Monday, April 04, 2011

What baseball could teach us about innovation

I found myself watching a baseball game over the weekend, which is always a pleasure.  There's something about the start of baseball season that signals the beginning of spring.  No matter how many "opening" games I see there's always a sense of renewal.  Opening day brings with it the sense of new possibilities.  Even perennial losers are undefeated that first game.

So that's the first lesson that baseball can give us about innovation - approach each new opportunity as if it is the first opportunity.  Your history of success or failure, innovation competence or lack thereof, is less important than the opportunity "right now".  To start off with excuses like "we've never been innovative" is to plan to fail and plan the excuses first.  Even the Washington Nationals start off the season talking about the playoffs.  Your team should start off talking about the positive outcomes that are likely, rather than the problems from the last attempt or the challenges that will be presented along the way.

I watched the Yankees play, and by full admission I am not a Yankees fan, more because of Steinbrenner and the sense of buying up all the talent rather than an animosity towards the team or players.  I marvel at the ease with which Rodriquez scoops up a ground ball on the run and pegs the runner at first.  It simply seems effortless, and the announcers call it a "routine" ground ball. 

Well, it's routine because Alex has practiced, and practiced, and practiced some more.  It looks so easy and so graceful because he and his team mates have spent countless hours practicing the play.  His coaches have hit grounders to his left and to his right.  He's made countless throws to first from every possible position.  Fielding a ground ball and making the throw to first is now second nature to him.

That's the second lesson baseball or any sport has to teach us about innovation.  Many firms kick off innovation projects using tools and techniques that are new to the employees, most of whom have never "innovated" previously.  However, the employees start in an even deeper hole than most baseball players, who grew up playing the game.  Most corporate innovators start from the fact that their firms have been focused on cost-cutting and efficiency, so innovating is a 180 degree reversal from what they've been focusing on.  So innovation requires reframing the challenges and issues and introducing new tools and techniques.  Only then can the employees gain any practice time.

That last line was kind of tongue in cheek.  There are few firms that provide any "spring training" for innovators.  Typically it's "here are the tools, get started".  No major league team brings an untrained rookie into the majors and places him in an unfamiliar position.  That's bound to fail.  Yet that's what we do with innovators all the time.

I watches the coaches signal plays and direct the fielders.  I watched the pitching coach talk the Yankees' pitcher out of a pitching jam.  Here's another lesson from baseball - it helps to have people who have been there before, or who have a different perspective, who can offer advice and support.

Highly paid major league baseball players have coaches that give them support and advice to help them achieve their best.  What do most corporate innovators have?  A management team that scrimps on training, demands the best outcomes in unreasonable timeframes and has little experience in innovation, so can provide very little coaching. 

Baseball is an old game, and in many ways risks losing its attractiveness to kids brought up on fast paced games like basketball or soccer.  But baseball is also a thinking man's game, and has much to tell us about how innovation can and should work.

Look no further than the concept of "swinging for the fences" or playing "station to station" baseball.  The former concept loads the batting lineup with lots of sluggers who can hit home runs.  The downside to this approach is that many sluggers are also adept at strikeouts.  It's very much an either/or proposition.  The station to station guys play small ball - lots of singles, stolen bases and so forth to move the runners along.  We have the same analogy in industry - except there are far fewer sluggers.  Most firms are content to play small ball, building on simple incremental innovations.

I'm sure I could go on all day, but here's the gist of the story:  baseball, with its strategy, coaching and constant practice until difficult plays become "routine"is a great metaphor for your innovation effort.  Without strategy, coaching and practice, you may as well stay in Single A ball.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:03 AM


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