Innovation blockers: How to turn them around

By Reach Brands

“being right all the time acquires a huge importance in education, and there is this terror of being wrong. The ego is so tied to being right that later on in life you are reluctant to accept that you are ever wrong, because you are defending not the idea but your self-esteem. This terror of being wrong means that people have enormous difficulties in changing ideas.” Edward De Bono (Po:Beyond Yes and No)


Innovation is all about ‘changing ideas’ and many organisations are paying lip service to the notion rather than really embracing true innovation.  Organisations are still full of blockers whether it be individuals, structures and processes or just outdated ideologies…things still need to change and quite radically at that.

Here is a shortlist of 6 key blockers which have been turned on their heads to give some potential solution…

BLOCK 1:Seeing consumers as ‘the target’ rather than collaborators

Be warned that innovation is something everyone can do and increasingly people from all walks of life are doing so – see websites like One of the reasons for this is that ideas are becoming easier, quicker and cheaper to prototype.

Think web based design services, the improvement in more and more software packages as well as technology like 3d printing. All of this means that ideas are becoming reality outside the conventional organisational structure.

Often the collaborators are not ‘the target’, but consumers who are doing what you don’t want them to do. People who use your products in unintended ways (e.g. toothpaste used for love bites, vinegar used for cleaning, Steradent used for tea and coffee mug stains), or advocates of competitors, make some of the best consumers to collaborate with on innovation.

How to turn this around?

  • Bring your ‘consumer’ on board through co-creation practices whether through observing them, using them to generate, refine or optimise an idea, it will uncover deep and meaningful insights.
  • Single out ‘lead users’, those that are likely to lead you to a commercially promising innovation AND make sure you reward them appropriately for their ideas.  Greed is something we left behind in the 80’s

BLOCK 2: Not working smartly

So many organisations launch things that are just plain uninspiring and irrelevant to people’s lives or, worse still, things that are bland. Often this is as a result of having to fill the pipeline or make up a company short-fall. At other times we see projects that have been started, gained momentum and buy-in and just take on a life of their own, irrelevant of consumer need or desire.

Many companies like Accenture, What if and a myriad of other consultancies (not client organisations) advocate the development of ideas up front that can be prototyped and then STOPPED soon enough if ideas are not gaining traction. This preserves resources (and ego’s) that would be better deployed elsewhere i.e the really good ideas.

How to turn this around?

  • Make sure that an idea is clearly defined and ironed out, as well as having emotional appeal before it goes into quant. Quantifying a fully formed concept that has all the negatives removed is an efficient use of quant. It is there to validate not build or craft a raw idea
  • Ideally use consumers for bespoke problems, do not try and retro fit a previous piece of research into something that is only vaguely related. Let historical consumer research inform thinking but not be the sole source of insight. However if it is impossible to use consumers in this way let an outside agency mine your research for insights, they have the benefit of fresh eyes
  • Preconceived solutions to a problem are a real ‘no no’- consumer insight needs to drive a solution and give the ability for problems to be reframed
  • Get stakeholder engagement on innovation projects early on in the process. This will eliminate the frequency of the veto and will also result in a more objective view rather than muscle power taking over

BLOCK 3 An attitude that focus groups have always been used so why change?

This method of research is starting to be seen as outdated and increasingly seen by consultancies as counter productive when mining for insights. The focus group approach and environment does not lend itself to innovation however accomplished a moderator may be.


Invariably it turns into a validation, rather than an ideation and build, session with only the dominant voices being truly represented. However, despite these flaws, focus groups are still used by 69% of client companies even though focus groups don’t elicit ‘actionable insights’ which is the corner stone for innovation. The quality and quantity of research is cited as a key and contributing factor to failure according to the study by Accenture (Innovation in Consumer Products).

How to turn this around?

  • Make consumer intelligence gathering a continuous process, get up close and personal with consumers and aggressively understand their needs – that is what leads to breakthrough innovation!  P&G are a great example of a client company that deep dives by investing in observing and questioning how consumers buy and use their products
  • Using co-creation approaches is a good way to overcome the tyranny of the focus group and also encourages an iterative approach to solving and salvaging problems with individual ideas


BLOCK 4 Seeing innovation as the poor relation to marketing or a bolt on to research (insights)

For companies that do not have a separate and self contained innovation function, it is often seen as quite a tactical and executional function and not a strategic one. In fact a frequently asked question, and one I heard last week, is ‘where does innovation belong?’.

Marketing believe it is their remit but can only devote a small proportion of time to it. They also tend to have the perception that (what used to be called) R&D is loosely associated to real innovation and primarily bring to market what the marketers tell them to.

How to turn this around?

  • Put innovations on the business agenda, plan for it, staff it whole heartedly and believe in it by making it part of the company ethos. Getting everyone involved by adopting principles that actively encourage idea generation from employees can also fuel the innovations funnel
  • Use open innovation practices by outsourcing projects to inspire partners that can work with the organisation to bring breakthrough innovation. This is a great way to keep a fresh perspective and an impartial view as well as buying in real expertise
  • Do not get sidetracked by short term gains, the innovation function should be a constant for fueling the business both short term and longer term. Diverting funds to other areas of the business only serves to slow down development and sales in the future, metaphorically stalling the car

BLOCK 5: Harbouring a risk averse business and managers that are running scared

Quite often the target to succeed is based on a ROI target set by the business as a standard that is just too high and unachievable for any good idea in the early phases. Where the ideas can be placed on the ‘adoption curve’, and the time it takes for true growth to kick in and achieve, is often misjudged.

Managers that are worried about their careers and fearful of denting the egos of top managers are unlikely to challenge over inflated assumptions and predictions. This coupled with a hierarchical organisation that can be slow to make decisions, is suicide for any innovation.

How to turn this around?

  • Invest in robust ways to deliver innovation and continually assess and monitor the approach. Improving and modifying will not only keep the innovation team ‘innovating’ but will also ultimately reduce risk, or at the very least, help to manage risk. Innovation is a risky business, however a good approach will serve to manage and minimise it. Making mistakes early on in the process is less costly than those made close to final production
  • A radical thought but a new and increasing business model is the ‘boss free organisation’ (see Who’s the boss? There isn’t one; Wall Street Journal 2012) which suggests that those organisations that are boss free deliver the ultimate in collaborative working and creative thinking. Take the principles of this approach by democratising innovations within a department and ideally within the business

BLOCK 6: Leaving innovation to the last minute

It’s no surprise that innovation suddenly becomes a matter of utmost urgency when a major competitor launches something that will impact negatively on sales. The anxiety always seems specific to sales and surprisingly not associated to being left behind by consumers or losing relevance.

This knee jerk reaction usually results in a priority project being deployed that has not been a part of an ongoing process of innovation. “How quickly can we get to market?” is the main driver. No thought is given to whether it will meet a key consumer need, if the competition have executed correctly or if critical success factors have been established. This can be the difference between new launches that succeed or those that are just following the competition into yet another failure. Speed is not the innovators friend.

How to turn this around?

  • Do not assume that your competitors have got it right, many launches fail. Make sure their mistakes are something to learn from
  • Refer back to the past NPD ideas and learnings to make sure that if a new competitive launch idea has been rejected you know why. Do not get sucked into reacting to the market without being truly informed or finding a new angle
  • Give the innovation function time and space, after all, leaving innovation to the last minute is a false economy. Rushing innovation will lose money in the short, medium and long term and will ultimately result in additional funds needed to address mistakes to get NPD initiatives back on track

By Zoe Tuttle, Strategist at Reach