Organizing for innovationProfessional Services

Learning from Failure

Why innovations fail

Everyone is enthusiastic about their innovative ideas when they start. Yet few are still enthusiastic when they have reached the finish line… Because few make it that far. Why do so many innovation projects get stranded?

Why innovations fail

More innovation projects fail than succeed. Some estimate that there is only 1 success for every 1,000 ideas. But while few innovation projects are successful, those few will reward you for all of your innovation efforts.

What can we learn from the failures?

Everyone understands the importance of learning from failure and the valuable insights it provides, but few organizations systematically collect this information and use it to avoid future failure. In innovation especially, where failure is common, few organizations have systems in place to learn from it. The practice of learning from mistakes only seems to exist in industries where they lead to liability and death, as in the airline industry and the military, and, more recently, in critical care.

There can be many valid reasons for ending a project

  • It solves a problem that is not a high priority for the customer, so it does not warrant any action, let alone our (expensive) solution
  • We could not make it work as the technology is not yet mature enough
  • Our solution is a nice-to-have for our customers, but will take too much time and effort to master so they are not interested
  • There are better and cheaper alternatives that the customers currently prefer
  • We cannot get the solution to our customers in a manner that is cost-efficient and effective (in other words, there is no feasible business model)
  • We will be infringing on a patent and have not been able to obtain the necessary license

Appropriate front-end and customer discovery tools help terminate failing projects early, saving time and money.

But sometimes project failures are actually management failures

1. When it disappears from the radar screen

Sadly, too often a project’s management infrastructure is not appropriate, as when a project just disappears when the project’s champion stops reporting. While there may be advantages to such silent deaths, the opportunity to learn from failures gets lost.

2. When we blame others

Alternatively, a project gets purposefully stopped, and, as we are all polite human beings, no one discusses the real reasons why. Acceptable cover-ups are:

  • We just did not have enough time
  • We lacked the critical expertise to pull the project off
  • We couldn’t pull a team together
  • The market is not yet ready for our solution
  • (More rarely) There is already a solution that is better than ours

Except perhaps for the latter two, these are all excuses for bad execution.

If the idea was worth exploring, its failure was actually a failure on the part of the organization to rally resources behind it, which is why many innovation projects fail.

3. When we blame the project champion

It’s a little less polite perhaps, but the project champion can get blamed for the project’s failure. He/she…

  • Was not motivated enough
  • Could not get a team together
  • Was studying for exams (e.g., licensing) and did not have enough time
  • Got a new position and had to focus on getting settled
  • Did not have the business insight needed to pull it off

All of these may be valid reasons, but they hint at there being insufficient support for the innovation champion, which is another commonly seen cause of the failure of innovation projects.

Addressing the root cause of project failures

Do you also have projects that simply disappear from the radar screen, or have been terminated for unknown reasons? Are you interested in addressing this problem?

One purpose of a good working innovation management system is to find and address bottlenecks in your innovation process. Analyzing where each project gets stranded and why, will give you insight into what you can do to reduce the failure rate of innovation projects in your organization.

Organizing for Innovation has created a simple survey that you can use to follow up on projects to see why they succeed or fail. The link to our diagnostic tool can be found here, or at the top left of the page.

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Corporate attempts at innovation are overwhelmingly dying on the vine

PDMA comparative performance assessment study 2013

Learning Through the Distribution of Failures within an Organization Academy of Management Journal 2015