer (which is how much of 20th Century business operated)
  • Low innovation intuition, insight, curiosity, and imagination capabilities: the organization has not trained or rewarded innovation mindsets, particularly these four crucial creative leadership and innovation capabilities, so teams struggle to have customer insights (especially about emerging user/customer segments and their emerging needs), flex them into creative ideas that unlock sources of value in the future (as opposed to the easy to spot ones in data from the past), follow their curiosity to explore hidden opportunities, precedents from other markets, and learnings from other fields of expertise (such as AI or Alt-proteins or… ), and fail to recognize and/or actively ignore their innovation intuition when it starts to pulse with potential (yes, innovation intuition can be developed by choice) and so teams miss major opportunities staring them in the face
  • Ineffective and badly designed process: poorly designed innovation process, often taken from an MBA textbook, the internet, or from a consultancy that does not live creativity itself, undermine efforts because they underestimate the importance of solving for the right sequence and blend of divergent thinking (ideation, customer insight research, creative workshops, etc) and convergent thinking (triangulating insights with data, refining ideas, dealing with feasibility)—often goes with too much control, mechanistic/linear thinking, and micro-management
  • Mismatched performance management & reporting: tied to poorly designed processes, the organization expects managers and leaders to report on progress in the same linear way and with the same performance metrics and KPIs that it uses to improve the profitability of existing business models and functions—so innovators are driven into ineffective, anti-innovative, and perverse behaviors that undermine their innovation efforts
  • Overly-engineered process: while I believe that an amazing innovation process is utterly essential to successful outcomes—one that carefully and rigorously opens up divergent thought and then refines and improves with divergent thinking—many get so caught up in the process, or the process only allows creativity and insight to arise in a few brainstorms, that the engineer out the empathic connection, enlivening creativity, and trusting relationships needed to have and hold big ideas and land them into the world

  • Inappropriate incentives & rewards: innovators, innovation teams, and collaborators are rewarded with either all extrinsic motivations (e.g. pay, promotion) or all intrinsic motivation (e.g., meaning, mastery) rather than designing a reward approach for intrapreneurial behavior  that shares rewards as much as risks and offers a sense of accomplishment as well as a sense of delivering impact—also shows up in the poor relationship management of collaborators and thought leaders (as well as other functions and junior employees) that are invited into an innovation process but not kept informed or fully appreciated
  • The flight from conflict and tension: innovation leaders think that innovation requires “all ideas are good ideas” even when they are not or have a fear of conflict so they discourage appropriate and healthy debate over the validity of insights and ideas and are afraid that conflict and tension are somehow not creative—this is often associated with leaders that want to be liked or seen as creative and avoid relational and strategic tensions that are inherent in the birth of all great ideas
  • Efficiency trumps effectiveness: the organizational DNA is focused on driving relentless efficiencies (a term borrowed from the physical analysis of machine input/outputs) to boost bottom-line and accounting profits—through decades of reorgs and retoolings driven by scientific management theories and management consultants employed to get rid of the very time, space, experimentation, and empathic relationships needed for innovators to be effective through reflection, asking questions, debating ideas, ideating and co-creating, gaining customer and consumer insights, and “noodling” (a technical term) on ideas, as they are all seen as inefficient waste
  • Penny tight, dollar foolish: the tendency for companies to make big bets on out-sourced innovation bought at vast expense through mergers and acquisitions, which often fail in the integration (and the very products bought for their innovation potential killed of and/or their teams demoralized) and are then written off through accounting shenanigans and not spoken of again—rather than invest far smaller amounts in passionate and purposeful intrapreneurs who have the industry expertise and energy to invest their lifeblood in self-authored innovations—this shows up in the billion-dollar deals making headlines (often driven by investment banks and management consultants) but the everyday difficulties of even very senior leaders to secure even a few hundred thousand dollars for strategic innovation activities
  • Idea obsessions, allergies, and shrinkages: without skills in innovation leadership, one or more leaders become obsessed with an idea even when it is not rooted in a tangible and growing customer insight (pet projects) which leads to great solutions urgently needed a concrete customer problem; are allergic to ideas as they were “not-invented-here” or seen as inferior without evidence; or the ideas of the team are progressively shrunk through rounds of inappropriate reporting and low-fidelity thinking that they end up resembling mere incremental improvements that a smart manager could have delivered without innovation
  • Failure fears and trauma memories: the organization and its senior leaders are terrified of failing (or being seen to fail) due to their own leadership development blockages, and leaders who are haunted by traumatic memories of past innovations that failed, even if they or few others were in the organization at the time (cultures have long memories)—can also be trauma from other players in the industry who had near-death experiences from failed innovations which the sector as a whole has internalized (which usually means an out-of-industry player will come in and disrupt at some point)

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  • Lack of safety and trust: the leadership culture of the organization punishes people for challenging the status quo and for questioning received wisdom on customer type, needs, and perceptions of value, and/or people are shamed for speaking up, for having different ideas or beliefs (even about personal matters like nutrition or socializing), for having bold ideas that may steal the limelight from line managers, and for failing, even though experimentation and prototyping require failure for ideas to be improved and evolved
  • Consultancy over-reliance: the organization is so fearful of, unfamiliar with, and spooked out by creativity and customer insight—which most human beings can do if the right conditions are created for them to tap into their imagination and empathy—that they mistake the consultancy for the solution. At best this disempowers the organization’s people, who not only must have their own solutions to their own industry’s problems and have usually had the Ah-ha!s at some point anyway (as they watch a focus group or visit a site) but their insights and ideas have had nowhere to land, have not had the space to be listened to, or be coherently construed as a solution… but, at worst, it exports power over the future of a firm to people who, by nature, have no power to make the big decisions, influence the major stakeholders, and take the risks needed to execute
  • Too secret and closed off: innovation is done in a small team kept away from the main business and hidden from competitors, which means the team has to have all the ideas themselves (tough if they all think alike) and use expensive market research to get insights from the edge (which is slow and often done poorly) and the organizations loses out on the insights and ideas of those across the system/industry who might have the missing perspectives and ingredients—like vendors/suppliers, clients, thought leaders, future customers, and even competitors
  • Too open and inclusive: innovation leaders are inspired by the excitement and impact of open innovation and collaboration processes but do not manage who should be in which room and at what time, exposed to what data and information, and involved at the right stage (e.g. problem definition or ideation or execution?) to get the ideal outcomes—so the resulting chaos and incoherence tanks effectiveness and obliterates focus and when the dust settles, there is little much concrete innovation
  • Changing priorities: a new CEO or GM comes in, wants to make a 100-day pow!, changes the strategy without listening to the innovation teams or taking the time to understand the problems they are trying to solve, and either just don’t get it or is afraid that it has not been invented here so kiboshes the program—this is also common when management consultants are brought in to downsize/right-size/re-org, a population not famous for their innovation sensibilities, user empathy and insight, and creative genius, and suggest progress is halted or investment reallocated
  • Poor influencing and bad narrative: innovators have gone on the journey, narrowed down a million options and possibilities, have had painful breakdowns and exciting breakthroughs, and fully believe they have cracked something significant… and then forget that their boss/Chairperson/shareholders/investors have not gone on the journey and/or don’t have the bandwidth to hold the story, and when they pitch or present the big idea, tell jumbled and mumbled innovation stories, fail to get the right balance of data, proof points, inspiration, big thinking, and story structure, or get so caught up in their idea for so long that they don’t invest in relationship-building, allyship, and taking stakeholders on the journey with them

This is not a complete not exhaustive list. I haven’t even mentioned issues like incompatible grammar (marketing, R&D, ops, etc are not just on different hymn sheets but speaking different languages); too much technical talk (obliterating and eliding customer insights and fresh ideas by using technical talk and TLAs that ensure people think conventionally); low-resolution road mapping (innovation teams expect the core business to pick up and run with a project rather than involving them from the start and much insight and nuance then gets lost in translation (with many batons dropped along the way); and poor problem definition (when innovation projects are set up to solve technical problems with improvements rather than “transformational challenges” with big ideas)… but it is enough for now.

I may need to write a book at some point just to share all the wisdom we have learned the very, very, very hard way!

In the final article, I share how to flip these killers into innovation unlockers and enablers that break through the blockers to lead and land innovation successfully.

Series Navigation<< 5 Ways Corporate Innovation Leadership Activities Are Likely To Fail33 Powerful Principles For Leading Successful Innovation In Corporates & Multinationals >>


By Nick Jankel

Professional Global Keynote Speaker, Transformation & Innovation Catalyst, Leadership Theorist & Practitioner, 6 x Dyslexic Author, 3 x TV Coach, Co-Creator of Bio-Transformation®