Why Is Innovation So Hard?

21 Feb 2017 Sandeep Mehta

The article “Why Is Innovation So Hard?” outlines cultural challenges that prevent innovation from taking root. As we have discussed many times, development of disruptive capabilities can often fail to achieve their intended results.

This means that in order to innovate we need to change our attitude toward failures and mistakes. Contrary to what many of us have been taught, avoiding failure is not a sign that we’re smart. Being smart is not about knowing all the answers and performing flawlessly. Being smart is knowing what you don’t know, prioritizing what you need to know, and being very good at finding the best evidence-based answers. Being smart requires you to become comfortable saying, “I don’t know.”  It means that you do not identify yourself by your ideas but by whether you are an open-minded, good critical and innovative thinker and learner.

However, corporate culture, by necessity, is focused on avoiding failure.

Our educational system and most work environments have taught us that good performance means avoiding failure, not making mistakes. This is a big problem, because failure is an unavoidable part of innovation experimentation. Innovation requires the willingness to fail and learn.

One approach to addressing this challenge is to focus on changing corporate culture. We can try to nurture an environment celebrating failure and exploration. This takes time and effort. However, not all failures are good failures and there is significant value in current culture that targets success.

Another approach may be to setup metrics and dashboards that encourage disciplined risk taking. A couple of metrics come to mind:

  • Wasted Development Effort: We should target that a fraction of our R&D efforts fail. Think of this as technology path elimination. This metric ensures that we are experimenting adequately, but not too much.
  • Tech Maturation Index: This index balances wasted development effort and indicates fraction of our R&D investments that matured to next phase or stage of development. This metric ensures that we are successfully transitioning innovations in to products.

Effective tools can help maintain visibility into the innovation portfolio and provide the information necessary for making critical management decisions.