Archives for posts with tag: lessons learned

At the end of projects, it is common to conduct a retrospective meeting to learn what could be done better next time. While this is certainly good practice, it does not help those who are beginning a new innovation project for the first time. What lessons learned will hindsight reveal with painful accuracy only at the end of the project?

In the spirit of trying to avoid learning things the hard way, I queried the members of the LinkedIn group Innovation Management: How do innovation projects go wrong? Four members shared their insights from many years as innovation consultants. This informal survey yielded some familiar responses that I have organized below.

Internal alignment

A lack of internal alignment is often talked about as groups look back over failed projects. While this term is often used, it’s not a single issue. A lack of alignment, or disagreements, latent or expressed, can occur at a number of different places within an organization that will harm project outcomes.

Cross-functional teams might never gel or overcome organizational silos. A skunk works team might be so separate from the internal politics of an organization that they fail to get the management support that they need when they attempt a full scale pilot within the larger organization. Still worst, an outside consultant might encourage wild ideas to foment disruptive change projects only to discover that the ideas are far from the firm’s corporate strategy. These examples illustrate just a few of the ways that a lack of alignment can harm a project.

Crossed Incentives

skunk worksSometimes poor alignment is not simply caused by poor communication. Individual and organizational incentives play a role in subtly undermining internal alignment on a project. When I was working on a new product development project within a large software vendor, I learned that the team was very concerned about the appeal of the product for both prospective customers and a group within the company that would do the promotions and trainings of sales teams on new products. They needed the latter in order to get out of the building with a new product.

Unfortunately, even with strong customer interest for the new product (and executive support of the underlining technology), they failed to get the intermediary group aligned. This group saw the product as a threat because it involved tying together two separate divisions within the organization—two divisions that were not accustomed to collaborating and were accountable to separate VPs. It was unclear how individuals would be compensated for a product that was not wholly from within their division. Thus, the project failed to find traction and support to exit the R&D phase.

Need for Market Information

Another strong tendency on the part of organizations that are developing new product or technologies is to want to keep them secret for as long as possible. Organizations are motivated by the understandable desire to prevent their competition from commercializing their new ideas before you can. While there are some differing opinions on the frequency with which trade secrets are actually successfully exploited by outsiders, the practice of maintaining confidentiality is very common within enterprise R&D departments.

The challenge to innovation execution arises from the need to understand the customer segment, test prototypes, and clear any other market or regulatory barriers before spending a lot of time and money on an innovation project. I imagine the new product development process like building a bridge where work must done from both sides at the same time. One side is the product or technology side and the other is the market and regulatory context.

It’s no wonder that many products fail. New product development and innovation projects in general are hard work that for medium- to large-sized companies involve the active collaboration of many people and the strong support of the executives or upper management.


SFU’s Radius had a sold-out crowd at the Portside Pub in Gastown for their first ever Social Entrepreneur Failure Wake last night. When I first heard about it, I thought that the idea of sharing stories about failed social ventures would be a good source of leads for the blog. I had no idea how educational and inspiring it would be. It was also a lot of fun.

The idea was simple. They would take over a pub, sell tickets, get brand name sponsorship from Vancity, and find some entrepreneurs to tell their stories about how their social ventures had reached their untimely ends.

At the heart of the event was the idea to embrace failure and with it, the rich learning and practical experience that will bring later success. I felt that this mindset aligns well with the practices of Design Thinking and Lean Startup that I have been chronicling in this blog.

Everyone loves a good story and perhaps more than success, a story about failure makes a compelling tale. Tragedy, it seems, captures our attention, but also serves a larger point. The stories contained salient, often emotional, messages about wrong turns and missed opportunities.

First up was a story about Ecotrust Canada’s efforts to build the local economy on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Satnam Manhas told the story of how there was no shellfish processing facilities in the Clayoquot Sound area when Ecotrust began their project to get local processing of shellfish for area residents and resorts. New federal food safety rules resulted in additional expenses for the recently up and running facility, yet the original equity owners were not able to pitch in to cover the unforeseen costs. Other problems mounted and the plant had to close soon thereafter.

Chantelle Buffie and Sonam Swarup

Young entrepreneurs Chantelle Buffie and Sonam Swarup of Fusion Kitchen traded the microphone back and forth as they told their touching story of a classroom project turned social venture. Their idea was to create community and connections for recent immigrants through cooking classes. The cooking classes were a platform for immigrant women to gain work experience, develop their transferable skillsets, and build their self-confidence to increase their employment opportunities in Canada. They had a great series of lessons learned that I only wish I had a pen to note down.

Finally, Grace Sai, founder of Hub Singapore gave a talk about an early mistake she made in her choice of who to partner with. She also spoke movingly of the challenge of balancing vulnerability with showing strength in leadership. I had to laugh when she confessed to the audience that her therapist had asked her, ‘don’t you think that Obama cries sometimes?’

At the conclusion of each presentation, Mike Rowlands of Junxion Strategy threw an Irish accent and delivered elegant toasts as the speakers were offered Jameson Irish Whiskey. It was a playful, yet thoughtful, way to show appreciation to the entrepreneurs for their courage, passion, and reflection.

As I rode my bike home, surprisingly I felt full of inspiration—not despair. Here was a community that would support you, in both your successes and in your failures. What more could you ask for as a social entrepreneur?