Thursday, May 19, 2011

Why innovators are decathletes

After close to eight years doing innovation work, you'd think there would be few surprises left, but almost every week I get another perspective or another insight that simply floors me.  Whether its the gap between what CEOs say about innovation (typically 70% list it as a top 3 priority) and the actual implementation of innovation (barely 25% of firms acknowledge creating an innovative product last year), or the completely mixed signals that many firms send about the importance of innovation without any change to evaluation or compensation schemes, innovation efforts constantly encounter an almost Kafka-esque reality.

None, however, more so than the mental and physical athleticism necessary to be a successful corporate innovator.  I was thinking about this based on an article I read which dealt with "amping" up creative thinking.

In many organizations, the vast majority of people spend very little time thinking about or pursuing ideas, and even less time preparing to actually do anything innovative.  Then, in one fell swoop, an executive demands a new innovative product in far less time and with far less resource allocation than is feasible.  So, from a standing start, with no preparation, no "stretching" and no familiarity with the tools or processes, the innovators are in a sprint to the finish.  Or, really, a decathlon.

I think of innovators as decathletes, if there is such a word, because of the many challenges, hurdles and obstacles they must overcome, and the many different capabilities they must display.  Decathletes are people who are really good, but not world class, at a bunch of different athletic events - sprints, distance running, jumping, throwing, hurdling.  Innovators have to be the same.  They encounter plenty of obstacles that they must surmount.  They hurdle issues that others in the business never encounter.  Their projects often start at a sprint, but can turn into a distance event. 

However, we haven't been training decathletes in our organizations, and we haven't introduced even so much as an occasional stretching period or a coach.  Instead, we've trained our organizations to all be sprinters, sprinting from one quarter to the next, constantly running the same distance over the same courses.  What we need now, when innovation is in high demand, are decathletes, or at least relay teams that contain the range of skills and athleticism we need.

What's your firm doing to build or at least identify decathletes, or teams that can form a decathlete relay?  Are they working together?  Do they get the time to "warm up" and stretch before the starting gun?  Do they practice their innovative skills before they are deployed in the Olympics of a critical new innovation project that's meant to save the company?

The US would never dream of selecting a decathlon team built entirely of 100 meter sprinters and asking them not to practice any other event, and further, ask them to only focus on the 100 meter until the day of the decathlon, then wonder why the decathlon team fared so poorly.  Sounds crazy, right?  But that's exactly what we do with innovation teams.  Neglect their training, misunderstand the range and depth of skills necessary, and never allow them to practice those skills until the need is critical for high performance.

Over the last two decades we've spent millions of dollars developing one very special type of athlete, the sprinter who can achieve very specific goals over a very specific course.  Our managers are gold medalists at this event.  However, the future will demand that every business participate in the decathlon.  Is your business, are your teams, ready?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:46 AM


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