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Is Innovation Difficult?

by Stefan Lindegaard
April 27, 20124/27/12 33 Comments

I got a lot of response to my recent blog post, Ten Red Flags for Innovation: Why It Fails. One came from David Williams, a consultant who rather blatantly wrote this:

“Stefan, Please stop the innovation “BS”. You are absolutely wrong when saying “unfortunately innovation is too complicated and company-specific for one standard rule”. Innovation is not complicated and there are common elements used to evaluate it and develope it.”

Although this opening argument as well as some of his later ones in a LinkedIn group irked me somewhat, they do feed a discussion based on what seems to be a simle question:

Is innovation difficult?

If you follow my blog, you know my view. Yes, innovation is difficult and complicated. If not, then someone please explain to me why so many companies – most of them having smart executives as well as smart managers and employees – struggle on making innovation happen or have trouble meeting their innovation objectives.

David Williams implies that he has the answer. All it takes is total commitment from the executives. He states that if and only if you have this kind of commitment innovation will be easy and simple.

To me, this sounds like a contradiction in terms. You cannot get total commitment from executives! Let me try to explain this.

First, it is my experience that many executives do not know enough about innovation to know what to do. There are simply too many unknowns for them to be able to totally commit to innovation. A good thing is that executives in general are getter better on innovation, but most of them are not where they need to be yet.

Second, most organizations have too many internal conflicts for a top executive to be able to commit totally to innovation. Innovation requires different kind of resources including financial, people and time/attention. Business units fight each other for these resources and a top executive needs to make choices.

If you throw in a corporate innovation unit into this mix, it just becomes even harder for a top executive to decide where to allocate the scarce resources and thus to which extent he can support innovation initiatives that creates the future versus the big machine that pays the bills today

I remember a good friend who several years ago ran a corporate innovation unit at an internationally well-known company. This guy understood things had to change fast and quite much. He got lots of support from the CEO, but one day our innovation guy was told that the CEO faced increasing pressure from the other executives. The innovation initaitive was going too far too fast. The message to the innovation guy: If I have to make a choice, you are the one who gets fired. Not the other executives.

The innovation guy left, the executive got fired later on and the company is in deep trouble today. I am quite sure that a stronger focus on innovation could have helped this company.

Third, I don’t even think you need a total focus innovation. You need executives with the right balance between focus on the future (innovation) and what pays the bills today (the big machine).

This is getting to be a long post. I could go on with lots of other arguments and examples on why I believe innovation is difficult and complicated, but I just keep getting back to one thought.

I have spent many years as an innovation consultant. I have worked with lots of smart people in many different companies and in many different industries. If innovation is easy and simple, why do these guys have to work so hard to make it happen?

Open for discussion.

Currently there are "33 comments" on this Article:

  1. Giri Fox says:

    I agree. You're not being too cynical, the other guy was being idealistic (which is a good way to look inspirational). Innovation can be seen as another form of managed change project, and most executives don't do change well because they fail to give it sufficient attention, sponsorship, funding or fact-based management.
    Great article on this recently under title 'silence fails'.

  2. Innovation means change. Change always keeps things in flux- which businesses don't like. I find most businesses say they want to be innovative, but in kinda secretly prefer to be late adopters once an innovation has proven successful by someone else.

  3. Hi Stefan – I worked at a company with an intense commitment to innovation, with great support indeed strong demands for innovation from the top executives. Innovation was NOT easy. We had excellent competitors, demanding customers, demanding consumers and demanding deadlines. It's always tough to get the right concept, develop it and launch it well.

    Even if there are common elements, you cannot apply one standard model.


  4. David Williams says:

    Stefan, Thanks for the attention. Innovation is not difficult, people like you tend to make it difficult. We have developed an Innovation Standard and Guideline (road map) based on common , known and proven elements of innovation (a European Innovation Standard will also be released soon). Innovations skills can be taught and learned and a good consultant can guide an organization through the process, providing management are commited.

    Dave Williams

    • Stefan Lindegaard says:

      Hi David, I guess we just have to agree that we disagree :-) However, I still miss your reply to my question. "I have spent many years as an a innovation consultant. I have worked with lots of smart people in many different companies and in many different industries. If innovation is easy and simple, why do these guys have to work so hard to make it happen?"

      • David Williams says:

        Stefan, I'm not sure how to answer your question. When I talk to an organization for the first time regarding innovation I really have to sell innovation to them. The large part of the sell is the consequence of doing nothing or doing something half Assed. Commit to it or forget it. Thanks for posting my first comment, I was not sure if you would.

        • Stefan Lindegaard says:

          Perhaps it is difficult for you to answer because it makes you realize that you should have used a different kind of wording in your earlier communication? :-)

          Hey, we should all listen to our "critics" – this is where we really learn so of course I would post your comments here. We are just having a good discussion, right?

  5. Innovation is so difficult to drive consistently and sutainably because most of our leaders are afraid of change associated with innovation. They vie for stability and predictability. Only visionary leaders, mad inventors and saints are not afraid to reach out for the stars and venture into new spaces. The barrier to drive innovation is the challenge to instill trust and confidence into the organization and its leaders and radiate the conviction that ‘innovation will work out to the better’ in the end, although we all know that we still might fail.

  6. Tim Breene says:

    Stefan, there are different kinds of innovation – incremental ,disruptive ,transformational- and they can be in products ,services or processes. To say this is simple is simply to fail to understand the topic. Large companies are generally fine on incremental innovation. The" performance engine " of the core business is attuned to this ,unfortunately today businesses need more and more transformative and disruptive innovation and this is really hard to do from within the core . Not just because of the challenge of finding the breakthrough but because everything in the DNA of a large company will fight against it.

    • Stefan Lindegaard says:

      Well, I agree with you on this :-)

    • Motty Perel says:

      You are so right, Tim!
      I am fighting the better part of my life to introduce a transformational innovation into at least one enterprise of some 100 or more employees, and the resistance – not to the essence of the transformation’s essence, but to just granting me the hour to explain it – is overwhelming.
      My innovation is a historical necessity. It will be introduced with or without me at some time in the future. The whole Western World’s economy is suffering due to the procrastination with this innovation. But a CEO will not let me explain it to him, until his competitor will implement it and thereby crush him in the market.
      I talk a lot about this innovation on LinkedIN: it is the switch from the obsolescent Employment Mode of Labour Utilization to the post-employment, Entrepreneurial MLU.

      • Alex N. says:

        Scary isn't it Motty? They usually do not want to listen because they are usually short sighted and risk adverse. I guess many will have to learn the hard way. Good point by Tim, large companies tend to forget what made their first big success and the entrepreneurial mind they originally had. Finding the right balance is critical but throw a little bit of innovation and risk in it and most executives will be scared of the implications. Innovation IS difficult and IS NOT a simple question of internal process and commitment, even though both are necessary but not sufficient.

  7. I think innovation is not "change" , not "improving something" not even doing something "new"
    . Innovation is doing something differently….

    it is very hard tp change something, have to work hard to do something new and improve something … all these activities are based on a present Concept/situation and "relative" such as … change for X available) to Y, improve something from position A to B, doing a new thing compared to a "present available" and it needs "original thinking" – wothout getting disturbed form the available models.
    but innovation is not all these …. one example is what we are doing now.. who thought that we can discuss this matter like how we are doing now….it is EASY TO THINK DIFFERENTLY BUT MOST OF US DONT LIKE TO ACT DIFFERENTLY…

  8. The process of innovation is messy – if you look at it through the lens of traditional management thinking. And you would want to steer and manage the process with roadmaps, stagegate-models and other means of models promising overview. Taking another perspective on innovation than the traditional management thinking, we recognize innovation as very complex and the results rather emerging than produced.
    In my 20 years as a researcher and leadership consultant, I have found that talking about and planning for innovation is the easiest part. And quite important, as it sets an agenda.
    The difficult part is the proces of innovation itself. Researcher Van de Ven describes it as an innovation journey – I prefer the term explorative treasure hunt. You know the treasure is there – somewhere. But you are not quite sure, how to work your way to it. It will reveal itself – when you are open to chance.
    Which is very hard for executives to be! So much is at stake for them – The Big Machine – and they really need to work with their personal leadership to develop openness, discovery skills and perseverance.

  9. Shekhar Mehra says:

    Hi Tim, Joachim, and Stefan, I liked Tim's classification of innovations (incremental, disruptive, and transformational ).I also agree that companies are more comfortable with the incremental innovations rather than the other forms. But I do not agree it is because of competing demands on limited corporate resources,sorry Stefan. I tend to agree with Jaochim's view that really transformational innovation is the prerogative of "Only visionary leaders, mad inventors and saints ". Only they have the courage to " boldly go where no man has gone before " — sharing the curiousity and bravery of Captain Kirk and his StarTrek crew !!

    It is not competing demands on resources because that is what ALL economic activity is about, not just innovation. ALL activities/processes/departments within an organisation are competing for resources.

    Transformational innovation ( which starts as disruptive ) is not favoured and ultimately smothered out in most cases is because we are hard-wired to equate "manage" with "stabilise" and "control " which, in effect is "FREEZE".

    • Stefan Lindegaard says:

      Hi Shekhar, as I mentioned in my blog post I could have gone further with examples on why innovation is difficult. I just touched briefly on executive issues. Your comments are just as valid and they just bolster my impression that innovation is not a simple thing. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Shekhar Mehra says:

    Transformational innovation ( which starts as disruptive ) is not favoured and ultimately smothered out in most cases is because we are hard-wired to equate "manage" with "stabilise" and "control " which, in effect is "FREEZE".
    This is because we are uncomfortable with "CHAOS". We are so overwhelmed by the vastness of the UNKNOWN surrounding us that we seek validation of our identity and our capacity for free choice by holding on to the familiar — regardless of whether it is the most suitable or sub-optimal or down-right unfavourable.
    We are so scared of transformation that we call it the " BUTTERFLY EFFECT " and " The Law of Unintended Consequences "
    We are scared of the slightest shake to the kaleidoscope and therefore unable to appreciate the beauty of the new patterns that can keep emerging at every turn and multiply our joy manifold…….

  11. Lee McKnight says:


    What David meant to say, is if everyone in management is committed to David, then it is easy…for David. : )

    The starting premise – everyone committed to innovation – is a false premise, that never occurs in the real world. In real business organizations, the priority is as it should be, on business objectives. Like meeting quarterly sales targets. Yes of course there are processes and practices which can help organizations be more innovative, and maybe the Euro innovation standard David thinks is the magic elixir, is pretty good. But so what, that does not make innovation 'easy.' In fact, usually the efforts fail. As we explain in our exec ed short course on Innovation offered at MIT in July, which focuses on helping organizations – survive innovating.

    • Stefan Lindegaard says:

      Lee, thanks for sharing your views!

    • David Williams says:

      Lee, I meant what I said and I don't need your interpretation. An organizations priority should be it's business objectes and if they are commited to innovation that would be included in the objectives (with measurable goals, targets and a strategy to execute). How can you comment on a European Innovation Standard that has not been released, by saying it will not make innovation easy and in fact usually the efforts will fail!

  12. Julie says:

    With all due respect, I find it interesting that a group of innovators seem to be engaged in an either-or debate rather than exploring more of a both-and possibility.

    I have not been an innovation consultant for a thousand years, so my thoughts are from the outside looking in. Maybe they will present some new thought – maybe not.

    I do remember working on an innovation project where the PEP cycle as a predictable dynamic of the innovation process was presented. Just in case this isn't common knowledge, PEP stands for "panic-elation-panic". If this is, indeed, a predictable outcome in innovation projects, I wonder if the consultant's REACTION to it showing up might determine whether the project is called it difficult or not.

    I liken PEP to a roller-coaster. I notice some people find roller-coasters compelling, almost addictive, adrenaline rushes while some people would not get on one if their life depended on it. I wonder if this might be analogous to the innovation PEP cycle in some way. I have noticed that there are people who are so comforted by the knowledge that they are engaged in a predictable dynamic that they find it a stimulating opportunity rather than a difficult challenge. Not to oversimplify, but to suggest that its POSSIBLE that a part of what people in this thread are describing differently might be because of how they EXPERIENCE the predictable dynamics in the innovation process.

    I also found myself wondering whether its possible that the process of innovation might be easier than the process of change management. I do think, though, these two processes seem to be considered one process by some of those contributing here, and two different processes by others. This seems an important nuance.

    If they were considered two processes (which makes sense to me, because its been said that one goes better when the other is present and vice versa), then perhaps its easier to answer some of the questions about standard processes, failure rates, and difficulty. I have not found many change management consultants who think that their engagements are usually "easy". At the same time, I know a couple innovation consultants who work in dynamic, progressive, and nimble organizations who describe their innovation engagements as exciting, inspiring, and compelling. This suggests to me that their might be some truth to the notion that with organization buy-in for the process of innovation, the process can be seen as no more difficult than many other lofty goals an organization might pursue.

    Perhaps the change management process might also have a lot to do with perceptions about whether there can be a standardized process for innovation. Is it POSSIBLE that its the change management needs that differ so dramatically from engagement to engagement. I don't know, I'm just asking the question.

    As well, differing perspectives might also have to do with what is described as a "standard process". I was one time hired to help a professional services firm teach its consultants how to build a proprietary version of a cash model used to support turnaround and restructuring efforts. Because this model was built around WEEKLY data, and because minute details of an organizations financials tend to be extremely specific to their industry/operation, it was thought that there could not be a standard process for building this kind of model. In fact, this belief was so firmly ingrained that the organization struggled to find a way to teach a nebulous process for nearly a decade. But, once we looked at dozens of engagements, a standard process flow did start to emerge. Of course it was high level, but it was solid enough to use as a foundation for executing pretty much any engagement. And like all good consultants, the users of the high-level process supplemented and adapted when the unique attributes arose.

    When I look at, for lack of a better phrase, the two primary biases reflected in much of this thread, it seems POSSIBLE that an either-or point of view (and perhaps some personal offense) might be getting in the way of tapping into what's here to be learned. And, again, I wonder whether there is an analogous scenario playing out. Could it be possible that some of the same barriers being described as making innovation difficult are surfacing also the barriers and disagreement in this thread. If, for the sake of argument and example, we agree that its previously not been possible to have a standardized process for innovation, might it also be POSSIBLE that if we got commitment from stakeholders to innovate beyond barriers that this "reality" might be changed?

    Please don't shoot the messenger here. As I said up front, I am not the innovation "expert" here… I am just a like-minded person looking in from the peanut gallery hoping to cause folks to consider something outside the right-wrong back-and-forth that seems to often be dominating this thread.

    • Stefan Lindegaard says:

      Hi Julie, some parts of innovation are definitely easy enough although easier for some than others. However, if you take the big picture, then innovation is complex and thus in my view difficult. But you are right that a both-and approach could work here.

  13. Linda says:

    we recognize innovation as very complex and the results rather emerging than produced. as a researcher, I have found that talking about and planning for innovation is the easiest part. And quite important, as it sets an agenda.
    The difficult part is the proces of innovation itself.

  14. Agustin Ramos says:

    Perhaps the difficulty of innovation lies in the commitment rather than in the execution. For companies, maintaining the status quo is cozier, but when a decreasing business trend becomes the norm, they need innovation to survive and become creative. Those ones, who fail to do so, disappear.

    When I was promoted into a management position, my boss asked me how I would move Ayers rock (the company) with the tip of my finger. Big and heavy, its huge inertia would make it practically impossible to move. I said I needed help to answer his question.

    He told me it was easier than what I thought. All I needed to do was to put mercury under the rock until it started floating. Then, I should lay my finger on it and softly push in the direction I wanted it to move. It would eventually start moving in that direction. The only watch out was that, if I then wanted to change direction, I would probably break my finger. So, I better was right.

    Vision to know where to go, patience to lubricate the system and persistence to stay the course without hurting is (just) what makes innovation/change happens. It all starts with a dreamer who puts a plan behind her dream to make it a project.

  15. Alex Gifford says:

    Coming up with innovative ideas is relatively easy. Implimenting them is another case altogether…

    • Todd Flesch says:

      I would have to agree with Alex here. Innovative ideas are easy to come by. I worked in a consultanting firm where we helped businesses commericialize their innovations; however, we had to continuously screen the business's ideas because they might not be feasible.

      I think this is where David Williams was coming at when he said Innovation is easy. Yes, many people not matter what their part in a heirarchy of a business can develop new innovative products, ideas, and systems. However, I think where Stefan is coming from is that just because it is innovative does not mean that it is good or worth the effort/time/money. The type of innovation the changes a business or industry is truly hard to come by, and only comes at a cost that might not just be financial.

      • Todd Flesch says:

        Take vacuum cleaners for instance. The idea started in 1599 to clean rugs and floors, but it wasn't until 1908 that someone eventually turned it into a device that could be used by homeowners. Then, it went stagnate again with every little innovation until Dyson pushed the limit of however we defined vacuum cleaners. This is the same for any innovation whether it is a process change to a new product. The ideas come easy but it is hard to implement to great innovative ideas. There are many boundaries that can restrict the idea, such as: technology, cost, manpower, and the desire to accept the change.

        Just my thought on it.

  16. Kevin Paylow says:

    Yeah, in general innovation is very difficult. Easy challenges aren't exciting… nor do they generate a lot of discussion or interest. Look at the explosion of books, articles, HBR covers, job titles, consultancies, idea software offerings, etc. over the last five years related to innovation.

    I'm intrigued by the discussion above. There are a lot of best practices out there… the problem is that best practice is contextual. What works great in one culture can fail miserably in another.

  17. Ben Ratje says:

    In a smaller company that doesn't have a lot of bureaucratic processes, I think that innovation can be a lot simpler. Simpler, not necessarily easier. There might still be risk involved and people tend to get shaky around risk.

    However, in larger companies, innovation should be facilitated so as not to become a buzzword that is only dropped in meetings and with shareholders. Moving from vision to implementation always requires overcoming some sort of static friction. It should start with those involved with the smallest, lowest processes and move throughout.

  18. steve7876 says:

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