He's in Front of the Net. He Shoots. He Scores!
By Ed Bernacki | May 31, 2002
Most kids dream of being a sports star at some point in their life. It could be hockey, tennis or basketball. Few will get there but many have the dream. These few will have the combination of physical fitness, skill, coaching, opportunity and desire to reach that goal.
The word "innovation" seems to be everywhere at the moment. The Government is launching a new innovation strategy for industry. Many companies use the term in their vision and mission statements. The reality is that dreaming about being innovative is much like our sport dreams – few will get there but many have the dream.
Fitness as a Metaphor for Innovation
Helping people make sense of innovation is a big part of my job. I found that linking fitness to the world of innovation helps people make sense of what has to be done to get results. Here are some basic truths of sport and innovation.
- Talking about fitness does not make you fit. Talking about innovation (in your vision and mission statements) does not make you innovative. Only action can make you fit and innovative.
- People often say that they are investing in technology to become more innovative. Really? That sounds like "investing in running shoes or fitness equipment to become fit". Raise your hand if you have a rowing machine or trend mill rusting away in the garage. The same is true for many investments in technology.
There are two levels of innovation work in our organizations – basic training and the equivalent of marathon training.
Basic training is designed for everyone. Teach staff the basics of managing ideas. The goal is to help people find new and original ideas that they apply to the problems, opportunities and challenges of the business. This involves training in such areas as:
The second level of training take a more holistic perspective, much like training for a marathon.
It starts by taking a systematic view of the unique contribution individuals can make in a business. A job title does not measures someone's potential to generate (although many people in marketing may dispute this). Ideas can come from accountants, PAs, customers and suppliers. New ideas should not be the job of R&D or marketing. There many numerous personal assessment tools to help gauge the style of creative thinkers you can have in your organization.
But creative thinkers do not make an organization innovative unless the bosses are open to new ideas. Bosses have to let go of the notion that they provide the ideas – just as the coach must recognize that they do not score the goals.
The bosses, like all good coaches must create a climate that is positive to new ideas in terms of listening to people, recognizing their contribution, respecting their efforts, and rewarding the results.
No good coach would lead a team without a plan. Innovation too needs a plan. Outside of the training issues raised above, the key to an innovation plan is to define where new ideas are needed. People need a focus for their ideas. Here are some examples:
- Suggestion boxes rarely work. You can improve results by creating challenges to focus staff thinking. For example, "this week our challenge is to improve the delivery of our products". Give people something specific to focus on.
- Within the business, define the two big problems that hinder your success. ACT on them. Many companies waste huge resources because they refuse to solve their problems. Get them in writing. Turn it into a poster. Involve a team to define a plan of action. Break it down into manageable steps even if it takes a year or two.
- What opportunities are you sitting on? Get people thinking about new revenue generating opportunities.
Perhaps the saddest parallel between sport and innovation is what happens when something fails.
To generalize, people who are unfit and over weight are lethargic. Taking the initiative to do new things takes too much effort. Conversely, people who exercise regularly and feel good about it are often far more energetic. The same applies to business.
In my workshops, I ask this question, "if you organization is not innovative, how would you describe it?" The responses tend to be words like mediocre, indifferent, apathetic and tired. It is safe to say that no organization has a mission statement such as "our vision is to provide mediocre services with apathetic and indifferent staff". However, reality suggests that this exactly what some organizations do.
Using the analogy of sport to find new ideas to make your organization more innovation is a creativity tool called "parallel worlds". It is a powerful technique to find new ideas and a greater understanding of your challenges.
Your objective may not be to score goals but the equivalent in the innovation work is measuring how often you say, "wow! that's a great idea!" If you don't hear that term often enough, it's time for a new game plan.