How to Avoid ‘Boomerang Innovation’

Boomerang innovation is never intended. It just happens. It's a tremendous waste of money and highly demotivating for all concerned. Read on to learn what boomerang innovation is, and how to avoid it.

Here’s a new innovation rule for you, one that should be every organization’s first rule of innovation:

    Don’t try to innovate unless you intend to innovate.

Sounds silly doesn’t it? It’s not. Over the years I have seen far too many examples of what I call “boomerang innovation”. It’s a tremendous waste of money and highly demotivating for all concerned.

Boomerang innovation is never intended. It just happens. Typically an organization will invest in some kind of idea generation activity such as brainstorming, an ideas campaign or something similar. Let us imagine that Acme Watering Cans Inc. decides to brainstorm new product ideas.

First, they call together a dozen division managers to come to headquarters in order to spend a day brainstorming. In addition, a facilitator is hired to manage the brainstorming. Adding managers’ time, facilitator’s fee and travel expenses, the cost thus far is probably at least EUR/$/£ 20,000.

The facilitator is good and the managers are creative, so the result is a lot of ideas are generated, including a number of very creative ideas that could transform the way people think about watering cans.

Sometimes the process stops here. Sometimes it continues. In the case of Acme Watering Cans, Inc, let us assume the innovation process continues. The best ideas move on to a review process, where they are evaluated by experts and business cases are drawn up. This of course adds to the cost of the innovation exercise, perhaps another EUR/$/£ 10,000 in staff time.

The best ideas are presented to top management together with some very rosy potential figures. Management questions the figures and all sides accept that because these ideas are very innovative, concrete numbers cannot be established. Nevertheless, there is clear potential to meet or even beat the financial projections.

Then: nothing. Management does not implement the ideas. Indeed, they simply seem to forget the innovative ideas and continue with business as usual. Just as a boomerang arcs back to the thrower, the innovative effort arcs back to the initiator and, in spite of having made the effort to generate and develop innovative ideas, her organization does not implement those ideas. The initiator is left with nothing more than that with which she started. And, of course, the entire effort to generate innovative ideas which will never be implemented costs the organization tens of thousands of Euro or Dollars or Pounds.

Causes of boomerang innovation

I have come across numerous others in the creativity and innovation business who have had the same experience, so it would seem to be commonplace. Yet, I have not seen any research, nor have I performed any research on why innovative ideas are sought but not implemented. However, we can make some safe assumptions:

1. A desire not to rock the boat

Innovative ideas tend to be disruptive and the more innovative they are, the more disruptive they are. Note, I am not referring to Disruptive Innovation as coined by Clayton M. Christensen. Rather disruption in the day to day operations of your business. A radical product modification, requires retooling your assembly line, writing new product documentation and more. Changing an internal process to improve efficiency means that many employees need to relearn how to perform certain tasks. Some employees may even be made redundant by the change. Many people – if not most people – do not really like to rock the boat. They don’t want radical change. They want predictability and security at work.

2. Risk

Innovation, as has been stated numerous times in this journal, is an inherently risky thing. Radical product changes may make your product more appealing, open new markets and result in substantial profits. Think of Chrysler’s mini-vans, the forefather of the gazillions of mini-vans we see on the roads today. On the other hand, radical product ideas can bomb tremendously. Think: DeLorean or Bricklin. Do you even remember the DeLorean or the Bricklin?

3. Lack of idea stakeholders

Idea stakeholders buy into an idea and promote it within an organization. This happens naturally in some firms, but has to be a conscious action in other firms, especially firms which are not big on innovation. Obviously, if no one in the firm is buying into an idea, it is unlikely to be implemented no matter how good it might be.

The lesson to be learned here is simple: don’t start to innovate, unless you really mean it. Not only are innovation initiatives which result in no idea implementation a waste of time and money, they are also highly demotivating to your employees. Who is going to want to waste her valuable time generating ideas for a firm she knows will not do anything productive with those ideas?

And that brings us back to the first rule of innovation: don’t try to innovate unless you intend to innovate.

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

About the author

Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a new approach to achieving goals through creativity.

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