How To Kill Innovation In 10 Easy Steps

Many of our organisations, without realising it, act as inhibitors of innovation.

Rules and protocols are put in place — often for very good reasons — that preserve the status quo. Over time, organisations develop a set of social norms — ‘the way we do things around here’ designed to protect the business from failure.

It’s time to refresh the innovation killers list for 2017..


ISO9000 (and other process management systems like it, such as Six Sigma, and Lean):  are shown to increase reliability.

However, in the longer term, they can make radical innovation plummet.

Systems that are good for one thing are not always good for another and you need to create a mix of exploration and implementation.

Fear of Failure

To successfully tackle the problems we face we need to experiment more. Many of those experiments just won’t work.

If we want to see a radical improvement in our services we’ll need to be forgiven by our organisations. We need places where people feel safe to fail. Where they won’t get punished for messing up.


Most corporate structures are uniquely designed to ensure that any decent idea never goes near the top table. Structures that support hierarchical decision-making limit opportunities for people to have influence and innovate.

The higher an idea moves up the chain of command, the more likely it is to be rejected, as the people furthest from the idea’s source will have a lesser understanding of its potential value.

Being Solution Focused

Innovation is fundamentally about solving problems, and you need to figure out what kind of problem you are trying to solve before identifying a solution.
Most organisations are solution focused. If you jump straight to answers two things happen:
  • you spend too little time on idea generation, experimenting, and thinking.
  • you miss the root cause entirely and embark on silver bullet solutions to the wrong problem.


What if we made it the number one objective of management to just get out of the way?

Most systems work best if they are kept simple rather than made complicated; therefore simplicity should be a key goal in management and unnecessary complexity should be avoided. Are you a simplifier or a complexifier?

Prescriptive job design

Job descriptions are like organisational treacle. They cause inertia because the moment employees are given specific responsibilities they expect them to stand still. Specialisation and compartmentalisation reduce autonomy, variety and meaning in jobs, causing people to focus on ‘just doing the job’.

Silo Working

It’s hard to innovate when people work in silos. Splitting teams into isolated units limit the ability to identify which areas could be combined to create new products and services. Silos are great for teamwork, but a barrier to external collaboration. And in a networked era – we need to adopt very different strategies.

Lack of resources

Innovation is not about doing more stuff but doing less. We need to have honest conversations about decommissioning non-value-added services. Go to your website and find five things you could stop doing today.


Meetings are the number one idea killer in any organisation.

Meetings can crush ideas. They are all too often a corporate power play where ego runs rampant. People want to look like they are adding something in meetings and being hypercritical is highly valued. Putting your freshly hatched idea in that scenario is asking for trouble.

Reports and approvals

Let’s stop writing reports and use the resources to create a space where an idea can take its first few breaths without someone trampling all over it. Let it come to life in a nurturing environment through prototyping and testing – where we can see if it solves the right problems.

It’s time for us to stop talking and to start experimenting.

Saying you’re different isn’t enough – you have to act differently. 

How To Find And Kill Zombie Projects

According to Clayton Christensen , of the 30,000 new consumer products that are launched each year – 95% fail.

Compare this with the public, voluntary and non-profit sectors – where hardly anything fails.

The social sector must either be fantastic at launching new initiatives, or there’s a lot of things going on that shouldn’t still be living.

Scott D. Anthony has defined the organisational zombie as those initiatives that fail to fulfill their promise and yet keep shuffling along, sucking up resources without any real hope of having a meaningful impact.

They may be started through the best of intentions, but for all sorts of reasons they are failing. Just no-one wants to admit it.

Why is that?

Let’s look at zombies.

Night Of The Living Dead – 1968
George A. Romero , who sadly passed away this week,  created a defining trilogy of horror films between 1968 and 1985.

They were audacious for the time – he cast a black lead for his first film, released the same year Martin Luther King was assassinated.

Far from being splatter movies – they were stories about racism, consumerism and militaristic aggression.

Ultimately the message from Romero was this:

  • We should avoid group think
  • We should never stop asking questions or just mindlessly follow orders
  • We should never lose our sense of individuality

Zombie projects occur when all these factors converge and confirmation bias sets in. Even though everyone knows this isn’t really working, we carry on regardless.

As Paul Hackett said this week  , the social sector can get pretty much get away with poor decisions without it impacting turnover. In other sectors the share price takes a hit and executives get sacked.

The lack of a conventional market, and no customer walk away point, means projects can be propped up artificially using someone else’s money.

We need to refine our skills at spotting and killing wasteful activities.

In the movies and TV the conventional way to stop a zombie is to drive a sharp implement into the brain of anyone who shuffles along aimlessly.

As tempting as that is for those of us who’ve endured endless meetings – we don’t need to take such drastic action.

Zombies hate just five questions:

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In an era of scant resource and unmet need, spotting zombies is a vital part of leadership. Innovation is happening faster than we can adapt to it – and freeing up resources is vital. Investment must equal impact or we are simply sabotaging our future.

As part of the work we’ve been doing on Bromford 2.0 we recognise that slaying zombies is just part of good governance. Innovation is all about discipline in the creation and implementation of new ideas that create value.

However it’s all about stopping doing things too. As a general rule each new service or activity should lead to the decommissioning of an existing one.  We’ve designed this principle to ensure we stick to it:

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People are losing faith in institutions as they are not seeing the kind of social outcomes they expect.

Today it’s the execution and impact of innovation and change that really matters rather than the cheerleading.

There needs to be as much enthusiasm for stopping the old as there is for starting the new. 

RIP George Romero. Stay dead.

Stop Talking, Start Experimenting

Thinking different isn’t enough, you have to act different – Jorge Barba

I took a call this week from a person working for another organisation, we’ll call her Bill.

Despite having a hugely supportive executive team the problems Bill faces are numerous:

  • Managers are asking why are we working on a new initiative when the priority is just to keep income coming in.
  • People are questioning when we will ever see any results? They say projects take too long and cost too much money.
  • It takes a long time to get new projects approved – there are exhaustive reports to be submitted to make a business case.
  • There are four tiers of management between Bill and the CEO and a lot of internal stakeholders to get on board.

The big problem here is divergence of priorities.

Senior management anticipate the brand new shiny innovation ideas and front-line colleagues can’t wait to be rid of their daily frustrations. However there are a whole group of people in the middle who don’t have an interest in either of these things and have the potential to slow things down.

The role of the middle manager is to hit targets and keep the business running. They are not intentional blockers but anything new that gets thrown at them is just another thing that threatens efficiency.

They have a different set of values to the innovators and creatives.

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What often happens is organisations confuse these two things – innovation and business as usual. As Victor W. Hwang has written – the values are opposed. Successful companies must exist in both worlds—innovation and production—simultaneously.  That’s hard to do.

Good ideas fail because they can’t cross the cultural barrier between innovation and production. What we need to do as organisations is to create the conditions for these to co-exist and establish a handover point from innovation to business as usual.

My advice was built around four points:

Screen Shot 2017-07-02 at 11.00.08Most organisations understand incremental change – change that doesn’t fundamentally challenge how the organisation works. Radical change is where we struggle.

Innovation is not a commodity or something you can contain in a project. It means creating space – physically and mentally – where we are free to challenge business as usual, actively take on the dominant culture and think beyond existing roles, budgets and structures.

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Managers are often right to question new initiatives as they are often solution focussed rather than problem focused. One of the most crucial causes of failure is the right questions were never asked at the outset.

  • What problem are we trying to solve?
  • How do we know this is a real problem?
  • Why is it important to solve?
  • How will we know if we’ve solved the problem?

Answering those first will save you a heap of time and get your innovation efforts taken a lot more seriously.

Screen Shot 2017-07-02 at 11.00.56When you don’t really know the way forward the best strategy is to spread your bets with small experiments. It’s these practical tests that show whether the fundamental assumptions about radical innovation are correct and what they mean for your business.

The challenge we all face is shifting our learning from slow and expensive to fast and cheap.

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We need to move from reporting about things we are going to do and shift it to things we have done.

Spend less time talking about ‘What would happen?’ and start demonstrating ‘What happened’.  That means we need to get comfortable reporting on intelligent failure and what we learned as a result.

Having a strategy based on small losses takes most of the risk out of innovation.

To transform our organisations, we must live with two sets of values simultaneously. 

We need to be boringly effective and radically disruptive at the same time.  That sometimes happens by keeping the right people apart from one another.

The trick is knowing when and how to bring them together.

Thanks to Tom Hartland for the illustrations. 

Complex Problems Require Rapid Experiments

“Multiple iterations almost always beat a single-minded commitment to building your first idea”Peter Skillman

Most of you will have taken part in the Marshmallow Challenge or a variant of it. It’s the team exercise where you get a load of spaghetti, some tape, a marshmallow, a piece of string, and 18 minutes to build the tallest freestanding structure.

Peter Skillman, who devised it, found something fascinating when he tested it on multiple participants.

Children out performed most groups – including business school students and CEOs.

When Vicky Green repeated this experiment in Bromford Lab a couple of years ago – the team that did worst were…..our Project Managers.


How is it that a bunch of kids can beat trained professionals at a fairly basic task?

First of all they are unconstrained by assumptions. In one of the tests they did something that no other group did – they asked for more spaghetti.

Instead of wasting time figuring out team roles and who should do what they jumped straight in and started creating. They experimented endlessly, and just built the tallest tower they could.

Essentially – they didn’t waste time with status games, they were willing to experiment and they weren’t afraid to look stupid and fail.

Messy problems require creative exploration, not management toolkits.

Lessons in Change and Transformation

As part of a work project I’m involved in we’ve been kicking around a problem for the past few months: how do you turn around one of our most demand led services from reactive to pre-emptive?

I’ve come to a realisation over the past couple of weeks that despite all the knowledge and expertise in the organisation – none of us really have a clue. The only way out of it is to start experimenting.

The art of management is an endless search for silver bullet solutions.  For certainty where there is often none.

Chris Bolton has written a great couple of posts recently on management fads and silver bullet syndrome.  This is the belief that the next big change in tools, resources or procedures will miraculously or magically solve all of an organisation’s problems.

Once you recognise Silver Bullet Syndrome you will see it everywhere. In management reports, in public policy, and in the final week of UK election campaigning – on every single news bulletin.

It’s actually very easy to sell Silver Bullets. To stand in front of people and do a PowerPoint presentation with a perfectly articulated way of getting from A to B, without any actual evidence.

It takes real bottle though to say you haven’t a clue how to resolve this.

That you can’t solve this on your own.

That you need everyone’s creativity and input.

That you know the first solutions you come up with will almost definitely fail.

It used to be cool to pretend you had all the answers but today’s complex problems require rapid experimentation not silver bullets.

If a problem has existed in your organisation for a long time it’s almost guaranteed not to be solved at your first attempt.

I’m looking at a test plan from Tom Hartland and thinking how to sell it. It essentially says “I’m sorry I haven’t a clue – I’ll tell you after the first 20 tests”. He’s right.

The best way to combat uncertainty is to spread your bets with small experiments.

None of us can afford to wait for the opportunity that’s perfectly safe.

How Much Good Does Your Organisation Really Achieve?

We don’t usually think of achievements in terms of what would have happened otherwise, but we should. What matters is not who does good but whether good is done.” ― William MacAskill, Doing Good Better

We all love an uplifting story of a simple innovation that solves a tricky social problem.

Anyone who’s been to a poor country will probably have seen women pumping water for their families in searing heat from a communal well.

That was the problem the PlayPump set out to fix. By getting children to play on a merry-go-round to pump water it hoped to transform back breaking manual labour into a leisure activity.

The more a child spins the more life saving water gets pumped – with playground equipment something they had never seen before in their lives. Kids are happy, Mum’s happy.

Ingenious , right?


Despite numerous innovation awards, millions of dollars spent and endorsements from the likes of Bill Clinton and Jay Z , no one had really considered the practicalities of the PlayPump.

  • In order to pump water, PlayPumps needed constant force, and the kids playing on them would quickly get exhausted or even injured.
  • The women whose lives were supposed to be made easier ended up pushing the merry-go-round themselves, which they found more tiring and time consuming than using a hand-pump.
  • And unlike the hand-pump, which locals could repair themselves using their own skills , the PlayPump required expensive outside assistance.

Critically – the Merry-Go-Round required continuous use for 27 hours to generate the same amount of water as the hand-pump did in a day.

PlayPumps are a critical lesson in learning from failure.

The book by William MacAskill has a stark warning for the social sector:

When it comes to helping others being unreflective often means being ineffective.

Today we need less talk of innovation and more evidence of impact. All of us need to demonstrate how we solve problems for people, how we realise savings, and how we make the world a better place.

That means answering difficult questions.


MacAskill adds another question that is a recurring motif throughout his book:

What would have happened anyway?

It’s a question we hardly ever consider.

Suppose we did nothing.

Is it possible that similar social outcomes could be achieved without us getting involved? In the case of the PlayPump it seems so.

The social sector – in the UK alone – is worth billions so it’s only right that we get better at scrutinising the effectiveness of all the players.

If your role is to deliver social outcomes then you have a responsibility to articulate how those outcomes have been achieved. And those outcomes should demonstrate what you uniquely brought to the party – rather than what would have happened anyway.

To use a couple of examples using this thinking let’s look at the world of housing associations, the main providers of affordable housing in the UK.

  • Housing Associations will often claim social impact as they build a certain number of new homes every year. For example let’s say they claim to have built 200 annually. However had they done nothing it’s almost certain that those homes would have been built anyway – by one of the other 900+ housing non-profits that exist. The same overall number of homes would be supplied. To the people moving in it’s largely irrelevant which housing association manage them. Arguably the average landlord confers no more social benefits or quality of life to the tenant compared to anyone else.
  • Another common claim is the number of people an organisation has helped into employment. Again – what would happen if, say, you didn’t give any help to 100 unemployed people? The jobs would almost certainly still get filled regardless. The people may have gained jobs without your help. It’s even plausible that they might have gained better paying or more rewarding jobs if they’d never laid sight on you.

Just because you’re involved with a social activity does not mean you can claim causation. Just because you do good does not mean you are good at achieving social outcomes.

You can certainly see why organisations make claims of social impact without evidence or even exaggerate their role in it – it’s great for marketing.

The Fairtrade movement has altered the buying habits of thousands of us. But despite a $7billion a year industry in ‘fairer’ coffee, clothing and other goods there’s limited evidence of the impact on the actual workers involved.

In an era where there is a trust deficit – where belief in charities and non-profits is no longer implicit – it’s the responsibility of all us to go beyond traditional marketing and provide a persuasive evidence base for the impact of our work.

As MacAllister points out – how much good you achieve is the difference between what happens as a result of your actions and what would have happened anyway.

Arguably if the organisation you work for cannot demonstrate equal or better social outcomes than your peers – there’s simply no reason for it to exist.

Embracing Challenge to Build a Stronger Innovation Culture



Just as your body is designed to fight a common cold, most of our cultures protect the organisational DNA from any antibodies. Add something new and it can get rejected.

As Chris Bolton has written organisations can have immune systems and idea antibodies. As Chris says – It’s not personal. It’s just an automatic survival mechanism.

The stronger your culture – the more resistant it can be to change.

The challenge then is not to embark upon another change programme , but to disrupt your culture.

I’m writing this on the way to talk to a group of Non Executive Board Members alongside Helen Bevan – on the subject of embracing challenge to build a stronger innovation culture.

We need a system upgrade for sure.

What does a 2.0 version of organisational change look like?



At Bromford we’ve learned to distinguish between wicked problems which might require widespread organisational change – and the smaller changes and innovations we can introduce from the edges.

Scalable innovation in our world is often about joining the dots & making optimal investments. Marginal gains rather than big bang programmes. This involves less reporting and more doing. Discreet tests and pilots that explore a new world without fully committing to it.

However – larger scale innovation dies or thrives from the top. Accordingly the role of Boards in understanding the process of transformation, and the innovation culture it requires to thrive, cannot be underplayed.

nhf-boards-paul-taylor-2Boards themselves, not just executives, need to reflect on whether innovation receives sufficient attention during meetings, and also consider what role they should play in supporting transformative efforts. Supporting the attitudes and mindset from which effective innovation is born is a responsibility of all leaders.

Establishing a governance that supports disruption

If the culture is risk averse you have a problem as innovation always entails risk. A culture of innovation must accept and even encourage considered risk-taking – including failure.

Risk-aversion of corporate governance structures has the potential to quash innovation.

The organisation of the future will be one that differentiates their customer experience from the competition. Those who rip the rulebook apart, rather than slavishly follow the herd,  will be rewarded.

Giving people permission to create new rules is the quickest way to eliminate fear , the biggest enemy of innovation.

There’s an inherent tension here – and for good reason. Permissions need to be managed or chaos reigns.  The trick is finding the balance – and creating an innovation process that also practices good risk management.


The first step to change is recognising there is  often a cognitive bias against new introductions.

Most Change Fails because the case for change has not been made strongly enough and communicated well enough.  If it’s only leaders and managers who understand why the change is important it’s doomed.

Our track record of introducing change programmes is abysmal. And yet we now need to rewire our organisations for disruption.

What does a 2.0 version of organisational change look like?

It’s less a time limited programme and more a way of life.

It’s a culture where everyone is actively questioning the status quo and is rewarded for it.

It’s a culture that constantly asks: “How can we do this better?” or “What would we do if we started again?”.

It’s a culture that can sustain as much rapid change as possible without falling apart.