Do you find it hard to get your innovation projects off the ground? You’re not alone. According to Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, about 95 percent of newly introduced products fail every year. So, how do you make innovation work? TomorrowLab reveals some of the secret ingredients.

Today, change is happening so fast and at such a scale that some companies find it difficult to catch up. In one study, no less than 85 percent of surveyed executives fear that their business will be disrupted in the coming years, due to the speed of change, the magnitude of change, or because of the fear of being replaced.

Innovation can be an effective way to escape disruptive forces and arm oneself against future change. But with such high failure rates, it’s easy to see why so many companies are hesitant to fully embrace innovation as an integral part of a company strategy. So, how can these organizations get the innovation ball rolling in the right way and be future proof?

Re-think innovation: failure is not failure

“We have tried innovation, but it didn’t work.”

“We could not create any impact.”

“Our customers didn’t want it.”

This is just a small selection of often heard quotes that reveal a rather limited view on innovation. How organizations define innovation success is crucial here. Unfortunately, many businesses today merely regard innovation as an end result or a tangible outcome, like a new product or feature. But what if we didn’t look at innovation as a case of ‘all or nothing’, of failure versus success? What if we saw it as a process for systematic learning aimed at reaching those end results?

Innovation projects involve much more risk and uncertainty than other business projects, so it does not make sense to treat them in the same way. Organizations that expect direct, tangible outcomes from their innovation projects are in for a disappointment. On the other hand, organizations that see innovation – and the occasional failure – as part of their long-term strategy, might get more value out of their innovation efforts. The question ‘What is the outcome?’ should really be ‘What can we learn from this?’

What if we didn’t look at innovation as a case of ‘all or nothing’, but instead as a process for systematic learning aimed at reaching those end results?

Make innovation your priority

How high is innovation on the organisation's agenda? When innovation needs to compete with the day-to-day business, then more often than not, the daily business will win. Money today trumps money tomorrow.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. When innovation has the right priority and the right place in the organisational structure, the day-to-day business and innovation efforts can live in perfect harmony.

Ideally, innovation is on the daily agenda of the CEO. And if not managed by the CEO personally, then at least there should be a commitment from lower management to put innovation high on the priority list, so that it is not in conflict with the day-to-day business. Even when innovation is attributed to someone higher up in the chain, innovation runs the risk of derailing because of personal agendas. A CIO for example might put too much emphasis on the technical implementation of the innovation project, rather than on the desired learnings for the company.

Manage your innovation risks

Making products nobody wants is a sad waste of time and resources. And yet, many innovation projects fail because there is no real market need. “Why is nobody using our product?” is a painful question that is heard far too often.

Innovation is inherently an uncertain and a risky business. The way you manage the different uncertainties and risks of innovation will determine your success:

  • The desirability risk: Is our innovation targeting the right customer? Who is this customer? Are we solving a real problem for them?
  • The feasibility risk: Are we capable of building the solution? Will our solution effectively solve the customer’s problem?
  • The viability risk: Will our business model be profitable? What is the possible ROI?

Businesses often think about feasibility and viability, but forget about desirability. At any rate, before working on an innovation project, all three types of risk need to be reduced as much as possible. The best way to do this is to start with a hypothesis (‘x customer’ has ‘y problem’), then test the hypothesis (e.g. by doing customer interviews), learn from it, and adapt accordingly.e

Businesses often think about feasibility and viability, but forget about desirability.

Put your innovation to work: processes & skills

For many organisations, innovation is synonymous with ideation sessions. Although there is nothing wrong with generating new ideas, innovation should be much more than that.

In the most innovation-friendly companies, there is a company culture where people are supported and stimulated to generate, test and implement new ideas. In practice, this support consists of much more than allocating 10% of somebody’s working hours to an innovation side project.

In a true innovation culture, processes are put in place and innovation skills are proactively developed. Both processes and skills determine how fast innovation projects are rolled out.

Things to consider when installing innovation processes in your company:

  • Do we address the desirability, viability and feasibility of innovation?
  • Do we need a dedicated innovation team?
  • How much autonomy will we give the innovation team?
  • Do we have a dedicated innovation budget? And can the innovation team make autonomous budget decisions?
  • How will the team report about the project status towards management and the rest of the organisation?

Innovation can only work when people have the necessary skills. Obviously, skills like creativity, critical thinking, communication and problem solving are essential. But there are many more:

  • Conceptual thinking
  • Reporting
  • Interviewing
  • Structuring information
  • Technical skills
  • Presenting skills
  • Persuasion techniques

It’s hard to find all these skills in one person. That’s why it’s important for innovation teams to look for members with complementary skill sets. When these skills cannot be found in house, then external experts can add an extra dynamic and help the team to see things from an unbiased perspective. This is the role that TomorrowLab likes to play and has played before with great success

Train your innovation muscle

Successful innovators treat innovation as a critical company capability or as a muscle that needs to be trained. Innovation is not a fast way to obtain certain, profitable outcomes. It’s a strategy to withstand disruptive forces and make a company more robust against external influences.

The key to innovation success is not to treat it as a one-time project, but instead install a continuous innovation culture, backed by management, where people are stimulated to discover new grounds.

Fortunately, you don’t have to do this alone. TomorrowLab is the ideal external partner to put innovation on the rails in your company. From strategy development, over risk management, to innovation processes, innovation consulting, innovation management: we can help to turn your innovation projects into successes.

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