It seems you can’t move in Shoreditch these days for the plethora of corporate labs, innovation units and pop-up concept stores. Everyone from big consumer brands famed for innovation like Nike and Ikea to more traditional companies like Aviva, Astra Zeneca. One floor of our office was even recently turned into the innovation lab for Visa.
It’s great that big companies like this are taking inspiration from the start-up world and investing in new workspaces, new ways of working and new technology.
However, from conversations I have had with corporate clients, there is a growing sense of innovation fatigue. Many companies have invested heavily but have yet to see much return. There have also been some high profile failures.
There are many signs that you, or your company, might be suffering from innovation fatigue. Symptoms include, but are not limited to:
- You remember several innovation initiatives that were launched with much fanfare, but most of them have now fizzled out
- Innovative ideas and concepts get shot down early with phrases such as “It will be 2020 by the time that gets included in the product roadmap”, “We don’t have anyone to run that service”, “We don’t know enough about X”, “It will cost too much”, “We tried that 5 years ago with project Y”
- People with innovative ideas and enthusiasm to change have started leaving
- When anyone mentions innovation people either think, or say “Here we go again… another great way to take time and money away from what this company is good at”
- Innovation budgets have started to be cut
The causes of innovation fatigue are numerous and often very much dependent on individual and company circumstances. However, based on our experience at EY-Seren, we see several typical causes:
- There is not enough coordination of separate innovation projects across the business
- Investment in innovation has been based on a desire to create ‘trophy projects’ for senior leaders and executives
- Innovation projects are launched on the back of executive whims, rather than based on customer and market insight
- People are asked to ‘do’ innovation on the back of their day jobs, when they don’t really have time
- Organisational and technology challenges prevent innovation concepts and prototypes from scaling
- Early failures disheartened people and now they stick to what they know works
As with many health issues, prevention is usually the best form of treatment. A lot can be done to make sure that innovation fatigue does not develop in the first place:
- Invest time in developing an innovation strategy - agree target areas of profitable innovation, required processes, skills and organisation structures. There are lots of ways to ‘do’ innovation: just because a competitor has invested in start-ups or has an incubator does not mean it is the best strategy for your company.
- Unleash the hidden intrapreneurs – enable the people with great ideas, skills and energy to pursue them with the freedom and support to do so in a coordinated way
- Manage expectations – lots can be done to reduce innovation timescales and reduce the impact of risk of failure, however, the reality is that innovation will take time to hit the bottom line and there will be failures along the way
- Identify cultural barriers to innovation – attitudes, behaviours, organisation structures, legacy technology and bureaucracy can all kill innovation quickly so it is best to begin identifying and planning the way around these before launching into large innovation programmes
- Develop real customer insight – we still see people building things that customers don’t want – the wrong answer to the right problem. There is nothing more powerful than testing product assumptions with customer early and often (see the point on Lean Innovation below). We also use co-creation sessions with customers, which inform (but do not limit) our design thinking.
Once innovation fatigue takes hold, the following treatments can be used, in addition to those above:
- Generate quick wins – building momentum is critical at this stage. The focus should be on tackling smaller challenges first, where the customer insight is already strong and chance of success is higher. Speed is important – we recently launched a new business concept from idea to a working product, generating substantial revenues, in under 5 months.
- Inject fresh thinking – we have found that working with a selected group of entrepreneurs, trends experts, start-ups, academic institutions can revitalise flagging innovation processes
- Take a Lean Innovation approach – move the focus from developing products or services to learning as much as possible as quickly as possible. This also enables the shortening of innovation cycles and reduces spend required in the earlier, riskier phases of innovation
- Identify and fill skills gaps – blending the right skills, approaches and ‘mind-sets’ can easily be the difference between success and failure in innovation
- Develop an innovation measurement framework – measurement can quickly drive behaviours that create successful innovation, however, it is critical to get the metrics right and evolve them as innovation projects as innovation capability develops. For example, measuring revenues or cost reduction too soon may kill a concept that might have matured into a transformative product or service.
Innovation fatigue can be demotivating for individual employees and costly for organisations. It is costly because time and investment is wasted, but it is also costly as ground is lost to the competition who are innovating more successfully.
Addressing these potential problems before a large investment in innovation is ideal, however, even when several innovation programmes are in-flight, fast action can quickly turn-around underperforming initiatives and make innovation fatigue a distant memory.