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  • Writer's pictureMichael Seeley

Unraveling the Chaos: Why Innovation Can Feel Intimidating and Overly Complex

Updated: Dec 27, 2023

Hello everyone and welcome back to the “Chaos to Clarity” newsletter series, where we provide you with the insights, strategies, and perspectives that will empower you to not just survive but to thrive in the midst of navigating the complexities of innovation.

First off, I hope this issue finds everyone in good spirits as we approach the holiday season and a brand new year in 2024! 

In this first official issue, we're untangling the intricacies of innovation to understand why innovation can feel so complex, chaotic, and “just so damn hard to navigate.”

First, we'll unpack some of the major gaps and barriers to innovation as a whole, and understand why they exist. We'll explore the types of environments that make it most challenging to turn innovative ideas into tangible results and then we'll help provide a few tips and strategies to help identify and navigate these obstacles in the future.

The Harsh Reality of Innovation Today

While 90% of organizations still agree that innovation is critical for success,

only 25% of all innovations reach the market after development has started. 

- How can this be?

Innovation is just something that has always been elusive. Unless you are wired to love solving complex challenges and navigating ambiguity on a regular basis, most individuals and organizations are not always very excited to get involved, or support. It takes a certain type or person and team to drive innovative change. 

We’ve all been there.  Either as an contributing innovator, constantly frustrated by how many great ideas never becoming a reality, or as a leader, tired of having to pull the plug on innovative initiatives after countless resources are spent. 

Its clear to most that Innovation is a powerful growth engine, so we don't need to spend too much time communicating the importance of it. We instead must focus on why so little innovation seems to make it through the infamous commercialization gauntlet. How can we close in on this growing gap between starting innovation and seeing results in the market place more often?

Let's untangle this together starting at the very beginning. 

What is Innovation?

A dangerous section to include in an article written to innovators, I know...

However, I'm a firm believer that if your going to master anything, you first have to start with a deep understanding of what something is and why it exists in the first place. 

If you can define the purpose and it's intent, the path to achieve it becomes clearer.

Defining Innovation:

The creation of value is the defining characteristic of innovation.

Innovation in the broadest sense of the term can be summarized academically when a domain, product, or service is renewed and brought into modern relevance by applying new processes, introducing new techniques, and/or actualizing new ideas to create value. 

At a higher level, and personal perspective, I believe true Innovation comes from finding meaning in chaos and understanding the beauty and value of uncertainty.

Innovation in Two Forms

I'll never forget asking the question as a young professional. "Is innovation a process or an outcome?" One of the unfortunate contributors to innovation's ambiguity is that it's actually both. Even worse, innovation (as a word) is used everywhere, and has become a buzzword in the business world. It often takes on many different contexts and gets thrown around and used for many different things without proper meaning and that's where misinterpretation, confusion and the dilution of value begins. 

So let's break it down:

Understanding innovation involves both recognizing it as an ongoing process and appreciating its tangible outcomes.

  1. Innovation, (as an act) is the process of introducing new, improved, or significantly different ideas, methods, products, or services to create value or solve problems. It's about taking a risk to investigate the unknown and seek value in uncertainty, to improve or progress our lives through change. 

  2. Innovation, (as an output) is the tangible result of creative thinking and problem-solving processes. It often includes the introduction of new or significantly improved products, services, processes, or solutions that bring about positive change, value creation, and advancements in various fields.

In Summary, Innovation stands as a dynamic force, weaving together the courage to venture into the unknown, the embrace of risk, and the quest for value in uncertainty uncovering valuable solutions to improve our way of life.

Functioning both as an act and an outcome, Innovation plays a pivotal role in introducing novel ideas, methods, and solutions. These processes and outcomes contribute to positive change, driving value creation, and spearheading advancements across diverse fields. 

The ongoing pursuit of innovation not only defines our progress but also shapes a future marked by continual improvement and positive transformation.

Now, with innovation more clearly defined we can move on to understanding some of the natural barriers are and how to overcome them.

Human Nature : Our Tendency to Resist Change

Understanding human nature reveals a common thread amongst many of us: a resistance to change. 

People naturally yearn for consistency, ease, and certainty, seeking stability and predictability in their lives. Uncertainty, risk, and change often evoke discomfort, prompting people to gravitate towards familiar routines and known outcomes. 

This resistance is not just limited to work; it permeates various aspects of life. 

Unfortunately, this inclination poses a challenge for innovation, a process inherently tied to risk-taking, exploring the unknown, and finding value in uncertainty. 

People don’t like Uncertainty

Many often seek stability and predictability in their lives. Uncertainty can create anxiety, and people may naturally gravitate toward situations where outcomes are more predictable.

People don’t like Risk

The aversion to risk is related to the desire for certainty. People tend to prefer known outcomes over potential losses, even if the potential gains are attractive.

People don’t like Change

Change can be unsettling because it requires adaptation and adjustment. Many individuals find comfort in familiar routines and environments, and disruptions can be perceived as threats.

People don’t like Work

While people in general often resist and mitigate strenuous or tedious work, it's also human nature to seek purpose and accomplishment. Meaningful work can be fulfilling and satisfying, it's the excessive or unrewarding effort that may be met with resistance.

Most human beings want Consistent, Easy, Risk-Free Certainty in their lives.

Why is this bad for innovation?

In a nut shell, the very qualities that drive innovation – embracing risk and change – are the ones that often clash with human instincts for consistency and certainty. This very opposition forms a critical barrier to the forward momentum of innovation in our lives still to this day.

Let's dive into ways to identify and cope with these oppositions:

Tips to Navigate Innovation with Those Who Resistant Change 

Navigating the friction between human nature and innovation requires a thoughtful approach that acknowledges and addresses the inherent resistance to change. Here are some strategies to help identify and overcome this challenge:

  1. Acknowledge and Understand Resistance: Recognize and accept the natural human inclination to resist change. By understanding this resistance as a common trait, individuals can approach it with empathy, both towards themselves and others.

  2. Communicate the Purpose of Innovation Clearly: Clearly connect and articulate the purpose and benefits of innovation. When individuals understand how innovation can positively impact their lives, they may become more open to embracing change. Highlight the potential improvements and positive outcomes that innovation can bring.

  3. Create a Culture of Continuous Learning: Foster a culture that values continuous learning and adaptation. Emphasize that innovation is not always about abrupt, disruptive change but can be a gradual and purposeful evolution. Encourage curiosity and a willingness to explore new ideas, making learning an ongoing and rewarding process.

  4. Start Small and Build Momentum: Start small, and show value quickly with manageable changes. By demonstrating the positive impact of incremental innovations, individuals are more likely to overcome their resistance to larger, more transformative changes. Building momentum through small wins can create a more receptive mindset.

  5. Connect Innovation to Personal Values: Help individuals see the alignment between their personal values and the goals of innovation. When people understand how innovation can enhance their lives, work, or communities in ways that matter to them, they are more likely to embrace the associated changes.

  6. Provide Support and Resources: Offer resources and support to help individuals navigate the innovation process. This may include training programs, workshops, or access to tools that facilitate creative thinking and problem-solving. A supportive environment can make the journey less intimidating.

  7. Encourage a Growth Mindset: Foster a growth mindset that views challenges as opportunities for learning and improvement. Discomfort associated with change is a natural part of growth, and embracing it can lead to personal and professional development.

  8. Celebrate Successes: Celebrate and highlight success stories resulting from innovation efforts. Sharing positive outcomes reinforces the benefits of embracing change and motivates others to overcome their resistance. Recognize and reward innovative thinking and contributions.

By incorporating these strategies, you can guide your team in identifying and navigating the friction between human nature and innovation, fostering a more innovation-friendly mindset and culture.

Now on to the next area of focus as we further unravel barriers to innovation success, the complexities of corporate environments:

Corporate Complexity

An environment that many of us reading this article have experienced is navigating complex organizations and chaotic corporate processes.

This section will help us break down why some organizations are more difficult to navigate than others, and ways to better equip you and your team to more easily succeed, deliver more purposeful innovation and achieve success more often.

Let's first break down a certain type of organization that is the worst defender against innovation, and fosters a certain type of culture and complexity that often proves the most challenging for innovators to navigate. 

Most of you know who they are, especially if you work for one - The Defensive Conservative types.

Defensive and Conservative : A focus on Resiliency & Optimization

Whether you'd like to admit it or not - if you work in a medium to large scale organization chances are that scale has come from a long road of incremental and optimization based growth.  Most of these groups have not operated in an offensive posture or disruptive mindset in years.  They’ve instead spent their resources on standardizing and streamlining processes, reducing resource waste & spend, optimizing various "easy to quantify" areas of the company, like logistics efficiency modeling, supply chain optimization, cost and pricing models, etc.  These are important, but often indicate priorities that compete with direct, consumer facing innovation investments or longer-term growth strategies.

The overly complex processes, overpopulated meetings, and layers upon layers of decision hierarchy you experience day to day are a direct result of your organization trying to maintain control and mitigate risk in order to maintain current positioning. Typically, the bigger you are the higher the risk off loss.

This push for “optimization” and resilience all stems from an organization reaching a point of success where leadership and/or key stakeholders decide that a transition to a more defensive strategy and maintaining the company’s current positioning is more important than continuing the initial “more risky” growth trajectory. In most instances this means abandoning or substantially slowing what has yielded the company’s success up to that point. 

While this topic and transitional phase from offense to defense many companies go through is fascinating, it is very complex and must be saved for another day... 

What is important to understand and take away from this reality, is that when this strategic shift or “defensive transition” does happen within an organization, the harder and harder it gets for innovation and innovative solutions to navigate and augment within the organization, and the longer it has been since that transition the harder it is to balance it with any form of offensive activity. 

These defensive organizations are focused on maintaining course, and are more concerned with losing their position in the market rather than widening the gap between them and their closest inferior competitor. 

These groups are often (unfortunately) also tasked with keeping shareholders happy on a shorter time base than most product development companies can bear.  It keeps leadership focused on shorter and shorter measurements, making long-range planning, and more strategic innovation difficult. A great article “Short-Termism is harming the Economy” By Warren E. Buffett & Jamie Dimon that touches on this very topic and is important for any innovation professional to understand.

So what does this all mean?

It means that most larger industry leading companies today still struggle to innovate due to its internal culture.  Not because they don’t believe innovation is important, but because they believe maintaining the current position and “rate of success” is MORE important.


Identifiers that your organization is likely in Defense Mode:

It is an OLD Company

Many established consumer product organizations of commercial scale still stem or originate from before or around the industrial revolution.  They have spent years and years growing and scaling and establishing some form of market dominance to still exist today. 

It’s a LARGE Company

Often because these companies have spent time growing and becoming leaders, with that comes scale. Many of these companies have become very diversified and focused on many different complex physical goods, or own and maintain complex brand portfolios that require more experts and diversified professionals to keep all of that complexity moving forward. 

It’s a COMPLEX Company

With scale comes the need for organization and control.  With the need for organization and control comes the perceived need for complex systems, and processes to guide, monitor, and track company, teams, and individual progress and success.  These complex companies often foster a culture of micro managing and traditional motivation techniques that can complicate and frustrate many innovators. Often the more complex an organizations process and organizational structure the more likely they are to be focused inwardly on process efficiencies, as opposed to external growth and user focused strategies.

It Makes COMPLEX Things

Some things we buy are more difficult to produce.  They require more development time, more layers, more material, more parts, etc. which tends to increase process complexity and support larger employee counts respectively. 

This group includes many of the companies responsible for very large complex products, like automobiles, home appliances, durable consumer goods, industrial machinery, commercial and residential tools, medical equipment, recreational vehicles, complex consumer and commercial electronics, commercial and residential industrial systems like HVAC, Utility management, and many more. 

Due to the high barriers to entry for many of these complex physical consumer goods, many of these companies have the luxury of encountering less threatening competitors as often and can spending more time optimizing internal efficiencies - but when these groups do come across a disruptive competitor it can be a very scary time. 

We used to joke all of the time that sometimes the best motivation for a complex company to innovate is to see a competitor do it first. 

It is or was an Industry Leader

This aspect is one of the most prominent reasons for why companies shift into defense mode. Reaching the number one spot in their industry or market sets a new tone and pace nearly every time. Instead of racing and aggressively racing to the top, they've reached "the top". So what's left to do but defend the top, right? The deeper details around this shift from offense to defense is fascinating topic for another day. 

This paradox I like to call "The Curse of Number One" is a huge issue for progress as a whole. Very few organizations are willing to risk losing 1st place in exchange for continued exponential growth. I mean to them they are "winning" right? If only we could get companies to recalibrate and keep the race for the top ongoing we would be exponentially more progressed as a society and planet as a whole. "For All Mankind" is a great modern Apple Original TV series that reflects on this very point based on the premise of an alternative world that has a perpetual space race that propels the worlds advancement far beyond where we sit today because of it. This is in direct contrast to our actual reality that watched an exponential decline in our competitive spirit, relentless drive for technological advancement, and our progressive growth as a whole, once the US won the race in the 60's.

Types of Barriers you may find in a Defensive Organization

Hierarchical Barriers

In traditional organizational structures, and defensive organizations, decision-making is hierarchical.  It boasts layers upon layers of approval and decisions at every turn. 

This will always make it difficult for new and Innovative ideas to traverse the layers of management and reach enough internal traction and alignment to see the light of day.

Many older (more traditional) organizations can have this trait even if they are not very large or complex. This is mainly a culture and leadership issue and while most prominent in the oldest and largest organizations can still be found even in small Start-up teams depending on the leaders. 

  • Example: An entry-level employee with a revolutionary concept finds it challenging to communicate directly with top-level executives due to rigid organizational hierarchies. 

Bureaucratic Red Tape:

Corporate bureaucracies are notorious for lengthy approval processes and red tape. These are only exacerbated in defensive organizations. Innovation requires agility, but bureaucratic obstacles can slow down or even halt the progress of groundbreaking ideas.  These often are the result of heavy risk mitigation techniques to avoid expensive wrong turns. Not to prevent new things, but to make sure enough eyes and balanced opinions are present to make sure it is right from all perspectives. 

You may also stumble upon "Too many cooks in the kitchen" within organizations like this where micro managing is common and overwhelming amounts of opinions and leadership becomes paralyzing to an organization or process that is intended to move fast and efficiently.

  • Example: A team developing a new software application faces delays in implementation due to a protracted approval process involving multiple departments requiring collective buy in. 

Resource Allocation Challenges:

Innovation often requires resources, whether financial, human, or technological. Corporate systems may struggle to efficiently allocate these resources, hindering the development and implementation of innovative projects. I was once having a conversation with a the EVP of Product at an industry leading organization about a new product innovation we were bringing to the table. The market was there, the problem was real and the solution was sufficient, however in order for an organization to consider shifting resources away from something that makes money already, to something that should make more money is still a risk. We eventually got to the point where a factor of 10X increase over the existing product offering was needed to justify shifting to a new one. this accounts not simply for the cost of development, but the compounded costs of changing many other aspects of the organization to accommodate it. New departments would need to be created, people would need to change roles, the way products were built and sold would vary enough to cause noise that was "not worth" even an 8X step function shift. 

  • Example: A department proposing a sustainability initiative encounters difficulties securing the necessary budget and manpower, delaying the project's launch. 

So What Can I do About it?

The best thing innovators and innovation teams can do in conservative, defensive companies like this is to “stay out of the way”.  That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t exist or only focus on small incremental innovation.  It means they must integrate innovation process and innovative outputs more seamlessly into the current workings of the organization without disrupting or distracting others from there day to day. All too often organizations will have separate siloed organizations responsible for very similar forms of "Innovation" There's often innovation teams sperate from design teams, separate from advanced development teams and in some instances eve separate Insights teams. This is something that has been talked about for years but still seems to be a problem simply due to reporting structure and performance metrics within organizations motivating teams to "Own" large portions of innovative growth, that are sometimes redundant, or in worst cases compete for funding. Some might call this balance, I call it noise and costly wasteful banter that could be better spent aligning teams to a singular trajectory. 

Before a substantial transformation like this can occur within organizations, a certain level of value or return on investment must be shown.  This requires intense clarification, preparation, and alignment ahead of time. Trying to tackle any of these organizational shortfalls during innovation development (most of us have experienced) takes forever, costs a lot, is very stressful and (as we mentioned earlier) rarely successful. 

The key is to align and invest proactively and prepare for this journey before it gets complicated and messy. this not only helps for a more likely success later, it streamlines the integration and implementation process saving loads of time, money, and headaches along the way.

Now that we can better identify these obstacles, let's set some foundational framework around how to overcome some of these macro oppositions to innovation in your organization proactively:

Innovation is a Journey

As an experienced professional Innovation and Branding Consultant, I've had the privilege of working with a wide variety of clients. From individual entrepreneurs and disruptive startups to some of the largest, most recognized Brands of today. 

Over the years, I often refer to innovation as a journey. Specifically a mountain climbing expedition. 

This analogy of a mountain expedition helps simplify (what normally is depicted) as a very complex and ambiguous journey to strategically identify and deliver value for organizations. 

By segmenting this Journey into three relatable steps, (Provisioning, Climbing, and Mapmaking), teams and individuals can more easily connect the actions and needs with their contributions, roles and responsibilities. 

It's not just a strategic framework for increasing innovation success rates and effectiveness, it's also a powerful motivation and alignment program.

While we are not the only organization to refer to innovation like a mountain expedition, we have employed a unique perspective that has helped many organizations overcome this obstacle of integrating innovation, gaining traction and delivering valuable innovation.

So let's begin:

1. Don't Start with "The Climb"

It's important to first point out that "The Climb" The co-creation, (idea generating, collaborative workshopping), opportunity definition phase is where many organizations and consultancies begin, the main event. It's what everyone typically associates value creation from and focusses the most effort on. Unfortunately, (as we mentioned earlier) when teams begin here, they end up spending most of their resources and efforts afterwards trying to force these new opportunities into an already busy and moving organization. It's like trying to push a snowball onto a moving train. It's very difficult to navigate ongoing initiatives and integrate with tactical objectives while developing an innovation. It's just too late in the cycle to get people onboard and programs aligned. 

Jumping right into "The Climb" as many organizations and other consultants do, is no different than a normal average human being like you or I waking up and walking right up to a mountain side with some friends and starting to climb. Sure it would be really fun for some of us. It would also be absolutely terrifying for others. Fun or not, it would be extremely dangerous for everyone. You could get lost without the right guidance, get hurt without the right equipment, or even worse you could miss out on all the best parts because you were too busy trying not to die and get lost.

..I think you get the point.

After witnessing this mistake of "jumping into the climb" through the years, countless times over, I began working with various organizations and partners to create and refine a program that tackles this exact problem head on, and it all starts with proper Innovation Provisioning.

2. Successful Journeys Need Proper Provisioning

Our Innovation Provisioning Program was born from a singular moment of clarity after asking the right question in the right context, "What does every Journey or adventure of any type need in order to be successful?" Proper provisioning. 

Organizations need a program specifically designed to compliment and augment existing innovation teams and process, not replace them. 

Broadly speaking, Innovation Provisioning prepares your organization for the journey of innovation just as an experienced Sherpa prepares an expedition team for a large mountaineering expedition. It prepares you, your team, and your organization for the trials, challenges, and rewarding adventure ahead.

It helps not only organize, align, and prepare teams, it generates the proper tools and supplies needed to safely, and efficiently engage in your ongoing innovation and strategic planning initiatives more seamlessly year over year.

So the next time you and your team are getting ready to jump back into another round of co-creation and opportunity definition activities, remember to ask yourself:

Is your organization ready for innovation?

3. Seamless Integration and Mapmaking is Critical

As we touched on earlier, many organizations handle innovation as a separate vertical. It's own measurable domain and and competency with accountability separate from most other departments and teams within the larger organization. While there is value in decoupling from a larger organization and not being burdened by it's day to day tactile activities, there are many instances when innovation must really be seen as a horizontal and integrated in every department and discipline across the enterprise. 

It's not one or the other. Behaving as an independent organization and integrating as the glue across all initiatives are both important aspects of innovation. The real magic happens when these decoupled, "skunkworks activities" merge with active program and project integration to form a balance between next generation and tactical delivery. This can happen through what we refer to as your strategic rhythm and launch vehicle cadence. These are strategic events, plans, and milestones aligned to already active, annual planning processes every organization. This art form of integrating innovative outputs within ongoing tactical projects and programs represents our third and final stage Mapmaking.

While most organizations employ some form of product development processes, annual budgeting cycles, investment tollgates, and strategic planning milestones. We aim to connect and integrate ongoing innovation with these mission critical operational models we like to call vehicles. 

Our ultimate goal is to empower organizations to sustain innovation excellence within their organization, and strategically shift Innovation from being a discretionary spend to a necessary investment. 

We strip the "unexpected", "nice to have", "distracting" stigmas away from innovation. Aligning and positioning it within core growth competencies to ensure proper attention, and the sustained support it needs year after year. 

4. Find an Experienced Sherpa to Help Guide Your Way

Naturally, the best practice with any journey or expedition is to learn, plan, and travel with experts. Experienced specialists that have navigated the journey before. 

All too often I see companies onboarding or hiring outside organizations that have academic training in "Innovation Process" "New Product Development" or in creative methodologies like "Design Thinking", but have limited real world experience in actually delivering successful innovations. Some of the "big four" consultancies are the biggest offenders of this. Deploying hundreds of thousands of fresh MBA graduates armed with in-depth strategic planning frameworks and methods, but have never developed or launched or lived the rise and fall of a single innovation themselves. They explain in depth "What" you need to do - hand you a beautiful shinny presentation and tell you "good luck." When you turn to ask if they are going to climb with you they smile and wave and say call us if you have any questions. This is not an effective nor efficient way to achieve sustainable growth in any context.

Most organizations don't need more WHAT to do - they need more HOW to do it.

While proper techniques, tools, methods, and process do help teams through various parts of innovation, it's only half the battle. 

True value comes from an innovation catalyst, (Sherpa) that brings years of intense and diverse experience, working in "the trenches" of development and corporate complexity learning the intricate ins and outs of various cross-functional development teams and processes and have the scars to prove it. 

These Catalysts have navigated wide varieties of organizations, team dynamics and process frameworks that allow more valuable cross pollination and beneficial adjacencies or "dots" to be connected, maximizing outputs and efficiencies throughout the entire process.

These experts often also have immense team leadership experience and social, cultural intelligence that magnify team outputs and results, keeping members and contributors motived, engaged, and inspired along the journey.

If any of these topics resonate with you and your interested in learning more - let us know, and Let's Connect.

We can help you and your team improve innovation success rates, increase your innovation effectiveness, improve internal traction, increase employee engagement, and achieve innovation excellence, with better prepare, achieve innovation excellence, and improve your innovation success rates.

Issue Summary

We hope this inaugural issue of "Chaos to Clarity" has provided value, provoked thought and hopefully enlightened at least a few of you today. 

We've unraveled the intricate dynamics of innovation, shedding light on its elusive nature and the barriers that often impede its success. 

May your innovation journey be purposeful, overcoming obstacles with the resilience and agility needed to reach new heights in the ever-evolving landscape of positive transformation. -

We welcome any discussion in the comments below. Looking forward to hearing from you all. - Happy Holidays!

About the Author

Michael Seeley is the Founder and Managing Partner of Liminal Group, a private integrated business entity committed to fostering topline growth in large and small businesses through an ecosystem of companies specializing in Strategic Product Development, Brand Strategy, Innovation Excellence, and Sustainability. 

Michael has spent over 17 years transforming industry giants, pioneering disruptive innovation, holds nearly 100 patents, & bleeds Innovation & Brand Excellence.

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