Monday, April 14, 2014

Innovation, team sports and vital components for both

In a slightly strange but very insightful Tweet Friday, Bill O'Connor (@Oconnorautodesk) noted that innovation today is often like a chess tournament where "no one has a chess set and no one knows the rules" .  I think he's on to something, but I'd use another sport to describe the opportunity and challenge of corporate innovation.

My preferred sport wouldn't be chess, which is primarily a solo practitioner game where one person faces off against another.  My preferred analogy would be baseball, where a number of important factors come into play. In team sports, the field or arena matters.  Chess can be played anywhere two people can meet, but team sports typically require a field or arena which is demarcated for that sport.  These boundaries are important, because in the real world of innovation companies have "boundaries" - competitive, regulatory, cultural and business model boundaries that to some extent dictate how they can, and where they can "play".  The arena or field creates limits to the types of things a team can do, much in the same way that corporate culture, competition and regulation limit what a firm can do.  On the other hand, the field or arena also augments play, because it was designed for the purpose.  You can't easily play baseball on a football field or a basketball court.  The space and its architecture and boundaries matter, to team sports and to innovation.

Next, a team sport is a good analogy for innovation because you can't launch a new product or service unless a wide range of people with deep skills in a number of different capabilities or functions provide assistance.  Good ideas are developed and commercialized through the support of product developers, legal teams, regulatory teams, finance and marketing.  In baseball, for example, players at different positions have different skills and strengths.  Shortstop and second basemen are good fielders, nimble and able to make acrobatic plays, but aren't often counted on to provide significant offense or batting prowess.  First base is where you park your big hitter, who may be a fielding liability.  Each position requires different skills, and together the team as a whole plays the game, each contributing their offensive and defensive skills.  In the same way a corporation that hopes to succeed at innovation needs a range of people representing a wide variety of important skills and talents.  Chess, as I mentioned, is a solo sport, and therefore perhaps not the best analogy for innovation.  Innovation requires a cross functional team.

And all of those people, whether they are innovators or sportsmen, need to be trained in their roles.  Athletes don't take the field without hours and hours of batting practice and fielding practice, but we often ask innovators to take on large projects with little or no training or prior experience.  Imagine running a professional sports team the way we run innovation projects.  Individual athletes would show up a few minutes before gametime, would lack complementary skills and in some cases even awareness of each other's strengths and weaknesses, and would play unfamiliar positions, uncertain of the strategy or expected outcomes.

Finally, there's got to be some strategy involved, and that's where the chess analogy or any sports analogy really rings true. Chess involves a lot of strategy, and while it may not appear so, baseball does as well.  Will we be a team that plays "small ball", using the hit and run and advancing runners, or will we count on the "long ball"?  The Oakland As introduced the concept of deep statistical research to find inexpensive but productive players, and that was an "innovation" in a sport over 100 years old.  Likewise, strategy matters for innovation.  What is the corporate strategy and key goals and objectives for innovation?  How do those strategies and goals frame what the team does?  Do they understand those strategies and how their work fits in?

So, using these analogies we are left with a number of interesting vignettes:

  1. You could have trained athletes who understand their roles but don't have an appropriate "arena" or strategy to pursue.  This scenario aligns to a company that focuses on "training" its employees on innovation techniques but doesn't have a consistent innovation process, and can't decide how or where to deploy the innovation capabilities.
  2. You could have a beautiful park in which to play, but no players or the wrong distribution of players and skills.  This scenario aligns to corporations that focus on building elaborate innovation centers with bright colors  and playful architecture, but neglect to fill the space with trained people who understand the goals and mission of innovation.
  3. You could have a beautiful park and the right number of players, but the wrong assortment.  This scenario aligns most readily to companies that think all innovation "belongs" in one function or department.  Often the idea is that innovation belongs in "R&D" for example, and the R&D staff receive a lot of investment and focus, and the rest of the company receives none.
  4. You could have the park, the players and the strategy but no audience.  This last scenario represents the fact that you can get everything right - the right people and in the right mix, following the right processes and with the right strategy, but neglect to notice that innovation should be driven by customer needs, not internal assumptions.
It's not until you have the right setting (or park), the right team members with the right skills and the appropriate distribution of the players and skills, and they all have the right training and practice, and they are in tune with the strategy that you'll be able to accomplish valuable innovation on a sustainable basis.   If you have all of these capabilities in hand, you'll then need the humility and patience to understand what customers need, and the willingness to respond.

Of course competitive sports fail as a perfect analogy for innovation because innovators aren't competing against one other team or opponent as they do in a sporting event.  Innovators are competing against a host of direct and indirect competition, and the rules are constantly changing.  Innovators have to be far more flexible and adaptive to market and competitive situations, technology shifts and customer demands, which many athletes don't have to consider.

Ultimately, athletic teams or innovators share some common challenges.  They need cohesion, the right mix of capabilities, attitudes and skills, an arena to perform and clear strategy to direct their efforts.  If any one of these is missing, performing at a peak level is virtually impossible.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:48 AM


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