Innovators are Bracket Busters

Innovators are Bracket BustersThat hungry whirring noise heard around offices across the U.S. is the sound of March Madness brackets being fed to paper shredders everywhere. Bracket busting is reaching historic levels in this year’s NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball National Championship Tournament. Since the tournament was created in 1939 this is the first time there are no number 1 or 2 seeds in the Final Four. All of the country’s top eight teams, as anointed by the experts, will watch the Final Four from home.

That’s amazing. It’s the first time in March Madness history that two teams, Butler (8) and VCU (11), seeded 8 or worse in their bracket will play each other in the Final Four. So if you shredded your bracket, you’re not alone. According to ESPN Research only two people out of the 5.9 million who filled out and submitted brackets in the ESPN Tournament Challenge have the Final Four correct. Only two. That’s .000034%.

As I shredded my bracket I couldn’t help thinking about the parallels between innovation and bracket busting.

In many ways, from the time we are born, we are seeded into brackets. Education tracks, organization charts, and industry value chains are all brackets waiting to be busted. Experts are always telling us where we fit and what our role is. We are tracked into school programs at an early age based on perceived academic ability. We are placed into boxes in organization charts based on age and tenure, constrained from contributing beyond our “seed.” We work for too many organizations that only fight for market share within well-defined and accepted industry value chains.

Not only are we seeded into brackets created by someone else, we are expected to play our defined roles. Top seeds are supposed to win. Lower seeds make a valiant effort but lose to top seeds in the end. Most of us don’t even get an invite to the “big dance.” That’s the way it’s supposed to work because the experts say so.

The lesson from this year’s March Madness is the success of the bracket busters. As all of the tournament’s top seeds went down to UCONN, Kentucky, Butler, and VCU, I kept feeling happier. Maybe that’s because of the parallel with the innovators I’ve seen over the years.

Innovators, in their way, are bracket busters. While incremental improvements can be accomplished by working within current brackets and seeds, the biggest opportunities to create value come from transformational change, the kind of change that requires bracket busting. Solutions for the big social system challenges we face, including education, health care, energy, and entrepreneurship, require more than incremental change. The solutions we need require transformative bracket-busting business models and systems.

We need a new education system that doesn’t seed children into tracks and is designed to provide every student with a customized pathway to success. We need a new health care system that doesn’t track citizens through institutional and insurance sick care labyrinths and is designed for patients to champion their own pathways to wellness. We need organization structures that don’t constrain talent in boxes unleashing talent networks that enable everyone to contribute up to the limits of their imaginations. We need to transform industry value chains into value networks that break down boundaries between disciplines, organizations, and sectors to deliver value in completely new ways to students, patients, citizens, and consumers. We need more bracket busters.

So don’t be discouraged by your March Madness bracket now sitting at the bottom of the paper shredder. Celebrate the fact that none of the top seeds made it to the Final Four. Don’t settle for where you and your organization are seeded by so-called experts. Don’t allow anyone to say you aren’t allowed to go to the big dance. Don’t be constrained by brackets created by someone else. Create your own dance. Be the top seed in your own bracket. Be an innovator. Be a bracket buster.

You can also see this post on the Harvard Business Review site.

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Saul KaplanSaul Kaplan is the Founder and Chief Catalyst of the Business Innovation Factory (BIF). Saul shares innovation musings on his blog at It’s Saul Connected and on Twitter at @skap5.

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