Innovation Failure: A Pit Stop to Transformation

by Alli Polin on March 12, 2013

Innovation Failure Sets Up Future Innovation Success

Innovation happens not only through success cycles, but also failure cycles that are like pit stops on the road to organizational transformation.  “Fail, learn, adapt” is the mantra successful innovation organizations follow.  Failures aren’t setbacks, they are pushes forward bringing with it critical information and understanding uncovered through the process.  The mantra of “tweak, fail and revert,” however, is the kiss of death for innovation and one that I know all too well.

A few years ago, hired as the part of a senior team for a new division, the challenge seemed clear – it wasn’t small shifts that they were after, but total transformation.  I was brought in to lead the business transformation from the people perspective and had great partners in crime on the leadership team with me; they were experienced, driven, genuine leaders.  In retrospect, the fact that our team was hired, when the entire existing leadership team was all “reassigned,” should have been a sign we were in for some rough waters.  In fact, within 12 months, the entire leadership team had left the company.  What happened?

Millions were invested with leading consulting firms and the best thinking of internal talent was leveraged in the early design phase well before I came on board.  The CEO was 100% behind the proposed changes and committed to taking an innovation path to remain on top of a competitive industry.  They also took the smart approach of large-scale pilots before large-scale implementation organization wide.

Fantastic planning wasn’t enough. 

Why did we fail?

Innovation Failure Reason #1: Culture Mismatch

Hiring a senior innovation team did not magically create an organizational culture that was ready for innovation.  The CEO embraced change and innovation yet the overall culture was incredibly risk averse and valued hard work, smart spending, and visible success.  As a result, they had short runways for fresh approaches.

Innovation Failure Reason #2:  Desire for Insta-Results

Innovation doesn’t happen with the snap of the fingers, it’s not a simple process adjustment resulting in quick incremental improvement.   Innovation is wrought with failure and in this organization, when the numbers didn’t show constant and aggressive upward movement, some leaders began to fear permanent dips and setbacks.  It’s this fear that led to constant reactive tweaking of both processes and org design with the hope that somehow we’d hit on a magic formula to get the insta-results everyone was craving.

Innovation Failure Reason #3:  Change Management vs Marketing

We had a great design but unfortunately, the change management legacy that we had inherited missed the most effective element of any change plan – two-way communication.  News about the innovation organization was packaged and marketed but at no point did they open a conversation about fears, concerns or ideas to enhance the likelihood of success.   They never had buy-in below the CEO because people did not feel a part of the change; change happened to them without their full understanding or consent.

Innovation Failure Reason #4:  Loud Dissenters

We were the new kids on the block and hadn’t earned any cred within the organization while vocal long time employees and trusted advisors were happy with the status quo. “Who needs innovation?  What we have is working!  Change is a risk we don’t need to take,” they insisted. Our results ranged from poor to average and instead of focusing on learning from our failures and making adjustments, much of our time as the leadership team was spent in a constant cycle of getting beat up, protecting our team from the punches, and defending decisions.

Innovation Failure Reason #5:  Already on Top

The biggest barrier to change acceptance for innovation was that the company was already widely accepted as number one in the industry.   It’s hard to articulate and gain change acceptance when most people don’t see the need to change.  The unspoken feeling across the organization was, “We’ve been on top for a long time and we’ll be here for a long time to come. You can take your innovation and shove it.”

Things are always clearer in hindsight and I can now see that while my colleagues were plugging holes in the boat, and I was drawing plans for a new ship, not one of us was willing to admit we were no longer gliding on the water, but instead stuck in the mud.   It’s this blindness, or more truthfully, unwillingness to see, that led what once could have been a remarkable innovation for the organization and the industry, to devolve into an exercise in process reengineering.  

Still, I need to acknowledge that even though our original big vision was not achieved, there was value delivered that still has a lasting impact today.  Who knows if in the future the time will be right to try again and start anew.  Innovation is never one and done but is a journey with multiple paths and pit stops along the way all leading to the same destination; transformation.

What has been your experience with innovation and what has made it work for your organization? 

(Photo credit)

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Jon Mertz March 12, 2013 at 7:26 am

Insightful post, Alli. Another reason for innovation failure is the expectation of big. At times, we want to be the innovation to be so big that we put it all on one idea. When it doesn’t work out, all resources are spent.

Rather than making big bets, it is better to make smaller bets, testing ideas and innovations and finding the ones that will work. It saves resources as well as raises the opportunity for success. Thanks! Jon

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Alli Polin March 12, 2013 at 7:31 am

Absolutely fantastic advice, Jon! I inherited big, large-scale, North America wide innovation. Despite the testing and piloting that happened before I was on the scene, it was clear that the push to “make it happen” led to some blinders to the true challenges that we were facing. Big bets sometimes pay off but more often than not, it’s the small steps that lead to true transformation. Great insights – appreciate them tremendously! Thanks, Jon!

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Skip Prichard March 14, 2013 at 10:07 am

Alli, what a great post! And I do agree with Jon. We’ve all seen the big scale disasters, especially in IT.

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Alli Polin March 14, 2013 at 8:10 pm

Many thanks, Skip! Yup – too many big scale disasters to count and many are linked back to poor change management on the people side of change.

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Johann Gauthier March 12, 2013 at 7:59 am

Great thoughts Alli, thanks for sharing your experience with all of us.
You are so right about innovation which takes regular trips to the well.
Leaders planning for their next mistakes also approach change as powerful learning experiences. I believe your post highlights one key aspect of leadership: it is a mindset and a journey within. If leaders leading changes do not set an example, how can we expect changes to occur.
Cheers !

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Alli Polin March 12, 2013 at 8:37 am

Johann – Thank you for your comment! Absolutely! Leaders need to learn from their mistakes and turn them into powerful learning. I know that I’ve personally thought a lot about what I could have done differently in this situation and am brining that learning with me into all that I do in the future. Change management, in my opinion is both an art and a science. Thanks, Johann!

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Chris March 12, 2013 at 9:10 am

Alli-
As always I am blown away by your experiences and amazed at the resilience you show. This post brings to mind one thing for me for sure; perspective. I agree w/Jon that maybe too big too soon, and maybe by stepping back and taking a look from another angle could have helped. Hindsight is always 20/20 and part of growth and development is failure. We learn most, not from our successes, but from our failures. Have a great day!
Chris

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Alli Polin March 12, 2013 at 9:16 am

Thanks for your comment, Chris! It was a unique experience walking into a significant innovation initiative that was in process for nearly years before I joined the team. Pilot after pilot, failure after failure, still there was a determination to make it work. I appreciated the desire but at some point, taking a step back is definitely what was needed. Time for hard conversations and seeing the failure and looking for new ways to turn it into a win… even if it doesn’t look like the original design or vision. Tough to do and we tried :) and failed ;)

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Terri Klass March 12, 2013 at 10:12 am

Another insightful post Alli! Innovation and change go hand in hand. For any change to be successful, people’s reaction and feelings must be considered. The 2-way communication you describe is essential, as is openly dealing with the feelings associated with change. Organizations that I have worked with that spent time explaining a change and how it will impact daily routines were most successful. Thanks again for sharing!

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Alli Polin March 12, 2013 at 6:39 pm

Thank you, Terri! I brought my change methodologies with me but felt like I was flying solo instead of having a team of people willing to share the message and open the dialog. Not so helpful when I was brand new to the organization and we also needed time to build trust. Without the people on board, the change cannot be successful. Appreciate all that you’ve added here!

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Blair March 12, 2013 at 3:17 pm

Great share, Alli. So much rich information you gleaned to share with us all. And an interesting portrayal of how new leadership hires are more often than not set up at the get go: READY, SET, FAIL!
You cannot force feed innovation. The system rejects what it will not, never was prepared to, digest.

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Alli Polin March 12, 2013 at 6:37 pm

Blair – you’ll never believe how much what you said hits home with me. “The system rejects what it will not, never was prepared to, digest.” Thank you! And yes… Ready, Set, Fail! was what it felt like as my colleagues left one by one as we opened our eyes to the situation. Interestingly, someone was brought in after us and they were gone in 1/2 the time. Thank you, Blair!

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Rosa Maria Cuadros March 13, 2013 at 11:10 pm

As a young woman on a entry level position at a property of a huge chain owned by one of the biggest financial groups in my country, I think it tottally applies. My manager would tell me I’m innovative, cause I create some procedures to void the problems I have had at work… but no, was not easy. I’m done with suggesting things they would think are awsome for a while and then get attached at what it used to be like… (bad habbits) and was in my area… I can not imagine when I’ll try to be a manager and change a property… ha

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Alli Polin March 14, 2013 at 12:43 am

Thanks so much for your comment Rosa Maria! You really illustrate how innovations big or small can be like vicious cycles as people hang onto the past instead of going through the “pain” of embracing what’s new. I sincerely hope that you won’t stop your suggestions. Even if it’s frustrating at times, putting your ideas out there is better than living with average when you see the potential to make things great. I have no doubt that when you’re the manager you will work to create lasting change knowing what it’s like to see ideas disappear and miss their potential due to bad habits. Appreciate your insights and the depth that you brought to the conversation!

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Alice Chan March 14, 2013 at 4:14 pm

Great insights on change management, Alli! Buy-in is so important, and as you pointed out, it wasn’t there for a number of reasons, not the least of which communication, and the presence of a compelling reason to innovate while the company was already on top. Brings back memories for me from being in leadership in the corporate world. Thanks, Alli!

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Alli Polin March 14, 2013 at 8:09 pm

Thanks, Alice! When buy-in stops at the most senior levels or the people impacted, regardless of level, feel like they don’t have a voice, change is impossible. It was a great lesson for me that even when people say they’re on board, it’s not always the case and it’s up to leaders to take the conversations re: change to the next level. I wasn’t there at the start of the program, but innovation when already on top is a hard one to “sell” w/o active change programs in place. Thank you for your thoughtful comment!

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Tony Vengrove March 18, 2013 at 3:02 pm

Having lived through a similar situation myself (at a big F200 company) I agree with your points, Alli. To be honest, I think most of the problems are cultural in nature and start/stop with the C-Suite. CEOs love to champion a change management effort with constant communication, feedback loops, clear objectives — but when it comes to innovation they don’t seem to lead the effort in a similar fashion. Innovation needs vision otherwise those charged with innovating don’t know exactly what they need to create in order to guide the company towards its future goals. Said differently, without vision innovation becomes subjective — and that’s a sure fire situation for idea killing. I recently wrote a similar article on my experiences and would love to hear your comments! http://www.milesfinchinnovation.com/blog/2013/02/27/why-big-companies-cant-innovate-insight-from-a-former-fortune-200-innovation-director/

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Alli Polin March 18, 2013 at 10:26 pm

Tony, You really hit the nail on the head! Exactly: “Without vision, innovation becomes subjective”

Your post also really rings true for me. My post was really about disruptive innovation and without a powerful shared vision of where we were heading and why, our efforts were bound to fail as they were focused on change acceptance by the time I joined the team. The assumption was that everyone was on board b/c the CEO was on board but there was no shared vision even among the most senior executives. Re-imagining is an exercise in creativity vs creation when the vision is missing.

Thanks for adding your insights and experience.

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