Unrealistic Expectations for Innovation

I grew up as one of those kids who was sort of good at a lot of sports but not really a master of any one sport. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve put considerably more time into biking, tennis and running, which leaves little time for the sport of business titans: golf. Now, I “play” golf at least four times a year, in a fund raising game or with friends and neighbors. I never practice and it shows. I cannot break 100 to save my life. I’m not familiar with any of the local courses and not familiar with my clubs (tools). I don’t expect to be successful when I play and I don’t take it too seriously. I uncork a nice drive every once in a while, or a good putt, but I don’t expect it to happen regularly. Mostly I am a very poor golfer who occasionally gets in a good shot, and that’s all I expect.

If you are still with me, then you must be thinking this is leading somewhere. If you’ve drawn that assumption, you are right. The comparison I want to make to my very part-time golf game is to the part-time efforts most firms put into innovation. If you want to be good at golf, you’ll get instruction, play frequently and learn the nuances. Similarly, if you want to be good at innovation, you’ll get instruction, work with a pro, learn the tools and use them repeatedly and constantly. Innovating occasionally is like golfing periodically. You may get in a few good shots, but you won’t be consistently successful.

As an innovation consultant we get calls several times a week from firms that want to conduct a brainstorming session or a scenario plan. These firms are interested in quick generation of ideas or insights and have no longer term plan, or want to “stick a toe in the water” and see how the initial engagement pans out. I understand that – no one wants to commit to a big investment if the initial effort won’t pan out.

However, almost all of these engagements are likely to be less than fully successful, since there is:

  1. No longer term commitment to the effort
  2. No real momentum for change
  3. no consistency of intent or knowledge of tools

I always ask our clients – “OK, assuming we do the (brainstorm, scenario plan, training) – what’s next?” Usually there are vague assurances of more focus on innovation, but in many cases I have the sense that the effort is merely a “ticket punching” exercise, with no longer term commitment. It’s as if I showed up at St. Andrews, shanked the opening tee shot and decided, well, that’s it for me and golf.

If I want to be a good golfer, I need to take lessons and play regularly to gain insights and improve as a player. If I want to be innovative as a firm, I have to do things on a regular basis that grow my skills and demonstrate my intent. An occasional innovative project or task does not change the baseline capability, and often detracts from a larger intent or goal, since “everyone” knows that nothing will be done with the ideas anyway.

It is completely unrealistic for me to think I can play three or four times a year and then compete at the Masters. Likewise, it is completely unrealistic to expect that I will innovate only occasionally and then create the “next iPod” or whatever your baseline construct for disruptive innovation is. Interestingly, most CEOs or executives who tell their teams to be innovative have an outcome more like the Masters and less like putt-putt in mind. Do you think your CEO or executive sponsor has asked you to innovate to create tiny incremental solutions? No! They want the really exciting, interesting, captivating innovation that gains market awareness and attention, but they certainly aren’t likely to get it.

So, we have these crazy, mismatched expectations and capabilities. People who should be playing a par three course and getting instruction have been turned loose on Pinehurst #2 with no instruction and are expected to bring home the cup. No wonder CEOs are constantly disappointed in their companyies’ innovation efforts, and no wonder many innovation teams live in fear of meeting their executives’ expectations. Periodic, half-hearted attempts at innovation are almost worse than no efforts at all.

Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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Jeffrey Phillips




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