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By Ruth Tearle

"I am so frustrated." The CEO told me. "We have been trying to develop a culture of ‘innovation’ and continuous improvement for over 2 years now. We gave our managers a challenge. To innovate by getting their teams to develop new products, new services or new ways of adding value to our customers. Nothing happened. So we suggested that they simply improve the way they do things and get better every day."

He continued by sharing everything that they as leaders had done. They had:

  • Set up an Innovation department.
  • Developed IT systems for logging innovative ideas.
  • Identified and trained up innovation champions.
  • Set up processes for assessing ideas.
  • Set up an incentive scheme to recognise the most innovative ideas.

"So why," he vented "why has no one actually achieved anything of value or improved anything under either our innovation and continous improvement programme?"

5 Reasons why innovation and continuous improvements fail .

Here are 5 reasons why innovation and continous improvement programmes in organizations fail.

1. People don't have the time or intellectual space to think, explore and learn.

Most of us simply don't have the time or space to think - let alone innovate.


Many managers I speak to complain that up to 60% of their time is spent in meetings. The rest of their time is allocated to organizing, following up on others, responding to other's requests or writing reports.

They barely get enough time to do their own work.

If they are also expected to innovate, they try to squeeze in 'innovation' somewhere in between a number of meetings.

Innovation and thinking is part of the multi-tasking they do - slipped inbetween writing a report or following up on tasks they have delegated to others.

Multi-tasking is the enemy of creativity and innovation.

Without time to think, research, explore and learn, one cannot imagine or create. Without a single minded focus on a problem or a goal, it is impossible to produce something of quality.

See how some companies use Creative Fridays to provide thinking time to their employees and managers.

2. People focus on getting an idea - rather than achieving a result.

Many people believe that once they have thought of a new idea - they are doing innovation. But innovation is more than just logging a new idea onto a system. Innovation is about the hard work of turning an idea into a product or service that creates value.

innovation-valueTo translate an idea into an innovation means working at something every day, until you have built, achieved or improved something.

It often involves involves a process that includes research, testing various solutions, evaluating a solution, building a prototype, testing that prototype and refining your work over and over again, until you have produced something of value.

However most reward systems linked to innovation programmes, recognise people for logging ideas onto a system, rather than building something new, or achieving a result.

The end result is that a small group of people - usually sitting in the project management department, are responsible for implementing thousands of ideas.

"If people knew how hard I worked to achieve my mastery, it wouldn't seem so wonderful after all." -- Michelangelo"

Since ideas are easy, and implementation takes time, effort and discipline, those responsible for implementing innovations soon become overburdened. They then begin to take short cuts and try to implement quickly. They leave out all the steps crucial to success - research, imagination, exploration, trial, learning and continuous improvement.

The innovation programme is reduced to logging ideas onto a system, that no one has the time to read, let alone implement.

3. Employees focus on what 'others can do.'

Employees and managers focus on what others can do, rather than what they can do themselves.

Employees and managers focus on what others can do, rather than what they can do themselves.

Many people believe that innovation is a wish list that you can give to others to implement for them. They think that all they have to do to innovate or improve is to think of ideas that would be nice for the organization to implement. They pass those ideas to the innovation department or log them onto an innovation system and then wait for recognition for their ideas.

When they don't get recognised for their ideas - they get resentful. They think 'Why should we pass on our valuable ideas if no-one comes back to us, or implements them?"

By focusing on giving up their ideas to others to implement, organizations dis-empower their people. This feeds into sustaining a culture of critics rather than building powerful employees who get better day by day.

4. Employees give up when their ideas seem too big.

Traditional innovation programmes encourage people to submit big ideas that will take skilled, specialist project teams years to implement. The ideas that seem to win most recognition are IT innovations and the development of apps. These are ideas that take seconds to think of - and years of hard work to achieve results.

Small ideas that are actually implemented are seen as less valuable than ideas that are just spoken about or logged onto a system.

So employees and managers usually go after big ideas, that will impress the CEO. But then they are afraid of implementing these ideas in case they don't work. So they make a half hearted attempt to quickly implement their idea. When their ideas are too difficult to implement quickly, they get discouraged and give up.

Employees compare themselves to successful entrepreneurs like Richard Branson or Steve Jobs. They then believe they are expected to achieve in a few weeks what took these entrepreneurs decades of hard work, discipline and trial and error to achieve. When they fail to achieve the equivalent of ten thousand hours of work in a few weeks, they feel like failures.

Innovation is not a giant leap. It is a series of tiny steps, repeated over and over again, every day, every week and every month - getting better as you go.

Few people even consider working on small improvements or innovations that they have power to implement themselves. When I ask people why they don't choose small improvements that they can work for on an hour a day, every day, many of them answer that they didn't know that they could do that.

And yet the masters of innovation tell us that innovation is not a giant leap. Rather, like getting fit, it is a series of tiny steps repeated over and over again, day by day.

5. Employees don't know how to think.

Many employees have not been trained to view problems and frustrations as fertile grounds for innovation. Instead they look at problems that they can't solve instantly as dead ends. This attitude is common in people who have not been trained in how to solve problems. They don't know how to:

  • Define a problem in a way that allows them to generate many possible solutions.
  • Analyse a problem using many different creative and analytical tools.
  • See how different tools for analysis can help them to see the problem in a different light.
  • Generate and research many possible solutions.
  • Share their problem, thinking, analysis and solutions with others, to test their solutions.
  • Evaluate each potential solution according to evaluation criteria given by their leaders.
  • Choose the best solution.
  • Sell the solution to different stakeholders whose support will be needed to implement the solution.
  • Identify the benefits that will result from implementing the solution.
  • Develop a detailed implementation plan and define the roles different people will need to play. Define - "who, will do what, by when" on the plan.
  • Lead and drive the implementation of their solution, until they get a measurable result - one linked to the benefits they wanted to achieve.

Often, before you introduce an innovation or continuous improvement process, you need to motivate and train people so that they see continuous improvement as an empowering way of dealing with frustrations and getting better every day.

Innovation and continous improvement don't just happen with a single instruction, or an IT system for logging new ideas. It requires a custom designed programme for your organization that:

  • Provides employees with an environment condusive to thinking and solving problems.
  • Empowers employees to think, act, and deliver themselves.
  • Recognize people who achieve actual improvements or innovations that add value to the organization.

Innovation, continous improvement go hand in hand with employee empowerment and culture change programmes aimed at delighting customers.


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