21 Situations When you Should Not Innovate

With an abundance of innovation success stories circulating the net and popular business publications, when do we hear about the other side of the coin – when is innovation not the answer to our organization's problems? Gijs van Wulfen provides 21 examples of when we should avoid innovating. What are your experiences?

Innovation is doing things drastically different or doing drastically different things. It is the main theme of popular management books and blogs, like this one. A lot is going on at the moment in innovation, like ‘Sustainable Innovation’, ‘Business Model Innovation’, ‘Service innovation’, ‘Collaborative Innovation’, ‘Participatory Innovation’, ‘Social Innovation’, ‘Employee Driven Innovation’, ‘Brand Driven Innovation’, ‘Agile Innovation’ and ‘Frugal Innovation’.

You might get the impression that innovation is the right management instrument for every market, for every organisation at any moment. Well in my opinion innovation is not. That’s why I have made a list of 21 situations when you should not innovate. It is provoking. I am aware of that. But isn’t that where innovation starts: having an open mind for people challenging present opinions, habits and practices?

21 Situations when you should not innovate:

  1. When you are sure your market is not changing the coming five years.
  2. When your clients are even more conservative than you are.
  3. When your old formulas are still giving great results the coming years at no risk.
  4. When brand – and line extensions bring you a lot of extra turnover and profits.
  5. When the urgency to innovate is completely absent.
  6. When you do not get money and manpower to do it.
  7. When your company is in a short-term crisis.
  8. When your organisation is working at full capacity to meet the huge demand of today.
  9. When everybody says we have to innovate and no one wants to be responsible.
  10. When you don’t have a clue what you are looking for.
  11. When there is no real business need and it’s only nice to have.
  12. When you don’t have a clue what’s going on at customers.
  13. When there is no support at the top.
  14. When people in your organisation are not prepared (yet) to break their habits.
  15. When people in your company are lazy, just copying others work.
  16. When there is no vision where you want to go in the future.
  17. When long term planning means looking three months ahead.
  18. When everybody fears failure.
  19. When everybody will attack and ridicules the newness of it.
  20. When important stakeholders will block it at any time.
  21. When you’re latest innovations are so successful you should exploit them first.

So what’s the moment you should innovate? Well that’s when you don’t recognise the circumstances above. Beware though. The wise lesson I learned as a young manager is that in an organisation you cannot innovate alone. You need an awful lot of colleagues and bosses to make innovation happen. You have to wait for the right moment, because you can only start innovation once for the 1st time. So look for moments when there’s a sense of urgency at the middle – and top management that we need to do something different. And you have to let them discover themselves, which different innovation opportunities are attractive, can be developed and are realistic to be chosen. This practical wisdom I used as one of the fundamentals of the FORTH innovation method, which you can use to ideate innovative products, services and business models.

Ps. If you have any other arguments when you should not innovate please share them!

By Gijs van Wulfen

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’.
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  • Guest

    Sorry to argue:

    Comparing to start-up business world, those are the reasons why a big company is hard for the innovation.

  • Gijs van Wulfen

    Exactly! It’s all about overcoming and/or avoiding these situations. In bigger companies these situations prevail more often.

  • http://twitter.com/Fibol Yannick Mériguet

    Agree with you Gigs. Sounds like a classical business case for leadership or ….. lack of.

  • John

    This certainly caused me to think.  I have been at a company where the primary driver was survival.  Decisions were tactical to merely make it one more quarter with no room for innovation. 
    I have also seen a company that did not have a culture that supported change or innovation. 
    Both of these companies are now out of business.
    So I am going to restate that innovation must take into account:
    - Financial Objective
    - Business Model
    - Current Health and Condition
    Innovation must support the vision of the company.  If the company does not have a vision it has even bigger problems.
    Corporate culture must support innovation.  I will concede that it is not always time for innovation, but a company with no innovation will not survive.  Even slow moving utilities and even government bureaucracies must innovate to be viable.

  • Gijs van Wulfen

    Thank you for your supporting comments Yannick!

  • Gijs van Wulfen

    Thanks John for your comment. You are right. Everybody has to innovate one time or the other. It’s all about choosing the right moment with a clear vision, strong management support with real urgency and sufficient resources……

  • Michael Chung

    I agree with you. Thanks much for this article.

  • Patrick Corsi

    A rare yet existing case. - In complex business ecosystems, it happens a small historic player has a niche somewhere… Without a competitor! (as this results from the formation of the sector through the decades; hint: everybody forgot about that old, no value-added piece and went forward). Now, innovating would mean change which would create visibility which would trigger… competitors. 
    Until the current tech cycle lives, better do ostrey strategy! Then, it’s another story.

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  • Anonymous

    Great thinking in this article. I further
    think there are more reasons than these, as when you lack good channels to
    commercialize the new products, or when you not got sufficient funds to commercialize, and when new designs is easy

    I was
    in a discussion a few days ago about, if innovation is so great, why do we not
    innovate all the time and why is not more innovation done? We ended up with
    that the risk, uncertainty and the huge amount of work needed in innovation
    inhibits innovation, but you present more good reasons. It is kind of strange that
    everyone wants innovation but not so many want the risk or put the amount of
    work in doing so.

    But I
    do not agree on “10. When you don’t have a clue what you are looking for”, when
    I have seen very good innovation results with this as starting point. Not
    either, “17. When long term planning means looking three months ahead”. I do
    innovation research on small companies which plan their work no longer than
    maximum one month ahead and manage to innovate in successful ways anyway. 

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  • Benoit

    I think that this list is mixing situations where you should probably NOT innovate (like situations 1-4 or 8) with situations where you might need to innovate, but where managing innovation INCLUDES dealing first with the hurdles mentioned (i.e. creating a sense of urgency, aligning strategy, gathering market info, mobilizing resources, etc…). Let us not confuse ability and necessity…

  • Gijs van Wulfen

    Yes it is Benoit. You are quite right. Some reasons are situation-based and other are culture – or management based.

  • Nabilelkurd

    I’m afraid I have to disagree. All the above situations represent the constraints that have to be surmounted to deliver a successful innovation. In fact they are the work that you need to do for innovation to succeed. Take situation 2 for example:
    “When your clients are even more conservative than you are”well, part of the Customer Value Proposition is to explore new target segments.
    “When you don’t have a clue what you are looking for”
    Innovation starts with a vision, a plan and clues, if you don’t have them, well find them. Our job is to manage the present, but it is also to prepare for the future.

    The above cannot be reasons to avoid innovation.

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