Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Swinging for the fences

In our paper over the weekend was an article about the X Prize Foundation, a team put together to encourage innovators to solve big problems. The foundation identifies areas of focus and defines a challenge and a prize associated with the solution for that challenge. You may recall that the first commercial flight into space in 2004 won an X Prize.

Now, I'm all for swinging for the fences, but I fear this type of thinking inside a business. Too much focus on one large, completely disruptive idea can distract from the needs for quarter to quarter, year on year growth and profits that other forms of innovation can provide. This kind of thinking in a business can also drain the resources for incremental innovations. What's important in a business is an investment in a range of innovations, some that will pay off in the short run and some that have disruptive capability that may not pay off for several years.

To continue the baseball analogy, a balanced baseball team has a lineup that features hitters who are very adept at getting on base, as well as those who hit more for power than for average. Too many banjo hitters and a team can struggle to move men around. Too many power hitters and a team struggles to get men on base consistently. A balanced lineup ensures a good mixture of both: batters who hit for average and batters who swing for the fences.

In our innovation teams, we need a consistent flow of ideas that demonstrates a solid process and continues to generate new products and services over time. If we become too enamored by the one "next big thing" and neglect the singles and doubles, the new product or service pipeline will dry up, placing even more emphasis and importance on the next big thing. Given that many longer term disruptive innovations fail to achieve the goals set for them, a firm in this position has made an exceptionally big bet on one small set of ideas.

We are asked constantly which ideas a firm should emphasize, disruptive or incremental. In most cases, the obvious answer is that your team should work on both - the incrementals to provide a consistent stream of new products and services for existing customers and the disruptives to attempt to radically change your market or a competitive market.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 4:36 AM

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