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Building an innovation engine | ThoughtWorks

The most salient points here are “new” and “tangible value”. If it’s not new, and if it’s not bringing tangible value, it’s not innovation.

It’s worth noting at this point that one-off innovation isn’t really much use. Take pic sharing trailblazer Snap. Its clever use of AR tech briefly made SnapChat the must-have app for any social media-loving teen, paving the way for an IPO that valued the company at over $30 billion. But its innovations were easy for competitors, such as Facebook-owned Instagram to copy — over the months following the IPO, Snap’s market cap dropped by more than $20 billion. Snap has only subsequently been able to recover lost ground through embracing the ideas of continuous innovation.

To those that see innovation through the lens of eureka moments — where advances are only made after flashes of inspiration and brilliance — continuous innovation can appear anachronistic. It’s like capturing lightning in a bottle. This isn’t a view I subscribe to, but it’s one I’ve often encountered; therefore, before we start thinking about a roadmap for innovation, it’s worth considering some of the major obstacles you’ll need to overcome before any innovation program can get off the ground.

Barriers to innovation

Ask any business leader you encounter and they’ll say being more innovative is highly desirable. But for innovation to be something more than a pipe dream, you need to be realistic about the challenges you’re likely to face.

While there could be many reasons why innovation programs fail to take off within the organization, the most common barriers I have encountered are:

Fear of failure

In a world of performance reviews and targets, nobody wants to be associated with failure. When people are in fear for their livelihood they can become risk averse. What’s more, innovation means change — and change can be scary.

Being ready to innovate often demands a huge cultural shift, where experimentation is embraced. And if things don’t work, what’s important is what you’ve learnt from the experience; not who’s to blame.

Too busy on BAU

You’re probably used to hearing from your teams how busy they are. But when all your efforts are expended on keeping the lights on, your ability to innovate suffers. And since people are busy, they often feel that they’re adding value — perhaps without questioning whether they could add more. The importance any organization attaches to innovation has profound cultural implications. It’s all very well making grand gestures, such as setting aside regular time for blue sky thinking; but if those sessions are the first thing to be cut when cost savings need to be made, don’t be surprised if your staff question your commitment to innovation. 

Lack of diversity

As author Simone Bhan Ahuja notes, lack of diversity within innovation teams can hamstring your efforts from the outset: “You’ll know you have the wrong team when everything is running along smoothly but the team’s output doesn’t look much different from business as usual.”

If you’re looking for new approaches and ideas, you’re going to need diversity of thought — people with different skill sets, people that come at problems from different angles. Key skills for the group may include: product strategy; product development; entrepreneurship; domain expertise; experience design; research and analysis; and ideation and creation.

Typical approaches to innovation?

Given the importance attached to innovation, it’s little wonder that so many people in the organization want to lead it. And while it doesn’t pay to be too prescriptive — each organization is unique and needs to find an approach that fits — here are some common approaches, along with their pros and cons.

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