Charlotte Rush1 February 2021

Why innovation fails

Failure is necessary in the pursuit of innovation. With failure, comes learning. However, the well trodden path of previous innovation successes and failures has surfaced some critical lessons that need not be repeated by future innovators of the world. 

Whether you are just starting your innovation journey or you are already on your way, here are the key reasons why innovation fails and what you can do to prevent it:

1.Ideas that don’t solve real problems for real customers.

In 2001, the Segway, invented by Dean Kamen, was launched amidst a blizzard of publicity. Despite the technology being amazing, it failed to gain significant market acceptance. In an attempt to be a general mobility product made for everyone, it was unclear the specific problem that the Segway solved for a specific group of customers. 

In contrast, successful innovation arises when an idea addresses an unmet need, and does it better than existing solutions. For example, in the age of digital distractions, Freedom is an app and website blocker that exists to give people the freedom to do what matters most. Whilst previous solutions existed – for example turning on “Do Not Disturb” or just simply deleting apps, Freedom provides a superior solution by allowing users to schedule Freedom time in advance, therefore removing the need to fight distractions by removing them all together. It solves a specific problem (getting distracted by apps and notifications) for a specific group of people (individuals who are addicted to technology). And it is a superior solution because it literally removes the need to fight distractions by automatically blocking them, in advance. 

2. Demanding future disruption while rewarding today’s improvement. 

Many organisations will understand that you can innovate to improve your current products and services. This is typically referred to as ‘incremental innovation’. You can also innovate to uncover new markets and ground-breaking ideas. Balancing these two objectives at the same time can be challenging, thanks to what the late Professor Clayton Christensen calls “the innovator’s dilemma”. As he says, “Even when leaders know intellectually that ground-breaking innovation is imperative, they find themselves investing in incremental refinements to please their most sophisticated customers, and leave themselves wide open to disruption by upstarts.” 

The challenge is this: incremental innovations are typically profitable, certain, and you reap the rewards in the short-term. In contrast, disruptive innovations, whilst they have the potential to be ground-breaking, are focused on uncertain opportunities in the distant future. 

In order to ensure your disruptive efforts don’t fall to the wayside, ring-fence your resources. If you haven’t set aside resources specifically to drive disruption, the short-term will always win. 

3. Impressive ideas with a failure to launch 

There is no shortage of ideas in the world. But unless you turn those creative ideas that solve a customer problem into a living and breathing solution, you won’t be innovating. Organisations that fail to allocate resources – people, time AND money – are setting their ideas up for failure. 

Instead, once you have completed initial tests that suggest your idea is solving a real problem for real customers, allocate budget, time and people to that idea. At least one person should have progressing this idea as one of their top three priorities. Their goal is to determine whether this idea represents a desirable, viable and feasible solution. By investing resources across a number of ideas, organisations can ‘balance’ their innovation investment and ensure ideas that are not validated are killed, and resources re-allocated, in a timely way. 

By ensuring your ideas solve specific problems for specific customers, ring-fencing your resources dedicated to disruptive innovation and allocating people, time and money to turn your ideas into action, you can avoid the failures that often plague the innovation journey.