A Definition of Innovation Trauma

The idea that innovation must always be speculative and risky is often an indicator that an organization has experienced innovation trauma to some degree in the past.

Innovation trauma happens in the situation when an organization has tried to do something unique and unusual and failed badly at it. Employees decide that they are not able to do new things successfully, and that the only course possible is to return to the safety of business-as-usual. The result is their organizations stagnate because everyone is so scared they’ll have another costly mistake.

You can easily spot the signs of innovation trauma. Some include genuine disbelief that a company can be innovative, an unwillingness to invest in new business ideas, and outright skepticism that internal delivery capabilities are a match for unique propositions.

Sun Microsystems are an excellent example of what happens to companies when they experience innovation trauma. The company released a device called “SunRay”, which was a network computer quite ahead of its time. The device’s promise was to reduce dramatically the amount of money IT departments would need to make their technology work. It would be simpler, easier to use, and much more flexible.

When it finally came out, it did very few of these things, and customers turned on Sun’s salespeople, who they perceived had been lying about the potential of the product. Feeling the pain in their hip pocket, the sales force then pushed back on many of the other new products the company created, insisting on significant evidence of performance before they would risk embarrassment in front of their customers again. Sun was hamstrung for years as a result.

Whether or not there are signs of innovation trauma, one thing is certain. People will not usually believe innovation can create decent returns reliably until they are shown it is possible to do so. Demonstrating reliability is really a matter of creating a decent track record of success with unique propositions so staff have evidence on which to base their beliefs.