“We can’t innovate because _________”

Every team who hasn’t, can’t or won’t innovate has a story about why the overused “I” word continues to elude them.

Tony Robbins encourages his global tribe to, “change your story, change your life.” When people apply this simple but powerful concept to their lives they save their relationships, lose 100 pounds and 10x their finances.

Why then are such dramatic wins so much more difficult to achieve for the teams we work in and the companies we work at? Because that’s the team’s story. That’s the company’s story. For example…

A marketing director within a major, worldwide financial institution summarized to me his organization’s story in 1 sentence:

Having 200 global stakeholders per project makes it nearly impossible to innovate.

A CEO of a Fortune 100 AdTech company reported:

We just can’t get focused… our business stakeholders are constantly caught up in too many different things.

A VP in a global organization with tens of thousands of employees told me:

We tried everything. We acquired companies. We hired management consultants and watched them spend weeks generating user journeys we didn’t need. We spent a ton of money building an innovation lab in NYC that can’t seem to connect with our core culture.

What once looked so promising

It’s not only the Fortune 500s that stagnate. Remember Foursquare? What about Groupon?

These companies launched their products and consumers went nuts. How many group deals did that crazy cousin of yours send so you could save 15% if you could only round up 10 friends to join you at Six Flags?

People couldn’t check in fast enough to become the mayor of their local Walgreens.

And that was cool for a minute, but then what happened? A couple years went by and neither company had made the necessary leaps forward to stay relevant. Both companies had built massive audiences but their products didn’t evolve with those customers. New badges will only take a company so far.

Likewise, we’ve seen the same trends inside companies big and small, across all sectors. Apple may still be printing their own money but their die-hards of the Jobs era have been a waiting a long time for the next iPhone caliber announcement. Meanwhile, Samsung’s tech and bargain pricing continue to lure people away from iOS.

Coach is a luxury retail brand that can’t seem to connect with young women, no matter which top models they hire. And while they continue to focus on opening more stores that offer the same [overpriced] bags, brands like Sephora are pushing boundaries with concepts that roll out of their innovation lab.

From Sephora’s Innovation Lab: The Beauty Workshop Station

And it goes on.

How does innovation die?

The real question is — how is one company the darling of every one of its customers one year, and all but forgotten the next?

Sometimes it’s because markets dry up. But most other times it’s because the people making critical decisions inside a company stop trying. Or as Angela Lee Duckworth posits, they lose their grit.

They want to sell more, grow faster, create new, and stay ahead. But they stopped doing the things they did to get on top.

  • They now operate based on what’s least risky
  • They stopped talking to their customers
  • They package and repackage the same products ad nauseum
  • They rush into new markets and lose focus of their core
  • They hire more managers than makers

And then one day, 2 years after the company’s last good idea, someone in a leadership meeting asks “How did we lose 30% market share to this no-name startup?!”

That’s typically when stories fly and fingers point. It’s also when people get fired. It’s when acquisitions of younger, hungrier competitors are approved. And it’s when expensive management consultants are hired.

But for most companies, especially the larger ones, the bleeding has begun. Attempts to buy innovation via acquisition will not help to cauterize. Neither will appointing a Chief Innovation Officer who lacks any real authority or persuasion in the company.

Bill Burnett of Stanford’s D School describes this downward spiral of innovation failure as death by a thousand cuts. But more importantly, he highlights that if you want to incite breakthroughs you need to cultivate a culture of leaders that not only welcome experimentation and failure, but are willing to share and learn from those failures repeatedly.

Innovation requires vulnerability

They say our real growth happens only when we’re willing to do things we’ve never done before. When we’re willing to lose control, look stupid and fail miserably. When we become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Dr. Brené Brown

With books like the Power of Vulnerability and Daring Greatly, Dr. Brené Brown has brought our resistance to vulnerability onto the main stage. She shares stories about company leaders that want to innovate and want to create a culture that breeds creativity. Yet when she starts talking vulnerability in order to reach those breakthroughs, those same executives go shields up. Why? Because being vulnerable would mean exposing what they may or may not be capable of.

When Ed Catmull formed Pixar, he and his team (Steve Jobs included) had zero experience building, marketing and selling their animation computers. But they were willing to listen and learn, until they realized they needed to let go of selling hardware and instead sell the animations themselves. Not only did they get it right — Toy Story, anyone? — but generations of executives and entrepreneurs, decades later, are inspired by their story told within Creativity, Inc.

But we’re not Ed Catmull. We’re not Steve Jobs or Tony Robbins. We’re not Tim Ferris or any of the 200 people he interviewed in Tools of Titans.

There’s also no magic bullet. There’s no company you can purchase or person you can hire that will transform your company overnight. It’s a process. It’s a formula you customize, experiment with and learn from. And if it’s going to work for your organization, you’re going to need to inspire others to join you.

What can YOU do?

If you want to help jolt your company out of hibernation, the people and teams around you will need to adopt habits of empathy and curiosity. You want to move toward becoming a culture that invests in and rallies behind principles like design thinking. But most importantly, action is required. Planning, researching and talking has its place however if you identified with the stories and challenges so far, it’s time to get busy doing.

Before we get into the tips and tricks to try, here are the warnings signs that your team or company may not be ready to offer you the support you need.

  • Your environment is completely toxic or abusive.
  • You’re, say, a UX Design Intern or a Jr. Account Executive without a shred of influence in your company’s planning, priorities or resources.
  • You may be a central, influential person in your company but management won’t back you; i.e. you’re lacking authority.

Still with me? Here, then, are a few tactics for you to experiment with. This is purposely a list for now. Check back in the coming weeks — we plan to expand each of these ideas into checklists, guidelines and case studies.

  1. Double dip. Next time your boss asks you to work on a project, deliver using methods you’ve always used. Then spend nights & weekends experimenting with new tools & techniques. Whenever you uncover anything better & unexpected, present the results of both to your boss. Once they’re dazzled, request permission to help others.
  2. Build a team. If you’re double dipping paid off, hopefully the boss now has your back. Your co-workers will also appreciate your help and won’t mind following your lead. Once they benefit from your experiments they’ll be primed to join your innovation lab.
  3. Build a [intimate] lab. You’re ready to officially recruit the team you’ve helped out and indoctrinated thus far. They’ve seen the benefits and are inspired to see these changes permeate throughout the company. Like you, they’re willing to experiment, fail, report back, learn and adapt. A lab can be an intimate space designated to work on side projects — projects flying under the radar where no one will get fired if it goes to hell. Invite influencers into the lab to witness your successes. Watch those influencers promote your ideas across the organization. And most importantly don’t spend a lot of time or money turning this into a museum… it’s much less about the furniture than it is about promoting a space that encourages freedom and creativity.

Wrapping up

Innovation is less of a destination and more of a mindset. The people on your team and in your organization need to become disposed to asking great questions — to be interested in the habits of your customers. Only then can you identify new problems, offer new solutions and stay relevant in the eyes of your customers.


At New Haircut we’re constantly listening, learning and evolving. It’s this mindset that empowers us to design novel new solutions for an education startup one day, and a Fortune 500 luxury fashion brand the next.

We use design thinking not only to create user-centered software for growth-stage startups and corporations, but to teach other companies how to apply our innovative processes to accomplish the same for themselves.

Get in touch to learn more.


This article was inspired by at least a few amazing minds: