One time, I blindly stepped into an elevator shaft on the 12th floor. I was working in Houston, and the company had recently moved into a new building where several floors were still being completed. To deal with all the construction material, the elevator interiors were lined with thick blankets, giving them the gray appearance of the shaft itself. What’s more, the elevators didn’t always work properly. We were told an electrician was killed working on one of the elevators a couple weeks previously. I was carrying a 2 foot tall stack of computer printouts that nearly came up to my chin. The stack blocked my downward view, and when I the elevator doors opened with an audible ding, I didn’t even think of looking down, but rather just stepped in.
With nothing under my feet, I began to fall to the ground. That was a surprise. But more about that in a minute…
I’ve seen my share of good ideas die. Occasionally, how they die comes as a complete surprise. Like my misstep into the elevator shaft, or the twist ending of a whodunit mystery that you never saw coming.
Like when you learn in “The Empire Strikes Back” that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s dad. Or when Kevin Spacey in the “The Usual Suspects” walks out of the police office as a limping handicapped person named Kint, and a block down the street the limp disappears and you realize he was the monstrous crime lord the cops were seeking all along.
But, product innovation isn’t scripted like a movie. It happens in the real world; and is subject to all the inane and myopic thinking people are known to often exhibit. I’ve been guilty of it too. Like the time in the mid 90′s when I wondered to myself (thankfully) why a junior colleague was so enthusiastic about the company getting a web page.
In contrast to the surprise movie ending, the vast majority of the time these innovation casualties don’t happen in a single climactic scene with everyone caught off-guard. Rather, their demise comes as no surprise to anyone. Not only that, but everyone usually knows what killed it.
In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes said “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observers.” Anyone who’s fought to bring innovative products to fruition can deduce that Sherlock Holmes never had a case involving product development; otherwise he might have said “New product development is resisted by many and usually in full view of everyone.”
It usually doesn’t take a detective, much less Sherlock Holmes, to figure out the cause of death. Here’s a list of the usual suspects.
The truth is, companies are filled with people who pretty much don’t care one way or the other about the next product introduction. Of course, they’ll never admit that to their colleagues. On the contrary, they may even outwardly appear to be quite enthusiastic about the innovation, and will do the work that’s asked of them to advance the cause. Just like they do with anything they’re working on.
But here’s the thing. Bringing a new technology to fruition is NOT just like anything else being worked on. In fact, it’s quite unlike anything else. It’s a new product. It hasn’t been figured out. And new things only become successful when there’s an inordinate amount of work applied to moving the project along, to overcoming new problems (everything is hard the first time) and pushing through the many iterations it’s going to take to succeed. By definition, it’s not like anything you’re already doing.
It’s human nature, but sometimes people don’t want something (or someone) to succeed. It could be because they’re resentful of who came up with the idea. Maybe the idea originated in another department (“What does Sales know?”), or from a customer (“Customers don’t know the market.”), or from someone who’s young, or old or whatever.
#3. Lack of Commitment & Effort
Many people on the team care about what’s being developed and the company’s continued success. They genuinely cheer for the day the new product will be released. They love the idea of a new product, but their enthusiasm wanes when demands start impacting their normal workday. They resist putting in the time to meet the needs, not to mention giving their blood, sweat and tears.
Pushing an innovation along the path to success means occasional (or frequent) early or late days. Or working weekends. It means intense periods of focus. Thinking differently than you do when managing your existing work. Often it means going the extra mile, and sometimes it means taking the shortcut through the woods.
#4 Limited Resources
I used to tell the team (proudly) that “We’ve done so much, with so little, for so long; that we can now do anything with nothing.”
We’ve all been asked to do more with less. Less people, less budget, less external resources, less time, less physical space, less whatever. And yes, you can rally and get a lot done despite the shortcoming. But as we all know, creating a breakthrough is hard work. And while you may have to work with limited resources, it’s unrealistic for the company to expect you to pull a rabbit out of a hat, if you’re not even given a hat.
At some point, limited resources are not only just challenging, but cross the line into planning to fail.
People oppose things all the time for the wrong reason. To protect their turf or simply to express their authority against a threatening influence.
Once I was chastised by a colleague who headed-up another department, for calling someone in his group on their mobile phone at 5:20pm during their drive home. The department head said I was violating their private information by asking their admin for their mobile. Territorial attitudes aren’t helpful in getting things done.
#6 Aversion to Change
J. Paul Getty was right when he said “In times of rapid change, experience could be your worst enemy.” It’s often the most experienced people that are the most resistant to change. But the bottom line is, people just get comfortable doing things a certain way, and as a result are participants in putting up resistance to what’s new.
I’ve seen people fight something new, simply because they don’t really understand it. Or they have no ability to distinguish between something critical vs. unimportant. It’s like the anecdote about the $1 part holding up a million dollar space shuttle launch.
I’ve seen people fight a new product because it didn’t yet have its own accounting charge code, and they didn’t want to bill their time to a general charge code.
#8 Lack of Courage (Fear)
Nobody will ever admit that they’re afraid of innovation (or change). But the fear of trying something new, and failing, is ubiquitous.
It’s this insidious unspoken fear that may show itself as a request for more market research. In continual scope creep. In pushing-out the product launch date. Or in a limited or regional release.
It’s often the reason for protracted product testing, or failure to ship.
Any of the above suspects can be used to kill innovation, and usually more than one is at work simultaneously. And their danger is easily overlooked for a couple reasons. For one thing, everything on the list is common and familiar. We experience resistance so much, that we almost don’t recognize the pull towards oblivion. It’s like a gravitational constant in our work environment. Maybe like an open elevator door we step through every day.
Another reason these dangers are overlooked, is that they’re observable by everyone. And that shared awareness makes them feel less threatening.
Despite the above list of suspects waiting to kill your idea, hard work and awareness will help you avoid them. And of course, sometimes we get lucky. Which is what happened to me in the elevator.
The elevator indeed had malfunctioned. But fortunately, my fall into the abyss was short, as it had stopped a foot below the level of floor. Decades later, I can tell you nonetheless it was a memorable drop.
I collected my wits and the computer printouts that had fallen to the floor, promising myself that in the future – I’d look where I was going. ”Elementary, my dear Watson!”