Common Innovation Traps


Nonprofits and philanthropic efforts alike are tackling difficult social problems by seeking innovative solutions across a variety of sectors. Our Impumelelo awards programme has identified groundbreaking innovations for almost two decades – and there is certainly no shortage of innovative ideas in South Africa! However, there are just as many failed attempts as there are successes. Enthusiastic quests for the next new solution and winning idea, often start with a bang and ends with a whimper. The interesting fact is that the success stories and the short comers all faced similar dilemmas of overcoming innovation challenges.

In the hustle of searching for innovative answers and with the pressure of generating new ideas faster to say ahead of the competition, we often fall flat on our faces before we even started the race. There are common traps when moving in the innovation sphere and by creating awareness around this, we hope that you will avoid the pitfalls we so often see. Some of these traps are related to implementation and execution, while others are conceptual hurdles.


1. Evolutionary, rather than revolutionary changes
Widespread enthusiasm and grand declarations about innovation are often followed by mediocre execution and quiet disbandment due to a lack of financial, human and infrastructure resources. Successful implementation of an innovative idea will take planning, monitoring and evaluation and most of all, time. Incremental innovation can drive the same revenue and cost-reduction results as an abrupt, “revolutionary” approach – innovation is not an event, but rather a process.

2. Not relying on strong monitoring and evaluation processes
Potential innovators often experience a wave of ideas. This is an important step in innovation and innovators should be free of any constraints so they could run with their ideas. However, the more you strive to build a rigorous and repeatable idea-generating generation and idea evaluations process, the easier it is to become overwhelmed and lost in the notion of finding the next big idea. Managing the avalanche of ideas can become overpowering and it is, therefore, crucial to look for innovation tools and to make use of evaluation methodologies that fit into the culture of the team and organisation. The more you explore, monitor and evaluate, the easier it will be to identify “winning” ideas early on.

3. Difficulty of exploring the new while exploiting the old
Tensions between protecting revenue streams from existing business critical to current success and supporting new concepts that may be crucial to future success can be very difficult to manage. Especially in the nonprofit and social enterprise field. Diving into new ventures and shifting service delivery is a risky move, but when executed correctly could lead to a stronger and more independent nonprofit sector. Furthermore, listening to current funders, beneficiaries and customers only is a certain innovation inhibitor. Market-related research, future studies and projections of changes to come in various aspects of your work should be a priority and a guiding principle for strategic planning.

4. Not having the dream team
Innovation requires a team equipped for success with the right combination of skills, past experience and current knowledge. Innovation also needs one or two contrarians, risk-takers and critical thinkers on board – constructive opposition is crucial to develop new ideas.

5. Assuming “innovation” is the only solution
Something Impumelelo has always believed in is that you do not need to reinvent the wheel – in many cases the solutions already exist. A critical aspect that is often overlooked is to find innovative ways of implementing existing innovations despite the bureaucratic challenges and the lack of funding. We can do this by focusing on training peers on replicating existing models of excellence and creatively applying it to their own contexts. Many complex issues such as education and poverty cannot be fixed by a single blockbuster innovation and cross-sectoral training and resource sharing are often the only way forward.

6. Assuming everything that addresses a social issue is innovative
The term “innovation” has become so over-used and under-defined that anything can be classified as innovative. Claiming innovation when in fact it is not, could lead to all-around disappointment and desensitization to the idea of innovation. It is important for funders, nonprofits and awards programmes such as ourselves, to encourage internal discussion and debate about the true innovation behind an idea. For it to be innovative, it must be an idea that disrupts the norm and encourages transformation. It is everyone’s responsibility to challenge and research claims of innovation and originality to ensure that a standard of true innovation is preserved.