Why does innovation fail?

Hotspex's Shelli Baltman and Fiona Stevenson on why your idea suffered death by a million cuts.


By Fiona Stevenson and Shelli Baltman

If the greatest innovation is often the simplest, why do so many initiatives struggle or fail?  Unfortunately, the discipline required to deliver a simple, single-minded innovation to market is counter to many corporate systems.  Here are the four most common mistakes leading to innovation failure.

Management pre-kill

Even when an organization’s senior management shows genuine commitment to and desire for bold, breakthrough innovation, the most far-reaching ideas are often the first ones eliminated in stakeholder-review sessions along the innovation journey.

High-potential ideas are often dismissed because management either can’t personally relate to the idea, considers the idea too outlandish or is saddled with baggage from past failures (“We launched something similar before and it failed. Let’s not go there again.”) But fear plus incremental thinking plus risk aversion is a certain recipe for failure. And inevitably, competition ends up seizing the opportunity left on the table, leaving the risk-averse organization to play catch-up with a sub-optimally launched “me too” offering.

Loss of focus

Concepts usually start with a single-minded benefit but as they go through several rounds of revisions with multiple stakeholders in the organization, we often see clients lose focus and try to include too many benefits and points of difference in an effort to appeal to more consumers.

It can be tempting to load a concept with multiple benefits in the eleventh hour before a quantitative test to improve its chance of success. But besides confusing the consumer, a kitchen-sink proposition is unlikely to be executable in market. (Where would the agency point the camera?)

So figure out the one compelling reason for people to buy your product and ruthlessly defend it against clutter. Just look at BelVita breakfast biscuits with its focused promise of fuelling your morning with sustained energy. You can imagine an internal debate about whether it would be a good idea to narrow down the use of the biscuit to just breakfast when actually it could be eaten any time of day. It is exactly this specificity that gets it off the shelf and into your cupboard. Of course, if consumers like the taste, and believe in the benefit, these bars will get eaten for more than just breakfast.

Watering down your idea

This is where, through the course of execution, product ideas suffer death by a million cuts. The initial concept was brilliant, based on a consumer insight and tested well – but by the time it gets through production, the execution is almost unrecognizable versus what was originally tested, and the core elements that drove initial appeal no longer exist.

One of our clients in the food space had a brilliant idea that tested exceptionally well for a tasty and healthy meal that could be just “popped in the oven and served.” However, through the course of execution, the manufacturing team struggled to deliver the concept as tested. In the end, the final product required a five-step process prior to baking – the core benefit of convenience had been lost. The concept wasn’t re-tested prior to launch and, not surprisingly, the proposition that launched is not delivering on initial expectations.

Uncommitted execution

So often clients talk to us about big ambitions, but these are often accompanied by unrealistic expectations from management regarding the time, budgets and people required to achieve them. The innovation brief outlines aggressive innovation goals, but is accompanied by huge constraints around investment in manufacturing and/or launch horizons.

Truly new and breakthrough ideas can take investment and time to come to fruition, both prior to and following launch. Frankly, if you’re not willing to invest – or at least to give a new product some time to catch on – you shouldn’t waste your time and energy on something truly new and outside your organization’s comfort zone of existing capabilities.

Kraft Lunchables is a great example of where it took several years of marketing investment before the concept was fully accepted by consumers. The adoption curve was longer than initially hoped, but the organization was committed and stuck with it. Now, many CPG companies look at the category and try to emulate Kraft’s success, but are not willing to commit to the time and investment required to build a new category of this scale.  It’s important to take a long-term view of success (three-to five-year plans that include new product extensions and marketing) versus the prevalent model of launching and leaving an initiative after six months.

Innovation takes guts, determination, relentless focus and creative problem-solving through execution. Include your R&D and manufacturing teams early on, and don’t be afraid to re-test or raise a flag if your concept is changing in a fundamental way on the path to execution.  The best innovators will tell you the “will to kill” an idea that’s not getting full commitment or proper execution is at least as important as an entrepreneur’s mindset that pushes forward, overcomes barriers and finds creative solutions.

Shelli Baltman and Fiona StevensonShelli Baltman and Fiona Stevenson lead the Innovation Practice at Toronto-based Hotspex Innovation. Contact them at Innovation@hotspex.com

Image via Shutterstock.