Six common mistakes and one advice for innovation challenges

Operational efficiency is clearly ahead in idea implementation, while sales and marketing, sustainability and better customer experience count for more than half of all the ideas implemented. By dissecting the innovation challenges that performed the worst – and excluding extrinsic factors such as a weak system of incentives and feeble, meagre or uninteresting communication – we note that these challenges tend to be:

a. Unfamiliar or distant from people’s everyday work and needs;
b. Detached from current business strategic alignment: This may happen, for instance, if you launch a challenge focused on anticorruption, social inclusion or ecosystem protection, but your company has never, in your daily practices and initiatives, really shown interest in such themes;
c. Too technical for the target audience: Both technical and business jargon has the power to dismiss and demobilise larger parts of your audience;
d. Too abstract: Remember that, the wider the scope, the more people tend to submit ideas that are irrelevant for your business;
e. Too narrow: Yet, if you completely limit the scope, you may miss some relevant insights;
f. Ambiguous or difficult to understand: Linguistic complexity, such as unclear or complex sentences, may make you lose your audience’s focus and attention.

One of our clients suggests as well that “communication is important, but, if you find it is too important, then all the rest is poorly structured. You cannot feed a fire just with straw. . . Guidance on how to write a good idea must go well beyond mouseover suggestions.”

Also, remember that, even if you map the right tools and needs, other factors can still undermine the success and participation in your innovation programme. For instance, you should not expect highly engaging initiatives without first planning and rolling out an appropriate communication plan, as well as adequate awards, recognition and implementation mechanisms. In the next posts, we seek to give you a hand in establishing and structuring your innovation challenges.

Diana Neves de Carvalho, Exago’s CEO/
Francisco Bernardes, Exago’s head of Innovation Services/

A step-by-step guide to defining your innovation challenges

Your ultimate innovation challenge – what works and what doesn’t

More mistaken beliefs about innovation…

In our previous post we focused on the first of the five mistaken beliefs business leaders have about innovation, as listed by Professor Freek Vermeulen from LBS here.

Even though the five mistakes are very interesting we will only focus on one more:
“[Business leaders believe] that because everybody had always done it this way, it is the best way of doing things.”

The definition of innovation as “the implementation of ideas that meet new requirements, needs, or adapting market desires,” contradicts the tendency to act like everyone else or align to precedent. Curiously, the vast majority of business leaders – 84% according to a McKinsey Global Survey – recognize innovation as being very important to their companies’ growth strategy but cannot apply innovation into their own activities.

To innovate is to break tradition and viewing the world from another angle requires openness to new insights or points of view. This is very clear in business model innovation (low cost airlines, Cirque du Soleil, iTunes, etc.) but also applies in product or service innovation. Even in sports we can find several examples of innovative behaviors that revolutionized performance like the high-jump Fosbury Flop technique (1968), Tiger Woods’ change in his golf swing or José Mourinho’s motivational and confrontational team-building techniques.

As Mr. Vermeulen points out, the greatest innovation often comes from challenging industry convention.

Unfortunately, the fact that business leaders are not open to new perspectives is often resultant from two other behaviors: risk aversion and inability to listen to other people. We have already explored the danger of risk aversion when concerning innovation efforts in another post so let’s have a look at the inability to listen to others regarding innovation.

The idea here is not to force business leaders to do whatever comes to anyone else’s mind. After all, the last mistake pointed out by Frank Vermeulen is believing the customer, which highlights the risk that stems from listening to people who do not know what they need or want and require others to tell them what to consume. As an example, does anyone believe consumers would have said they wanted a car when asked how to improve the horse drawn carriage in the late XIX century? They would probably say they wanted faster horses and more comfortable seats but they could never imagine a car (at least the way we see it now).

This in mind, business leaders should listen to input from their closest colleagues (typically C-Level executives). However these individuals are not owners of the truth and are prey to their own biases.

It is therefore a good idea to allow others to contribute to the discussion and decision-making process. How many examples of great innovation have come from front-line employees, middle managers and suppliers? Countless. It is this diversity of backgrounds, knowledge and experience in large communities of stakeholders that brings value to the process of innovating.

The power of collective intelligence allows organizations to find new solutions and alternative possibilities. At Exago we have been working for years to bring everyone to the epicenter of the innovation processes, making them feel listened to and valuable. Our model has proven to change behaviors, engage communities, and improve bottom-line results.

Mistaken beliefs about Innovation

London Business School released a slideshare with five mistaken beliefs business leaders have about innovation.

The five mistakes pointed out by LBS are:

  • Believing the numbers;
  • Believing success has been attained;
  • Believing they know the competition;
  • Believing that because everybody had always done it this way, it is the best way of doing things;
  • Believing the customer.

Each and every one of these topics provides much “food for thought” and written analysis. On this blog post we will only analyze the first, believing the numbers.

On this blog we have already briefly analyzed the obsession companies have with short-term activities and results. Business leaders tend to focus on the short-run, thinking and acting tactically (and reactively) instead of thinking strategically for the long-run. This might ensure average or even good results on the short term but it certainly comes at a high cost: a loss of competitiveness and even risk of survival in the long-run.

This happens, among other reasons, because of the highly aggressive social-economical-cultural business environment. We see negative consequences of this behavior everywhere, from bonuses (in stock options or other financial assets) to top-management that urges risky decisions and creates misalignment between short/ long-run objectives and resource allocation, to populist politicians that tend to invest in projects with short-term results and visibility (good for their popularity) but long-term costs (bad for tax-payers and newcomer politicians).

London Business School’s criticism stems from, “Insisting too much and too soon on seeing the numbers,” (market size, payback time, ROI, etc.) and how that insistency can kill a project even before it really starts. IBM’s president Thomas Watson’s statement about computers in 1943 also shows how deadly a focus on a number can be. “It’s fair to say that few people ever wanted one of those (computers), regardless of the size of their desk,” he said. Obviously IBM rethought and reanalyzed its view (and eventually became the largest PC provider in the world).

The same focus on numbers can kill a recently launched project if the return is not as fast or as high as intended at the beginning, which is often the case with innovation. If innovation is “a new idea, device, or method” and “the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods,” then results might not come in the short-run, especially when talking about ideas or the fuzzy front-end of innovation. If the project is shut down at the first bad number there will never be positive ROI. Furthermore, this policy can even create a downward spiral as it pollutes other innovative projects within the organization. If people feel projects have a high risk of never launching or of being quickly abandoned the motivation to pursue such an endeavor becomes close to zero.

Consequently, when beginning an innovation project it is necessary to think strategically and for the long run. This is even truer if the project involves a large community of people. In this case the need for a cultural shift is frequent and, before reaching tangible results, it is mandatory to get people on board by stimulating participation and a willingness to contribute.

Therefore be sure to “fail fast, fail cheap and fail often” but remember you can only conclude you have failed after giving the project a chance to succeed.