Is Innovation Broken?


I’m amused with the recent stream of publications describing the supposedly dreadful state of innovation. We’re informed that “innovation today disappoints,” that it’s “not delivering” and that “our innovation systems are breaking down.” We’re also told that “people are fed up with innovation” and that we should reduce using the very term “innovation” and ban the term “innovation culture” at all.

What’s going on? Sure, I’m not particularly happy with what I see in the field myself. Recently, I pointed out to the troubling findings in the Accenture’s 2015 Innovation Survey indicating that there is a mess in the heads of innovation practitioners with regards to the different types of innovation–a confusion that may indeed easily derail any innovation program. And before, I complained that many organizations fake innovation instead of making it.

But the glass of innovation isn’t completely empty; it’s rather half-full. The same Accenture study finds that, despite setbacks, companies keep establishing formal corporate innovation programs, utilize digital platforms to manage innovation process and, most importantly, increasingly approach their customers in search for new ideas. Is it a bumpy road? You bet! But they are trying. Imagine that you’ve just started to learn driving a car. Despite your best efforts to do everything by the book, your car is often frustrating you with sudden stops, risky moves and strange noises under the hood. Is this a reason to trash this car and buy a new one?

The great German philosopher Hegel taught us that small quantitative increases in some entity, when reaching a certain threshold, give rise to a qualitative change in this entity. This is exactly the stage the innovation process is at today: accumulating small, incremental changes–by way of trial and error–which will sooner or later give rise to acquisition of new knowledge and experience. Rushing this process or complaining that it’s not fast enough is counterproductive, to say the very least.

And the best that innovation practitioners, including consultants, can do today is not to push the proverbial panic button. They should instead provide a clear vision of what a real (not faked) innovation is and what strategic roads to reach it are. They should carefully observe things, detect problems and help their organizations or clients correct the course. They should also stop playing childish games of name-calling by fiddling with the established business terminology.

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About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is the Founder of (WoC)2, an innovation consultancy that helps organizations extract maximum value from the wisdom of crowds by coordinated use of internal and external crowdsourcing.
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11 Responses to Is Innovation Broken?

  1. Thanks for the mention Eugene, although I do belief it is staggering on its legs, if not broken, in that article I was offering ways to give it back some new strength, as I try to do in most of my writing. The hard fact is it is disappointing in its results but it is playing against a ‘stacked hand’ of near term focus, reluctance to invest in more resources, more radical and future innovation designs. I’m not amused, I’m actually saddened because so much could be different, it is in the power of those that want innovation but do not relate to what they need to provide it to happen.

    We have for years and years been “accumulating small, incremental changes………but sadly it has not been giving THE rise to new knowledge and experience, it is reating itself, time and time again. Innovation Groundhog Day.

    I am not sure if I understand your last paragraph “They should also stop playing childish games of name-calling by fiddling with the established business terminology.”

    All I can say, I wish, really wish we did have a common language for innovation and that might lead to an established business terminology- today it does not.

    On offer are multiple roads for strategic attainment, far to many but you really have to decide if you seriously want innovation and most organizations still feel uncomfortable.

    Half full, half empty maybe but still a very long way to go and I do not feel your “small quantities” will happen, the gathering of comments, reports are indicating the growing frustrations. First we have to ‘signal’ these, then provide solutions- no panic buttons this end, more thoughtful ways to move forward and fill that glass.

    • Hi Paul,

      Thank you very much for your comment. First of all, let me say that I’m a huge fan of your work, and my post was in no way intended to be a criticism of your views. We’re really in a position of arguing whether the glass is half-full or half-empty, and as you know, this discussion can go on forever.

      My point of view to large extent is influenced by the fact that I’m a patient guy by temperament. This patience comes from years of working in drug development and seeing one great expectation after another turning into a bitter disappointment (like the famous Human Genome Project). And, sure enough, claims that “drug development is broken” were/are all over the place. And yet, we’re now witnessing that new drugs and treatments are coming to the market incorporating ideas and approaches from these “disappointing” projects. Last year, the FDA approved the record number of new drugs (45 if memory serves). Yes, these new drugs often come not from established players, but rather newcomers, but that’s another question.

      And in defense of Hegel–if he needs one:)–the transition of small quantitative changes into a qualitative shift can often been recognized only in retrospective, exactly as we now see in new drugs and treatments based on the analyses of human DNA.

      I totally agree with you that the best we can do now is to look for troubling “signals” and then offer solutions to fix the underlying problems. Isn’t this what we tell to our clients: first define the problem, then look for a solution?

      With regards to name-calling games, I had in mind one specific person who’s suggesting changing the very term “innovation” to something else, “digitization” or something. The very idea that by changing a name of a problem you can force it go away, makes me laugh.

      Thank you again.

      Best Regards,

  2. Eugene:

    I agree with a lot of your sentiment in this article. Innovation isn’t broken, because you can’t break a process that you don’t posses. The difficulty is in defining and establishing what “real, not faked” innovation is, when so many innovations are dressed up incremental improvements. Your reference to Hegel is analogous to my analogy about true innovation – it comes in quanta, like energy, and there is a fixed amount of energy required to do “true” innovation. Just like in launching a rocket from the earth. Either you have enough energy to leave the gravity well and get into orbit, or you don’t. There’s no half way. Most innovators don’t understand that innovation is actually binary in this case – you have to have enough energy to reach a radical or disruptive level, and to your point you need to know what it looks like.

  3. Hi Jeffrey,

    Thank you for your comment. We know that there are a few companies that “get” innovation and a lot that don’t. Call me cynical, but that doesn’t bother me. We all accept the fact that of 100 startups, 90 will fail; moreover, we consider this normal. Why then should we bother with the fact that many companies do innovation wrong (especially if they were given the opportunity to know how to do it “right”)? They will either learn from their mistakes or they fail and be replaced with newcomers who know how to do innovation right.

    Our mission, as I see it, is to know what this “right” means and deliver this knowledge to the organizations that want to apply this knowledge. We can’t help companies that don’t want to be helped.

    Best Regards,

  4. Frank Dethier says:

    hi Eugene

    great article … already just by looking at the comments and discussion it triggered with Jeffrey and Paul 🙂

    Well yes, one can look at it in positive and negative ways and as a consultant you wish you can change every company and it disappoints you then when it’s not happening (at the pace you want it to happen). It happened to me also already more than once and I still don’t like it. But that’s (business) life!

    And I like your analogy with start-ups … there we accept that a huge number will not make it. I would be interested to see some future research if there is a correlation between companies where ‘innovation is not happening’ (according to us even?) and their existence in e.g. 5 or 10 years.

    Lastly that specific person you mentioned who’s proposing to change name Innovation into something else … I had to laugh too, but also here everybody is trying to survive I assume?


  5. Hi Frank,

    Thanks for your comment. Sure, I have no problem with people trying to survive. I just don’t believe that if you change the name of your boat from “Titanic” to something else, your chances to survive will dramatically increase:)

    As for the correlation between innovation and survival, this is very interesting question. Certainly, being good at innovation doesn’t prevent you from going into troubles if you screw up somewhere else. Look at P&G. Yet I’m convinced that NOT doing innovation at all will get you in trouble fast. How fast? I think this mainly depends on the sector. For example, from what I see in the financial sector, any large institution not even ignoring innovation, but doing not enough of it, will be in big troubles very soon, given the amount of “disruptions” happening there.


  6. Innovation isn’t broken, it never was. All companies that do somehow have positive cashflows do innovate, be it in incremental ways. However, they (like many academics and consultants) don’t regard this incremental process as an innovation process, but of course it is innovation! Missing is (only) the right/theoretical vocabulary to be able to describe the innovative element hiding in there. What most companies are facing however, is the challenge to innovate their innovation process … to allow for more ‘disrutive-breakthrough’ innovations to be developed and realised. The worldwide call for innovation is in fact a call for innovating the present incremental (and successful) innovation process. However, innovating innovation requires deep understanding of what innovation really is …. There are too much (non-) academic definitions of innovation around that are indeed very confusing. But, since innovation is happening all around us, such deeper understanding can only be created by close collaboration of academics with industrial partners, like we do with Unilever. Defining innovation properly is a fundamental quest and calls for new vocabulary, new language and new discourses. Not the present business lingo that barely scratches the surface of the real underlying phenomenon.

  7. Pingback: Dis-r-r-r-uption! |

  8. Pingback: Missing in Innovation Action |

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