We Need Less Talk of Innovation and More Evidence of Impact


In my last post I looked at why change fails and how most corporate programmes are destined for failure. Year on year, huge resources are invested in them. Yet we somehow hope for a different outcome. 

The biggest reason change fails is employee resistance. Indeed – it’s the downfall of nearly 40% of programmes.

However, this isn’t employees trying to block change – rather they never thought it necessary in the first place. It’s a solution to a problem that they don’t recognise.

One of the big lessons I’ve learned from working in innovation is pretty much everyone thinks their idea needs attention. In reality almost always there’s a need for a more detailed problem definition before we run off changing things.

Lack of clarity about the problem we are trying to fix can lead to the Unholy Trinity:

  • Corporate Initiative-itis: The condition of equating innovation with being busy – whilst forgetting about scrutiny and evaluation.
  • Vanity Projects: Things that only got pushed through because of seniority, overly generous funding or organisational arrogance.
  • Walking Dead: Projects that look good on paper but don’t actually solve anyone’s problem – whilst costing a lot of (usually someone else’s) money.

All three are the result of ill defined objectives or poor impact evaluation.

To learn more we need to look at how successful change adoption really happens.

What the invention of the tea bag teaches us about change

The tea bag was originally intended as a non-consumer item. It was a way to provide restaurants with small samples of leaves before they placed orders. Tea leaves were packed and sown into small silk bags with instructions to slit open the bag with a knife, pour the leaves out, and put them into a sieve and brew.

But instead of opening the bags, potential customers found that it was faster to just throw the bag into a cup and pour boiling water directly over it.

This unintended innovation solved three problems:

  • No more messy leaves going all over the place.
  • The elimination of a complex brewing process.
  • A form of easy disposal – just throw the bag in the bin.

The fact it solved multiple problems made it relatively easy to market teabags. Customers recommended to other customers as it made their lives easier. The change went viral.  

But most corporate initiatives aren’t tea bags. They often don’t solve ANY problem, never mind three at once. And rarely is the change introduced anywhere other than from the top. 

Change for change’s sake doesn’t always result in progress.

Start with the problem

A good starting point is this:Change.001

Just being new isn’t good enough anymore.

We don’t have the luxury of unlimited resources. Public trust in innovation is no longer implicit.  We know from the Edelman Trust Barometer that innovation on its own is not perceived as an inherent demonstration of forward progress, despite the near reverence for the term.

51% of people think the pace of change is too great , with many ‘innovations’ appearing untested and unproven.

All across the social sector we are in for a tough decade. With the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills facing cuts between 25 to 40%, the good times are well and truly over for innovation types.

Show Me The Data

It’s time innovation and change demonstrates impactImpact is the less sexy , geekier twin of Innovation – but they need each other to survive.

Today – it’s the execution and impact of innovation and change that really matters. Not the relentless cheerleading.

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 20.35.30

It’s a micro sample admittedly. But a quick Twitter poll shows over 80% of people feel there’s room for improvement in how we evidence impact.

Storytelling is great , but now is the time for evidence.

Every change programme. Every organisation, lab, hub, funder and think tank must show:

  • How we solve problems for people.
  • How we realise savings.
  • How we make the world a better place.

We have a unique opportunity to demonstrate a new model of achieving change. We just need to prove it.

[Footnote: We’ve got a long way to go at Bromford – but here’s our latest social value report. Current tests and pilots are listed on the Bromford Lab Trello Board where evaluations will appear in due course. Please note we are currently updating the site so if information is hard to find – let me know.) 

10 responses to “We Need Less Talk of Innovation and More Evidence of Impact”

  1. Good post Paul summing up some of the problems with ‘innovation’. Vanity projects and chasing the latest pot of gold at the end of the rainbow whilst not solving any real problems is not innovation but stupidity 😀

    1. Thanks Kevin – it sure is. We’ve all seen those projects to be fair and they happen even in very high performing organisations (any takers for the Amazon Fire Smartphone??) It’s being brave enough to pull the plug and learn the lessons that matters.

      1. Exactly and do it quickly when you realise it’s not working. Being afraid of an embarrassing u turn will only do more damage

  2. I’m not convinced that problem/solution is the only way to address organisational change, and in fact obsessive problem-seeking can be a counterproductive.

    In some cases, to look to do things better, you need to ask “how can we do more of the good stuff?”.

    Talked about this recently in blog about the ” problem ” of email…http://mmitii.mattballantine.com/2015/11/02/five-hurdles-between-us-and-the-death-of-email/

    1. Thanks Matt – I don’t think problem definition is the ONLY way to approach organisational change but I have seen too many programmes fail because of the lack of it.

      I could easily name several high profile change programmes that appear – to me at least – to be be very unclear in the problem they trying to resolve. Many seem to see change itself is a worthy goal or outcome. That something different is somehow better than what currently exists. That change itself is an end , rather than a means to an end.

      Agree we should adopt strengths based approaches too where appropriate – in fact I’m currently running a programme where we avoided problem definition completely!

  3. Great post Paul.
    I think the ’employee’ definition needs clarifying though in relation to the public sector. In my experience of implementing change, its less the employee than the employer’s representatives who are resistant to change. The leaders & middle managers in simple terms.
    Most employees want innovation which makes their jobs easier and outcomes better. The bureaucracy and ‘real’ organisation as per your last post get in the way.
    Too many cooks wanting to be engaged in the recipe, far to much risk aversion and an unhealthy obsession with metrics: usually measuring the wrong things. Resolve those, and innovation happens as part of the day job.

    1. Thanks Peter and I think you’re right – the term employee as opposed to ‘management’ – is in need of clarity. I’ve tried to find out how McKinsey (the source) defined it but can’t see anything.

      If we take employees to mean those closest to the customer – the nurses, the housing officers , the police officer – I agree with you that they know what needs changing and what doesn’t!

  4. Hiya great article

    I think it’s the pulling together of small bits of learning from prototyping and doing and feeding back into an evolving organisational evaluation process that seems to be missing.

    In my experience the key problem is gathering and assessing measurement of impact on the client. This can be expensive, messy and difficult. So organisations have an understandable tendency towards measuring what they already do well, under the guise of celebrating success.

    How many hours/units of “improvement” delivered for how much less/better utilised funding – presented as increased efficiency and achievement.

    This can mean we’re using data from systems established to evidence why the solution team should exist rather than to understand the change they make for clients or against a problem. With the hypothesis they prove usually being that because they’re efficient and deliver lots of improvement units so they should continue to be delivered/funded. This is even more tempting with big knotty societal problems where it’s hard to show a difference big enough to keep your funding or attract new investment.

    We learnt a lot but haven’t fixed anything yet can be a tough sell to funders and commissioners.

    This is also the biggest challenge to the employee representatives mentioned above, who usually decide what does/doesn’t happen and have a big input into what does/doesn’t get measured.

    Often it is easier to measure what we can or do deliver (the stuff we often care about) rather than focusing on what measurements understand the difference/change in state for clients/service users (what we should really care about).

    The move from exposure to change to a resulting change of state is tough to measure and even harder to prove in fast iteration. My experience is this means it needs proxy measures often not considered rigorous enough. Or if you are seeking to prototype with extreme users/sub sets of populations new findings are challenged with a weight of existing evidence it’s impossible to challenge.

    This also means it can feel necessary to hide innovation away as putting new innovation projects into organisational assessment processes can feel like putting a baby in a boxing ring.

    I guess I’m making a plea for more innovation in outcome measurement.

  5. […] We can enshrine transparency as part of our values – with less talk of innovation and more demonstration of our impact. […]

  6. […] We Need Less Talk of Innovation and More Evidence of Impact Paul Taylor […]

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