It’s “Groundhog Day” for Innovators

Breaking free of four common front-end frustrations

Perhaps like me, you saw the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day when it hit theaters in 1993, you enjoyed a few laughs, and you promptly forgot about it. However, a few years ago I became aware that the film had not simply disappeared into the cinematic cloud, getting lost among the countless other romantic comedies on Netflix.Groundhog Day

Instead, Groundhog Day has been hailed by many as one of the best films ever made. The New York Times reports it has become “a curious favorite of religious leaders of many faiths,” who have come to view Groundhog Day as an inspiring modern-day parable, an uplifting tale of moral redemption. It has even been featured by the Museum of Modern Art.

Upon learning this, I read a copy of the screenplay by Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin and re-watched the movie. Sure enough, it’s tightly written and contains all of the profound themes and ethical messages that have been ascribed to it. The film’s protagonist (a TV weatherman named Phil Connors) experiences massive personal growth, starting as an arrogant, “been there, done that” cynic and emerging as a compassionate, empathic fellow. For those reasons alone, the movie is worth a second (or first) look.

Yet there’s another, albeit less profound, level at which Groundhog Day is relevant to those of us who are professional innovators. The movie is about a man who is frustrated to be “stuck” in a day that repeats itself endlessly. Indeed, its very title has become a rallying cry for those who feel they are trapped in a continuous cycle of unsatisfying experiences. Having worked with hundreds of innovators inside large companies over the past decade, we know that many have experienced similar “Groundhog Day” feelings from time to time.

So on this February 2, let’s tip our hat to the world’s most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, and take a moment to explore a few of the most common recurring frustrations faced by corporate innovators – along with what one can do to resolve them.

Four Common Frustrations

Here are four of the top “Here we go again” failure modes that clients ask us to help them address:

  1. “Big Eyes, Small Appetite” – Senior executives who sponsor corporate innovation initiatives often ask for “bold,” new-to-the-world opportunities… but, when presented with candidates fitting that description, reject them and green-light only less-risky, incremental innovations. To be sure, not all opportunities deserve to move forward. But some innovation team members find that their best “bold” ideas, no matter how promising, never even “get out of committee” to be shared with the broader organization.
  2. “All Dressed Up and No Place to Go” – Sometimes the highly promising opportunities developed and validated by a corporate innovation team do in fact “get out of committee”… only to wither from neglect when no one in the broader organization is willing to carry them forward. All too often, the innovation team finds its recommended opportunities rejected or ignored by the business-unit owners who would need to bring the new offerings to market – not on the merits, but due to internal politics and organizational dynamics.
  3. “Too Many Eggs in One Basket” – In some organizations, innovation and R&D leaders assign a significant amount of resources to assess a single opportunity (such as by having a senior scientist spend three months preparing a business case for a given opportunity)… only to discover a fatal flaw that leaves the opportunity on the cutting room floor. The result is that neither those involved nor the organization overall has much of value to show for all of the time and effort expended.
  4. “Too Little, Too Late” – Sometimes the innovation team and a business unit successfully navigate around all of the above obstacles and bring an interesting new offering to market… only to have it falter or fail in the marketplace due to an unrecognized issue or dynamic. Millions of dollars – and years’ worth of careers – have been wasted, and everybody is left scratching their heads and wondering what went wrong.

Feeling trapped in a day (or an organization) that seems to never change can be maddening and disheartening. In Groundhog Day, Phil becomes despondent about the seemingly endless loop in which he finds himself. (For a time he even becomes suicidal, although ironically he cannot kill himself without waking up alive and well – and facing the same situation all over again – the “next” morning.)

The good news, of course, is that Phil eventually learns how to change his own behavior in ways that prove to be healthier and more constructive. Similarly, during the past twelve years our clients have found that they can move from a cycle of frustration to a brand new day of productive, successful innovation. Here are a few approaches that they have found helpful:

Breaking the Cycle

  1. “Big Eyes, Small Appetite” – Senior executives are far less likely to retreat from their stated desire for “bold” innovations to safer ground if they understand the need to develop a well-balanced innovation portfolio – one that allows for more comfortable, incremental options while also enabling the company to pursue potentially disruptive opportunities. Our clients have found it helpful to use a Strategic Innovation Canvas to plot opportunities along two dimensions (“Newness to the World” and “Newness to the Company”), thereby capturing the entirety of risk and uncertainty that strategic innovations carry. This helps them to develop well-balanced portfolios that accommodate both the desire for closer-in opportunities and the need for bolder, strategic innovations.
  2. “All Dressed Up and No Place to Go” – We have heard many innovators express significant frustration when their companies’ business-unit owners refuse to “pick up the ball and run” with validated opportunities due to organizational dynamics. Our clients have found that the key to dodging this fate lies in generating early awareness and buy-in among these potential stakeholders. This insight may seem simple, but executing it effectively is far from easy. The most successful innovators start with the end in mind. From the very beginning of a new initiative, they work to involve these stakeholders in the innovation process by interviewing them; by having the stakeholders provide feedback about the different opportunity candidates via ‘Wisdom of Crowds’ decision- making tools (which allow one to identify areas of support or resistance throughout the organization); and by involving the stakeholders in periodic executive review events. The stakeholders are made to feel part of the front-end process and to get excited about the emerging opportunities – which is critical, if they are expected to invest in and champion these opportunities during the development and launch phases of the innovation process.
  3. “Too Many Eggs in One Basket” – We sometimes hear from innovators who are frustrated that their organizations “place big bets too soon.” One way our clients avoid this fate is by following an “Iterative deepening”-based approach to opportunity exploration. They focus on developing a high volume of opportunity hypotheses by spending a relatively small amount of time on each. They then select the most promising ones, which go on to receive 4-5x more attention. Following another selection event, the strongest opportunities receive yet another 4-5x worth of additional attention. In other words, our clients begin by placing “small bets” and gradually increase the time/attention invested as their knowledge grows and their confidence increases. This approach, combined with the innovation portfolio strategy mentioned above, helps them to maximize their chances of identifying meaningful opportunities that will ultimately prove worthy of investment.
  4. “Too Little, Too Late” — To ensure that products are well received when they enter the marketplace, our clients conduct primary and secondary research that provides a deep understanding of different end users’ underlying motivations, needs, and desires – along with insights into which personas will (or will not) find the new offering compelling enough to adopt. But they don’t stop there. While understanding end users’ “jobs to be done” is necessary, it is hardly sufficient. One also needs to understand the perspectives of the numerous other ecosystem members (including those throughout the supply chain, researchers, regulators and policy makers, media influencers, etc.) who can significantly drive or impede the adoption of a new offering. Markets are complex systems with hidden dynamics, and one must tease out these subtle relationships to accurately assess how one’s new product, service or business model will fare in the real world.

These are of course just a few of the challenges and frustrations experienced by corporate innovators – and just a few of the tactics that successful innovators use to overcome them. What types of “Groundhog Day” innovation issues does your organization face? How have you managed to address them thus far, and what might you do this year to escape the loop of frustration once and for all? We look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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