Why do innovation teams fail?

At a time when margins are tight and disruption occurs on a daily basis, business leaders are under pressure to discover the “next big thing”, such as a breakthrough product that will redefine a category or create an entirely new niche to dominate.  A new process that will save time and money.  A radical efficiency that will restore fat margins.

But companies tend to suffer from a common defect.   Their innovation teams routinely fail. It’s not bad luck, and it’s no accident.   It’s chronic and it is entirely predictable.
I’ve advised big companies and tiny startup ventures on innovation process for two decades.  I’ve learned to identify some of the structural defects that doom the creative process from the start.   The good news:  there are proven solutions.  But they require strong leadership.
Why innovation teams fail:
1. Organized resistance.
The seeds of the innovation team’s demise are sown before the project even begins.  Most companies begin with a lousy creative environment.  Take a look around.  Does the place have cubicles and fluorescent overhead lighting panels in a drop ceiling?  There’s your clue.   Is the conference room windowless, airless, colorless and stale?  The more structured and traditional the company, the less likely the organization is to welcome a major breakthrough that disrupts the status quo.    Resistance to creative thinking is built into the very structure of the company.
Remember, the top priority of every organization is to preserve the organization.  Doesn’t matter if it’s a company or a charity or a school.   Doesn’t matter what the stated mission or objective of the organization is.   Once an organization gets started, it will naturally seek self-preservation as its first priority.  Which means that running the business, or meeting business objectives, or winning new markets, or coming up with killer products, are all secondary to the task of self-preservation.
So any change or new initiative that threatens the existing organization (in whole or in part) will likely encounter a reflexive opposition from the bureaucracy.    Don’t be surprised if nobody is aware of this dynamic.   It’s  an entirely unconscious reaction, like an auto-immune system response.   The corporate antibodies flood the new idea and snuff it out.
The solution is to cultivate a culture that welcomes change and celebrates new ideas loudly and proudly.   Any organization that promotes efficiency & stability over innovation & design will find this very challenging.
2.  Responsibility without authority
A creative team sailing in uncharted waters towards an unknown destination is bound to fail.   Much of the fault for the failure of innovation teams can be chalked up to poorly defined objectives and a lack of upfront commitment to accept the recommendation that will be delivered at the end of the process.
Managers often fob the responsibility for innovation onto the shoulders of a small team (marketers, designers, engineers) but unless the rest of the organization is committed to their success, the small team is doomed.    They just don’t have the authority to make their recommendations stick.
What’s needed at the outset is a mandate that includes a concise definition of the problem and commitment to follow through and implement the recommended solution.   How many business leaders do you know who are willing to make that commitment… and then are willing to delegate the responsibility to a team of subordinates?
Unsurprisingly, most executives reserve the right to make the final call.   Thereby rendering the innovation team toothless.   And before they make their decision, the executive in change will typically cycle it past managers of other departments (business affairs, HR, legal, finance) to review the recommendation and provide comments.    The result:  death by a thousand cuts.  It’s just too easy to nitpick a new idea and discover a flaw.   There is no downside to telling the CEO why the new idea just won’t work.
In such a situation, the innovation team has been given the responsibility for initiating the change process without the authority to bring it to completion.   Guaranteed fail.
The solution is clear but it requires heroic leadership.   The CEO designates a team which is empowered to make recommendations and implement them.  And the CEO requires every  department in the bureaucracy to support the team, with penalties for resistance.   And then the CEO must actively and frequently reiterate his support of the team and their recommendations.  This sounds drastic, but it’s the way that legendary CEOs get new products to market.
3.  Lack of self-awareness.
Coming up with new ideas is one thing:  selling them is another.   Very few people are good at both.   Brilliant minds tend to see innovation in such stark terms that the merits are self-evident, with no salesmanship necessary.   But those who did not participate in the innovation process might lack context to understand the new ideas:  unless an effort is made to get them up to speed, resistance is sure to follow.
Self-awareness is the capacity to observe one’s own strengths and weaknesses realistically.  Self-awareness is a crucial skill in managing relationships successfully.   But few companies provide support or guidance to employees who wish to gain a better understanding of themselves.   Consider how most companies penalize employees for cultivating self-awareness:
* Performance reviews are given infrequently, and tend to focus overwhelmingly on shortcomings instead of areas of strength.  Employees get a very skewed impression of themselves in such reviews.
* No one has ever been rewarded for admitting a weakness in a corporate setting.
* Requesting time to attend a training session or skills seminar is often perceived as a boondoggle, or a dodge to avoid work.
As a result, self-awareness is in chronic short supply in most corporations.  And yet, the ability of the innovation team to convince the organization to adopt their recommendations depends entirely upon mutual self awareness and empathy.
Selling innovation tends to involve an element amateur psychology.   It requires a fair talent for persuasion, to convince people to see what they’ve been unable to perceive previously without making them feel inadequate or weak or defensive.  It’s quite common to see executives react with ego defenses:  they may become loud or grouchy or irritable when confronted with new ideas and new information;  they may reject the ideas, or grow suddenly competitive, turning the presentation into a debate or, worse, a trial.   This is a common reaction.
There are solutions for this problem, too.  And again, it’s best handled upfront, early in the process.  Many “innovation process consultants” rely on personality tests and psychometric tools to provide all participants with an objective view of their strengths and weaknesses (or, more diplomatically, “thinking styles”).
A common tactic is to begin the process with a level-setting exercise in which every participant (including the boss!) learns what psychological “type” they are.   And the facilitator reminds everyone that all types of creativity are valued (read:  even critical, judgemental and negative perspectives have a positive role in the creative cycle!).   Which means that all participants have an equal role in the authorship of the final outcome.
I’m familiar with two programs that are designed to address this issue and, in my experience, work quite well.
The first, designed by Dr Min Basadur of Toronto, is called Simplex.   What I particularly like is the way that the thinking skills are aligned to the creative process.   Typically, when a participant takes the Simplex profile evaluation, he or she will discover that they have a unique blend of all four thinking styles.   This is a smart psychological trick:  it makes each person feel unique and yet connected to the others.   And the Simplex process has a special place for each thinking style, so nobody is left out of the process.  Learn about Dr Basadur’s profile here:  http://www.basadurprofile.com
The second is called the Kirton Adaption – Innovation Theory (KAI).   Dr Kirton’s concept is that all humans are problem solvers, and creativity is a subset of problem-solving, so therefore all humans are creative.   But creativity skills are not uniform:  they are distributed along a continuum ranging from Adapative to Innovative.    Innovators relish breakthroughs and welcome radical change, whereas Adaptive people tend to prefer structure and moderate incremental change.  http://www.kaicentre.com/OK.htm Many of the petty personality conflicts that arise during the creative process can be attributed to the different thinking styles of Adaptive and Innovative personalities, so it’s useful to be aware of them and learn the techniques for embracing both inputs.
It takes a bold leader to recommend that the entire team take a test to identify creative strengths and weaknesses, but the result is a noticeable improvement in the tone, tenor and success of the teams.

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