Why doesn’t innovation work any more?

Why doesn’t innovation work any more?

Accenture has just released their latest study on innovation, and it makes sombre reading. Although their survey among 519 companies was conducted across France, the US and the UK, I believe their findings are relevant to leaders here, too.

Their top-line results are consistent with other surveys, in that 93% of respondents believe innovation is important to their long-term success and 70% place it among their top-five priorities. What’s more, some 51% of executives report that funding for innovation has increased, while 60% now have a head of innovation (up from 54% in 2009) and 87% measure innovation (up from 64% in 2009).

So innovation is being funded, there is managerial focus and it is being measured – so what’s the problem?

Well, here’s the kicker.

Less than one out of five respondents (18%) believe their own innovation strategy is delivering a competitive advantage. And further, fewer than half believe they have an effective approach to new product development or are seeking innovation effectively.

What is going on?

Based on this research, and my own experience in this area over the past 10 years, I offer the following reasons as to why there is such a large disconnect between innovation expectations and performance.

1. Innovation is not clearly defined

The fundamental starting point for any innovation journey is for the leadership team to define what innovation means in their organisation, how to measure it and why it is important.

For example, 3M are crystal clear. Innovation is about new products only, their goal is to generate 30% of sales from products less than three years old and the reason why they have to do this is to protect their profit margins and growth from private label competitors.

2. Innovation is seen as separate to my role as a leader

It is surprising how often I hear this. Innovation is at the core of any organisation. Developing and testing new (hopefully better) ideas and approaches should be in every leader’s job description. It cannot be outsourced or delegated. It is the very essence of a 21st-century leader.

3. The innovation goals are not aligned to the KPIs of every leader

Leaders are incredibly busy. They are time-poor and under tremendous pressure to deliver their results. When push comes to shove, their livelihood (and bonus) revolves around delivering on their KPIs.

If innovation is not part of their goals, or their goals are not aligned with the overall innovation strategy, then nothing will happen.

4. Lack of role models

This is related to the previous points. If leaders do not value innovation and are not open to new ideas then not only will this stifle creativity but it sends a message to all team members that innovation is not that important.

The other area where role modelling plays an important part is in risk-taking. By definition, innovation involves introducing something new and potentially valuable. But there are no guarantees it will work, in fact, failure is the norm. If leaders are not prepared to take or encourage risk-taking then all is lost.

This seems to be the case with the Accenture study, where 46% of leaders said that their company had become more risk-adverse and, as a result, a whopping 64% were chasing product line extensions rather than, say, trying to develop a new product category, which involves more risk but potentially more reward.

5. The creative thinking tools don’t work

The main creative thinking tool used by managers is brainstorming. Yet there is plenty of research suggesting this is not as effective as individuals who generate ideas independently then come together to discuss them.

Brainstorming also requires a group and takes time to organise and run. What we need is a better, faster array of individual and group tools to unleash the creativity of every employee.

In summary, most leaders recognise the importance of innovation and are taking some important steps to improve the effectiveness of this activity.

However, until each and every leader embraces innovation as an essential part of their role, I fear innovation will continue to flounder and frustrate.

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