• Opinion
  • January 30, 2019
  • 6 minutes
  • 1

Why do innovations fail? Lessons from the private sector

Opinion: Most innovations don't succeed. Here's how to stop yours becoming one of them

This piece was written by Richard Miller, Deputy Director of Innovation in Industry at Innovate UK. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.


Most new products and services launched onto the market fail to deliver the expected results. There is a big debate about how many fail. The numbers range from estimates of 80% to 90% for fast-moving consumer goods, down to around 50% for other categories. The very best and most experienced companies seem to be successful around 65% of the time.

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The exact number doesn’t matter; the point is that it is a difficult and risky thing to take an innovation from concept all the way through to commercial success. So it is worth thinking about the factors that influence success and what we can do about them.

Solving a problem that doesn’t exist

Many studies have been carried out on what differentiates successful from unsuccessful innovation projects, dating back to the 1970s. One characteristic of products that fail in the market keeps coming up and seems to be one of the dominant causes of failure: The product solved a problem the user didn’t have.

As a simple description of a core problem, that rings true to me. I have talked to so many companies about what new products and services they are working on, listened to their enthusiasm, seen the real cleverness and creativity in what they have done, and still been left with a nagging thought — yes, but who cares?

Letting excitement cloud judgement

Why does this happen? It’s probably human nature. As innovators, we become excited by the idea itself. The buzz of creativity and the satisfaction of solving all those problems to create a prototype that works. We become so committed to the idea that we forget to ask all those niggling questions like — what does this enable the user to do that they couldn’t do before, how much do they care, and crucially, how much will they pay?

Thinking about user benefits

Thinking very hard about the user perspective is critical. Understand what they are trying to do. Talk to them, figure out their pain points, and ask how you can help them. Think about the benefits of your innovation to the user, not its features. All simple questions to be found in any text or course on innovation, creating a business or sales and marketing, but questions we seem either not to ask, or not to listen to the answers.

But what about the Sony Walkman?

Now at this point, a lot of innovators get quite irritated and tell me that truly breakthrough innovations address wants and needs that the user didn’t even know they had. They regularly quote examples such as the Sony Walkman and the Internet. And it is true that sometimes you get a completely transforming innovation that creates a totally new market, but it is rare.

Thinking very hard about the user perspective is critical. Understand what they are trying to do

Even the commonly quoted examples are not as simple as they seem. Readily available mobile music can be traced back to the super-rich in the Middle Ages with their personal musicians, through Edwardian wind-up gramophones on picnics, to the little plastic transistor radio with a monaural earpiece I had as a child that let me listen to pirate radio under the blankets at night. The Walkman was a brilliant product that improved quality and control, and personalised music choice dramatically, but the need it addressed had always been there.

In the same way, the Internet and the World Wide Web have been transformative, but instant access to communications, knowledge, and even shopping, have been a staple of science-fiction stories and thinkers about the future since at least the 19th Century. What would be the solution could not be foreseen, but the need for and value of such a technology was clearly described.

Recognising innovation blindness

So don’t despise those questions from Sales 101, recognise our tendency to be blind to the weaknesses of our innovations, and understand, to paraphrase Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, it’s the user, stupid. — Richard Miller

This article was originally published on the Innovate UK blog.

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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