Avoiding The Innovation (March) Madness

Ames, United States — August 6, 2015: Entrance to Iowa State University. Iowa State is a research university in the United States. Photo credit: Getty

Tips From the Playbooks of the Best Growth Experts

I have never won our office NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament pool. The reasons are pretty simple: Every year, I pick my beloved Iowa State Cyclones to win the whole thing while also betting on too many other underdogs.

In sports and in business, betting with your heart can get you into trouble.

But because I bet with my head elsewhere, I might be able to help you when it comes to picking a different kind of team—the one in charge of your company’s new sources of growth.

After nearly three decades of helping leaders launch new products and services, I can now easily recognize what separates the champions from the “one-and-dones.”

Let’s start with the fundamentals: Innovation is actually four different games in one.

The best way for me to illustrate this is with an innovation portfolio framework. In this model, the Y axis represents your businesses’ competencies, spanning from the things you know how to do to capabilities you do not yet have on the court.

The X axis represents the products and services the market wants and/or expects from you, ranging from the things you are known for to the new products you wish were more popular or you knew how to deliver.

The Innovation Portfolio. Photo credit:Maddock Douglas

Let’s spread the floor and explore each quadrant.

Evolutionary innovation occurs when we know the customer wants it, and it is technically easy for us to do. (Think a new flavor of cornflakes).

Differentiation is technically difficult for us to do, but we know our customer really wants it (think an app designed to pick your flavor of cornflakes).

Revolutionary innovation may seem technically impossible, and even if we can do it, there is no way of knowing ahead of time if anyone will buy it (think a blockchain and AI-powered way to record and rank your cornflake choices).

And finally, fast-fail innovation is easy for us to do, but we’re not sure if anyone will buy it (think hemp flakes).

Each quadrant also requires a different coach, players and strategy to win. With that in mind, here are three ways to spot the team that will go all the way:

Create A Playbook

“Winning is about having the whole team on the same page.” —Bill Walton

One of my favorite things to do when I am speaking to an audience about innovation is to have them jot down their definition of the term on a piece of paper. Then I ask them to turn to the person next to them, or their whole table, and share their definitions. Finally, I ask people to raise their hands if they had a similar or the same definition as their partner or tablemates.

Nobody ever raises their hands. This is particularly stunning when the exercise is done at an all-company event.

The best innovation leaders make certain that everyone is using the same definitions, frameworks, metrics and language when they are talking about innovation. My company recently created a series of workshops that allowed a global organization (nine countries) to co-create a 12-chapter playbook that accomplished this goal.

People support what they create. By embracing a process that allowed different countries and teams to recreate the same playbook, the leader of this company accomplished two important goals. First, everyone was using the same definitions—such as the categories evolutionary, differentiation, revolutionary and fast fail above—frameworks, metrics and language; they were literally on the same page. Second, it was THEIR playbook. After all, each person on the team helped create it.

Score Some Quick Points

“Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.” —John Wooden

You’re watching the tournament, and a player makes an easy layup basket. The announcer says something like, “He needed that for his confidence. Watch it now, because if he gets hot, he can really change the outcome of the game.”

It is amazing what confidence can do for an innovation team. So we must set them up to succeed at the beginning of the game. But too many innovation leaders run the wrong plays at the wrong time. They allow their teams to bomb low-percentage, two-point jump shots when a simple layup would do the trick. Players need some quick wins. Leaders must instill confidence. To do this, the best leaders run the right plays at the right time.

The differentiation quadrant in our portfolio is the perfect place to run these plays. In this quadrant, we know our customers want a better experience or product or service improvement, but we’re not certain just how to do it.

The easiest way to achieve a “layup” in this quadrant is through customer journey mapping. By walking in the shoes of your consumer or customer, you can lay out exactly what it is like to interact with or buy from your company. You can then identify moments of dissatisfaction, confusion, inertia, etc. Once identified, these moments can be prioritized by value to the customer and the company, and then you can start to quickly prototype ways to solve the issues. Each issue should have a key performance metric that we can use to evaluate the best solutions and progress.

One caveat: The best leaders understand that not all customers are created equal or the same. Therefore, it is important to establish three to four personas and prioritize them as well. When we are walking in our customer’s shoes, it’s best to know if they are high tops, high heels or Birkenstocks.

Lead With Vision

“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” —Norman Vincent Peale

The revolutionary quadrant is where both heroes and losers are made famous. History is rich with stories of buzzer-beater ideas that saved the game or the company. Unfortunately, here there are far more stories of ideas that failed than ones that worked. When you miss in this quadrant, fortunes, jobs and confidence can be lost.

The best advice I can give is to use this quadrant as a way to support your vision or purpose. For example, this is where Patagonia would invest in a technology to remove plastic from the oceans that would then be used in their clothing. Leadership would not invest in the idea because it was definitely going to work or drive profit—by our definition, that’s not revolutionary innovation—but rather because the idea is “on purpose”; it supports what the company stands for. So even if it does not work, it signals to the employees and customers that the company is courageous enough to invest in its purpose.

Turns out, even in the innovation game, it’s sometimes OK to invest with your heart.

(And yes, of course, I picked (the sixth seed in the Midwest bracket) ISU to win the whole thing again. #cyclONEnation!)