10 Problems at the Start of Innovation




Many things can go wrong during the process of creating new products, services or business models. Let me give you ten examples from my own experience. You may recognize this as an array of all too familiar scenarios. If so, rest assured, you are not alone.

1. We´re not sure what we want.

Ideation of new products and services happens ad hoc, usually at a time when a problem arises or the turnover decreases suddenly or when a competitor enters the market unexpectedly. The first question is: "What now?" Then the creed becomes: "We'll get Smith to create a list." From this moment it becomes clear that any current strategic business plans no longer provide much direction for innovation. Ultimately, the lack of clear directives leads to random thought processes and frustration. Frustration because the management, further down in the innovation process, decided to concentrate on something else than what you were focusing on before.

2. We keep coming up with the same thing again and again.

When there is a need to get ideas for new products and services, a group of people are summoned together for a brainstorming session. This session usually takes place during a long and tiring day. It's usually the same mix of colleagues, (known as the creative team) who are brought together, but nothing ever seems to materialize. That's because when you attempt to brainstorm with close colleagues you run the risk of becoming easily irritated by the predictability that comes from knowing one another´s personalities and preferences too well. Everyone automatically makes a dash for the same goal. The result is that nothing new appears and everyone leaves the meeting disappointed. At these moments they share a feeling of failure, which no one is able to prevent.

3. Sticking to conventions.

Organizations have ample customer information at their disposal, do regular research into the market and are in daily contact with customers, but this process has become routine. Companies pay more attention to their current market share and what the competitor is doing right now. Products start to look alike because everyone is copying each other´s market successes. This in turn leads to common conventions in the market while the organization loses sight of what the customer really wants. As a result of this tunnel vision, management develops a 'blind spot'. This makes room for a new competitor to appear unexpectedly with another kind of product, which just might meet some changing demand in the market.

4. The dominator.

Not everyone will be given a fair chance at a brainstorming session unless there is an expert facilitator. In most cases the dominating forces are either the extroverts or the highest managers. This makes things extremely difficult and tactically awkward for the manager in charge of leading the session. Especially when his or her manager has to have the final say in the brainstorming session and the rest of the group is silenced.

5. The negative spiral.

There are brainstorming sessions where everyone has his say. After all, this is the reason for the brainstorming session, isn't it? Indeed, when you carefully listen, you can start building on the product ideas put forth by others. However, the risk involved is that ideas will be judged with immediate criticism. Remarks such as: 'That doesn´t work for us', 'We´ve tried it before', 'We´ll never get permission to do that', or 'there´s no way that can be done'. In reality, these negative statements squash real creativity. A spiral of negativity kills any chance of creativity because everyone is silenced within a short period of time.

6. We´ve got hundreds of post-its. Now what do we do?

You generated ideas non-stop at a brainstorming session and covered a wall with post-its. Then, somewhere the process stalls. Where to next? Some good ideas might be amongst all those post-its, but the question is: how do we make heads or tails out of this clutter and choose a concept? I have to admit, in the days when I was still a manager, I didn't have the answer to this either. I thought I had to find the answer on my own. I would thank all the participants for their input and take all the post-its back to my office, where they would just stare at me for weeks, until I finally threw them into the wastepaper basket. There are many places where a brainstorming session can derail.

7. Ideas remain vague.

When everything in a brainstorming session goes well and creativity is stimulated, new ideas are often expressed in beautiful, poetic sounding jargon. Be aware! This might be a self inflicted pitfall. Vague statements such as: 'We are going to make an app whereby we can reach adolescents with trendy virtual mobile marketing', or 'It is going to become a very original product as its authenticity will appeal to the primitive man inside us'. Ideas at this stage can either represent everything or represent nothing at all and still have a long way to go.

8. The management pre-kill.

Ideas are screened at the beginning of the innovation pipeline. This is the often done by senior management to reset priorities during the process. Even though the goal is to innovate in a serious way, the most far-reaching ideas are the first ones removed from the equation; either because management is unable to relate or considers the idea be too far-fetched. The responsible innovators are then left wondering: "Wasn't the intention supposed to be serious innovation?"

9. The development team re-designs.

It is great when the final decision is made to develop a new product idea. Subsequently the concept will transfer from the product inventors to the product developers – usually a multi- disciplinary team under the control of a project leader. It seems odd, but usually at this stage most of the life gets sucked out of an idea. The members of the development team have their own opinions as to the direction the product should take and they start dissecting the original idea. It can be helpful. It could be necessary to improve the idea during the development process. What often happens though is that the original product idea starts to look more like something we already had, as it was easier to produce that way. The risk is that you're throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

10. Line management resistance.

During development, the product idea regularly has to be 'sold' to the line management. Should the product reach the finish line of the innovation process, line management will be the ones producing the product and putting it on the market. While you might be expecting applause for your innovation, you end up getting constant comments and questions. Questions you may not have all the answers to. It is only natural to wonder if these comments and questions are meant as genuine practical arguments or whether you have fallen victim to corporate politics or the dreaded ´not my idea´ syndrome. Resistance from line management can also be attributed to their regular workloads. When they don´t have the time to develop their own ideas, they will not be prepared to spend time on the ideas of others that are imposed on them. Hence, it can happen that a good new product idea is kept in the freezer for years due to a lack of internal support.

It is possible that you recognize the above-mentioned situations. Do not despair; you are not alone. In my coming articles I will provide solutions.


Gijs van Wulfen is a LinkedIn thought leader on innovation.