Braden Kelley on Leading Successful Initiatives

Editor’s Note: Innovation expert Braden Kelley set out to understand why the failure rate of corporate initiatives is so high, and to design a tool to help working managers improve their odds of success. A Seattle-based consultant and speaker, Kelley is best known as the editor and publisher of Innovation Excellence, considered the voice of the Innovation Movement. I recently sat down with Braden to explore the secrets to executing a successful initiative – innovation or otherwise. Excerpts:

Charting Change Braden Kelley

Robert Tucker: Braden, welcome. You say in your new book, Charting Change: A Visual Toolkit for Making Change Stick, that 70 percent of all initiatives fail. What is your source on that and what’s the reason for this high failure rate?

Braden Kelley: Begin with the fact that every project changes something, and you end with 70 percent of change initiatives failing. A 2007 email survey by Dr. Dobbs Journal had 586 respondents and “70 percent of respondents had been involved in a project they knew would fail right from the start.”

Change efforts fall rather messily into either the capital C change bucket (programs focused on innovation, merger integration, restructuring, business transformation, or major system implementations) or the lowercase C change bucket (projects focused primarily on delivering process or system improvements).

Capital C changes, as you can see, are typically programs (a collection of projects), and lowercase C changes usually are discrete projects with shorter timelines. This difference in size is usually accompanied by a difference in scope and duration, and this influences the necessary investments in change planning, change leadership, change management, change maintenance, and change portfolio management activities.

Because lowercase C change is typically smaller, organizations usually do not invest in anything more than basic project management, and this means that change management activities crucial to successful adoption are either addressed only marginally or ignored completely. In some organizations, surprisingly, this happens even with some capital C change efforts.

This underinvestment in proactive change planning, cross-functional change leadership, change planning, change maintenance, and change portfolio management ultimately is what leads to the high failure rates associated with project and change program execution.

Robert Tucker: In a world of disruption and digitization, will we ever see improvement in how initiatives are conceived and managed?

Braden Kelley: They’ll have to in order to survive. All organizations will need to be able to more quickly conceive and manage their innovation and change initiatives. It will be critical that organizations invest in becoming more flexible (able to redeploying existing resources to different purposes as customer requirements change) and more agile (able to change directions quickly). Organizational Agility, which is incredibly difficult, is achieved by establishing the right balance between flexibility and fixedness, as introduced in my Organizational Agility Framework:

Organizational Agility Framework

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Robert Tucker: What organizations are setting the course for others in the way they approach initiatives?

Braden Kelley: Over the years I’ve liked elements of what I’ve seen at places like Whirlpool, P&G, USAA, Intuit, Cisco, Adobe, and other great organizations. More companies should make external perspectives an integrated part of their innovation programs. One forward thinking Catholic healthcare organization in Illinois is doing just that with me right now. The common thread in the organizations that are setting the benchmark for innovation programs is that innovation is not something that the innovation group does, but that something the innovation group helps enable and reinforce across the entire organization.

Robert Tucker: In a nutshell, what’s your solution to the initiative failure crisis?

Braden Kelley: My solution is to take initiative communications and planning to the next level of transparency and alignment, enabling a focus on continuous forward momentum instead of the dangerous quick wins mentality, through the constant use within organizations of the Change Planning Toolkit™.

The toolkit is introduced in my latest book, Charting Change, and is designed to make the planning of organizational change initiatives (even down to the project level) more visual, more collaborative, and will help you get everyone LITERALLY all on the same page for change. It’s also designed to be easy-to-use and very affordable.

As with innovation, most projects and change initiatives fail because the hard upfront work is often skipped so that people can begin getting the “real” work done. The process that project teams go through during the change planning phase using the Change Planning Toolkit™ will help surface the land mines that could throw a project off track down the line.

Robert Tucker: Is it your opinion that management needs to kill off failed initiatives, rather than let them linger?

Braden Kelley: Yes! I think management needs to be careful of three things in this area: Number one, every innovation team needs to be careful not to let themselves be influenced by senior managers infatuation with some bright shiny object they saw at some conference or on television. Work the process. Own the process. Letting senior managers throw shiny objects into the pipeline is one source of lingering initiatives, because many people don’t have the courage to kill their boss’s idea.

Robert Tucker: What else?

Braden Kelley: Well, every innovation team must be on guard against the siren song of launching things. When people start padding their resume with an accumulated collection of things they’ve launched instead of letting the process work, you’ll end up with another source of lingering initiatives. Innovation managers must not look at initiatives as a case of success versus failure, but instead innovation teams must plan a journey for each initiative with a series of pre-determined hurdles, that if successfully cleared, will greatly increase the chances of success. Each of these hurdles can be linked to funding for the next phase, and when an initiative fails to clear the barrier it doesn’t move forward, period. Instead management must determine whether the timing isn’t right, external help is needed, the need no longer exists, or the market potential isn’t as large as expected. Failure to implement hurdles or stage gates leads to more lingering initiatives that people haven’t had the courage to kill.

Robert Tucker: With your Innovation Excellence newsletter and your popular website, you’ve been a thought leader in the Innovation Movement for over a decade. How has the field of innovation evolved over that time period? Should innovation itself be promoted as an initiative?

Braden Kelley: Over the last decade, innovation has evolved to become a professional discipline, complete with multiple certification bodies, publications and sub-specialties (open innovation, product innovation, innovation program management, etc.) and a more accepted part of the organizational architecture. In my new book I introduce a framework titled “Architecting the Organization for Change” that has strategy at the top of the pyramid with prominent roles for both innovation and change:

Architecting the Organization for Change

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We have seen in the last ten years more organizations creating innovation programs and naming Chief Innovation Officers (CINO’s) in an attempt to make innovation more repeatable. But we have also seen several companies lay off their innovation teams and scale back their innovation investments. The reality is that many companies have simply renamed new product development (NPD) to innovation and expected different results. This will never work. You can’t try to build a new building on top of the old one using the old foundation. For innovation to succeed leaders must first define what innovation means and then cross-functionally create and communicate an innovation vision, strategy and goals that integrate with the organization’s vision, strategy and goals. Unless innovation is an integrated part of the whole, it will always be one of the first initiatives to go when budgets get tight.

Robert Tucker: One of the big debates in the innovation community is whether you should centralize or decentralize the innovation push. What’s your take on that?

Braden Kelley: The role of any centralized innovation team should never be to “do innovation” but instead to facilitate collaboration, communication, inspiration, funding, connection and dissemination of idea fragments so that they have their best chance to spread across the across the organization and grow into strong, inventive ideas with the potential to become innovations. My definition of innovation has always been: “Innovation transforms the useful seeds of invention into widely adopted solutions valued above every existing alternative.” And so for idea fragments to grow into an invention and eventually become an innovation, you must create the value, help people access that value, and translate that value into a story that resonates with the very people who must adopt it for it to complete the transformation into an innovation. No easy task!

Robert Tucker: Thanks, Braden! How can people get in touch with you?

Braden Kelley: People can reach me at or (206) 349-8931 or or connect with me on twitter ( or Linkedin (