Bad Innovation Systems Beat Good Innovators (Almost) Every Time

W. Edwards Deming once famously stated:

A bad system will beat a good person every time. 

What was Deming trying to convey with this quote?

It wasn’t an attempt to get people to give up trying because failure was certain. It was an attempt to get people to understand the importance of the system and the futility of trying to focus on blaming people for failures.

As Deming said we are being destroyed by best efforts. Trying harder, to do what you understand as your job, when the system is broken often results in more damage. Don’t just do something, stand there (and think).

So if a bad system will beat a good person every time what can you do? You have to focus not on trying harder within the current system but on changing the system so that success is built into the system. Relying on heroic measures is a poor way to manage.

Deming’s quote translated into the corporate innovation context applies as follows:

A bad corporate innovation system will beat a good innovator (almost) every time. Period.

[Amendment 30.03.17 – thanks to Willem Schellekens for the hint in the comments below] For the context here, the term “corporate innovation system” is defined as sum of the corporate elements (e.g. corporate functions, units or key people) that interact with each other through certain relations (e.g. processes, communication/information flow, collaboration or governance/decision structures) to bring forth innovation outcomes. An exemplary illustration can be found in the linked post above.

Major learning here: Even the greatest people will have a hard time driving innovation successfully within corporate systems that are dysfunctional, i.e. not set up properly for their actual purpose. Beside the fact, that an organization will not build up sustainable innovation capability this way, it will mostly result in frustration on the part of the engaged people and – eventually – quitting in many cases.



Exceptions may prove the rule. Yet, let’ start building adequate and future-proof corporate innovation systems where the highest likelihood for innovation success is “built-in”. This involves particularly

  • implementing and supporting the right system “mechanics” and required structures top-down by senior leadership
  • carefully inspecting a corporate innovation system’s functionality before blaming people or teams
  • considering bottom-up Undercover or Guerilla initiatives to undermine deficient corporate innovation systems as exception, rather than rule
  • designing and adjusting the corporate innovation system according to an organization’s individual innovation purpose, objectives and required portfolio balance
  • sorting out the underlying innovation system prior to hiring lots of good people to operate within
  • periodically assessing the corporate innovation system to maintain its adequateness.

For sure, it takes both well-versed people and appropriate corporate innovation systems to be geared towards sustainable innovation success. However, quality and imposing constraints of the innovation system ultimately determine how even adept corporate innovators, operating within, will be able to unlock their potential.    

About Ralph-Christian Ohr

Experienced innovation management and corporate development professional. Consulting on organizational and personal capabilities for high innovation performance. Integrative thinker. T-shaped.

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8 Responses to Bad Innovation Systems Beat Good Innovators (Almost) Every Time

  1. Willem March 29, 2017 at 6:02 PM #

    Would be good to mention what the definition of an innovation system is in this context

    • Ralph-Christian Ohr March 30, 2017 at 9:53 AM #

      Thanks for the hint, Willem – I have amended this point in the text.

  2. Kevin McFarthing March 31, 2017 at 6:41 PM #

    Hi Ralph – I agree completely, the individual finds it tough to beat the system. At the risk of being pedantic, I think we should talk about the innovation management system – innovation management should be a discipline, and using the word “management” moves it over to people. Here’s a relevant blog –


    • Ralph-Christian Ohr March 31, 2017 at 9:11 PM #

      Great point and post Kevin – using “management” ascribes the granularity of the system elements to the people (rather than a functional unit / entity) level.

  3. Simon Hobson April 1, 2017 at 8:38 AM #

    I suspect the phrase should be “Bad Innovation Systems UNDERMINE Good Innovators (Almost) Every Time?

  4. Wellington Manjengwa April 3, 2017 at 3:10 PM #

    This is another great post! Couldn’t agree more that dysfunctional organizations can really affect success. Had my own share of it before! Excited to read your next post.

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