The sad truth about how innovation dies in large organizations

For things to change somebody somewhere has to act differently…

There’s a great thread going on in the Beyond Innovation LinkedIn group about exciting examples of driving a culture of innovation. In my experience, it was one singular person driving it and enlisting people. Always. Most of the people who commented on the thread have similar responses. This is not surprising at all, it is rare an organization that has innovation embedded in their core DNA.

But one response that stood out is about how NOT to drive a culture of innovation!

VP of Culture of Innovation John Coyle at Maddock Douglas chimes in:

Here’s how NOT to do it:

In a large company somewhere in the world, a senior executive – maybe the CEO, maybe someone in marketing, gets the innovation bug, declares innovation as the solution to the company’s woes, and gathers some support from the executive team. Declarations are made, emails are sent, announcements are shared, and a task force or committee is formed. Some companies even hire a “Chief Innovation Officer” to demonstrate how serious they are. The broader organization is “crowdsourced”, encouraged to send in their “best” ideas to help drive the future of the organization by contributing their ideas to a newly created mailbox or cool new intranet site: there is a buzz of excitement in the halls.

Meanwhile brainstorms conducted by hip consultancies with cool names and “look at my glasses glasses” happen with the new taskforce, ideas are shared, and in the room the person with the loudest voice or most political sway lobbies for their favorite. It is a great idea, it makes sense, everyone in the room likes it so the idea is fast-tracked to implementation where it fails dismally – perhaps because it wasn’t customer driven or maybe it was diluted enroute to execution. The team reassembles, and with a bit more care selects another idea, and this time vows to test it. Research is gathered and evaluated, and then more research. The idea is refined and refined again, pared way back and then soft launched only to fail again because it has lost its uniqueness or is too late to market. Meanwhile across the organization thousands who were enthused by innovation, who had added to the list of big ideas are chagrined to see that A) their suggestions disappeared into a black hole and B) that the “bad” ideas brought to market by the “bigwigs” totally failed.

Eventually the CEO has had enough bad news and he fires the CIO, disbands the committed, shuts down the crowdsourcing site and scraps the other ideas. He announces to the executive team that it is time to refocus back on “what’s important” – i.e. current business results. Innovation is now a bad word.

For the record, I’m against one-off innovation programs and task forces. For they may feel like you are doing something, they are a bad sign. If you’ve got these, it means a few things:

  • it doesn’t mean that you and your employees are committed;
  • it doesn’t mean that you are passionate about being better;
  • it doesn’t mean that you are instilling a mindset of daring;
  • it doesn’t mean that you are focused on making it last.

Bottom line: As stated recently, innovation is more about perspective and attitude than it is about processes. It needs to have some real intent to produce enthusiasm, not just wishful thinking that result in simplistic one-off activities.

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  • Mark Truelson

    Great post Jorge! I do agree that one off innovation programs and task forces not only send the wrong signal but also ensure the embedment of innovation into a corporate is not sustainable. Perspective and attitude is enhanced if innovation is allowed to flourish in all touchpoints (systems, structure, strategy, leadership, people, processes & philosophy). It is all encompassing (aka challenging) yet organisations have to display the ability to ‘muck in’ if communities of passion are going to thrive!

    • Hi Mark,

      Thanks. Yes, a holistic view is rarely considered with innovation programs. We shouldn’t even call them that if we’re serious about innovation.



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  • Markus Egli

    Most initiatives are going to fail if they are based on misunderstandings and irrational assumptions. Still, top down is the best approach if you really want to change a company. In the example you present the innovation obviously was never alive – thus nothing was there to die. In this sense the titel is a little misleading.

    • Hi Markus,

      You are right that it was never alive. You can take the title and twist it any way you want, but again, in most organizations this is how it looks. If we really dig in, there are endless variations of how innovation dies in large organizations, and that can be another post.



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  • Vitomir Rašić

    Hello Jorge,

    Question: What if their ideas were success?

    • Which ideas? The Consultants?

      • Vitomir Rašić

        Ideas that are result of that innovation program. Nvm the owner. You cover only one scenario, which is far to narrow for such a field. Comment which you quoted is really good though.

        • Yes, there are many scenarios on how innovation dies inside large organizations. I just think this scenario was worth pointing out.

          Regarding if the ideas resulting from an innovation program work, I think people, and companies, fall into the trap of believing that because something worked then it must mean they did something right.

          Unfortunately, luck is involved too, especially in something as complex as innovation. So if ideas worked, it is easy to attribute it to skill.

          I know a few companies who have instituted their so called innovation programs, but they still have issues getting people to behave differently.

          In that sense, it may have worked at the beginning but in the long-term issues still persist. They became skilled at creating programs with activities, but it doesn’t mean it’s always going to work.

          Anyway, I think we shouldn’t be focusing too much on developing a skills for innovation programs per se, but in being skilled in being agile and even though something worked, that it might not work the next time.


          • Vitomir Rašić

            On the spot there Jorge.

            Still a short term success can bring a good momentum for the change to set in and drive initiative forward… to what end who knows. Thinking beyond “company box” is something more delicate, and I agree, cannot be inspired with innovation program or short term consultancy alone.

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