The Top 7 Ways to Screw up Innovation

To truly screw up doing innovation would simply be to not do innovation at all.  So if you’re at least reading this list, likelihood is you’ve overcome at least that one fundamental hurdle.  If you’re doing something, anything at all - you’ve at least taken the first step of acknowledging how critical it is. 

That said, there are certainly some common mis-steps that can undermine your progress that you might not know (unless you’ve been practicing innovation for 20+ years.)

HOping for an Innovation Miracle

#7 Screw Up:  Doing a big training and hoping a miracle will occur.

Without structures, systems, processes and support - the training simply doesn’t stick...no matter how clever the content.  At best, your audience will remember 10% of the content and apply even less of it.

#6 Screw Up :  Asking employees for ideas.

Now before you toss up your hands, read on.  I’m not saying to ignore the people in your organization.  I’m simply saying that the “Idea Suggestion Box” is darn near the worst invention.  It actually kills an innovative culture before it’s even gotten off the ground.  You say, “Send in your ideas!”  If you’ve never asked for ideas before, be ready for a fire hose of all kinds of ideas - ones you want and ones you didn’t even know existed.  But as soon as you get them, if you don’t do something with them soon - or better yet, enable employees with a system to do something with them themselves - you’ll be left with a workforce that was excited at the start but is now pretty disgruntled.  Organizations can usually get away with this once, maybe twice, before employees start to revolt altogether.

#5 Screw Up:  Designing your “innovation strategy and plan” in a PowerPoint deck before you even start.

Imagine this.  You’ve never ridden a bike before - ever.  Someone demands that you ride it perfectly the first time you get on.  You’re allowed to read as many books as you want about it - can google about it - can ask others for tips - but you CANNOT get on a bike or try it before the big debut.  Ridiculous, right?

It’s the same with innovation.  You cannot expect to put together a great process on the back of a napkin and then just hold a training session, roll it out and wait for your organization to innovate like Apple the next day.  

#4 Screw Up:  Creating a special Innovation Department.

As soon as a company goes through the “Innovation Awakening” - realizing that this innovation thing is probably something they should do something about - the first step seems to always be appointing a Chief Innovation Officer (or Innovation Manager, director, etc.) and assign them an innovation team to “do innovation.”

While accountability is a good thing, innovation should not be a silo’ed effort reserved only for a chosen few.  Companies that do innovation well do innovation in EVERYTHING - in the way they work every project, in the way they interact without silos, in the way they move quickly, in the way they run experiments, in the exploration and collaboration they use.  Said another way, innovation should be for everyone in the organization - not a select few.  Why should they have all the fun?  

#3 Mis-step:  Approaching Innovation as a “Nice to Do” and not a “MUST do.”

Business life cycles are crushing industries, literally.  Where years ago it took a very long time - years, decades even - for an industry to change, today’s time line is extremely short.  In every category and business, a new way of working, a new competitor on the market, an industry-sweeping change...any and all of them can have massive effects on the business you assume you can keep.  Study after study cites the same - if you want to retain employees, earn money, stay competitive and keep the doors open - you must innovate.

On the upside, there’s never been a better time to innovate.  There are more systems for testing and learning today than there have ever been in the past.  Customers are savvier, technology is revolutionary and the communication systems today mean the concept of “export” is no longer a far away dream.

#2 Mis-step: Waiting for “the right time” to do innovation.

As my mother once said to me, “There’s never a right time to start a family. You just do it.”  The same could be said for innovation.  You could be excelling - then you should innovate to get onto the next wave.  You could be tanking - then you should innovate to create a new path forward.  You could be staying steady - then you should be nervous that the world is innovating all around you and that steady state is a mirage. 

#1 Screw Up:  Not showing up.

Innovation requires you stay the course - which is so contrary to the very notion of innovation and doing things differently.  However, because there is such natural volatility in innovation, leadership showing up for all things innovation it critical for employee commitment. Let me share with you some examples of real world experiences:

  • A leader was going on vacation for 2 weeks but told the innovation project leader and team, “Go on without me though.”  They were 3 weeks into the project and for the 2 weeks when the leader was out they canceled the meetings because they weren’t confident they’d do them right.  No work progressed.
  • A leader missed 3 consecutive project meetings.  At the first meeting, a key killer issue was identified and the team needed insight from the leader to proceed.  The team made as much progress as possible in the weeks that followed and on the 4th week, the leader became the killer issue.
  • A team was going through a training and got very excited about innovation.  They couldn’t believe they would be allowed to work in such a way.  But when no one from leadership came to the training, the team was skeptical that the company and leadership were really committed to doing it because it was so different from ‘the typical way.’

I could go on and on.  But hopefully you get the point.  A very wise innovation leader once told me, “I find that telling my organization I want them to innovate and follow a process is one thing.  They get excited.  It’s the “promise.”  But my being there and all the small and seemingly insignificant things I do to show my support, are the “proof” that I really mean it.”