Customers change. Competitors change. Technology changes. If you don’t do anything, new and competitive products catch up and overtake your products and services quickly. A study by A.D. Little has shown that the life cycle of products has decreased by factor 4 the last fifty years. So innovation is essential. But it is time consuming. It demands a lot of resources. And a positive outcome is very uncertain. In this blog Gijs van Wulfen offers a helping hand by identifying five common mistakes to avoid.

In one of my earlier blogs on IM I identified 40 reasons why people are struggling with innovation. And a lot of mistakes are made over and over again. That’s why I like to share with you five ways to commit innovation suicide. So you can avoid them in practice.

1. Start without business need

So when was the last time you personally made a dramatic change in your behaviour? We are all stuck into our habits. Doing things in fixed patterns. Even we, innovators, do. Reading the same journals for years. Driving the same car brand for years. Being insured by the same company for years. The only reason for us to change is when there is a new simple attractive solution, which is relevant for us. I guess I can make it as simple as that. So if current business is booming in your company people in your organisation are not prepared (yet) to break their habits. Remember: necessity is the mother of invention. So don’t try to convince others to innovate when there is no business need, because they will turn you down. When the time is right though good preparation not only increases the chances of success but also creates priority, direction and the will to succeed. That’s why it is essential to start with a clear and concrete innovation assignment, involving your top managers. This forces the top management in your company, from the start, to be concrete about the business need, market/target group for which the innovations must be developed and which criteria these new concepts must meet. So if you start innovation without a business need you will fail fast due to a lack of internal support.

2. Start appointing an innovator

So we need to innovate. Let’s make the most innovative colleague responsible for innovation. That seems like a wise thing to do. Well, it isn’t. He or she will end as a lonely wolf. Why? There’s a big difference between inventing and innovation. You can invent on your own. But in an organisation you can never innovate alone! You need R&D engineers, production managers, IT staff, financial controllers, marketers, service people and salesmen to develop the product or service, produce it and get it out on the market. So there’s a huge risk that as soon as you appoint an innovator the rest of your organisation will lean back waiting. Because it is not seen as their responsibility anymore.

3. Start with an idea

Of course innovation is about ideas. About getting the right ones. And realising these ideas in practice. A shining light bulb has become a global symbol for innovation. Once you get your idea you will probably fall in love with it. That’s a great feeling. But love makes blind, unfortunately. The psychological phenomenon of selective perception will make you see only the positive points of the idea and only listen to people who are supporting you. What happens when you tell your idea to someone else? Their first reaction starts often with a ‘but……….’. Others within your company will start criticising your idea the moment it is told to them. An important reason is you’re your idea is not theirs. Only one out of seven new product ideas is really introduced. For every seven new-product ideas, about 4 enter development, 1.5 are launched and only 1 succeeds. These are poor odds. So what do you do when your boss, the vice-president marketing or the innovation board stops your new product idea? Do you have any alternatives available? So never bet on one horse. There’s a huge risk that an idea will never reach the market.

4. Start with a brainstorm

When there is a need for innovation the first thing people do is organise a brainstorm. But often nothing innovative materialises. That’s why brainstorming has such negative connotations in a lot of companies. Because, when you brainstorm unprepared with the usual colleagues hardly anything new appears. And you think the problem is not getting new ideas. But you are wrong. The problem is to get rid of the old ones! I love this quotation of the America businessman Dee Hock: “The problem is never how to get new, innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get old ones out. Every mind is a building filled with archaic furniture. Clean out a corner of your mind and creativity will instantly fill it. Once you get the old ideas out of your mind, new ones come automatically!” That’s why it is essential to get rid of the old ideas, before you start creating new ones. So starting with a brainstorm equals committing innovation suicide.

5. Start neglecting customers

Starting with ideas or new technologies gives a lot of energy and inspiration. And is fun to do also. But effective innovation is all about getting new ideas for simple solutions to solve relevant customer problems or needs. Meeting potential customers in person and finding out the customer’s frictions belong to the most effective techniques when you want to create new product ideas. Robert G. Cooper confirmed this in a recent study concerning ideation techniques. And do not go looking for what your customer wants. Because customers won’t be able to tell you themselves. Start looking for customers’ relevant future problems. Starting innovation, neglecting customers is a dead end street for sure.

Is there a way to avoid innovation suicide? Of course there is. I have been struggling with innovation for more than 25 years, and I fell in almost every pitfall. Trying to avoid them I developed a structured innovation expedition. Feel free to to download the innovation expedition map and thirteen checklists for free. I wish you a lot of success avoiding all the innovation pitfalls.

By Gijs van Wulfen

About the author

Gijs van Wulfen (The Netherlands, 1960) is the founder of the FORTH innovation method. FORTH is an effective and structured method for ideating innovative products and services. The method is published in his inspiring and practical book Creating Innovative Products and Services’ (Gower, 2011).

He helps organisations to kick start innovation by facilitating the FORTH innovation method and advising companies on their innovation strategy, process and organisation. His clients are international companies in industry and services, as well as non-profit organisations in government and health. Gijs also trains facilitators in his method. His dream is to make FORTH the most used method for the front end of innovation around the world.

Gijs is a both presenter and chairman at several (international) innovation conferences, like the ISPIM Conferences and the European Conference on Creativity and Innovation. He is also founder of the yearly Dutch Innovation Conference on creating new products: ‘Nieuwe Producten Bedenken’.