Why is it there's such a high failure rate in innovation efforts?
Why is it I run around talking about our (the departments) 10% success rate on new ideas and think that's a good performance?
And why is it that other organisations are thrilled when they get even one new thing out the door?
I think the answer is we've all programmed ourselves to think this innovation thing is hard, and since it is hard, you should only be successful some of the time.
I also think all this programming we're giving ourselves has become something of a self-fulfilling prophesy.
I mean, the reality of large organisations is that most of the preconditions for success are already present. There is never a lack of great ideas, for example. Ideas are bubbling around everywhere, and all you have to do is collect them. Neither do large organisations lack people who want to get things done: getting magic to happen is really a question of linking them up and giving them permission to do things.
Most importantly though – large organisations are paying more than lip service to their desire to be more innovative. In the last week, for example, I learned that two more banks have started new innovation programmes complete with massive budgets.
So why, why, why does this stuff keep failing?
My experience at Lloyds with Innovation Market, and more latterly at the DWP where we've built largely the same thing (we call it IdeaStreet) suggests part of the answer, to me at least.
Innovation is a social activity. People want to talk and share. They want to co-create. If you want people – of their own free will – to give you innovation, you must create a system that lets them link up with each other independently of any central effort and concentrate on the things they care about.
Why? I suspect potential innovators don't want to be little islands of greatness, trying to push uphill against the combined weight of everyone else trying to make things stay the same. That's very hard work; probably too hard most of the time, when you also have to do a day job.
When you have this situation, you only get innovation in the presence of individual heroics by very special, very rare people. Most organisations have too few of them to ever get reliability out of their innovation efforts. And, at the very best, you're only going to get one or two really meaningful things before your heroes burn out.
This, then, is the cause of all the failure: all those little islands having to push against the big corporate machine. You hear so many stories where even those at the top of organisations can't get anything done because all the machinery at lower levels frustrates their innovation efforts.
I say, if even those at the top of an organsiation can't mandate innovation, then you have little choice but to start innovation from the bottom up.
That's why building social innovation systems are important. People down the pecking order are very powerful agents for change when they band together to do something. And its the reason why central innovation efforts that only invest in big game changing things usually fail.