Learnings from a Failed IT Innovation Program

By Scott Kirsner |  December 6, 2013

It’s not a big secret that some innovation programs will inevitably have a short lifespan. That was the case at Infineum USA, a maker of petroleum additives that is a joint venture of Shell and ExxonMobil. Infineum created an IT innovation initiative in 2011 at its New Jersey offices that had run out of gas by the middle of 2013.

“What this program was supposed to deliver was high impact IT solutions through the exploitation of new technologies,” says Fabio Gonzalez de Almeida, who led the initiative. “We wanted to have a high impact on the business.” Almeida hoped to explore developing mobile apps for salespeople and customers, and how Infineum might deliver new services through its website.

But Almeida ran into organizational constraints almost immediately. The sales organization wasn’t wild about letting him talk directly with customers to try to understand their needs. People in the IT organization were often too busy with their day-to-day work to dedicate their time to the innovation initiative. The organization had a bias toward buying off-the-shelf technologies, rather than building its own solutions. And when Almeida would ask colleagues at Infineum how IT could address pain points or deliver something new, “Many people just used to say, ‘Keep things working. We need SAP, and we want it running 24/7.'” He was also the sole person dedicated to the initiative full-time.

After two-and-a-half years, the program wound down.

We asked Almeida to share what he learned from the experience. “Learning about innovation is like learning a language,” he says. “Once you start, it never ends.” The list of Do’s & Don’ts he compiled are his own opinion; they don’t represent the views of Infineum or others at the company.


Set clear objectives. IT innovation programs must have clear objectives agreed upon with the target constituency (including Vision, Mission, Goals and Targets.) The target constituency might be other areas of the organization or customers (in which case the sales department should be the key stakeholder.) Unclear objectives will result in misaligned expectations, and the objectives will never be satisfactory.

Communicate. Once your objectives are set, communicate them to the organization — and particularly to the people who will contribute to the program. Make sure they know how to submit their ideas; how these ideas will be evaluated, selected, prioritized and developed; and how they can contribute. Create a channel for ongoing communication. In my case, I used a blog on the intranet that was followed by all the interested people. It enabled great discussions. Make your program visible.

Collaborate. Some ideas are not born successful, but can grow up to be successful if they are nurtured and built upon. Create mechanisms to allow cross-functional people interested in the same opportunity to discuss, build and challenge ideas. A Community of Practice that meets periodically is a good way to get people together to collaborate.

Monitor and Control. Good metrics are an effective way to monitor progress, make adjustments along the way, and communicate with stakeholders and program participants. Define your metrics based on targets that are important to the program’s growth and success.

Innovate how you innovate. Adapt your innovation process to your needs. If your pilots and prototypes need more structure, consider applying a project management methodology to them. Need people to be more engaged? Adding some gamification techniques to your program may make it more competitive.


Assume goodwill is enough. Many organizations want to innovate, but don’t provide the necessary environment and guidance to the people involved. Don’t expect people to effectively innovate just because they want to. Goodwill is not enough. Real breakthroughs happen when innovators can approach a solution from different perspectives. If the people involved have never done innovation before, consider awareness sessions, training and mentoring.

Neglect all aspects of a successful solution. Many times people who present an idea or problem to be solved know what they want, but don’t know what they need. Make sure that the team gathering requirements for a new initiative reaches the root cause of the issue and explores every single aspect that will make a solution successful. Identifying the “deal breakers” is also important, as they will allow you to fail fast, if that is the case. Ensure you have the right people with the right skills prospecting for innovation opportunities.

Expect self motivation. Don’t expect people to embrace innovation just because they are interested in the topic, or it is the new buzzword in the organization. Even if you have a dedicated team, innovation requires collaboration and input from different parts of the organization. But remember that these people already have full-time jobs. Great innovation programs are embedded in the organization and people’s goals so that contributors can dedicate time; become accountable for their contributions; and be recognized accordingly as part of their performance reviews. Appropriate recognition and management support at all levels are vital, as true innovation doesn’t happen without commitment and perseverance.

Anticipate miracles. Having clear objectives is the first step to being able to measure your success. However, it’s not the only determinant factor. Your success should also be measured by other aspects of your program: engagement, speed, ROI, impact, adoption, learnings, etc. For example, if the organization is not willing to take big risks, the results might not be as high-impact as expected. Your output will be commensurate with what you put into your program.

Have you had similar experiences? Are there other do’s and don’ts you’d add to Almeida’s list? Post a comment below…