Why there are three kinds of innovation failure - and why you’ll never be innovative until you tackle them
You’re likely not being held back by lack of creativity or ideas. A lack of innovation is usually down to three types of systematic failure.
Do you recognise this?
A brand and an agency are reviewing their relationship. For the most part, all is good: the planning function, the buying rates, the client servicing. At the end, however, the appraisal turns to innovation.
“We need more innovation” says the CMO, before adding ‘We’re a famous blue-chip brand and household name – we should be at the forefront of marketing!’.
Seated opposite, the client partner and the innovation director exchange a glance, both instantly recalling the absolute truckful of genius ideas they pitched that went no further. Left on the cutting room floor. Stuck in baggage reclaim. Incinerated in the memory-hole. Resisting the urge to say, “We proposed ideas but they didn’t happen”, they duly make note of it.
The reality is it’s often not for a lack of creativity or ideas that innovations don’t happen. Rather, it’s usually down to three types of systematic innovation failure. And until brands and their agencies can find a way to address them together, innovation will always be left wanting.
Here’s what’s going wrong:
Despite the ascendancy of management science and cloud-based productivity tools, the sprawling nature of organisations means that a certain amount of siloing is inevitable.
Immediate examples could be between specialisms, such as digital versus strategy, or product versus brand. Or it could be between markets, such as global versus local. Or between tiers of management, such as the C-suite versus its directors on the ground. Or all of the above.
Consequently, actors that should be in concert can often be uncoordinated (or even sometimes in competition). Since innovation usually requires coordination from top to bottom, and buy-in from left and right, a surfeit of unchoreographed stakeholders stifles decision-making.
There are no easy fixes to these issues, only solutions that increase the chances of success. But it must start with establishing a ‘God’s Eye View’. Or to put it another way, we must all work to build a system that dispassionately and ruthlessly identifies the organisational roadblocks and bottlenecks preventing innovation.
On that subject, in End State author James Plunkett writes about solving for the kind of unsynchronised, over-bureaucratic inertia he witnessed whilst working in Westminster. Specifically, he details a breakthrough moment of collaboration and transformation with the building of the .gov website.
Previously, the Government’s online services, from HMRC through to DVLA, was a sprawling hodgepodge of individually incompatible websites. A grand unified platform was needed and thus was born the .gov site. However, this miracle could only be achieved once a separately appointed integration team had been created. Their task: to spear through the disparate, vertical pillars of government — like a kebab skewer piercing through chunks of meat – to police the collaborative and integrated vision.
The same is true of innovation within media and marketing. Businesses, by nature, can perpetuate atomised decision-making within fiefdoms. Only dedicated ‘horizontal oversight’ that cuts across all stakeholders can maximise opportunities for mutual collaboration.
Next is disinnovation: the act of prematurely discounting innovation at the first sign of failure. Fingers are pointed. Budgets are cut. Future plans are de-risked.
Instead, we need to instil the idea that there is nothing wrong with failure, only the inability to learn anything from it.
The structure of Finnish gaming company Supercell offers a glimpse into how this can work in practice. Individual agile project teams are set up to rapidly birth and scale new mobile games. Crucially, however, Supercell gives its developers ‘freedom to fail’. Mistakes are non-judgmentally encouraged, creating an almost-Darwinian filtering system that means only the strongest games survive. At one stage, Supercell was developing nine failures (which would never see the light of day) to one chartbusting mega-hit. But it was the proliferation of those mega-hits that led to a $10bn valuation, and an ensuing purchase by TenCent.
Many marketers do not feel brave enough to experiment in such fashion, instead remaining nervous of any efforts being seen to fail on ‘their watch’. But Supercell shows what we can achieve if we get past that. Could a marketer ever be brave enough to ask: what will we fail at today? And what will we learn from it?
‘Discounting The Future’
Third is failure to plan long term. Humans have evolved to be more interested in ‘the now’ versus ‘the next’; a tiger hiding in the bushes now is a more imminent danger than the one hiding in a bush next week.
In behavioural economics, the phenomenon is called ‘Discounting The Future’. In psychology, it’s called ‘Borrowing Future Happiness’. We do it all the time: as a species we are told to ‘save for a rainy day’, yet we are £58bn in debt to credit card companies. We are told ‘a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips’, yet many Western nations have issues with obesity.
It’s the act of living only for the moment, but later regretting it when the consequences catch up with us. It’s the plot of Dr Faustus and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Or, as Homer Simpson says, “That’s a problem for Future Homer. Man, I don’t envy that guy”.
Consequently, we are a species with a bias for ‘the current’ and this has potentially damaging implications for innovation, which by its nature requires forward planning. But there is a solution.
Yes, humankind has a predisposition for the ‘now’ but they are also the only species to actually have any real understanding of ‘the day after tomorrow’ — the act of planning for the future. This is why dogs have few meetings in their Outlook calendars.
Thus, humans can be encouraged to act in the present to hold our future-selves to account. The most famous historical example is when Cortes landed on the shores of the new world in 1519 and burnt his ships. His men knew there was no return and were now committed to making a success of their future in their new home, using only the tools at hand. And it doesn’t have to be so audacious: we can refrain from buying chocolate in the supermarket, so we’re not tempted to snack in the evening. We can delete an app from our phone to stop us from doom-scrolling during downtime. Using present-us to help future-us.
Marketers, too, can set their visible financial goals and publicly announce their environmental targets as a way of tying themselves into a course of action. However, in the same way, marketers should also make an accountable and measurable commitment to improving innovation in their media and marketing over the longer term. Doing that would necessitate structures and practices that must follow to accommodate that commitment.
Look, innovation is hard. We know that. Integrating disparate stakeholders is hard. Embracing failure is hard. Planning long-term is hard. But falling foul of these three common forms of failure is like fighting with one arm tied behind your back.
So, ask the hard questions and do the hard work. Only those leaving sight of the shore will find new lands across the open sea.
Phil Rowley is head of futures at Omnicom Media Group UK and the author of Hit the Switch: the Future of Sustainable Business. He writes a monthly column for The Media Leader about the future of media and innovation in marketing.