Most of the innovation initiatives I see successfully predict the past, but fail miserably at predicting the future in any way that enables commercial success.

In other words, they just extrapolate what has happened in the expectation that history will repeat itself unchanged.

Sometimes it does, but most often the key lesson from history is that we need to learn from it so we can better anticipate and react the next time, not that the same stuff will happen again.

In 35 years successfully engaged in the processes of innovation as a corporate jockey, and more recently as an adviser and contractor, I have seen and been involved in and directed a significant variety of programs. That experience has offered the opportunity to see some almighty clangers with a few common roots, along with the outstanding successes.

Following are the 7 most common causes of innovation failure I have seen.


  1. Structure-less programs. Employees and stakeholders are asked, often directed, to come up growth ideas, it is a part of the strategic plan after all. However, there is no structure to collect, process and collate the fragments, and the sometimes fully formed ideas that emerge. Net result, everyone gets annoyed at the failure of yet another innovation effort that has cost a bomb.
  2. Failure to define the problem. Out of  the box thinking is fine, but out of the postcode is usually useless. True innovation only comes from finding the solution to a problem, in the absence of a problem to be solved, nothing happens.
  3. Not walking the talk. Business leaders often talk about innovation and risk taking, then ensure that anyone who steps out of line gets whacked. Risk-taking must be in the enterprise  DNA, top to bottom.  However, I am a bit sick of all the ‘failureporn’ around, of the ‘fail fast, fail often’ type, which sometimes serves to remove responsibility for failure from the individual, meaning that due diligence, a solid hypothesis, and a problem definition, and After Action Reviews do not get done, leading to a failure to learn. People watch what those in power do, rather than listening to what they say, then follow what they do.
  4. Resource allocation does not happen. Management wants the ‘breakthroughs’, but are unprepared to allocate the resources, This is usually a function of the built in risk profile of the enterprise and its leadership, and is related to the talk and walk above. Resources take time, money, access, (to information, leadership, outside info, etc.) and assistance to be assembled, allocated, deployed, and then have the deployment optimised, before  outcomes arrive.
  5. Silver bullet thinking. If they can just find it, there is a remarkable, easy, hugely profitable solution out there somewhere, will somebody just get off their arse and find it please. Never works in real life, just  the movies.
  6. Excluding ‘trouble-makers’. This is a “biggiee”, the single most common problem I see with most innovation efforts.  Almost no matter how hard most try to gather expertise of various types and from differing domains, experience with innovation initiatives, and well meaning consultants and experts, they fail. Most commonly because unwittingly they gather those like themselves, excluding those that  make them uncomfortable, the ‘crazies’  whose ideas and views are inconsistent with some tacit understanding of what is possible and what is likely. In short, they exclude the mavericks, outspoken, different, and disturbing they may be, essential to a delivering even a modest chance of predicting what is just around the corner, let alone 3-5 years out there.
  7. The government will do it. Government has a role in my view, but in science and basic research, long term investments, not in the commercial development of that research. They are crap at that because there is way too much commercial risk involved, and bureaucracies, particularly public ones, are highly risk averse. It is different to just funding a bunch of smart people to think about what makes the universe tick.


Successful innovation is never a ground hog day event. It takes commitment, vision, guts, resources, and it makes you feel uncomfortable and sweaty. It is also the lifeblood of success and commercial sustainability.

When you need a helping hand who has learnt from history, give me a call, but be warned, I am a trouble maker, someone who will question all your sacred cows and sometimes recommend execution.