Why Most Companies’ New Years Resolution Of Innovation Will Fail


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Chances are, the calendar rolling over brought a surge of positive energy to your office.  You can almost hear the collective exhale of your team after the holidays, reinvigorated by new budgets and new ideas.  This year, resolve to see that expectation of wildly successful innovations stand proud past the spring thaw.  Though, statistically, most innovation projects are destined to not make it.  Not unless companies leap past the problematic innovation methods that under deliver year after year.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a company whose yearly goals include doing less innovation than they did the year prior.  Innovation has become virtually synonymous with growth in many sectors, and for most mature brands.  The right innovation strategy, turned into big concrete ideas that reach the street and the balance sheet, will free a brand from a stifling plateau.

The tough reality though is that by most sane estimates, nine out of ten innovation projects never deliver anything to market.  For a metric that can decide the growth of a company, success rates of innovation projects remain absurdly low.

The numbers say that most companies live the same spiral every year: the innovators who were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the first quarter will face a tough hill by mid-year.  Any veteran innovator knows that hollow feeling of seeing their seemingly big idea, nurtured so long and with such passion, eventually slip through the cracks.

By the fourth quarter, we find ourselves applying the soothing salve of post-rationalization – the usual pat explanations for low success rates, from “innovation is hard” to “failure is normal and noble,” and drawing comfort in the mantra that “failure is the ultimate teacher.” All of which launches us into another hopeful year, where we start the cycle again.

How do we break this pattern?  How do we ensure this year will be different?  What my team at Fahrenheit 212 has learned through years of trial and error is that low success rates aren’t in fact due to the inherently difficult nature of innovation, but the nature of prevailing innovation methodology, and the way today’s noisiest orthodoxies tell innovators to think and work in pursuit of the big idea.

If you want to break the cycle, you have to break the habits, myths and misconceptions that are getting in the way of better outcomes.  At Fahrenheit 212, by virtue of a decade’s worth of resolutions aimed at transforming success rates, we’ve scrutinized and ultimately thrown to the curb a host of these widely held, but wildly off base, assumptions.  Culling misconceptions has shaped a more impactful approach to innovation that we hope can help you make the year ahead your best yet.  Here are some of its tenets:

Innovation Problems Are Two Sided; Solve Both Sides Or Nothing Happens

Obsessing over the consumer’s needs is vital and necessary, but this healthy obsession can come with an unwelcome and potentially destructive side effect: too many innovation projects are approached as though solving the consumer need is all that matters.  To succeed as an innovator, you must solve for two distinctly different constituencies: the consumer and the business itself.

As is so often the case, the problems of these two constituencies actually have little to do with each other, yet they must be solved in tandem for any idea to make it onto the street.

Too often, as innovators we poke, prod, and thoroughly understand every nuance of the consumer, feverishly attempting to find the holy grail of a big unmet need.  Meanwhile, commercial realities are either given little attention, or deliberately blocked from consideration out of a misplaced fear that they taint the creative process.  Ultimately, the only innovations that make it to market and thrive are those that solve both needs.

It’s Time To Ask What’s Next After The Orthodoxy Of Design Thinking

Can we be fans and tough critics in the same breath?  Of course.  We do it with our sports teams all the time, so let’s not hold back here.  The innovation approach in questions is called Design Thinking.  As a devoutly user-centered approach to observing consumer behavior, prototyping and iterating toward better products, it has been a huge leap forward from the purely business-centric models that preceded it.  Yet, it has failed to do what businesses need most from innovation today: elevating the success rates.

The reason it hasn’t moved the needle is uncomplicated: it only solves one side of the equation.  In relegating commercial factors to the tail end of an innovation process, it is at best 100% effective at solving 50% of the problem.  It’s made innovation more humanistic, and arguably more fun, but no more reliable than it was before as a driver of growth for businesses.

By banishing commercial factors as impediments to creativity, it has a tendency to deliver a breed of idea we call unicorns: visions that are beautiful to the think about, but only profitable in some remote imaginary world. You can’t hitch your plough to a unicorn.

Thinking About Money Won’t Destroy Creativity

The widely propagated view that thinking about how you’ll make money is toxic to creativity is a narrow situational truth that’s somehow been given universal status.  In the majority of cases, we’ve found that ignoring commercial concerns significantly raises the odds of your bold creative vision never coming to fruition.

By excluding the realities of the business from the consideration set, we let our inventive minds shape a vision in a vacuum.  Few of these concepts survive when profitability questions inevitably assert themselves.

Instead of asking these money questions so late in the game, understand the levers of profitability from the beginning and it will empower your creative thinkers to use them, bend them, play with them and stretch them.

We don’t give enough credit to our most creative minds by assuming they aren’t comfortable with the commercial side of the project.  The unfounded belief that money-talk kills creativity, has fostered a tendency to shelter creative thinkers from commercial conversations.

In what was initially a contrarian experiment, we joined creativity and commercial perspectives from the start of each project at Fahrenheit 212, and saw something amazing happen.  Brave thinkers became remarkably adept at pulling commercial levers that turn interesting ideas into lucrative ones, in ways they never could when we assumed their creativity had to be sheltered from “all that money stuff.”

Judgment-Free Zones Sound Great, But Devour Your Time And Money

Any fledgling innovation idea will eventually face tough questions and need to stand up to intense commercial scrutiny, from investors, project sponsors, or a CEO.  That idea you’re nurturing needs to be fortified and shaped to stare down those tough questions.

The widely celebrated ‘judgment free’ brainstorming models that have done wonders for the Post It Note business have resulted in vast populations of ideas dying off prematurely, because they’re so sheltered from inquiry that they simply aren’t designed to answer those tough questions.

So instead of celebrating every idea that emerges in our ideation process, we fuse creativity with constructive criticism from day one.  The hard-hitting questions aren’t meant to destroy a new idea, but guide it through development, strengthen it, define it.  That kind of in depth scrutiny is inevitable, so better that it comes from within your project team than catches you flat-footed under executive review.

You’ll also find that creating a healthy positive tension around an idea elevates the team’s creativity in ways that saying every idea is wonderful never can.

Happy New Year

Making this year a standout year won’t happen through wishful optimism alone.  Getting to better innovation success rates will require more tangible changes to the way your team thinks and works.  Shed the myths, habits, and methods that held you back last year, so that you can look back at year’s end with a great sense of accomplishment.