Thursday, April 04, 2019

Why taking your best shot is all wrong in innovation

I was speaking with a prospective client recently and was dismayed to hear them talk about innovation in a manner that seems to suggest innovation is a "one and done" activity.  Then a good friend introduced me to the book Loonshots, which I haven't read, but did listen to a podcast about.  I'm not here to review Loonshots, but I do want to debunk the idea of innovation and its connotation to "shots" of any kind.

We use this kind of language all the time - "take your best shot".  We use this language in our personal lives and in our business lives.  This phrase is often used in a setting where the speaker is uncertain about his or her ability to do something, will attempt it anyway, but goes into the activity with some fatalism.  My concern is when we use this kind of thinking when we innovate.

Best Shots

When you innovate, you are often doing something new and unusual, that many times may not achieve the goals or expectations you hope for.  Further, you may be working on innovation without the proper training or skills, and with less than a full complement of resources.  This is why many people talk about giving innovation their "best shot".

In no other important business activity would we use such fatalistic language, have such a negative expectation and work in such a one off way.  In no other business process would we approach a problem with such poor definition and preparation.  Yet innovation is more important than ever, but we still approach it as if it's a one time, unusual proposition that we'll give our best (but probably inadequate) effort to, with little expectation of success.

Just read the phrase to yourself:  Give it your best shot.

The phrase even signals things that I believe are fallacies about innovation, that by repeating we allow to become reality.


First is the word "shot".  This is one reason I have discomfort with the "Loonshots" book.  In the podcast I listened to the publishers talked about Kennedy's plan to put a man on the moon.  This was a "Loonshot".  But NASA never envisioned only going once.  The idea behind innovation is not that it is an occasional "shot", but a constant, sustained effort, composed of small, incremental changes and larger, transformative or disruptive activities.  The phrase "give it your best shot" comes from (as best as I can tell) the 1700s and refers to shooting at a target, in a day when a musket could only be fired once, then slowly reloaded. Thus everything depended on the one shot.

This thinking should be almost heretical to us.  Innovation, especially in a corporate setting, requires a lot of "shots", simultaneously, and consistently.  Unlike marksmen, who have a stationary target and lots of shooting practice, most innovators are aiming at an uncertain future and have little experience.  We need to help innovators understand how to improve their understanding of the future (research, trend spotting, scenario planning) and how to become more proficient at innovation methods and tools, but we also need to bake in the idea that more innovation should be done more often, more consistently and with different goals or outcomes in mind.


Another word I hate in the phrase "give it your best shot" is the word best.  How can we give something our "best shot" when we are 1) uncertain of the framing, scope or goals 2) unpracticed in the methods and tools 3) unsupported in the work and 4) working against cultures and corporate norms that push back against change?  Why must we make innovation a competition against everything the company does and reinforces, rather than make innovation something the company accepts and embraces, and prepares people to do?  Why enter this vital work with fatalism rather than with confidence?

So, when we repeat this phrase:  Give it your best shot, we are invoking the idea that an activity that used to be performed by experienced marksmen with plenty of experience and good conditions is now an activity performed with little experience or practice, in imperfect and often contradictory conditions, and only done once, and often with a sense of impending failure before we even start.

Sounds like a recipe for success, no?

What I'd prefer we think about

Rather, what I'd prefer is that we give teams the skills and tools they need to do innovation more effectively, preparing them for the work.  We should give them a sense that one innovation project isn't the end all or be all of the innovation work - there are persistent innovation activities working on both incremental and disruptive change constantly - the idea that we are taking many shots.  Further we should reduce risk and uncertainty by clarifying the conditions in which they work (changing the corporate culture), improving the field in which they work (better insights, better sense of future conditions) and in improving the confidence they have about the work.

If someone tells you to take your best shot at innovation, here's what you can say in return:

My best shot is actually a series of shots, and my success rate will be radically improved with training on innovation tools and methods, proper definition of the expected goals and outcomes, better understanding of the future market conditions and familiarity with customer needs, and working within a corporate culture that reinforces the work I do rather than resists it.

Don't be a solitary marksman.  Be the army.  Come in full force and bend the organization to your will.  Take many shots, at many different targets, all the time.  Send your best people to bootcamp to get them the skills they need to succeed.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:19 AM


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