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.

9 thoughts on “Innovation failure starts at the top

  1. Great post!
    I could not Agree more. In my daily practice as consultant on business Innovation i meet top management suffering under path dependencies, cognitive inflexibility, thus preserving current management dogmas.


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