Six ways to fail at innovation

Thomas Weddells-Wedellsborg and Paddy Miller from IESE Business School are currently working on a book that looks at how to navigate the world of innovation. Recently, they offered a sneak peek of the book with the following blog post, titled "Innovate and die: Six ways to fail at innovation."

You can hear more from Miller in a course this May on "The Innovation Architect: Creating Breakthrough Companies." The course "will change the way you think about innovation and creativity in your organization. The course is a highly intensive two day immersion in the issues of moving from one-off initiatives to developing a culture of continuous innovation."

The following is a synopsis about how to fail at innovation:

Paradoxically, the crisis has just made innovation a company-wide imperative – but what are the pitfalls of driving innovation? Here are the six major mistakes managers make when trying to make their teams, departments or companies more creative.

1. Not knowing where you want to go

Saying “we want innovation” is like saying “we want to be successful” – it is a good start, but it doesn’t really help anyone in deciding what to do. And yet, when we talk to senior managers, they too often remain at a very high level of abstraction about what they want. They tell their employees that they want more innovation – “Think differently! Be the change! Go outside the box!” – but it remains unclear what they actually mean by that.

2. Thinking communication is enough

Once managers realise the need for more innovation, they often turn to their favorite tool: communication. “Our people are not innovative,” they think, “because they haven’t really understood how important innovation is for our business.” This is where the PowerPoint presentation saying “Innovate or die!” traditionally enters the picture.

3. Chasing free lunches only

Often, you can get better at innovation through making very simple, virtually costless changes to the way you do things. And this is where the problems start, because once we as managers understand that there is such a thing as a free lunch, we start to think that all lunches – even the five-star à la carte meals – should be attainable without paying anything for them. This attitude, combined with lofty ambitions, is a recipe for disaster. It can create tremendous amounts of frustration and bad will when managers insist on getting the next iPod from their people, but aren’t willing to put money on the table to get it.

4. Jumping into action

Following the false lights of cookie-cutter management books, a generation of managers has been trained to believe that they should focus on action and execution above all else. In the words of In Search of Excellence, managers must show “a propensity for action.” If in doubt, fire before you aim.

5. Thinking “fear of change” is the problem

A fallacy that deserves special mention is the obsession the innovation industry has with fear of change. According to this line of thinking, propagated by a willing horde of change management consultants, the only thing keeping you from success is the irrational fear of change that all the “little people” in your organisation have. And so you must teach people, by way of training courses and expensive speakers, that they should learn to let go of their fear.

6. Treating innovation as a one-man, one-idea show

The cult of personality has never been more pervasive than it is in business today. It has become part of our cultural texture that iconic leadership in business and politics actually works. When something great happens, we look for the genius who had the idea. And this appeals to innovators. Who doesn’t want to be declared a genius, with all that this entails in recognition, salary increases, better employment prospects and a dramatically heightened sense of self-importance?

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