Is there a recipe for innovation success?

Look for books on innovation and you find hundreds on a wide variety of topics such as lean start-ups, agile working, effectuation, ‘10 steps to success’ and so on. These are written by often self-proclaimed management gurus or successful entrepreneurs who claim to want to share their success with others.  The reality however is that there is no recipe for innovation success.

Scientific research on innovation exists, and it does provide insights into factors that predict success. This research is highly important for at least two reasons. First it provides a greater understanding of how innovation works and what factors can influence it. This understanding can translate into greater awareness of what is important – and what is not important – during the innovation process, and thus lead to improved outcomes. Second it may provide solid evidence that some factors in some situations directly enhance the likelihood of innovation success.

There is no recipe

So innovation research is unquestionably useful for innovators. Yet this does not mean that it provides a recipe for innovation success. Specifically, most of this research is based on statistics. It demonstrates that a little more of one thing such as creative climates or the right leaders enhance the chances of success by some margin. It concerns chances, not automatic effects. Moreover, the margins put forward in this research are usually small. Innovation research is important – it is all we have, and in a world of ignorance small margins may be gold mines – but it does not in any way, provide a recipe for automatic innovation success!

As a case in point, some research actually focuses on how to minimise losses after innovation failure, apparently working from the assumption that failure will happen. Other studies emphasise the need for a climate of failure, or factors for psychological safety that work from the notion that attempts at innovation invariably lead to failure in some cases, and an intolerance for failure would de-motivate anyone from trying to reach successful innovation in the first place.

Allowing failure does seem to harness success: actual success is based on so many dynamic factors that often interact so it is simply impossible to predict innovation success.

Allow for failure

Interestingly this notion of tolerance to failure has seeped into the world of practitioners as well. At workshops and in innovation programmes, we often hear people complain that in our Dutch climate of innovation, failure is seen in too negative a light. In comparison, in the USA (this is usually the example the complainers raise) failed attempts at innovation or entrepreneurship are worn proudly as a badge of honour that signal ‘I dared!’. We agree. Allowing failure does seem to harness success: actual success is based on so many dynamic factors that often interact so it is simply impossible to predict innovation success.

One small issue – even beyond the control or even the awareness of the innovator – may determine failure or success. It is with this in mind that we are surprised to see the same people that complain about intolerance to failure simultaneously demonstrate faith in methods and advice from superhero entrepreneurs. If we cannot fully predict innovation success, then the gurus’ claims that their methods will make you successful cannot be true. And if innovations fails due to coincidence, don’t they also succeed due to coincidence? Aren’t superhero innovators just very lucky people?

Gurus with ‘survivor bias’

In general, we would argue that anyone who claims to make you successful is not to be trusted. For instance, advice from successful entrepreneurs and gurus can be loaded with ‘survivor bias’. We can learn from someone who was successful, but we never find out how many others showed the same behaviour but failed. On average, the group displaying the same behaviour as the guru can perform even worse than a comparable group of innovators with a different, or even opposite, approach. Following the advice of such an entrepreneur or guru might even diminish your chances of success!

For instance, the most successful innovator of recent decades, Steve Jobs, openly said that he didn’t listen to customers. His approach was to show customers what they wanted. Imagine that you, as an innovators, followed his behaviour, and innovated without consulting any customers. Our research shows that this behaviour will, in most cases, have a negative effect on your performance.

An exception to this concerns ‘hedonic’ innovations – those aimed at customers’ aesthetics, emotions or sense of identity. Research demonstrates that in these cases, it is better not to consult customers. This may to some extent explain Steve Jobs’ success with this strategy, because his innovations were partly hedonic in nature. But others who follow his advice, whose products are not hedonic in nature and who are not aware of this condition, may not benefit. Their enterprises might even be harmed by it.

Let us be clear: we are not suggesting aspiring innovators should shy away from popular books or they should not listen to the advice of successful predecessors. There is bound to be some insight or value to be learned from these sources. But we do warn against believing in them too much, or believing that applying their methods or using their advice will always make a difference. It may not. As shown above, such belief in popular books may actually hinder, not help performance.

Even if gurus and research outcome leave a lot to chance, research outcomes are still more reliable than guru advice.

Research is more reliable than guru advice

Rather, we encourage innovators to try to understand the processes of innovation and innovation management – not because this will automatically and easily make you successful, but because this will help you think, and help you to make sense of your unique process while you are going through it. The best way to get to this understanding is through the science of innovation, no matter how mundane, slow, or unimpressive it may sometimes seem. The example shows that, even if gurus and research outcome leave a lot to chance, research outcomes are still more reliable than guru advice. It is better to put your trust in a researcher who tells you that their insights may provide just a little bit more chance of success than in a guru who promises golden mountains – the latter is inevitably untrue.

There is no recipe for innovation success, but don’t – if you cannot create success then at least take comfort in the notion that no one else can either. And know that your decisions and actions can still make a difference as long as you keep thinking, and keep being critical.

So keep dreaming, but stay awake!

(And if you don’t trust us because we are researchers then read the book De succesillusie: Hoe trainers, goeroes en consultants u dagelijks bedriegen en hoe u daar in zeven eenvoudige stappen vanaf komt by Richard Engelfriet, and make up your own mind.)

Jan van den Ende is a professor of management of technology and innovation at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). His expertise is in the development process of new products and services in firms – a process that is important for a company’s performance. Creating ideas, selecting projects, developing products and commercialising them must be well organised. By studying innovation in firms such as ING, ASML, Philips and Unilever, Jan’s research group investigates the effects of networks between people at the forefront of innovation, the proper balance between freedom and control in innovation activities, and innovation activities in service and creative firms.

Daan Stam is professor of innovation at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). His academic research focuses on leadership in situations of change, including the role of leadership in innovation and business development. A second area of his research is creativity, including the effects of leadership on creativity, creativity in online settings, and group creativity. Daan teaches creativity and brainstorming to bachelor and master students as well as to executives.


In March 2019 the NRC Live Impact Challenge started in Rotterdam. NRC Live offers, in collaboration with Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), ImpactCity and Outside Inc., 100 professionals from corporate, government and science the knowledge, inspiration and network to contribute to a better world with better financial results. Learn more about the NRC Live Impact Challenge

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