What's Holding Your Business Back? Take Action for True Innovation

Coming Up With Ideas Is Only Half the Battle; Here Are Some Tips to Get the Ball Rolling on Your Plans

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Something isn't working.

Your company announced it was going to become an innovation powerhouse. It converted offices into color-splashed "innovation pods," furnished with lots of whiteboards. Teams attended innovation-training courses and began meetings with creative exercises to get people thinking out-of-the-box. And, it seemed to be paying off, as teams came up with some really interesting ideas.

But, while the seed of innovation was planted and fertilized with good intentions, the fruit withered on the vine, unharvested. None of those great ideas ever seem to get launched. So what's holding your business back?

It's not that the efforts to generate ideas were misguided, it's simply that coming up with ideas is only half the battle. Activating the ideas is often the hard part.

If you're finding that your innovations are fizzling out before they ever hit the launch pad, here are some things to consider.

1. Get Your Priorities Straight
It's easy to pay lip service to the idea of disruptive innovation, but to really do it, product innovation has to be your true goal. Every company wants to be profitable, but if your primary goal is just revenue and profit, then at every decision point along the way you'll choose quick profit over progress, and potentially undermine your longer-term prospects. If you flip these priorities and focus on true innovation, you'll find that profit will follow. One only has to look at a Dyson product to see that this is a company that is driven by a relentless mission to innovate, and that solid focus on innovation is what has made its founder James Dyson a billionaire in return.

2. Stop Holding Out for the $100 Million Idea
Everybody wants breakthrough innovation, but there always seems to be one caveat -- it's got to be a $100 million idea. Companies that hold out for the $100 million ideas are like daters who hold out for Mr./Ms. Perfect -- they let great opportunities with loads of long-term potential pass them by while they wait for an ideal that may not exist. With very few exceptions, big breakthrough innovations aren't just hanging off a branch waiting to be picked. They take nurturing and patience to develop into nine-figure businesses. If the market doesn't exist yet, it may be because no one has invested the effort to create the market by educating the consumers or developing the sales model.

You can bet that there are young upstarts out there that have painted a target on your back, and they aren't expecting such rich hauls right from the start. They satisfy themselves with modest earnings (sometimes even losses) as they build the business. Facebook, one of the biggest disruptive innovations in recent years, took five years before it even saw a positive cash flow.

3. Be Your Strongest Competitor
Concern about cannibalizing your own existing products also shouldn't hold you back from developing breakthrough innovation. When you're trying to reinvent a category, you can't have one foot in the past and one in the future. And, ultimately, if you don't seize the opportunity, one of your competitors will. That's a point that wasn't lost on Amazon. When it launched the Kindle, it was a bold move that threatened its own paper book-selling business. But it was a move that paid off because the Kindle became Amazon's biggest seller. And by claiming an early stake in the e-book business, it's given Amazon a strong market position from which to defend against the multitude of competitive e-readers that have since been launched.

4. Don't Be Limited By What You Know
Over the years, companies acquire an intimate knowledge about their category. They learn about what consumers like and don't like, and what's operational or isn't. And when they strike upon success, they naturally try to replicate it by following these lessons until they become codified as undisputed truths. But this shuts down disruptive innovation. Little by little, comments like "we've tried that before" or "that doesn't work with our distribution model" corral breakthrough ideas until they fit into conventional molds.

To develop real innovation, one has to recognize that however much your company might know about the market, it will never know everything. The naive new competitors who enter the market aren't confined by past experience, and they're willing to head down blind alleys. Sure, they'll discover, as you have, that some are dead ends, but they'll also find out that others lead to expansive new horizons you've never uncovered.

The laundry-detergent-tablet category was deemed a lost cause in the U.S., after leading detergent brands had tried unsuccessfully for decades to launch a new tablet product. However, Dial was willing to defy conventional wisdom by launching Purex Complete. By putting a new value spin on this previously explored idea, Dial struck on one of the best sellers of 2009.

5. Don't Research Innovation to Death
The great innovators of history were experimenters. But somewhere along the way the spirit of experimentation has been replaced with assurance-seeking through endless research.

The problem is that market research can only tell you so much about a market that hasn't yet been created. You can use qualitative approaches to identify insights that fuel innovation and to get a directional sense of the innovation's potential. But the unfamiliarity of truly breakthrough innovations tend to dampen scores in quantitative. And, looking at data for existing products to estimate the market size of a disruptive new innovation is like trying to judge the height of a tree based on the size of its seed.

If you wait until you've amassed so much research and analysis that the opportunity is a sure bet, you'll be waiting forever. Or, the answer will have become so obvious that your competitor will have come to the same conclusion, and you will have lost the advantage.

And that brings me to the last point.

6. It Takes Guts
The phrase "don't be afraid to fail" is so cliche by now that I'm sure it's on one of those motivational posters advertised in in-flight magazines. But there's just no getting around the truth of it. You've got to do your homework, but at some point you have to say there are enough indicators that this could be a success that we should try it out. There's a good chance you'll run into some obstacles, but either you'll figure out a way around them and succeed, or you'll have advanced your knowledge tremendously so you can the next time.

Kevin Briskey is an associate partner at Consumer Dynamics. He began his marketing career in branding at British Airways and MasterCard in Europe, and then made the switch to consulting in 2000 when he joined Sterling Brands.
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