Friday, September 26, 2008

An Innovation Work out

If you are like me, you have kids who are active in sports. My daughter loves soccer more than anything, and is constantly practicing - at practice and at home. Just a few days ago I watched her juggle (keep the soccer ball moving in the air using her feet, knees, chest and head) for over 100 touches. That seems fairly miraculous to me, since I don't have that skill, but she considers it an ability grown out of constant practice. She has gained the skill through constant work and application.

I'd like to think that there's an analogy there to innovation and what our expectations are about the capability of individuals and teams to innovate. Most of the time, our teams are called on to "innovate" in a crisis, with little advanced warning and no practice time. Most of the people involved have rarely, if ever, innovated and are unfamiliar with the techniques, methods and thinking models that enable innovation. We ask them to innovate without any practice or warmup - and the results are about the same as when I try to juggle a soccer ball. To my credit I can get about ten touches, but there's little grace or beauty in what I do, and it usually results in a quick failure.

In no other business function do we ask people from a cold start with little to no experience or preparation to take on such an important function. It's little wonder that people are often concerned about being involved in an innovation project - they understand the challenges and often feel they are unprepared and don't have the luxury of a learning curve. So they press their way forward, learning on the job, making avoidable mistakes and achieving some modest level of success, all the while recognizing the potentials that exist if only they were familiar with the tools and techniques.

However, in most organizations the folks who've done this once rarely get to repeat the exercise, and a whole new crop of innovators takes on the next innovation initiative, with little preparation and modest results. You wouldn't pay to see the Yankees or the New England Patriots if they were staffed by people they recruited off the streets at the last moment to play - we pay professional athletes because they have the skills and knowledge to play well above our level. Why would we expect or tolerate anything less in what everyone says is a top three management priority in our businesses?

If your management team is serious about innovation, then it will train the individuals who are responsible for innovation and engage those individuals on a regular basis so their skills and knowledge improve and innovation tools and techniques become second nature. Without training and constant exercise to reinforce and improve innovation skills, it's exceptionally difficult to innovate well over any period of time.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 2:16 PM


Anonymous Anonymous said...


I think the points raised by you are practical and are seen in a corporate environment with regularity. But still the challenge is in maximizing the employee potential to innovate.

In fact you might want see this discussion on where Prof Linda Hill from Harvard is guiding a discussion on employee innovation. I think "An innovation work out" fits in very well in that discussion on unstructure.

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