Barriers to Breakthrough Innovation

Posted October 17, 2018 in Cutter Business Technology Journal
Breakthrough innovation

Breakthrough innovation, by which we mean developing and launching radically new products, services, or businesses that deliver significant value, is the holy grail of innovation management. Today, it is an essential part of any large company’s innovation effort, complementing incremental and shorter-term approaches that usually focus on the core business. In this Advisor, we explore some of its challenges.

Systematic, repeated breakthrough innovation often poses a challenge to large companies because it is inherently risky and frequently requires competencies and approaches that divert from the mainstream of the organization. In many large companies, internal bureaucracy and red tape tend to stifle the required creativity, and internal R&D teams may struggle to think sufficiently “outside the box.” Creating a stand-alone, semi-independent breakthrough team focused on step-out/adjacent opportunities or grand challenges is a common first step that companies take to address these barriers.

Increasingly, companies are also looking to startups to access emerging technologies, bring in fresh think­ing, and introduce more innovative ways of working. This has led to a major increase in the application of startup incubator, accelerator, and corporate-venturing schemes. “Intrapreneurship” approaches and competitions to encourage entrepreneurial activities within the company are also becoming more commonplace. However, despite some success, many companies are finding that these initiatives still fall short of expectations in terms of significant new business creation.

In our work with clients on innovation strategy, we encounter some common reasons for this shortfall, many of which have to do with the fact that companies tend to place too much emphasis on the front end of the innovation cycle, and too little emphasis on the end-to-end business creation process. Common failings include:

  • Limited scope of internal breakthrough innovation units. These units usually focus on ideation, concept exploration, and product development as far as the prototype stage. The prototype may be successful in itself, but all too often the next stage of scale-up, launch planning, and commercialization falters when conducting more thorough market/consumer testing, or when properly assessing the practicalities of large-scale material sourcing and manufacturing.

  • Internal rejection of radical new products. Many large companies have built-in “antibodies” that hinder or reject radical new innovations. They are seen either as immaterial (“won’t move the needle”) or threats to existing business (“cannibalization”). Truly radical innovations also require resources, management styles, and funding mechanisms that are, at best, unfamiliar to many organizations. External startups have similar issues to deal with, but they, at least, are driven by entrepreneurs with a mentality and ambition that are all but absent in most corporations. In other words, it is very difficult to find or create the ideal environment for a great but radical idea to prosper.

  • Brand constraints on breakthrough innovation. In most B2C and some B2B businesses, brand is king. Sometimes great new innovations are killed prematurely during the development or scale-up stages because they don’t easily fit within the existing portfolio of brands. Brand constraints can limit the scope and novelty of innovations and introduce an unwanted bias into the assessment and evaluation of new con­cepts. Moreover, companies can be nervous about testing new products in the marketplace if their corporate identities are recognizable due to the reputational risk and the possibility of competitors rushing “me-too” products into the market once they get wind of what’s happening.

  • Scale-up risks. In many companies, concepts and prototypes stay on hold for years and are either never properly commercialized or finally killed off. This can be due to the investment required versus the residual risks of failure, or the lack of a powerful champion to garner the required internal stake­holder support. Stagnation is especially a problem when prototypes are passed along to marketing, commercial, and operations after the prototype stage. Even if there is cross-functional representation on new product development governance committees, the barriers can still occur upon assessing the scale-up and operational requirements in more detail — and especially if there is no clear “home” for the prototype.

In our experience, it is these practical downstream issues — rather than any lack of creativity, good ideas, or technical ingenuity — that tend to be the real barriers to effective breakthrough innovation.

[Cutter Members: For more from the authors on this topic, see: “The Breakthrough Incubator: A Radical Model for Innovative New Business.” Not a Cutter Member? For a limited time, you can download it here.]

About The Author
Richard Eagar
Rick Eagar is a Senior Consultant with Cutter Consortium's Business Technology & Digital Transformation Strategies practice and Global Leader in the Technology & Innovation Management practice of Arthur D. Little (ADL), responsible for functional expertise in innovation, R&D, and technology management. He has 30 years’ consulting exper­ience in innovation, technology management, and R&D in strategy and organization/trans­… Read More
Max Senechal
Max Senechal's main areas of expertise cover strategy development and implementation, new business model definition and implementation, and technology innovation management, as well as sustainability strategy and management for the chemicals and materials industries. Mr. Senechal holds an MBA from the University of Massachusetts.
Michael Kolk
Michaël Kolk is a Partner at Arthur D. Little (ADL), based in the Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur. He coordinates ADL’s Chemicals practice and leads its Technology & Innovation Management practice in the Netherlands. Dr. Kolk focuses on growth and innovation performance enhancement, primarily in the chemicals, life sciences, and other technology-intensive industries. He is a regular speaker at innovation conferences. Dr. Kolk holds a master of… Read More
Tim Barder
Tim Barder focuses on generating and delivering actionable strategic insights and tangible results to clients across multiple industries. He has significant expertise in end-to-end innovation with quantifying consumer needs to product launch; analytical-driven market, technology, and competitive assessments; and economic and environmental lifecycle analyses. Mr. Barder has been a consultant with Arthur D. Little, and he also led drug discovery… Read More
Mitch Beaumont
Mitch Beaumont is passionate about getting more value from R&D dollars and driving profitable growth by helping companies determine where to innovate, what to innovate, and how to innovate. He is an expert at building sustainable capabilities in innovation management, portfolio and product strategy, customer insight generation, and product development and management. Mr. Beaumont is Certified in Production and Inventory Management (CPIM) by… Read More
Kurt Baes
Kurt Baes is a Senior Consultant with Cutter Consortium and a Partner at Arthur D. Little (ADL), based in Brussels, Belgium, with over 20 years’ strategy consulting experience. Mr. Baes is the local leader of various ADL industry (Oil & Gas, Utilities & Alternative Energy, Automotive, Industrial Goods & Services) and functional (Operations Management) practices and heads ADL’s Global Competence Center for Energy Transmission. He… Read More