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Is Your Innovation Project Condemned To Succeed?

The idea that any project might be condemned to succeed sounds like an oxymoron. But when it comes to innovation, the expectation that any one specific project should succeed can feel like condemnation. This is because the best way for companies to find good innovative ideas is for leaders to make small bets on multiple projects. Overtime, leaders can then increase their investments, but only in those projects that are showing traction.

This process contains an implicit acceptance that some innovation projects will fail and that investments in those projects will be discontinued. This process also takes away the exclusive focus on a single project that is, from the beginning, expected to bring significant returns.

The challenge in most organizations is that leaders are looking to make big bets on a few projects. These bets are typically based on asking innovation teams to create a business case before they receive investment. A business case showing good returns will receive investment with the expectation that it will succeed. The team is given no room for failure.

Below are three signs that your innovation project is condemned to succeed:

You Are The CEO’s Pet Innovation Project

Having the CEO’s backing for your innovation project can provide significant access to resources and open a lot of closed doors for your team. However, this support comes at a cost. A lot of these leaders have become successful in their careers by being right on most of the decisions they make. So when the CEO publicly backs your project, they have staked their reputation on your success. You are now condemned to succeed because you don’t want to be the one to tell the CEO that their pet project is a bad idea.

The Company Has Made A Large Investment

This problem is exacerbated if your team has received a large investment to work on the project. Most innovation teams lose the discipline to test their ideas if they have large budgets to spend. In most cases they burn through the money while executing on their original idea. By the time they learn that the idea may not work, they have already spent millions of dollars. At this point, admitting failure is career suicide.

You Are Being Celebrated As A Lighthouse Project

Imagine being the CEO’s pet project, having a large investment and then being publicly celebrated as a lighthouse project before you have made any money for the company. This public celebration of a single innovation project puts a lot of pressure on innovation teams to succeed. How can you be a lighthouse project and then admit failure? Such teams will do whatever it takes to engage in success theater.

The Outcome Of This Is Zombie Projects

When teams are afraid to fail, companies will end up with zombie projects. These are innovation projects that are not really showing traction but somehow keep going while receiving budgets every year. The only time a zombie project will die is if the team leader changes jobs. The best way to avoid zombie projects is to lower the stakes and consequences of failure. Making small bets lowers the cost of failure. Investing in multiple projects reduces the dependency on the success of one project. CEO’s should not have pet innovation projects. Instead, they should have pet innovation portfolios. Finally, no innovation project should be publicly celebrated before they have had success in the market.

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This article was first published on Forbes where Tendayi Viki is a regular contributor. Learn more at www.tendayiviki.com.

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