The call to innovation is a noble call. An acknowledgement that great effort is needed to lead the market, or even to maintain a market presence. Businesses use it as a rallying cry, an initiative everyone can get behind.

But what if you make the call and no one responds? 

Innovation serves a great purpose, but can be mired down in ambiguity without a meaningful approach. Yes, innovation can happen spontaneously, but without a plan, how do you know what is happening — is it useful? Can it be captured?

Here are some common pitfalls businesses make when starting an innovation initiative and some simple steps to avoid them.


The first pitfall is not understanding and articulating why you are trying to be more innovative. Without a purpose, it's like an announcement over a PA: guaranteed not to inspire people for the journey. A lack of explanation and context can also make staff jittery as they worry about the performance of the business.

Innovative thinking is essential in today’s complex, rapidly changing marketplace. Just as essential is having a tangible and specific objective for innovation that fits your organization's needs.

Your customers’ needs and experiences should be central to any aim. An aim that both tells your customer what you are all about and leaves your people in no doubt as to why they are doing what they are doing. Aim high, but make it real, understandable and a goal that transcends every organizational level.

Forget About Solutions

It’s all too easy to go hunting for solutions. After all, it’s fun, exciting. It’s the pointy end of innovation. 

The most important step however, is to learn, listen and understand. What problems keep senior management awake at night? Where are competitors excelling?

Working on solutions too easily evolves into a showcase of skills, and at times, of egos. Everyone has things they'd love to work on, or are experts at. However, this enthusiasm needs to be saved for when you really understand the problem. Otherwise a huge amount of time and credibility can be wasted on developing things that appear innovative, but don't actually provide anything useful.

Obviously, solutions solve problems, but before you start your innovation adventure, make sure that the focus is on where you want the organization or group to head. That keeps the showcasing of skills and egos in check.

Don’t Ask For Ideas

Ideation is the crux of innovation. But solely asking for ideas is as effective as throwing them against a wall and hoping that some of them stick.

Ideation is most effective during conversations. When we interact over a problem, insights or matters at hand, when we question and add input into the conversation, that’s when ideation begins to form. Sure, post your needs and hope for answers, but always open them up to robust discussion.

Do not set up an ideas box. These tend to kill innovation quicker than a business management system. How often do you follow up on these ideas? How can one or two people review these ideas against the needs and problems of the entire business?

Provide some elemental coaching in how to think creatively and how to look for ideas, then provide the fuel for ideation by opening up your business conversations. Build connections and relationships, not idea capture tools. And think about how you might want to capture any spontaneous innovation sparked by social collaboration. A number of enterprise tools do this well, as well as some specialist innovation collaboration software on the market. With proper management, these will become your ideas box.

Collaborative Cultures Fuel Innovation

Attempting an innovation culture or initiative will be boosted ten-fold if you focus on building a culture of collaboration first. This provides both the fuel and essential behaviors for innovation to occur. Innovation as a skill can actually be learned. Behaviors take more time to develop and should be one of the first focuses on your innovation journey. There's not enough space to give justice to these here, but you certainly can't go wrong by investing in the following behaviors:

  • Staff feel safe and trust social collaboration
  • A conversation-based way of working is integrated into key business tasks
  • Staff should model information-seeking habits on what they do when away from the office
  • Senior leaders are proactive in sharing knowledge and insights
  • Working out loud (for example, using wikis for documentation) is an accepted way of working

This gives you the essential pre-conditioning for innovation, making any subsequent focus on creative thinking and problem solving far more effective.

Big Bang Innovation vs. Small Step Iteration

If this is your first foray into innovation, don’t dive straight into bang bang innovation. It’s not about inventing some crazy new gadget — yet. Starting small will yield longer term, sustainable innovation.

Small step iteration allows your people to try and fail with new ideas and new ways of working. Failure is part of any true innovation journey. Allowing people to pilot new ideas with the appropriate support embeds the right behaviors. It's about taking and understanding risks. It's about challenging the way we think and work on everyday tasks. And innovation can occur in the simplest of ways — think of ways we can improve our meetings, communicate differently with a client, change the way we communicate with each other. It's all about encouraging a change in behaviors.

Once people feel comfortable challenging existing process and structures, it's a smaller climb to think bigger, to innovate at the top level. And it becomes sustainable — with an organization full of everyday innovators, you can be sure that there is always someone working on meeting the unmet needs of your customers.

Title image CC BY 2.0 by  Tim Pierce