Anatomy of Failure in Ideation Stage

In the world of enterprise innovation, we’ve all heard many times: “fail fast, and fail often.” But let’s be clear: failure is never a goal. It is not a desired outcome. The spirit of “fail fast” is really about ensuring a project doesn’t fail. It is about learning how to recognize more quickly that failure is in the offing, so that you can limit sunk costs in an idea that’s destined to flounder in its search for a problem to solve.


In prior posts, we introduced the Four Stages in the Creative Chaos Innovation Delivery Framework. While these provide a general map for enterprise innovation success ‘in a vacuum,’ we think it is particularly useful for the market, if not a healthy self-assessment, to outline the failure side of the equation as well. Innovation, after all, is never an entirely predictive process, and there are times where the most important thing you can possibly do is discern failure when it’s still on the horizon, so the team can regroup quickly to a better path toward desired outcomes.


Recall, the ideation stage of Innovation Delivery is dedicated to sorting out whether an idea has a valid problem to solve, so that the scaled product gets built upon more than just a conspicuous idea and blind faith the market will accept it. This involves looking beyond what a customer needs and focusing on what the product’s potential beneficiaries struggle with most. We approach the challenge through empathy; then, and only then, does ideation come in to seek the right solution.


Ideation also happens to be the stage where failure can most easily be headed off. Across hundreds of experiences leading enterprises through the Ideation Stage, a few common denominators surface time and again as indicators that a project may not be aligned to fulfill its promise. The good news is, they’re fairly easy to spot:


1. Basing innovation solely on research from the internal branding team.


This is perhaps the most common mistake enterprises make. Internal research contains – and will always contain – an implicit bias, which means you won’t be approaching the problem from a truly empathetic view of the customer. Firstly, it is not in the research team’s best interest to disseminate information the company does not want to hear, and this affects internal stakeholders’ ability to put forward a valid hypothesis. (More to the point, it suppresses the likelihood that someone will stand up and challenge a hypothesis that is designed to put the company in favorable light. This pattern is fundamentally at odds with one of the most important tenets of innovation: hypotheses must be challenged, and it is impossible to overstate this requirement).


Relatedly, it’s far too easy for hidden agendas to infiltrate internal research. One business unit may supply data that makes it appear to be performing better that it is, or another may do the same to undermine its peers. Leadership has the stomach to accept findings that aren’t flattering, but management typically holds tight to self-preservation; they don’t want to look bad.


Either way, the end result is muddied research. The way to solve it is to commission qualitative research from an independent firm that reports to leadership, not management.


2. Seeking quantitative research results instead of qualitative data.


The primary aim of pre-ideation research is to understand what’s on the mind of prospective customers, so that the innovation is able to cut to the difference between a buy/no-buy decision. The idea is to build a profile for the innovation’s prospective consumer, including their thought processes, the pressures they may be under, their demographics, alternative options to solve the problem your innovation intends to solve, and what the meaningful value proposition looks like.


Quantitative research does not adequately reveal any of these nuances.


For example, Post-It notes were an early failure. It took 12 years between the innovation’s development and a viable product to actually hit the market. Why? It was initially conceived as a bookmark that could prevent itself from falling out of a book, and marketed as such. But this application did not win over buyers upon commercial release. It wasn’t until the company offered free samples in its famed ‘Boise Blitz,’ which gave customers the freedom to discover on their own how useful Post-Its could be, that the product became viable.


Had 3M taken initial steps to conduct qualitative research about how buyers would use the product, vs. trying to ram a narrow view of its utility through, the world may have been introduced to Post-Its several years earlier. Now, even though Post-Its have become a ubiquitous fixture of office supply drawers worldwide – indeed, one of the top five best-selling office products in the world – in today’s environment of instant gratification and near-term returns, such a protracted success cycle may have deemed the idea a failure, and left it at that. Au revoir to the Post-It.


3. Mapping a new service (the end result of innovation) to current


This is a classic mistake, for innovation often requires an enterprise to re-evaluate who its customers are. The nature of innovation is that it is likely to create new buyer persona(s), and may also alienate current personas. These must be accounted for early.


For example, Creative Chaos led a project for a large department store that ostensibly wanted to do a better job at reaching the DIY home improvement consumer. During ideation, we helped them understand more about how the spark for residential projects moves from intent to action among consumers. When does it first cross their radar, how do they budget for it, where to they look for inspiration, and what causes the decision to act?


As a result, this client gained valuable insight that ultimately led to an expanded view on the innovation’s original purpose. The firm created a unified digital offering now covering two distinct customer segments: those who had a DIY mindset and those who were apt to just contract their home improvement projects out. (Here, in fact, the exercise revealed to the company an entirely new segment that was lying latent, there for the taking, which simply didn’t know about its contractor service offerings.).


More importantly, it could now speak directly across different layers of the buyer journey: Customers who “have a home improvement challenge to solve” vs. those who “know the problem they have, can fix it themselves, but need the products to do it,” vs. those who are “considering an elective home improvement project.”


Had the company geared its innovation only as originally intended, it would have left a ton of prospective customers on the table!


4. Basing the innovation on external factors, such as “The world is moving toward Y, so we must therefore build Y,” or, “We have to do this because upper manager X is pushing it,” or, “Our competitors are doing it, so we must keep up.”


The implication for each of these mindsets is that the company is selling the entire impetus for innovation short. If innovation is rooted as a means to expand enterprise value and solve customer problems in new ways, the goal during ideation should be to uncover so many opportunities that innovation teams become hard-pressed to choose which ones they want to push forward. But, when the team starts from a position bounded by external pressures or perspectives, they hamstring the ideation process from its outset. Innovation ripens best in a responsive environment, not a reactionary one. The above directives are limiting by nature, and form a perfect breeding ground for fatal mistakes.


Failure is falling short of goals and commitments. Failure is saying you’re going to do something and not doing it. The last thing executive leadership wants to see from their innovation team is that failure is an acceptable option. Rather, they want to know you’ll do everything in your power to succeed on their behalf.


On that score, learning how to recognize the signs of failure early is your best recipe for success.