Innovation failure starts at the top

So who do you think form the group that are the most likely candidates for innovations consistent failure? It may surprise you to know that most fingers point straight to the top of the organization as the main cause for its enduring failure.

I don’t think this is sour grapes of the people working away on innovation daily, that the ‘finger of failure’ is well and truly pointing upwards. There is more of an innovation knowledge gap at board room level or even just below this, than many can imagine, that is the plain reality. They often simply have no real clue on how innovation really works and what their essential role is in connecting all the different parts necessary to align this into the organizations overarching goals, objectives and strategies.

Let’s simply select the top common causes of innovation failure.

In a recent survey I was reading*, it provided a set of results about the common cause of innovation failure. The survey was asking participants to check all that applied and although there were 30-odd possible reasons the top ten that stand out as head and shoulders above all the others are nearly all down to the simple failure of innovation engagement in its leadership. Failure lies at the very top on why innovation fails.

I know I keep ‘going on’ about the Executive Innovation Work Mat and its value but let’s look at these top ten contributors for failure that is occurring in organizations just like yours. The Work Mat approach tackles these and lots more but those that are the cause of failure, the leaders in organizations, do need to understand it is them that are the reason for this. So the top ten causes of innovation failure then tell me the root cause, a lack if innovation leadership.

The top three failures

The three main reasons for failure have been given as 1) unrealistic expectations from top management regarding resources and the time really required in achieving innovation, then 2) the lack of resources allocated in budget, people, infrastructure and 3) far too much focus on products and technology and ignoring the other options within innovation, such as service, business model, platform collaborations etc.

Each of these is without doubt for me a top management failure. They either don’t have a real clue of the complexity of innovation, starve it of its essential resources or just want to stay well within their comfort zone of existing product and technology understanding. This reluctance to push innovation, to extend capabilities and provide it with the right capabilities ends up in these continuing failures. Equally not to explore all the types of innovation available does not make sound business sense. This shows a lack of real involvement, comprehension, understanding and engagement.

The next three failures

In our next three the one that is so constantly described as limiting innovation is 4) that people or teams operate in silo’s instead of broader collaborative approaches, 5) the wrong personnel are in place to make innovation happen and 6) that classic of classics, a poorly defined innovation strategy and the goals to achieve this.

Each of these again is a top management failure. They fail to understand the value of building up the capabilities for broader collaborations; they constrain the very essence that gives their organization its growth by holding back or not pushing for the best people to be engaged within the projects, or just fail to connect their (often) lofty strategic goals with the innovation activity that can deliver on this. Again, simply failures of top management to address and resolve these issues are the root cause.

Then the last four within the top ten

The last four within the top ten again start with 7) a lack of innovation strategy, and then 8) where the emphasis is placed in far too much on idea generation and not on execution, followed by 9) a lack of involving external partners and lastly 10) poor management of the innovation process.

So again a clear set of management failures. By not having a clear overarching innovation framework in place that links innovation to strategic alignment, which communicates innovations value and its value position and then the failure to put in place all the critical factors of an innovation process to make sure that innovation, has the chance to work.

Surely this top ten list of causes for innovation failure does become fairly worrying to anyone involved in growth, wealth creation and building and wanting to belong to a healthy sustaining business?

Depressing outcomes and on-going failure

For me, I simply can’t understand why our leaders are simply not listening to the constant stream of innovation failure messages that get written daily. Of course, I hear you say “it is simply because they are too busy”. Oh come on, lets stop protecting them. My argument straight back to this is “if a leader or his team does not focus on the clear ways to grow a business and make this happen and this must come primarily through innovation, then they should not be leading”. They should not be focusing on just making organizations efficient but on being increasingly effective through innovation.

How can they be leaders of organizations, claiming they are keen to grow and expand, if they do not get fully involved in providing the appropriate framework for innovation to thrive? This is a strategic leadership failure.

I can only assume they are simple not understanding that they are the primary cause of innovation’s failure within their organization, they are the main culprits in this. Will this change overnight, of course not?

Somehow or other, those within the innovation communities, both within and outside organizations have a job to do, a message to deliver to the leaders. They need to get across this failure message lies within the board room, not outside it and its needs addressing.

Deliver just one message today please.

We need to deliver this simple message – “as long as you as the leader of the organization and those immediately around you fail to understand what ‘makes up innovation’ you deserve to fail, and more than likely, fail you will”.

Why not just give the leaders of most organizations an early Christmas reading present- you can download it here- it explains the connected part of the Executive innovation Work Mat that forms the strategic framework for innovation to connect across organizations. Then we might begin to reduce this list of common failure points significantly. I do hope so, otherwise what’s the point?

* The survey was conducted by Stefan Lindegaard under his post Organizations and Failure: Why Don’t We Learn More?  I think he is looking within the organization more, whereas I see failure ‘sitting’ far more at the top of the organization.

From a buzzword to the imperative

I keep coming back to the leadership of innovation; we need to move it from the peripheral to a more central one. This is not so much in a leader’s desire and need for innovation, which always seems well stated, but in their ability to lead it, to have it not just in their mind but in their real follow-through, in action and attitude, in their deepening engagement and involvement to it.

“Leadership for innovation can’t simply be delegated”, so tell me how many times have you heard that one? Yet it always seems to be pushed down the organization when you look a little closer. Running a day-to-day business, reacting to the events, achieving the performance to maintain the momentum, planning the future is demanding but innovation is absolutely central to sustaining and securing the future but does it really get enough of the CEO’s time? I think it should figure more in their time but how can this be achieved?

I certainly don’t envy global leaders in trying to balance all that is crowding in on them, that is making up their daily, weekly and monthly agenda’s. Something always has to give and innovation is one of those malleable parts whereas other more pressing ‘demands’ are more real, tangible and definitive and  innovation gets constantly squeezed out at the top. Regretfully for many it does seem innovation ends up as important but not urgent for them to focus upon.

The management of innovation is the management of attention.

I find this an interesting observation. Achieving the management of innovation requires the management of attention was a view outlined by Andrew H. Van, a Professor of Organizational Innovation and Change back in 1986,where it was suggested for management that “the awareness of need deteriorates and their action thresholds reach a level where only crisis can stimulate action as they gradually adapt to the environment.”

I interpret this as Innovation does seems to get gradually pushed back, on the agendas of the CEO and perhaps even the organizations, if the leader is not being actively engaged consistently in it. Nothing has changed today; we still are not achieving this innovation attention.  It slips down their crowded agenda’s as they deal with countless issues running a business. If their organization is in that crisis then innovation will have certainly have grabbed the CEO’s attention but by then it is often too late. We do need to manage innovation more strategically.

How can we change this?

Clearly what comes towards the CEO in ongoing issues does not go away, it only seems to increase in pace and complexity.  Of course, we can call for the CEO to clear the decks and embrace innovation as central in everything they do. I think this call for his attention is not wrong but possibly naïve with what is on their plate to manage.

Where we can demand in their attention is in providing a deeper personal commitment and clearer insight into their understanding of the need to structure innovation to all its necessary alignment points, so it can deeply integrated with the strategic goals looked for. For that to happen it needs articulating somehow.

Influencing and shaping innovation

What I’d like to see is a way where the leader can influence and shape the core structures required for innovation and provide the building blocks for the organization to work within. Something that sets out expectations of where innovation fits within the growth plans and defines critical areas that are essential for innovation to link into the strategy and organizations vision.

Perhaps you can call this an innovation foundation document; perhaps you can take this even further and shape it in a more exciting, compelling format that frames the linkages and synergies between strategy and innovation, between innovation and capabilities, between culture, the environment, the process, routines and how it should all be governed.

How about a leadership alignment framework that articulates where innovation fits?

Something that addresses the critical aspects of innovation to gain a crucial alignment across the organization that provides the strategic underpinning to performance. Its aim is to promote the freeing up of people by taking away many of the debating points around innovation and replace these with a strategic framing recipe, one that looks for the organization to use it, work within it and operationalize it.  This can be dynamic in that it ‘cascades’ up and down the organization as a communicating tool, it also becomes the meeting point to work through, the common language mediation that innovation so desperately needs for all to identify with, as well as the place to offer improving and evolving leadership engagement and guidance.

Can we ask for more?

The leader’s role is to provide guidance, strategic guidance, as well as to offer inspiration and clarity to capture the real essence of an organizations desire to innovation. If we can secure their attention through this strategic framework then it becomes their commitment document towards innovation.

If we can find a clear way for them to combine both the articulating and nurturing they believe is desired for innovation, so it can flourish, as well as offer specific ways to drive and measure this, we are heading in the right direction. Then I think we achieve something important. We draw the organization in and build the innovation activities around common and essential focal points. As we ‘grow’ the CEO’s involvement and attention through this suggested mechanism, this will have a significant impact on identification, commitment and understanding that will resonate throughout the organization and perhaps become more empowering to all.

A goal and its realization

Achieving a framework that builds structure, outlines both the intrinsic and extrinsic aspects and offers the overarching common communicating language is certainly achievable. Something that is clearly articulated from the top,  then cascaded down the organization for it to be further ‘fleshed out’ within the organization, would immeasurably help innovation in the alignment to strategic goals and required attention.

If we can provide a framework that can align, that can engage, and can offer a common set of references to refer too, clearly provided by the CEO and his team, then this surely would be a valuable contribution? It would bridge that often missing element of conveying the top managements desire and commitment to innovation’s momentum. This will work down the organization to plug into and generate that much-needed identification, to energize innovation as the ‘force’ essential for growth.

I want to discuss this further in the weeks ahead as I feel we can gain some much-needed traction on this as there is a clear leadership gap on innovation, no question. I think there is a good solution. Innovation does require a constant communicating and guidance from the top and in providing an innovation alignment framework of how this all is interrelated, we can achieve the attention of management strategically and that could be a huge thing.