It’s a depressing topic — the factors that can prove fatal to innovation initiatives. Some play out suddenly, and others sap resources and support over months. Some of them are within your control. But others, like a CEO switch or big merger, are outside it.
To arm you with information, we compiled this list, with input from current and former innovation executives, as well as consultants who have watched programs coalesce and (occasionally) disband.
While the list isn’t necessarily ranked in order of how likely each item is to be a “cause of death,” everyone we spoke with agreed that the first two bullets are the factors they’ve seen most frequently.
- The innovation champion leaves the organization, or moves to a different role with new priorities. No one else in a position of influence steps up, and the team loses its political support and “air cover.”
- Market pressures: falling profits or stock price, increased competition, or organizational cost-cutting pull the organization’s focus to near-term profits and revenues, with less attention to building capabilities.
- Team tries to do too much — training, awards, new product development, building relationships with the startup world, etc. — and doesn’t move the needle significantly on any one thing.
- Undermined by business units. Example: when business units take on projects incubated by the innovation team or R&D group, they under-staff, under-fund, under-market, or simply abandon them.
- Mergers and acquisitions. Company gets bought, merges with another company, or acquires a company that will take years to “digest.” Integration takes precedence, and internal innovation loses resources and executive attention.
- Organizational impatience. Initial enthusiasm wanes before there are impact stories or demonstrable results. A contributing factor can be that milestones or success measures are too ambitious, or too vague, so progress is not visible or concrete enough.
- Poor staffing choices. Either the innovation team is populated exclusively by internal staff who have no idea how innovation works; or entirely by innovation specialists / outsiders who have no idea how the company works.
- The innovation lab intends to cultivate ideas and strategic projects, but winds up serving as a showcase, meeting space, or visitor’s center to highlight the fact that the organization is “thinking about the future.”
- When it comes time to make a major investment in a project or new business, which may either require its own operating structure or threaten to disrupt an existing business, executive support suddenly vanishes.
- “Shiny new object” syndrome. An innovation initiative is launched, goes through one project or cycle, and then doesn’t continue to use the tool or method. Often, there is no defined leader (or team) with the time or incentive to keep things going. This often happens with idea challenges, training programs, awards programs, or “open innovation”/startup engagement efforts.
One of the executives who contributed to this list pointed out that at most companies, innovation is unfortunately viewed as optional and “nice to have,” not a necessity. Surviving long enough to change that perception is Job #1 for innovation leaders.