Why Innovation Dies

Faced with disruptive innovation, you can be sure any possibility for innovation dies when a company forms a committee for an “overarching strategy.”


I was reminded how innovation dies when the email below arrived in my inbox. It was well written, thoughtful and had a clearly articulated sense of purpose. You may have seen one like it in your school or company.

Skim it and take a guess why I first thought it was a parody. It’s a classic mistake large organizations make in dealing with disruption.

The Strategy Committee

Faculty and Staff:

We believe online education will become increasingly important at all levels of the educational experience. If our school is to retain its current standards in terms of access and excellence we think it is of paramount importance that we develop an overarching campus strategy that enables and supports online innovation.

We believe our Departments play an essential leadership role in the design and implementation of online offerings. However, we also want to provide guidance and support and ensure that campus goals are met, specifically ensuring that our online education efforts align with our mission, values and operational requirements.

To this end, we are convening a Strategy Committee that is charged with overseeing our efforts and accelerating implementation. The responsibilities of the group will be to provide overall direction to campus, make decisions concerning strategic priorities and allocate additional resources to help realize these priorities. Because we anticipate that most of the innovation in this area will occur at the school/unit level we underscore that the purpose of the Strategy Committee is to provide campus-level guidance and coordination, and to enable innovation. The Strategy Committee will also be responsible for reaching out to and receiving input from the Presidents Staff and the Faculty Senate.

The Strategy Committee will be comprised of Mark Time, Nick Danger, Ralph Spoilsport, Ray Hamberger, Audrey Farber, Rocky Rococo, George Papoon, Fred Flamm, Susan Farber, and Clark Cable.

A Policy Team, which is charged with coordinating with the schools/unit to develop detailed implementation plans for specific projects, will report to the Strategy Committee. The role of the Policy Team will be to develop a detailed strategic framework for the campus, oversee the development of shared resources, disseminate best practices, create an administrative infrastructure that provides consistent financial and legal expertise, and consult with relevant campus groups: and the the Budget Office. The Policy Team will be led by two senior campus leaders, one from the academic side and one from the administration side.

We are extremely pleased that Dean TIrebiter has accepted the administrative lead role of the Policy Team. Dean Tirebiter brings to this position a deep knowledge of the online environment.  He will be helping to identify a member of our Faculty to serve as the academic lead of the Policy Team.

The Strategy Committee will be meeting for a half-day retreat at Morse Science Hall in the coming weeks to begin work. We will be sending out an update to faculty and following this retreat, so stay tuned for further updates.


President Peter Bergman

We Can Figure it Out in A Meeting
The memo sounds thoughtful and helpful. It’s an attempt to get all the “right” stakeholders in the room and think through the problem.

One useful purpose a university committee could have had was figuring out what the goal of going online was.  It could have said “the world expects us to lead so lets get together and figure out how we deal with online education.”  Our goal(s) could be:

  • Looking good
  • Doing good for all [or at least citizens of California]
  • Doing well by our enrolled students
  • Fixing our business model to fix our budget crisis
  • Having a good football team – or at least filling the stadium
  • Attracting donations
  • Attracting faculty
  • Oh and yes – building an efficient, high quality education machine
But the minute the memo started talking about a Policy Team developing detailed implementation plans, it was all over.

The problem is that the path to implementing online education is not known. In fact, it’s not a solvable problem by committee, regardless of how many smart people in the room. It is a “NP complete” problem – it is so complex that figuring out the one possible path to a correct solution is computationally incalculable. (See the diagram below.)

If you can’t see the diagram above click here.

Innovation Dies in Conference Rooms
The “lets put together a committee” strategy fails for four reasons:

  1. Online education is not an existing market. There just isn’t enough data to pick what is the correct “overarching strategy”.
  2. Making a single bet on a single strategy, plan or company in a new market is a sure way to fail. After 50-years even the smartest VC firms haven’t figured out how to pick one company as the winner.  That’s why they invest in a portfolio.
  3. Committees protect the status quo. Everyone who has a reason to say “No” is represented.
  4. Dealing with disruption is not solved by committee. New market problems call for visionary founders, not consensus committee members.
My bet is that there will be more people involved in this schools Strategy Committee then in the startups that find the solution.

In a perfect world, the right solution would be a one page memo encouraging maximum experimentation with the bare minimum of rules (protecting the schools brand and the applicable laws.)

 Lessons Learned

  • Innovation in New Markets do not come from “overarching strategies”
  • It comes out of opportunity, chaos and rapid experimentation
  • Solutions are found by betting on a portfolio of low-cost experiments
    • With a minimum number of constraints
  • The road for innovation does not go through committee

Listen to the post here: Or download the Podcast here

49 Responses

  1. Way to go Steve, but what a balance it is when trying to achieve something that is worthwhile and using metrics that we all value?

    Just been reading this book, no real new news I guess, but it offers clarity of thinking at a range of levels, and for that I for one am grateful 😉


  2. […] nice post from Steve Blank on why “overarching strategies” and committees cannot solve the online […]

  3. Just keep playing this sound clip when you attend those meetings, Steve: http://bit.ly/nlZH98

  4. Sounds like a couple of committee’s I am on. I can tell you firsthand they are going nowhere fast, and will fail to be implemented properly. Great intentions but way too conservative to work.

  5. Wonderful article. Love the insight on “portfolio of low-cost experiments”. With today’s SAAS model companies, it would be so much easier if they just split the budget for it and provide it to each individual heads. The market structure of the education industry is killing it for start-ups.

  6. Very nice & to the point. Innovation does die in conference rooms.

    But more importantly, thanks for the Firesign theater references, sure brightened up this rainy day out east

  7. Having decided a renewal of core principals was in order, I enrolled in CS 101 on Udacity; and “Compilers” on Coursera. Both taught by Stanford staff to an international audience, who all seem to participate. Udacity CS101 has already pivoted after the first session changing to an “open time frame” for completion, from the “on campus” fixed time period for completion model. My favorite aspect is the quizzes, which are (Udacity) handwritten on a whiteboard; and to which are affixed check box GUI elements and (Coursera) a complete on-line code editor and interpreter with results checking code.

  8. The author of the email did not intend it to be taken seriously. I confirm this by recognizing the names on the committee as those from the comedy group Firesign Theater’s “Nick Danger” series: Ralph Spoilsport, Audrey Farber, Rocky Rococo, Dean Tirebiter, Peter Bergman (a founding member of the troupe).

    • Rick,
      Darn, I thought no one that old was reading this blog.

      Actually I substituted those names for the real ones to protect the innocent.


  9. Thanks Steve, hilarious!

    I suggest an important refinement.

    “What you need is a process that reduces the complexity of the problem.”

    No! This is deadly, an innovation killer. Maybe this is better:

    “What’s needed are distributed activities that cultivate, correlate and coordinate our complex learning environments to deliver and realize the benefits and advantages of online education.”

    The basic and key idea is to use the ‘complexity of the problem’ to great advantage.

    Complexity is not a problem to be reduced; complexity is a key system property and advantage! For innovation, complexity must be embraced. Complexity delivers emergence, variation, self-organization, mutation, evolution, disruptive innovation and prosperity. These are hallmarks of successful startups.

    We are probably saying or mean the same thing, just in a different way.

    Remember, for startups and innovation processes do not reduce complexity. Quite to contrary, processes make things more complicated, harder, they increase problems, and inhibit change. Processes deliberately eliminate variation, fluidity, vicissitude, collaboration and emergence – among the essential foundations of startups and innovation.

    Committees love processes because it allows for command and control. Both, committees and processes, are innovation killers.


    P.S. We both worked at ESL back in the day.

  10. I truly appreciate the point you’re trying to make that you don’t innovate by committee, which is consistent with your general theme that an entrepreneurial approach is fundamentally different. However, online education has been a viable market for a decade, and distance education has a rich history of over 150 years in the U.S. Cleveland State’s online offerings (both distance & blended learning) have seen 23-98% growth every year since 2002. Pretty soon you’ll get acquainted with Quality Matters that provides standards for instructional excellence. Thanks to postsecondary institutions that falsely assuming that exclusivity leads to excellence, Stanford, Harvard and the rest have missed the boat on distance education and will be scrambling for the next couple years or decades to catch up, let alone innovate in this field.

  11. We like to use the word “underpinning” in the UK – another sure sign of BS to follow !

  12. It *seems* wasteful to the administration if different departments are licensing different bits of 3rd-party courseware; that’s because the costs of the university standardizing on the *wrong* piece of 3rd-party courseware are hard to assess.

    I was on a committee 10 years ago to look at the question of how much credit faculty members should get for teaching online, how much IP rights they should retain, … – and there were 3 parallel committees looking at other aspects of the question. The four reports were filed, forgotten, and the vice-chancellor who convened the committees quietly put out to pasture; five years later when I left academia, the university didn’t seem to have an effective online presence. (The Schools of Nursing and Education were apparently doing a lot online.)

    How much of this comes from the dysfunctional IT departments Universities seem to be saddled with? Every one I encountered in my 17 years in higher ed was focused on security & stability for administrative computing, and was unable to cleanly separate that from the need of faculty for variation and experiment. Your example above points to a faculty committee as the problem, but in my experience the need for a faculty committee came out of IT’s requirements for a standardized, campus-wide system.

  13. Hello Steve, is it a standard practice that algorithmic evaluation, such as NP-Complete or solvable likelihood time frame using mathematical model, being used to screen start ups by venture capitals, angels etc?

  14. Brilliant post. Large organizations, whether from private or public sector, are staffed by people who wish to avoid blame more than anything else. Hence the need for policy teams, innovation teams, consensus and the whole “death by committee” disaster!

  15. Great post Steve. This is another example of big institutions, including big companies, attempts at innovation that, as Steve points out, is bound to fail. True innovation comes from the the bottom up, through thousands of ideas, and not from the top down.

    For online education, it is better to start with teams of high school and college students and see how they learn, what excites them and what they will follow. Without understanding this, all the rest is a waste of time. Tenured professors will be challenged to change their years of teaching patterns.

    Disruptive innovation comes from individuals who think out of the box, are passionate about their ideas and believe that they can solve a major problem and change the world.

    If this school really wants to create a new online program, then let the students and faculty create 10 or 100 startups across campus to develop their own disruptive online education class (DOEC). Have a DOEC competition, award prizes, free tuition to the winners and present to local angel and VC investors to fund the best startup teams. Put some excitement and some energy behind it. Make it fun and watch it take off. This will create some disruption across campus and some truly innovative concepts on online successes.

  16. Having sat on committees seeking to develop new educational programs, standards of measurement – my biggest frustration was the loss of a number of innovative ideas in the pursuit of standardization. On the other hand, successful programs that were funded inside of a simple framework of outcomes succeeded beyond all expectations of the stakeholders. Simple = Innovative Delivery of new programs.

  17. Innovation also dies when it has no way to escape. For instance, innovative engineer in the bowels of MegaWidgets comes up with a new product but because it isn’t a blockbuster gets relegated to the hind pages of the line card where it only shows up on an invoice when a customer accidentally finds it. The poor sod overlay reps and the product marketing manager assigned to it can do little more than pull the forelock and beg the account managers for access to customers. When the product does show up on an order, suddenly 19 names go on the commission form, even though no one actually sold it. The cost structure eventually crushes the life and energy out of the product and it never reaches its full potential.

    As in your example, if students or departments had already come up with some innovative ways to do online education, they probably would be crushed into oblivion by the committees, especially if the august committees had different ideas, timelines, assumptions or metrics. Again, innovation had no way to escape the ponderousness of the “way we do things” or the cost structures of the last century.

  18. […] ”Why innovation dies” – Steve Blank [steveblank.com] poäng | Postat maj 1 av Erik Starck […]

  19. Another real winner.

    Peace,George Munchus

  20. Good thought Steve. I agree with the fact that innovation happens through series of low cost, minimal constraints led experiments. Committees always have a vested interested in one or the other thing and they tend to create a negative inertia. I quite like the concept of FLUID NETWORK and have found that could be chaotic but exceptionally thought provoking and productive when it comes to changing current practices, challenging status quo and innovating small simple things eventually leading to significant impact together.

  21. Overseas, to get agency grants for innovating in most fields, one has to describe in advance not only the innovation but also what it will cost to produce the innovation (social or technological), who will benefit by the innovation, how much these beneficiaries and other “collaborators” will contribute to producing the innovation (in hard cash as well as in-kind), and how the innovation will be marketed and shared.

    (Aspiring innovators are forced to use these grants because capital in Europe is even more conservative than in the USA, requesting five-year business plans, promises of sweet returns, and substantial collateral for even the most modest investment. Comparatively few investments result.)

    The grant process is monopolized by universities and institutes founded to rationalize innovation, at its best a wonderfully irrational process. It gets capital off the hook for funding innovations, socializing the risk and the costs. The combination results in few radical innovations. Everything is tempered, considered, modest … risk-free.

    The grant-making business is probably the same in North America, but I never dealt with it at home. I only dealt with investors who were not in pursuit of false certainty and who actually enjoy partaking in risk, so long as the entrepreneurs being invested in were informed, intellectual, passionate, committed, and able — or at least willing to try — to leap over obstacles in a single bound. More of such investors and entrepreneurs are needed overseas.

    • Well spoken. Although in Europe startups are looked at to provide innovation in education, they find it hard to get funding from subsidies for the reasons you describe, while VCs don’t take that role either. At the same time, good accessible education is one of the key values here and that should be one of the pillars for educational innovation, too.
      That’s why some mornings I wake up convinced I should move @joyrite to the US, and others I’m convinced that our best place to start is still Europe.

  22. “In a perfect world, the right solution would be a one page memo encouraging maximum experimentation with the bare minimum of rules (protecting the schools brand and the applicable laws.)” We should create that world, or at least a small model that will work, then scale it. We should talk in 5 years. I love what your doing and your philosophies, bought the book(the owner’s manual), using it right now for our mobile app start-up. Brillant!

  23. Steve, I couldn’t agree with you more! Insurmountable problems, chaos, and struggle can be the path to opportunity. Innovation can start with one person and spread like wildfire if it isn’t stifled in a conference room. And that goes for any profession.

  24. MIT has something called opencourseware where anyone on the web can take one of their classes for free. Many of the courses have video taped lectures which can be viewed online. In fact I heard that Bill Gates had been taking some of their online courses and decided to invest in a company that one of the Professor’s started on the side after taking his online course. When the Professor was told that Bill Gates wanted to invest in his startup energy company his reaction was “You’re kidding me”.


  25. […] Editor’s note: A version of this condition previously appeared at SteveBlank.com. […]

  26. As usual, great post indeed. In a short post, you have managed to capture the essence of why majority of the traditional education institutes will fail to innovate and become irrelevant within a decade.
    The online world is very much “winner takes all” and hence will not support so many higher ed institutions around the world.

  27. Steve, your column was very enlightening and raised some interesting points. We will be convening an ad-hoc group to discuss your findings and tease out the main topics that we will propose as an agenda for the Innovation Puzzlements Summit Conference that we will hold in July. Would you be interested in being a panel participant on our “You Can’t Spell Innovation without NO” luncheon?

  28. […] First, Steve Blank’s Why Innovation Dies. […]

  29. Can’t tell you how many committees that I’ve been on that were just like this — going nowhere slowly. Far too much discussion on irrelevant matters and squelching innovative thinking at every turn.

  30. […] Blank has an interesting post, Why Innovation Dies,  highlighting the dangerous, bureaucratic, but professional approach that many universities are […]

  31. Hi Steve – Again, nice blog and good comments.

    It makes sense to reflect on the death of innovation at the biggest of all organizations, the US Govt.

    This communique sounds like it is straight from the CEO of the USA. All of Obama’s 32 unelected czars, the massive Cabinet and countless “Departments,” certainly feel they “…play an essential leadership role in design and implementation” of innovation.

    The Federal mission statements in hundreds of areas of innovation are always, “…well written, thoughtful and have a clearly articulated sense of purpose.”

    Thing is, they don’t work. It is pathetic, a soaring farce, for all the reasons mentioned and reinforced by comments.

    What Obama’s historic, massive central command, control and regulation has delivered is:

    – Most unemployed Americans in history.
    – Highest poverty level in American history.
    – Highest deficits in history.
    – Highest debt in history.

    Economies and innovation cannot be conceived or implemented by Obama’s Central Strategy Committees.

    Any CEO on earth would be promptly dismissed with this record. Yet, the CEO of USA praises the recent jobs report.


    This period reminds of the copies of ‘Pravda’ (Truth) and ‘Soviet Life’ that I read at the ESL Corporate Library back in the 70s. Obama’s remarks are just like the scary, Soviet-style propaganda of ‘Workers Paradise.’

    Thanks again and have a lovely weekend to all.


    • It would be unjust to ascribe this concretion of rules, regulations, and roadblocks to the Obama Administration which has been in office only three years. The Executive Branch of the Federal government has had almost 230 years to create this edifice of obstruction. Often it was done in the name of protecting the public interest, after one sharpie or another found a way to use “innovation” as a cover for ripping off the public Treasury.

      Sadly, nothing has changed. The last orgy of ripoffs, the financial sector’s recent bloodsucking, was accomplished under the moniker of “financial innovation.” And the military-industrial complex’s endless transfusion of the majority of public funds into its own arteries continues unabated paying for “innovations” like large model airplanes, now called “drones,” that will spy mostly on Americans in the future.

      Obama certainly hasn’t scaled back the pile of preventions against innovation, but neither has the Congress. It’s only innovation has been never to innovate, never, ever, ever. This isn’t a “Workers Paradise,” it’s Chaos, which is just as damaging for innovation as Stricture. Both distract from the problems at hand and means for their solutions.

      Bipartisanship, thy name is Carnage. So how do we innovate a solution? Because innovate we must, it’s not going away if the status quo, the 20 billionaires funding the next election, have anything to say about it.

  32. […] & Silicon Valley heavyweight, ahd an interesting quote on of his recent blog posts called Why Innovation Dies about the times we are truly living in and just how much impact the internet is having on our […]

  33. What a timely post:
    This is very similar to the ICT strategy comittee that the Finnish goverment has put together. its as though they can come up with some “magic” for the ICT companies in Finland.
    These kind of initiatives generally is used to justify that something is being done to adress the declining revenues of the current business.
    Innovation initiatives like these are costly, and never result in successes.

  34. Steve–I would love to see your do a post on innovation in government (an oxymoron, I know). It seems that the fundamental nature of our democratic institutions (in America) seem to favor bureaucracy, partisan interest, and consensus building committees (to an extreme)—which inhibits effective solutions to our society’s most pressing problems. I would like to hear your ideas on how to apply the lean start-up approach to changing the govt (and the mindset of its employees)—which I know, being a consultant to them every day.

  35. Great Post!
    Partly at issue is a total intolerance, or a level of distancing, to living in a state of chaos. Few people are able to stay long within the environment of governed chaos and even fewer sit comfortably in that space until innovative thought takes root. Perhaps, in addition to working at the end of this stream to pull the babies out, we need to send a troupe upstream to stop whoever is throwing them in (starting in our primary education system). This is one way to create more tolerance, enjoyment and engagement in innovation.

  36. Steve,
    I enjoyed reading this, and I think it applies to some of our activities to solve ocean/coastal issues through committees that sometimes develop complex and tortured solutions to simple questions. However, what really struck me was your 3rd point about committees protecting the status quo – which can sometimes be a problem. I can think of one example of that which we should discuss some day.

  37. […] 3. Why Innovation Dies: If you have a wonderful innovation to suggest and want to make sure it goes nowhere, put it into the hands of a committee. That is what entrepreneur Steve Blank writes on his site. Blank offers many reasons why committees are no good for making innovation happen. One of them: “New market problems call for visionary founders, not consensus committee members.” […]

  38. I might get your last bullet point printed on a t-shirt, it’s so brilliant.

    We’ve started only calling meetings when one person, in the course of their own self-directed project, needs specific input from the rest of the team. General meetings “to brainstorm” a problem never seem to get anywhere…

    Great post, as usual!

  39. […] a two-sided problem: lack of capacity and vision. I have my thoughts about this, but I think this post by Steve Blank gives a glimpse on one of the […]

  40. Great post! I did a have question / clarification though.

    Your 2nd reason for why committees fail is that they will come up with a single solution – a sure way to fail in an unknown / undeveloped market. Totally agree with this.

    Your 4th reason is that visionary founders are best equipped to deal with disruption. Also totally agree with this.

    Visionary founders and committees though both have top-down approaches and will both be married to a single solution or strategy. Is the argument for the visionary founder that they will be more nimble and able to change course on a dime vs. the committee?

    • Visionary founders while focussed on a single goal will pivot – either explicitly via searching for product/market fit, or unconsciously by changing the goal and later declaring that’s where they were going all the time.

  41. Belated +1 for the Firesign Theater references. This Ohio boy heard them while at Caltech (centuries ago) – talk about hilarious! I will be listening to those albums this weekend.

    In the live version – Bergman claimed to have had a brief career in teaching (econ?) and said he envied Tom Lehrer for sticking it out in academe.

    p.s. I remember that then-Governor Reagan was told that “George Tirebiter” was based on him and he replied “Really? I love Firesigh Theater!”

    Norris in Boise

  42. Innovation dies in public school district central offices as well as university conference rooms.

    Steve, we’re using your lean start-up method as inspiration/framework to transform a K-12 school district in middle-America Reynoldsburg, OH. We’re searching for new blended models of education in ways you or others may find interesting. If you’re curious, I can tell you all about what we’re learning by using ‘lean’ to shape vibrant, effective, personalized student learning experiences.

Leave a Reply