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4 Common Missteps on the Road to Innovation

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Mar 12 2019

Creative solutions don’t happen by accident. They aren’t enacted by lone geniuses—they come from diverse teams that work well together and optimize the right methods and behaviors.

We know this is easier said than done, especially for large teams spread across multiple locations. Over the years, IDEO has helped organizations around the globe develop the capacity to innovate, and that work has allowed us to gather data on the behaviors that have the greatest impact on a team’s ability to develop a successful solution.

With that in mind, four years ago, we launched a tool to help teams assess their innovation capabilities, create systems, and consistently develop and launch those solutions. The information we gathered with Creative Difference has helped us see what truly works—and fascinatingly, some of the findings seem to fly in the face of common business wisdom.

Here are four insights (of the many, many we’ve collected and studied) into the ways today’s businesses innovate—and what you can learn from what they’ve learned.

1. Quick and dirty prototyping isn’t just for software

Though many executives dismiss MVP-style prototyping as a software-only approach, we've found it's actually more effective in other industries.

In fact, rough, low-fidelity prototyping is significantly more impactful when used in industries where it's currently least applied—particularly for companies with long development cycles and long product lifecycles.

When we looked at data from Creative Difference, we found that organizations with long development cycles and long product lifecycles saw their chance of successful launches increase by 109% compared to their more nimble counterparts.

Why? And how? Let’s consider a car company: For those teams, the cost and risk of investing in poorly thought-out ideas is much, much higher. Building a high-fidelity vehicle prototype can cost millions of dollars using traditional methods. Instead, low fidelity mock-ups (in this case, using foam core and tape to create a simulated car dashboard) can uncover critical flaws that can save millions of dollars and years of effort.

2. Don’t let your team become blinded by purpose

Purpose statements are incredibly valuable. We’ve seen that organizations without a sense of purpose find it difficult to innovate: They struggle to choose which opportunities to pursue, and they have a more difficult time getting employees excited about developing those ideas. Our Creative Difference data shows that organizations with a strong purpose are 12% more likely to launch new solutions successfully.

But purpose can have a downside. Our research has shown that it lowers the ability to listen objectively to the results of customer experimentation.

What does that mean? A benefit of a strong purpose is that it simplifies decision-making. However, at its extreme, this approach can lead to less flexible thinking, leaving organizations a little less likely to truly hear what a stakeholder or customer is telling them.

Does this mean you should crumple up your purpose statement and toss it in the trash? No, not at all. Purpose is fundamental to innovation: It energizes employees, speeds up decision-making, and leads to more productive collaboration. But beware the line where purpose turns into dogma and diminishes your team’s ability to truly listen to customers and interpret data.

3. Move fast—but not too fast

With the rise of lean startups, companies are feeling the pressure to get moving. But getting started without a plan and a clear idea of your objectives can end up being a drain on resources.

What’s the cost? First, skipping the steps of getting to know your customer and market causes teams to fail 180% more often. Also, organizations that evaluate multiple ways to solve a problem are much more likely to succeed—more than 42% more likely—and, on average, get to market faster.

We’ve seen two significant reasons for this: First, testing multiple ideas in parallel keeps the team’s mind flexible; and second, customers involved in research and testing during development provide more useful feedback when they are presented with multiple ideas.

If your guess is right from the start, great—you've saved a lot of time. But many startup or venture teams don’t have the right idea at the start. Teams that spend the time getting to know their customer early, then testing multiple ideas can take months off of the overall duration of their initiative.

4. Don’t underestimate the power of culture

When you're working to solve complicated problems, it’s natural to rely on process. Process feels tangible, comfortable. Nail that "innovation formula," and success will come.

But process isn’t—and can’t be—everything. Sure, certain methods are helpful for testing assumptions and getting to the right ideas, but it’s people—their spirit, their judgment, and their energy—that ultimately lead to the development of great ideas.

Organizations whose employees consistently state that they understand how to drive ideas forward and feel that they're making significant strides toward their organization’s goals are 16% more likely to have a successful launch.

One of the qualities we’ve measured in our Creative Difference work is whether an organization’s team members describe their culture positively. Do they see their interactions with those in other organizational functions as productive and supportive? The teams who score each other in the top 5% are 30% less likely to fail than those under the 50th percentile.

Methodology and approach matter, but lean too hard on just those elements while neglecting culture and people will quickly lose their passion and energy, and resort to a paint-by-numbers approach that yields unspectacular results.

Countless more insights like these have yet to be uncovered, but one thing is already clear: Innovation leaders can’t fall back into old, stagnant patterns, but instead must continually find new edges for their teams to push.

Illustrations by Beena Mistry

  • David Aycan

    Managing Director, IDEO Products
    David is an entrepreneur and business designer who leads the development of B2B products. He's currently focused on helping leaders build more creatively competitive organizations—companies that lead through innovation, adapt quickly to market changes, and effectively improve their operations.
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