This piece first appeared on LinkedIn Pulse in 2015

Like many other designers, I am sure – I have a lot of personal war stories regarding companies that have tried – and failed – to run their own creative design or innovation programme. Instead of writing a long list of reasons why this often doesn’t work, I decided to try and tell it as a story:

The CEO looked round the boardroom at the assembled ‘Innovation Working Group’. It was a depressingly familiar scenario: the quarterly results showed Whatkins Components Ltd had once again failed to make it’s sales targets. Customer satisfaction was down, and to cap it all, the company’s largest account had just moved their business to Zeitgenosse Gmbh, Whatkins’ German competitor.

There was hushed silence in the boardroom as the quarterly ‘innovation group’ convened, ostensibly to work on ideas to improve customer experience.

“There’s actually nothing wrong with our product,” the Head of Engineering was saying, “It’s just that it takes us twice as long to ship custom items as the Germans, and we frequently lack the  visibility of our clients’ pipeline which would allow us to speed up production to meet orders in a timely fashion.”

The Head of IT was roused from his studied and visible contempt for the group’s purpose by the perceived slight to his systems:

“I hope you don’t think we’re going to change the backend architecture anytime soon?”, he barked. “I’ve explained it’s near to impossible as it is just to provide customers with order status online, and anyway, why would they want that? We’re not bloody Amazon, are we?”

“No,” The Director of Marketing piped up, “but we do lack their above-the-line visibility, our NPS scores show that our customer advocacy is low.”

What exactly, mused the CEO, were these things and what did they mean? The Director of Marketing frequently spoke a language that baffled her colleagues, with the result that she was frequently ignored.

“What we need,” she continued “is a new, engaging presence that communicates the vitality, innovation and technical leadership of our brand.”

The CEO surveyed the boardroom table. It was fair to say that these were not qualities which were obviously embodied by the assembled Whatkins management team.

“Do you mean,” said the Finance Director slowly, “that we need a new website?”

“Exactly,” said the Director of Marketing triumphantly.

“Why, what’s wrong with the current one?”

What indeed, wondered the CEO, other than it didn’t work on his iPad, frequently crashed browsers newer than IE8, and only last month a disabled rights group had threatened to take Whatkins to court because, it was claimed, a visually impaired customer had been complaining of headaches after visiting the site.

“Ahem,” interjected a new voice.

The Head of UX was a relatively recent hire and the first person to have held such a position at Whatkins. He had a degree in some kind of ‘multimedia’ studies and had worked for a successful tech startup. He was therefore widely regarded at Whatkins as a dangerous radical.

Needless to say, on his appointment, the Head of IT and the Director of Marketing had seen to it between them that Head of UX was a largely symbolic position by ensuring the role bore no responsibility for either user interface design or customer research.

In fact, the main reason for keeping the young man around, the CEO mused, was that his presence had effectively ended the internecine war between IT and Marketing by uniting them instinctively against a common foe.

“As I see it,” the Head of UX continued, “the main problem we have is that we don’t really know what problem we’re trying to solve.”

“Apparently, there’s nothing wrong with our product, so it’s open to conjecture why customers are moving to our competitors. There’s a total absence of insight about our customer experience – from our public website, our ordering tools and our backend processes.”

“Absence of insight?” yelled the Head of Data, who had been slumbering through the meeting like the Doormouse in Alice in Wonderland, “We’ve got Google Analytics!” He then promptly fell asleep again.

“It’s no good simply having an analytics tool,” said the Head of UX patiently. “We don’t have any idea what we ought to be measuring. All we use it for is to collect useless data like how many site visitors we have a month.”

“Does anybody know” he said, looking round the room “HOW exactly knowing that figure actually helps us?”

There was awkward silence. This, thought the CEO is why the Head of UX was not popular. He had an unfortunate habit of confronting people with their own incompetence.

“Do you mean,” said the Finance Director slowly, “that we DON’T need a new website?”

“I’m not saying anything of the sort!” snapped the Head of UX. “We don’t have the first idea why customers are leaving. First, we need genuine customer insight. Then and only then, we can start to identify what’s going wrong and create a strategy to address it.”

“Ah now that’s business strategy” the Head of IT rejoined triumphantly “This is an innovation meeting! I have to say Jeff, I’m rather disappointed that as Head of User Experience you haven’t got something more constructive to contribute!”

There was yet another awkward silence in the room.

“What about a mobile app?” the Finance Director, who hated conflict, suddenly blurted out.

A ripple of murmured approval ran round the room.

“Mobile apps are great for customer engagement and it would reinforce our brand as a technically dynamic organisation.” said the Director of Marketing.

“As long as it doesn’t have any dependency on architecture – knock yerself out!” shrugged the Head of IT.

“Sounds like a goer” said the CEO brightly. It wasn’t often the Innovation Group ever came up with any concrete suggestions, and he was determined to close the meeting before any malingerers could ruin the consensus.

“Google Analytics!” murmured the Head of Data without waking up.

They left him there and went to lunch.


Innovation in a corporate environment is a difficult thing to achieve. It requires the right mix of  culture,  environment, mindset, skills and personalities. It’s astonishing how often one finds groups of people in companies attempting to ‘innovate’ their way out of trouble without paying attention to any of the required  conditions for creative design thinking.

The above was written in an attempt to characterise some of the failings and  worst practices of large companies who attempt to dip their toes into the practice of ‘innovation’. I imagine at least some of these were familiar to you, and there are, of course many more than I’ve managed to capture here.

Nonetheless by way of explanation, here’s the key “ingredients for failure” I tried to capture in this story:
1. Weak leadership

Many companies are effectively run by consensus, with management seeing it’s main function to try and ‘bring everyone along’ with them rather than dictating direction and policy. Although this kind of inclusiveness is admirable in many ways, it’s anathema to innovation. There will always be a need for consultation and collaboration, but a clear vision and strategic direction dictated by management  is required to provide focus and drive for creative thinking.

2. Legacy thinking

It sounds bizarre but Whatkins Ltd are not alone in expecting a team of people who have never created anything to lead an innovation process. Many managers are in fact, maintainers who have inherited the role and everything that comes with it from their predecessors. Mostly they will have done little more than monitor and refine a process, but most will have almost no experience of  creating anything. Expecting such people to manage a process which creates innovative ideas is plainly madness.

3.  Protectionism

This one’s as old as the hills, but the sad truth is that in many organisations, politics govern the management of products and services. Too many managers instinctively guard their own little empires rather than open their doors to new approaches and ideas. This makes collaborative and cross-functional approaches which are essential for innovation impossible.
3. Lack of primary evidence /customer insight

Given all the problems they are experiencing, the Whatkins stakeholders display a remarkable lack of curiosity about their customers experience, and why they are leaving. The starting point should be trying to get some kind of insight into what is going wrong. This can only happen through direct contact with customers. Unfortunately, like other organisations with well-established business models and no tradition of design thinking, they place little value in rich, qualitative insight. Instead they place their faith in quantitative measures like Net Promoter Score (NPS) and analytics data. To be absolutely clear, used correctly NPS and analytics are powerful tools – but all too often they are badly applied to provide a thin veneer of statistical validity which can be confused with insight. So instead of taking an evidence-based approach to innovation, the Whatkins management attempt to come up with solutions based on untried and untested hypotheses about what their customers want.
5. ‘One Good Apple’ approach to customer-centricity and design

Customer/User Experience and other design skills are increasingly being brought in house by companies. Unfortunately, these roles are often not well-integrated with the rest of the organisation with the result that the first hire is often a frustrated and isolated individual with no real responsibility or influence. Additionally, in our story, the Head of UX may well be the voice of reason but they are doing themselves no favours with their approach. It’s all very well to be an evangelist for customer-centricity, but constantly finding fault with your colleagues is not the way to make friends and influence people!
6. Solutions in search of problems

Stakeholders with failing products or services often grasp at new technologies like a drowning man clutching at straws. Used intelligently, mobile apps and other technologies are powerful tools for customer engagement. However, in this context they are being applied thoughtlessly as a sticking plaster for inadequate basic services and processes. Innovation processes must begin with problems and opportunities, potential technology solutions can wait till later.

There’s more to be added to this list – come on, I know some of you must have suggestions….I am interested to imagine how Whatkins could be an even more ghastly place to work.*

*Whatkins Ltd and Zeitgenosse Gmbh and their staff are fictional creations and not to be confused with any real company or individual – similarly named or otherwise. They are composites of aspects of many businesses and persons I have encountered in my career. None of the characters is based on solely on any one individual (and thankfully none of them work for the same company in real life!)