Six Innovation Traps to Avoid From the Start

Having recently concluded my fourth leadership tenure as “The Innovation Guy” in a corporate setting, I thought I’d share some patterns that seem to emerge when introducing innovation systematically to organizations with low innovation maturity. Since the sample size is small, there is certainly no statistical significance. However, it doesn’t appear to matter whether an organization is for profit, not-for-profit, large or small, or even which industry it is in. The patterns that emerge come across to be strongly related to how innovation introduction is being approached from the ground up – and the preparedness of the innovator in charge to notice and avoid the different traps along the way:

Innovation in the eye of the beholder

The newly anointed innovation leadership introduces new language, processes, KPIs, etc. and tries to spread excitement around the company for this re-ignited energy for change and progress. Caution: Innovation most likely has been tried before – with varying levels of success. Being the elephant in the china store might alienate the previous innovation advocates that you seem to ignore. “So, nobody was innovative before you showed up? What about our all of our successful products.” If innovation efforts previously failed, innovation might have gotten a bad rap and the blockers might use the lack of specificity of this term to marginalize the new effort from the get go. “Here we go again. Let’s see how long this one will last.”

Co-defining innovation with carefully selected key stakeholders – and defining it well before even announcing it, might disarm this trap.

The emperor’s new clothes

Who wants to be told that they are naked (if you don’t know the story, please check it out here), after having walked around in one’s birthday suit for a long time without anybody else taking objection? This is how it feels when the new corporate innovation initiative highlights all the things wrong with the current processes, products, services, and partnerships.

“Killing the messenger” was my second choice as a heading for this trap. It is just too easy to critique the present and recommend even the most well-intended changes. Yes, you can’t read the label when you are sitting inside the jar (kudos to Mike Maddock for this fitting innovation analogy) but you also can’t appreciate the content if you are just looking at it from the outside.

Starting innovation with a collaborative effort of corporate SWOT, LEAN, and related internal and external gathering of information allows for collectively deciding which identified weaknesses and gaps should be addressed through innovation, …

and thus for positioning innovation as well-defined internal service with corresponding measurable accountability – rather than fuzzy add-on with a perception of little oversight.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul (and Mary)

Victory! An innovation investment has been agreed upon and has been defined as a dedicated budget to avoid tensions around resources with established departments and high-priority, resource-constrained endeavors.

Nonsense! Such investment is taking away from the corporate margin and thus from a key KPI that influences resource decisions around the company. Alternatively, the investment has been shaved off from resources typically assigned throughout the organization. Pick your poison.

Moreover, innovation has been charged with (and is in fact dependent on) being collaborative in its execution. This means, that one of the most precious resources throughout the company needs to be tapped into: team members’ time!

Be humble. Strive for creating a value proposition for all the leaders in the company that you need to make innovation happen.

Establish accountability around such value proposition (SLAs are a great idea where appropriate). The next shoot-out for budget and resources is just around the corner – and you want to have them in your corner.

The participation dilemma

The internal innovation champions have been identified, mostly through self-selection, having in the past shown initiative in creative problem-solving, going the extra mile, being well-connected and respected throughout the company, or just by making themselves available when nobody else seems to have time. Unfortunately, the search for these qualities is not unique to innovation and so the names of these corporate assets are on everybody’s mind when it comes to getting something done. They are being over-utilized, stretched thin, and eventually pulled off since the performance on their ‘real’ job is taking a toll.

The other crucial audience to involve – decision-makers in key positions – might opt into delegating the representation of their group. Coming to mind as proxy are the ones that come across as having idle availability while being senior enough to be able to represent their department. If they are truly influential, they will in turn not be able to participate frequently. If not, well, you get the point…

The dilemma is that for many of the necessary innovation initiatives you experience an everchanging flow of overcommitted movers and shakers with increasing innovation fatigue as well as (dis-)appearing acts of appointed designees. Continuity in innovation is out the window and the output oscillates towards some least unruly common denominator, which is likely rooted in ideas that circulated around the company long before innovation was officially introduced. Innovation business remains unfinished.

Yes, dedicated resources or establishing an ambidextrous innovation organization might be able to mitigate some of this dilemma. However, the resulting lack of knowledge transfer with the core business will give rise to additional barriers for back integration of innovation products. It will also not serve in moving the needle on innovation for the company in the long run.

Formally committing team members’ time to innovation as well as aligning performance goals, rewards programs, and resource planning accordingly, represents a significant additional investment, however, clarifies the role and stature of innovation throughout the company.

Eating strategy for breakfast on a low-calorie diet

The amount of change that the introduction of corporate innovation invokes often (and rightfully so) triggers the urge to revisit and change the corporate culture towards maximizing the likelihood for success and sustainability of the new efforts. The war cry “Culture is Eating Strategy for Breakfast” is being evangelized to justify and prioritize the extend by which the scope of the most recent innovation initiative appears to be expanding. Wasn’t it’s goal though to increase corporate growth and revenues by quickly pumping out new products and services, that the customers love because they are rooted in design thinking and rapid iterations of agile development? Why does everybody now have to jump through hoops, and learn new techniques? Why does one need to participate in seemingly silly ideation sessions in dedicated rooms with bright furniture and walls plastered with post-it notes, while attention and time are being re-routed from important, time-critical work?

Understanding that strategy and innovation are two sides of the same coin – where strategy drives innovation, and innovation in return informs strategy – is a good first step in avoiding this trap. More importantly,

Ensuring that culture and strategy (and thus innovation) are aligned, mutually supportive, and derived from the same set of corporate mission, vision and values allows for innovation to be better understood, more quickly embraced, and ultimately appreciated …

rather than being perceived as a rogue undercurrent of the corporate fabric.

Time is a …

You think you have a plan for innovation? You believe you secured an agreement with corporate leadership that building sustainable innovation culture and processes takes time, is a journey, and requires a maturation period? Granted, there is a lot to experiment, learn, and share, but as Hector Berlioz pointed out “Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils.” This certainly also holds true for innovation.

Time is a hard constraint, a precious yet fleeing resource, and before you can demonstrate innovation value, several of the driving assumptions (and personnel) will have changed.

Fortunately, time is also a choice:

A choice whether to rely on the might of the C-level innovation champion, or to make the effort to more broadly create innovation advocates throughout the leadership ranks.

It is a choice whether to keep improving the user experience, or taking a leap of faith to take advantage of quickly closing windows of opportunity.

It is a choice between focusing innovation outputs solely on their relevance to innovation products, or to prioritize sharing and alignment by seeking out opportunities to integrate by-products of innovation efforts with other corporate activities.

Finally, it is a choice whether to hope corporate strategy will remain unchanged until first innovation successes demonstrate the value of the process, or to actively and continuously inform and influence corporate strategy through ‘innovation think’ in order to ensure harmonization and alignment.

Time is a Choice.

Have you made your choice?


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Dr. L. Miguel Encarnação is a corporate innovation orchestrator and executive management consultant who has held executive innovation leadership positions across industries for the past 20 years.  Towards pursuing a strategic systems approach to sustainable innovation, he combines thought leadership in developing corporate innovation cultures with deep technical expertise in emerging technologies . He is a frequent keynote speaker, educator, and author as well as adjunct professor of computer science.

You can connect to him through his LinkedIn profile and follow him on Twitter @mencarna.

L. Miguel Encarnação

Dr. L. Miguel Encarnação has been a cross-industry strategic innovation leader as well as management consultant for nearly two decades. In 2017 he served as interim Chief Technology and Innovation Officer of The QED Group in the International Development sector, after leading for five years as SVP and Chief Innovation Officer the innovation transformation of ACT in the educational assessment field. Prior to joining ACT, he directed emerging technology innovation in healthcare at Fortune 100 Humana Inc., founded and directed a non-profit vocational school of higher education, and led advanced applied technology R&D and international for-profit spin-off activities at the Fraunhofer Society. Miguel is an adjunct professor of computer science, the former editor-in-chief of the IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications magazine, and the author of 2 books, 3 patents, and numerous contributions to peer-reviewed journals and conferences. Miguel has BS and MS in Computer Science and Business Economics as well as a PhD in Computer Science with an emphasis on Human-Computer Interaction, Virtual and Augmented Reality, Data Visualization, Machine Learning and AI.




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