Why Your Efforts to Lead Innovation are Failing

You know you need to innovate to compete. You’re standing on the ‘burning platform’. But this is new for your traditional company. Your business has been successful in its nicely protected niche with strong operational process and reliable systems. Innovation isn’t in your DNA.

But you get it. You know you need to change. Fast.

You play an inspirational speech over in your mind for days. You pull it all into a slide deck. You gather the company together for a Big Meeting.

You’re engaging. Inspirational. Your message was on point. You're pumped.

Then, nothing.

Six months later you’re in dire straits because the threat you foresaw has landed on your doorstep. And your business is nowhere close to being the one that you envisioned and evangelised at the Big Meeting.

Where did it all go wrong - and how do you recover?

Business change of any sort is a lot of work. Statistics still show abysmal success rates (anywhere from 10-30% success) for organisational change. And transforming a traditional organisation to a creative one is the ultimate organisational change.

But it’s not that complicated to get it right. As long as you don’t underestimate the amount of work, time - and tough decisions to be made along the way.

Here are 14 reasons why your transformation efforts may be going wrong, and what you can do to recover.

Reason 1: You surround yourself with the same people.

If you’ve been surrounded by the same trusted team for a long time you probably need to shake it up. Their currency in your business is tied to knowing what they know - not driving change. Being part of the inner circle in many ways allows people to get lazy and comfortable. A form of tenure. The old guard isn't what you need right now.


At minimum, distribute your inner circle outwards. Don't be seen regularly strategising with the same few people. Get input from a wider group. Particularly those that will challenge you.

Reason 2: You follow the same routine.

If you walk through the door and do what you’ve always done, you’re not signalling change. You need to model change to convince others you mean it.


Instead of heading to your office walk through the workspace and have a chat. Or go in the coffee room for 15 minutes. If that's your routine already do something different again. The point is to visibly change what you do as a cue for others to do the same.

Reason 3: You dress the same.

This may sound silly but it matters. My son attends a strict boarding school where rules are clear and expected to be followed. The Headmaster wears a suit and tie every day - even outside on sports day in blazing sun he’s baking in a suit. My daughter attends a creative, liberal school and I’ve never seen the Headmaster in anything fancier than business casual - even on Open Day when he’s trying to woo new parents. The attire needs to match the message.


Don’t go crazy and trade your Hugo Boss for Hawaiian shirts but re-align your outward persona to your message. Loosen up your wardrobe in an authentic way.

Reason 4: You communicate in the same way.

Again, this may seem like a small thing but it’s part of the ongoing message. Change needs to be woven through everything. For example, if you present a vision for innovation and change on the same slide template you’ve used for five years people won't believe you.


Present information in different ways. Get rid of old templates. Try new tools. Use messaging over formal email to signal a more relaxed approach. Bring a freshness to everything you do.

Reason 5: You use the same language.

The library of traditional business speak has become so expanded that it’s actually comical. If you continue to engage in conversation using the same club-like language others will continue to do the same. When people use reserved language they close off collaborative possibilities.


Eradicate business-speak them from your glossary now. Words like “Best Practices”, “synergies”, “utilisation” - or anything that you wouldn’t say to your mother. Talk like a real person.

Still focus on discussions about the work, the business goals, the clients. You don’t have to engage in conversations about the latest episode of X-Factor but you do need to keep your language real. Be professionally authentic.

Reason 6: You're overzealous

Many Type A inspirational leaders can really light a fire. But to innovate you don’t always want a blazing inferno.

An innovative environment requires a real mix: people will need downtime to reflect and think and other times to discuss and exercise their ideas.


Give people space. If you see someone sitting quietly with a coffee resist the urge to charge them up and tell them to “Get at it”.

Trust people to figure out how they need to accomplish the goals you’ve laid out.

You don’t always need to cheerlead. Sometimes you need to listen. And sometimes you need to do nothing. Play it cool.

Reason 7: You let HR run the implementation

Ironically this functional team more than any could kill off progress made towards change. Particularly if they don't relinquish control to the people that need to deliver the business outcomes.


First, if you really want to innovate and get creative stop calling this department “Human Resource Management”. Referring to humans as resources is condescending and not a great baseline for expecting them to unleash their creative capacities.

Redefine the role of this (renamed) department relative to the autonomy you need to allow others. HR have often been in a position of imposing control and policy. They'll need to step back.

Reason 8: You're measuring the same things.

Don’t ask people to get creative and try new things but expect them to produce the same weekly progress report. Fair enough to continue to ask them to check in at the same time interval but alter the expectations of that check-in.


If you must measure something measure progress towards a bigger goal. Don't measure at a granular level because you'll squeeze out room for creativity and bigger picture thinking.

Reason 9: Your organisational structure is the same.

Most org chart changes come with a lot of hoopla. But, with what generally amounts to a redistribution of tree branches, the same names at the same level and the odd movement upwards they don't signal sincere change.


Break the back on the traditional org structure and align it to business/customer goals. Innovation takes place at the intersection of many disciplines so create goal oriented teams that can feed off each other. Not functional units that rationalise each other.

Again, this may mean people that once had ‘power’ no longer do. You need to make those tough decisions. Don’t just shuffle the shells.

Reason 10: Your hiring practices are the same.

Most HR/Recruiter hiring processes are designed to make the hiring process easy for them. They’re not designed to get a better result. You will need an outside injection of creative enthusiasm to innovate. That means getting creative with your recruiting.


You may have to ramp up your recruitment team. This will allow them time to find creative people - something not easily automated.

Hire strong recruiters. You need people that can assess the complexity and richness of a candidate beyond keywords, credentials and exact experience.

Don’t scrimp on new hires. You need to hire the best. Go for quality over quantity. Different over the same. Thinking over knowing.

Reason 11: The work space stays the same.

Think of the office space as you would your workplace attire. If the physical space looks and feels the same everything feels the same. If you have a hierarchical layout with managers in glass offices overseeing a sea of underlings the message sent isn't one of a progressive workplace.


Nobody needs to control seating plans. Nothing says 'we trust you' like giving people the freedom to find a place to sit when they come to work.

Get rid of designated desks and offices altogether and let people use the space as they see fit. Times are past when a personal space was needed to affix a private phone, filing cabinet and computer to.

And no, it won’t be mass chaos. The last time I was in a mall food court there was no maitre’d to seat the patrons and it all worked out fine.

Reason 12: Your policies are the same

“We trust you, we’d like you to share your own intellectual property for business gain and please be at your desk by 9am, advise us one month in advance if you need a day off and submit your expenses within 30 days or we won’t pay them…”

That just won't fly. There is zero business benefit to any directive that implies “we don’t trust you to use any common sense”.

While a stack of policies will keep a team of administrators gainfully employed they'll also create a productivity and soul crushing distraction.


Review each and every policy and try to replace each with a common sense guideline - or eradicate it altogether.

When people stretch the boundaries too far don't accept it as evidence that the policy needs to be reinstated. Ensure conversations take place with those individuals to help them develop better judgement.

Reason 13: Your processes are the same.

Likewise be prepared to let go of well-loved processes.

People need to focus on reaching goals in new ways. Confining them to the old ways of reaching those goals will impede progress.


Don’t toss out your processes. Encourage teams to rethink them with an eye towards serving the customer in the best way possible. There may be fresher options.

Be willing to decentralise processes to teams to get higher engagement. Be very mindful about which processes need to be hard. And which can be soft.

Reason 14: People don’t know what to do.

Yes, research tells us that people will achieve great things when intrinsically motivated; when they’re allowed space to create; when they collaborate with strong teams. This is all absolutely true. It's the reason why you’re going through this.

But strawberries are also sweet, red and juicy. Until interventions of chemicals, gases and modern methods are applied to make them bland, bloated and pale.

The point is…the traditional workplace has interfered a lot with raw human capability over time. For many people strict controls and narrow work autonomy have suffocated their natural abilities. They need time and support to find their way back.

People can (re)learn to be creative. Research tells us that as well. But they must want to. They need to reacquaint themselves with their judgement and intuition. They need to trust their own ability to think.

That’s not to say that everyone will become an ‘idea person’. But each individual needs to understand themselves enough to bring value to a team that only has a goal to guide them. Self-motivation and self-direction requires self-awareness.


You need to put supports in place to help those that need it. It will be a transition that will be challenging and rewarding all around.

Give people time and space to transition. Old habits aren't going to be broken overnight.

Be prepared to let those go that aren’t comfortable working without prescriptive guidance.

While transitioning to an innovative organisation will ultimately mean you relinquish control you will have to drive a bit longer. You will need to control - or have a hand in, every element of the execution. This isn’t simply a new mission statement that you delegate to others to implement. This is a roll up your sleeves exercise.

Yes, it’s a lot to do. But if you really want to take on the threat of those more innovative, dig in and make it happen. The work goes well beyond the inspirational speech but will place you amongst those that are winning the battle to change, innovate and compete.