The problems with ‘Pipelines’

As trading environments intensifies, slows or tightens, so the pressure to focus more energy, investment and time onto innovation and its lustrous promise inevitably grow. And what signals healthy innovation plans more than a pipeline – packed to the gunnels with new product, packaging or brand ideas; some ready to go, some looser, meeting an unmet need a couple of years from now, others, little more than outline thoughts about the art of the possible, off in the distance.

Yet innovation failure rates are increasing – and the push for ‘the pipeline’ is part of the issue.

To be clear, a well-stocked catalogue of NPD or renovation projects has clear advantages. For the leadership and the staff in the business, it’s engaging, exciting and gives confidence that new-news is coming through. For the brand teams, it is a demonstrable indicator that their charges are in good health. For others, there’s the ‘value’ of the pipeline: the financial projections for the money it will it deliver over the life of the plan: what can I report to the Board? What can I tell the analysts?

But innovation pipelines create false confidence.

First, there are the behavioural issues. The innovation team bust their guts to identify insights, ideate, develop concepts, validate and test. Strong, consumer-led projects are phased in to cover the next few years. The pipeline is filled with its innovation ‘oil’.

And what draws the eyes of the decision makers? Not the project for next year. Nor the one for 18 months out. No, it’s the “game changer”, slated for 4 years away. It is way more exciting. So the process of wrangling and re-analysing takes place; previous agreements are disregarded and the silver bullet is pulled forward. “Stage & Gate” processes are cast aside; project managers gently cough and look away as hitherto unassailable Sales & Operational Planning red lines are politely worked around.  Ignore the additional technical risks; ignore the dislocation to other activities – the biggest, shiniest jewel wins through. And…. it’s quite possibly the right call (at least if it can be delivered safely). If something is motivating the business; if something excites a buyer, then major hurdles are already overcome.

Next, there’s the question of resource deployment. Pipeline thinking means salami slicing and prioritisation. Prioritisation sounds good, but with innovation it’s not what’s really needed. What’s needed is sacrifice. Pipeline thinking is built on allocation of resource, right throughout the chain – teams being briefed on 40% of their time here, 30% there, 20% further out and 10% for fire-fighting; same for investment. Not only is this allocation approach never realistic, more fundamentally it stops the discussion around elimination. Let’s not do this activity at all. Let’s put 0% effort into it. Let’s spend nothing on it. It’s not that it’s a bad idea; in fact it could have lots of possibilities, but this one could be a real disruptor. Big bets – not salami slicing is what’s needed – after all, it’s big bets that smaller, more nimble market entrants and future competitors will be making – they have no other choice than to be bold and single-minded.

Pipelines for CrowsAnd then there’s the tyranny of choice. It sounds counter-intuitive, but the issue for innovation currently is generating too much choice. Think about a typical supermarket today. Do you really want more choice? What we need are better choices. Pipelines drive quantity. What’s needed is quality. Single-minded ideas that meet desires and needs better. That establish a brand’s positioning more powerfully. Simple solutions to the simple problems that so often we ignore or miss in our closeness to our categories.

A pipeline, after all, is a metaphor for continuous flow and supply. That’s not needed for ideas. That’s needed more for insights: finding those illusive springboards to growth. Yet so often, the process of insighting is compartmentalised: ‘we’ll do accompanied shops once a quarter’; ‘we’ll have stimulus sessions twice a year’.  And yes, you can get some useful outputs from it, but essentially insight development is emergent. It is always on: being curious; poking around; asking questions. That’s where a pipeline is needed.

If insight needs a pipeline, innovation needs a refinery: a factory where ideas are refined. A place where focus is given to the raw materials you have at your disposal. A place where you choose to make different products suitable for your needs. At some point with innovation, you need to get everyone round the table, everyone who has skin in the game, distil the ideas you have and thrash stuff out. Make calls. Kill ideas. Not prioritise. Not fill a pipeline – eliminate. Ask: what are we going to back here?  What’s good, but not good enough? What’s risky – or stretching – but could change the rules for the category?

If you can credibly bring more than one ideas to market, plan them based on when you can actually get them to market not on some hypothetical timing. Build in some red lines. Avoid the false confidence.  Step back and look at the world as a consumer sees it. We’re seeing the outputs of pipelines polluting categories in a slick of OK product choices. It’s time to stop. Build a refinery and make big, bold bets on the real problems your consumers face day to day.


David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands build foundations of stone.; +44 (0) 1283 246260.   You can follow The Crow Flies on Linked In (, on Facebook ( 

© The Crow Flies, 2017