Innovation Hacker

Posted by Gary Hamel on January 3, 2008

There isn’t a sport on the planet that delivers less adrenaline per unit of time than golf. For years, that simple fact kept me off the links. When compared to hurling myself down a black diamond ski run or diving on a wreck, the idea of spending the better part of a day struggling to propel a small round object toward a pint-sized hole, with a device ill-suited to the task, seemed to me both pointless and effete.

Yet there I was last week, hacking my way around two of the most extravagantly beautiful golf courses on the planet: Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers both of which have views across the Pacific from New Zealand’s North Island. And now I’m off to join a week-long golf orgy in Palm Springs—an annual event where the violent slash of my golf swing will once again be the subject of amusement and sarcasm: “Next time, see if you can slow it down to a blur.”

My journey from sneering skeptic to helpless addict began a decade ago when I set out to write a cover story for Fortune on the Internet. To imbue the piece with a bit of first person veracity, I visited eBay’s nascent website and, more or less randomly, entered a bid for a set of golf clubs. So confident was I that my low-ball offer would soon be bested, I didn’t bother to check back in on the auction. A few days later, I walked into my office and discovered an elongated box propped up in one corner. “Oh crap,” were the first words out of my mouth when a shiny set of Wilson irons tumbled out of the package. Nevertheless, within a few days I was down at the Stanford University driving range with a bucket of balls at my feet and a 7-iron in my hand. My first swing slammed into the ground a foot behind the ball, sending an electric shock up my arms. Another hideous spasm and the golf ball was whizzing sideways, provoking startled stares from my fellow range rats. “Dear-mother-of-all-things-absurdly-difficult,” I thought, “this is hard.” And then, ten, or twenty, or fifty lunges later, I connected—and with a whizzing sound sweeter than the air intake on a Ferrari F430, that little white orb started to soar. Up it went, suspended in the sparkling autumn sky. And then, 160-yards downrange, it returned to earth, bouncing softly on the grass.

Jeepers. I had just hit a ball farther than a Barry Bonds home run—and without any help from the jacked up folks at BALCO! And it felt good, that sudden, effervescent jolt of positive reinforcement. In that first euphoric moment, I had no idea I had just inhaled a drug more powerful than crack, but I knew I wanted more—more of that grin-inducing buzz that comes when you succeed, even intermittently, at something darn-near impossible. And like addicts of all sorts, my craving has cost me dearly. The new clubs every 18 months or so, the country club dues, and, most of all, the dollars and days consumed by coaches, golf schools, and training aids.

The golf swing has been called “the most difficult move in sports”—a gross understatement, as any golfer will tell you. To send your ball rocketing precisely toward its target, you must think of nothing but the target, while resisting the temptation to actually look at the target; you must keep your arms and hands relaxed, while torquing your torso like a taut rubber band; and you have to accelerate the club head from a standstill to more than ninety miles an hour in less than a second, while resisting the temptation to “swing hard.” And yet, with a bit of application, a middle-aged Boomer with a modicum of athletic ability can become a respectable golfer. And once or twice a round, this diligent, well-trained amateur will hit a golf shot that is the equal of anything you’re likely to see on the PGA Tour. This fact brings me neatly to my main point: Despite the old adage to the contrary, gray-haired dogs really can learn new tricks.

That’s why I’m optimistic that your company can dramatically improve its innovation performance. As my colleagues at Strategos have demonstrated again and again, in companies as diverse as Nokia, Shell, Best Buy, and Whirlpool, with the right tools and training, you can teach “ordinary” employees how to be extraordinary innovators.

Today, innovation is the buzzword du jour in virtually every company, but how many CEOs have put every employee through an intensive training program aimed at boosting the innovation skills of the rank and file? Sure companies have electronic suggestion boxes, slush funds for new ideas, elaborate pipeline management tools, and innovation awards—but in the absence of a cadre of extensively trained and highly skilled innovators, much of the investment in these innovation enablers will simply be wasted.

Imagine that you coaxed a keen, but woefully inexperienced golfer onto the first tee at Pebble Beach. After arming the tyro with the latest titanium driver, you challenge him to split the fairway with a monster drive. You promise the neophyte a $100 bonus every time he hits a long bomb that stays out of the rough, and another $100 for every hole where he manages to break par. But what you don’t do is this: You don’t give him any instruction—no books, no tips from Golf Digest, no Dave Pelz and Butch Harmon, no video feedback, and no time off to perfect his swing on the practice range. Given this scenario, how many 200-yard drives is our beginner likely to land in the fairway? How long is he likely to stay avidly devoted to the task at hand? And what kind of return are you likely to get on the $2,000 you spent on a bag full of high tech clubs and the 450 bucks you shelled out for a tee time? The answers are: Not many, not long, and not much. And no one who knows anything about golf would ever set up such a half-assed contest.

That’s why I’m dumbfounded by the fact that so few executives have invested in the innovation skills of their frontline employees. The least charitable explanation for this mind-boggling oversight: senior managers subscribe to a sort of innovation apartheid. They believe that a few blessed souls are genetically equipped to be creative, while everyone else is a dullard, unable to come up with anything more exciting than spiritless suggestions for Six Sigma improvements. A more charitable reading: CEOs and corporate HR leaders simply don’t know how to turn on the innovation genes that are found in every human being.

Obviously, you can’t teach someone to be an innovator unless you know where game-changing ideas come from. In other words, you need a theory of innovation—like Ben Hogan’s theory of the golf swing. This is why, a few years’ back, I and several colleagues analyzed more than a hundred cases of business innovation. Our goal: to under¬stand why some individuals, at certain points in time, are able to see opportunities that are invisible to everyone else. Here, in a pistachio-sized shell, is what we learned. Successful innovators have ways of seeing the world that throw new opportunities into sharp relief. They have developed, usually by accident, a set of perceptual “lenses” that allow them to pierce the fog of “what is” in order to see the promise of “what could be.” How? By paying close attention to four things that usually go unnoticed:

1. Unchallenged orthodoxies—the widely held industry beliefs that blind incumbents to new opportunities.
2. Underleveraged competencies—the “invisible” assets and competencies, locked up in moribund businesses, that can be repurposed as new growth platforms
3. Underappreciated trends—the nascent discontinunities that can be harnessed to reinvigorate old business models and create new ones.
4. Unarticulated needs—the frustrations and inconveniences that customers take for granted, and industry stalwarts have thus far failed to address.

I’ve learned that these modes of discernment can be taught to anyone who is genuinely eager to “see differently.” (For more information on the “how,” check out the forthcoming book from the Harvard Business School Press, "Innovation to the Core," by Peter Skarzynski and Rowan Gibson.) As individuals gain experience in seeing the world in new ways, and as their novel insights get shared and cross-tabulated, an organization’s capacity for innovation soars.

I can’t state the point strongly enough: The first and most important step for any company intent on building a capacity for continuous, game-changing, innovation is to teach its people how see what’s around them with fresh eyes. Until your company steps up to this challenge, it will be filled with innovation hackers whose ideas rarely find the fairway.


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