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The word “innovation” has been on the lips and tongues of almost every organization for more than a century. Despite having a rather negative connotation when first used (see Henry Burton circa 1620, a Church of England minister who’s “innovation” cost him both of his ears), it has grown into the cultural lexicon as a modern-day buzz word. Every organization claims to be continually looking for new, novel ways of satisfying customer needs in an “innovative” fashion, but all too often, companies are unable to reap the true benefits of innovation, despite their best intentions.

Why is this? Why are companies unable to succeed in inspiring customers with new solutions when it seems to be at the core of what they do?

Innovation is a tricky animal to master within any organization. By its nature, it is difficult to plan, manage, and deliver innovative products and services, as it is not entirely predictable. When asked, most people can name a few companies they view as innovative (Apple, Google, Tesla, etc.). But why do these organizations succeed where many others fail? By understanding some of the common failures in innovation, we can provide some suggestions as to better improve innovation within an organization.

How Innovation Fails…

Lack of Organization Alignment toward Innovation:

Ultimately, the main cause for failure is the misalignment of an organization’s innovation strategies with their business strategies. While many organizations say they are innovative, their culture and processes often do not align with this goal. In many cases, organizations are driven by product timelines, budgets, delivery dates, and operational costs. The creative processes and frameworks needed to spark innovation are replaced by traditional product development life-cycles. In conjunction, the innovation direction is driven by a few key people rather than by involving the entire organization in idea generation and conception.

Why is this? Frankly, the embrace of the unknown driven by innovation is often too much for an organization to commit to. Failure is deemed as “waste” and a source of incremental cost that can be minimized through delivery processes that are known to be repeatable.

Lack of Understanding about the Consumer:

Ultimately, the decision about whether or not something is innovative lies in the hands of the consumer. An organization could have the most innovative new product imaginable, but if the consumer doesn’t identify with the need that is being satisfied, the product will likely fail. Many organizations spend a great deal of time gathering data about their consumers’ wants and needs, but few really dig deep enough to understand the WHY behind consumer behaviors. Additionally, many organizations have “blinders” on when investigating their customers’ tendencies; they look into behaviors based on their specific products/services rather than looking more holistically at the purpose/reason behind the consumers’ choices and actions.

Competitive Pressure:

Benchmarking is an important part of any organization. Companies need to continually understand how they perform in relation to their competitors, and what new products/features/services their competition is releasing. This is just good business intelligence. However, many companies fall into the narrow-vision competition trap of releasing similar products/features/services as their competitors. This can become a “me-too” attitude, focusing on continuous improvement while stifling any true innovation (disruptive or continuous) within the organization.

How to Avoid Innovation Failure

Alignment within the Organization:

In general, the most important success factor is how well companies execute on their chosen strategy —whether they align their innovation plan with their business strategy; whether they have prioritized the right capabilities/core competencies; whether they have the right culture to enable their strategy; and whether they are using the tools that will help them develop new ideas and processes that are consistent with their innovation model. The quality of alignment of all these elements is the key, and trumps any amount of R&D spending.

Beyond just aligning its strategies, the organization needs to shift focus to fostering an innovation culture. Activities need to be aligned with what is needed for innovation. Some great examples include running competitions between multiple teams to devise a solution to a challenging issue, or having a company-wide competition to detail a solution. These contests can reward participants with anything from company-wide recognition to monetary incentives for the winners. This helps place innovation front and center with employees and engages the entire organization.

Gain New Perspectives:

While it certainly behooves companies to have innovation leaders, the role of the organization as a whole to contribute to innovation is often overlooked. Ideas should come from every part of the organization, not just a small group of people. Everyone should have the opportunity and be encouraged to participate in submitting ideas for consideration. These ideas should then be captured, and the information accessible to everyone. Many successful organizations have shown the benefit of idea generation and tracking systems, which can be constantly updated and referred to throughout the development process. This helps foster creative thinking by all involved.

While greater overall organizational involvement is important, getting more “fresh eyes” from beyond the organization is equally as valuable. Studies have shown that successful Silicon Valley companies are four times as likely to have hired new innovation talent (product development, etc.) than companies who are not as successfully innovative. Additional help can also be found in the form of working with third-party entities, such as design firms and contract houses.

Dig Deeper into User Behaviors:

Put simply…don’t just look at what a consumer did, ask why they did it. At ITX, we use the concept of The 5 Whys. Essentially, whenever consumer behavior is being investigated, ask them why (up to) 5 times to dig deeper into the reasoning behind why consumers act in a certain way. Is it because they are “used to” a particular workflow to accomplish something? Is it being driven by consumer behaviors (remember: users do not leave their consumer tendencies at the door when interacting with products)? Is there a deeper reasoning as to why they are behaving in that manner? Continuing to question for the true reason behind behavior is how organizations can better identify the need which must be satisfied by their products.

Don’t (Always) Follow the Leader:

Certainly, any organization must keep its competitors clearly in view. However, what competitors are doing should not be the impetus for driving an organization’s innovation path. Too often, organizations spend most of their time defining their roadmap in a reactive manner to their competitors rather than leading themselves and pushing innovation to the forefront. While this may provide short-term gains, a model like this is unlikely to deliver true innovation. While being cognizant of their competitors, the most successfully innovative organizations are ones that use their user research and processes to blaze a trail of innovation, pushing them ahead of the competition.

Failure is ALWAYS an Option:

Expect failure. In fact, embrace it! Innovation is always associated with failures along the path to success. Build processes and frameworks with this in mind. When an organization accepts these limitations, rather than looking negatively on them, innovation will begin to foster.

Two final points to help turn your organization into an innovation leader:

  1. First, many interpret innovation as always being big, new, and disruptive ideas (think iPhone). However, innovation can (and should) occur in smaller, more continuous ways. A good example of this is when you see a user doing their own “workaround” for common tasks because the product doesn’t currently offer something they need, or does so in a painful way. “Small” innovations help overcome these behaviors and can inspire the customer in the end.
  2. Finally…….STAY THE COURSE. Too often, organizations don’t see immediate success regarding innovation. They react by shying away from these new processes and frameworks aimed at spurring innovation, and instead shift back to a more familiar method of product development. Innovation takes time. Invest in it.


Emma Green (2013, June 20). Innovation: The History of a Buzzword

Benoit Godin (2010). ‘Meddle Not With Them That Are Given to Change’: Innovation as Evil’ 

Diederik Syoen. Why Innovation Fails (And How to Succeed)

Barry Jaruzelski (2014, March 14). Why Silicon Valley’s Success is So Hard to Replicate

Sean Flaherty (2016, September 1). The Continuous Innovation Mindset.

Simon Sinek (2016, June). Why Innovation Fails

Barry Jaruzelski, Volker Staack, and Brad Goehle (2014, October 28). The Global Innovation 1000: Proven Paths to Innovation Success

Nick Skillicorn. What is Innovation? 15 Experts Share Their Innovation Definition

The Economist (2013, January 12). Has the Ideas Machine Broken Down?

Stephen Wright (2017, February 22). The Top 6 Reasons Why Innovation Fails: and What to Do About It

Robert J. Gordon (2013, February). The Death of Innovation, The End of Growth.

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