10 Mistakes at the Start of Innovation

Do you find that good ideas get trashed because of mistakes made in the organization's handeling of the creative process? Gijs van Wulfen outlines 10 common innovation blunders. Do you have more?

The fuzzy front end of innovation confronts you with a lot of questions. In my new book ‘Creating innovative Products and Services’ I try to solve them with the FORTH innovation method.

Many things can go wrong during the process of creating new products, services or business models. I give you ten examples.  Perhaps it is a ‘feast of recognition’, which in this case is unfortunate but rest assured, you are not alone.

1.  We don’t know what we want.

Ideation of new products and services happens ad hoc, usually at a time when a problem arises or the turnover decreases suddenly or when a competitor enters the market unexpectedly.  The question is then: What now? ‘Jack Smith create a list’, becomes the creed. At this moment it becomes clear that the existing strategic business plan hardly provides footing or direction for innovation. This lack of clear answers leads to random thought processes, which in many cases are interrupted because the management, after consideration, decided to concentrate on either a different market, product or target group or on another country. When you are suddenly confronted with this during the creative process, it causes a spanner in the wheels of the creative car, which then, under loud protest, comes to a screeching halt.

2.  We come up with the same thing over and over again.

Product and service ideas are not readily available. When there is a need for it, and at the initiative of a marketer in the organisation, a few people are invited for a brainstorming session. This session usually takes place at the end of a long and tiring day. The people who come together are usually the same group (known as the creative team) but nothing materialises, because when you try and brainstorm with close colleagues nothing new appears. Everyone automatically races towards the same goal, they are irritated with the well-known hobbies of each other and the result is that everyone leaves the meeting disappointed. At these moments they all experience a feeling of failure, which nobody is able to prevent.

3.  We remain in the usual conventions of our market.

Organisations usually have customer information at their disposal, do regular research into the market and are in contact with customers daily, but this investigative process has become routine.  Companies pay more attention to their market shares and on what the competitor is doing on the same market. Therefore, products start looking alike as everyone copies each others’ successes which in turn leads to common conventions in the market while the organisation looses sight of what the customer really wants. As a result of this tunnel vision, a ‘blind spot’ develops in the management from which a new competitor can appear at an unexpected moment with another offer, which might just meet the changing need of the market.

4.  The brainstorm is dominated by extroverts and the highest bosses.

In a brainstorming session without expert facilitators not everyone is given a fair chance. In most cases either the extroverts or the highest bosses dominate it. This is extremely difficult and tactically awkward for the marketing manager who is faced with the problem of leading the meeting.  It also applies when his boss has to have the final word in the brainstorm and the rest have been silenced.

5.  Ideating and evaluating new product ideas goes haywire.

There are brainstorming sessions where everyone can have their say. After all, this is the reason for the brainstorming session, isn’t it? Indeed, when you carefully listen to what is being said and build upon the product ideas mentioned by others, however, the risk involved is that the ideas are judged immediately. Remarks such as: ‘That does not work with us’, ‘We have tried it before’, ‘We will never get permission to do that’, or ‘No that can definitely not be done’, are heard.  In reality, due to these negative statements, it causes such a mix up where real creativity does not stand a chance, and a spiral of negativity is created whereby everyone is silenced within a short period of time as they are trapped amongst all the creativity killers.

6.  With hundreds of yellow post-its on the wall we don’t know what to do next.

Often the person, usually the marketer who is responsible for the innovation itself, facilitates the brainstorming session. Soon product ideas are mentioned and in the end there is a wall full of post-its.  But then the process stops, because what next? There might be good ideas amongst them but the question is: how do we create a product idea with a head and tail out of all of this? I must admit that in the days when I was still a manager, I did not have the answer to this question either and thought that I had to find the answers myself whereby I thanked all the participants for their input and took all the post-its to my office. Here they accusingly stared at me for weeks, until I finally threw them in the dustbin. Thus, many things can go wrong in a brainstorming session as the setting up and facilitating of a brainstorming programme is a profession. This I learned much later, luckily.

7.  Product or service ideas remain vague.

Due to the fact that everything in a brainstorming session, in the beginning, goes so well and creativity is stimulated, new product ideas are expressed in beautiful sounding marketing jargon. However, be aware as this can be a self-made pitfall.  For example: ‘We are going to make an application whereby we can reach adolescents with trendy virtual mobile marketing’, or ‘It is going to become a very original product as it appeals to the primitive man inside us because it favours authenticity’. Product ideas in this stage, which can either represent everything or nothing, still have a long way to go.

8.  Senior management is out to reject very innovative ideas.

At the beginning of the innovation pipeline, product ideas are screened. This is the task of the senior management who has the chance to influence the process afterwards. Even though the task is to really innovate, the ideas, which are considered as being too far fetched, are removed first, either because they cannot relate to it or because they believe it is really too far fetched, leaving the responsible executive managers in a daze.  Real innovation was after all the intention, wasn’t it?

9.  The development team puts everything back for discussion.

It is great when the decision is made to develop a good and new product idea. Subsequently it is passed on from the product inventors to the product developers – who are usually a multi- disciplinary team under the control of a project leader.  It seems strange, but it is usually at this stage where most of the energy disappears from the idea. All the members of the development team now dissect the original product idea as everybody has their own vision as to which direction it should go. This is normal, isn’t it? Of course it is necessary to improve the product idea during the development process, but often the distinguished product idea starts looking more like ideas we have already had, only because we can produce something like that. The risk is that you then throw the baby out with the bathwater.

10.  Line management always resist innovative ideas.

During the development process, the product idea has to be ‘sold’ to the line management on a regular basis. The reason being that should the product reach the finish line of the innovation process, they are the ones who will be producing the product and putting it on the market. So, while you are waiting for the expected applause, you continue to receive many comments and a pile of questions to which you do not have answers. It is logical that you would ask yourself whether these comments and questions are practical arguments or whether you have become the victim of the feared ‘not invented here’ syndrome. Maybe it is even a political game.  Hence, it can happen that a good new product idea is kept in the freezer for years due to a lack of internal support. The resistance from the line management team can also be caused by the fact that they have more than enough to do with their regular tasks. And if they do not have the time to work on their own ideas then they are not prepared to spend time on the ideas of others, which has been forced upon them.

It is possible that you have recognised the above-mentioned situations, but do not despair because you are not the only one. And I have been working on a solution. I try to solve these 10 mistakes with the FORTH innovation method, which is recently published in my new book ‘Creating innovative Products and Services’.

You can also download thirteen free checklist of this innovation method here. I wish you lot’s of success in ideating new innovative products, services and business models.

Ps. When you know more mistakes at the start of innovation, please add them below.

About the author:

Gijs van Wulfen (The Netherlands, 1960) is the founder of the FORTH innovation method. FORTH is an effective and structured method for ideating innovative products and services. The method is published in his inspiring and practical book Creating Innovative Products and Services’ (Gower, 2011).

He helps organisations to kick start innovation by facilitating the FORTH innovation method and advising companies on their innovation strategy, process and organisation. His clients are international companies in industry and services, as well as non-profit organisations in government and health. Gijs also trains facilitators in his method. His dream is to make FORTH the most used method for the front end of innovation around the world.

Gijs is a both presenter and chairman at several (international) innovation conferences, like the ISPIM Conferences and the European Conference on Creativity and Innovation. He is also founder of the yearly Dutch Innovation Conference on creating new products: ‘Nieuwe Producten Bedenken’. 

  • Cesar_badell

    I would add :

    + A bad communication bridge between the Sales Department and R&d. Sales Dept. has a wider perspective of what is going on out in the market and maybe forsee what can be next valuable within the market. If this vision is not properly settle within the organization and explained to the R&D bosses, then a maybe interesting profitable idea would be gone.

  • http://www.increasedresults.com Marie_elwood

    You really nailed it, Gijs. This is an exceptional post.

  • Jack Hipple

    I am surprised at the emphasis on “brainstorming”. This process has been superceded by so many other more efective forms of idea generation including DeBono techniques and TRIZ. There are many way of isolating idea input from senior members (non verbal) to minimize innibition. The use of Kirton KAI assessments to evaluate and use different approaches to problem analysis and solving is also very effective. When “inventing” something new, it is critical to discuss not what is needed, but what function it is to perform. This allows a group to get outside the box of how this funtion is provided now.

  • Derek White

    I would just add that most innovations are usually competing with other innovations in the same company and in the prioritisation process (often involving risk-averse accountants etc.) the real, game-changing innovations usually lose out to me-too or upgrade “innovations” which are safer and better understood.

  • http://www.iterign.com/process.html Alan Lawrence

    A key thing is not to take an inspired idea too far without exploration and full identification of the products functional requirements. Identifying key factors that are functional contradictions and using tools like TRIZ really help to drive new solutions and new ideas, and will reduce risks further down the development process. 

  • Swalulek

    Excellent info, and we thought reality, lack of capital and laziness were the three biggest obstacles to innovation.  

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  • http://twitter.com/tburke_quark Tim Burke

    I would highlight the fact that many of these issues stem from the “brainstorming session” — I don’t believe this is the way to innovate.  Innovation doesn’t get prompted by a meeting or brainstorming session – it has to free flow.  The key is capturing good ideas from everyone all the time – good ideas can’t be scheduled — but they have to be tracked.  Drop the brainstorming sessions – enable people to submit good ideas at any time of the day!

  • Pingback: ¿Se puede aprender a innovar? ¿Y a ser creativo? « train2manage

  • David Bonneau

    Great post Gijs.
    Inventing is a performance art requiring a safe space to share ideas. It’s asking a lot to have engineers working in a stifling manufacturing environment, bent on price/performance goals to let those restrictions go and start thinking out-of-the-box.

    Also, most companies follow, not lead their industries. Inventing in a company trying to catch-up to the leader, is even harder. The leader has already rejected many of the follower’s “new” ideas in favor of the one that the leader patented.

    While all engineers are different and have different capacities to invent, all engineers will do better when the atmosphere is right.

  • http://twitter.com/larrymacdonald Larry MacDonald

    The article seems to stress “ideas”.  Ideas are a disastrous way to direct innovation.  Most ideas fail.  A better approach is looking for pains and frustrations users/customers have.  That will inform the function, after which it is rather straight forward to design a solution.  But don’t pick one of the first that come into mind.  Wait until you have several dozen to pick from, perhaps hundreds, if you have the time.

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