Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Making innovation second nature

Athletes understand the concept of muscle memory.  That is, the experience your body has performing specific activities that are consistently practiced until they become second nature.  Baseball players take hundreds of swings of the bat every day.  Basketball players shoot hundreds of shots.  Some are successful, others aren't, but over time the repetition builds muscle memory, which leads to more consistent performance and the ability to execute complex activities without even thinking about it.  What we see as effortless performance by athletes in many sports is a combination of good genes and consistent practice.  Some athletes are able, for a short amount of time, to get by on good genes alone, but that inevitably catches up to them.  As the mantra at cross-country goes:  hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work very hard.

Why does something that seems so evident on its face in one activity, athletics, seem so unusual in other aspects of our lives, such as business?  We expect, no demand consistent performance and near perfection from our professional stars in many sports, and we pay to see these men and women perform.  Yet in other aspects of our lives, just as important and just as demanding, we give short shrift to building muscle memory and deep skills.  Since this is a blog about innovation, you've probably guessed where I am heading.  Since it is baseball season we'll use a baseball analogy:  where is spring training for innovators?  Where is the constant practice of innovation tools and methods?  How does one progress to build skills, or do we simply believe that innovation is an innate skill that doesn't need development?  If you believe that, take a look around at the many failed innovation experiments in any business.  Innovation, even more than other business skills and functions, needs to be practiced and the capabilities need to be developed.

We have muscle memory about efficiency and effectiveness.  The existing business processes have been ingrained into our very being - to the point where anything that contradicts existing business process or practice is shunned.  Innovation, on the other hand, is rarely engaged, and often in a highly visible, high stress environment, with people who have had little experience and no "spring training" to build skills and capabilities.  Is it any wonder that many innovation teams seem uncertain and uncomfortable?  This is like asking a novice to walk a tight rope over a flaming pit, with no practice and only an occasional hired guide to shout instructions from afar.

When a second baseman turns a nice double play, we applaud and think of a job well done.  What we don't see in the baseball ballet is that the shortstop and second baseman have practiced turning thousands of double plays, from many angles and from many different ground balls.  Their poetry in motion is the result of a lot of failed attempts, repeated under less pressure at spring training and constant practice.  When an innovation team is confronted with big goals and a lot of executive pressure to succeed, they are thrust immediately into Yankee Stadium with no spring training, no muscle memory and very little practice, so why are we surprised when the activities look like something from Double A? 

While it may be difficult to constantly practice innovation skills, it will become vital to become far more fluid with those skills, since the pressure to innovate isn't going to be reduced any time soon.  Rather, what we need to do is invest in building skills and then using those skills consistently so that innovation becomes more like a second nature activity, with good muscle memory, rather than a forced activity that the participants would rather avoid or forget.  This means defining an innovation process or capability in your business, training people in the tools and techniques that support the process and then engaging those teams consistently to build more innovative concepts and bring them to market as new products and services.  The only way to gain deep and capable skills for innovation is to practice and develop the expertise and muscle memory to make innovation seem more innate.  Sometimes when we are asked why innovation seems so natural an activity to us as consultants, we can easily answer:  because we do it so regularly it becomes almost second nature.

With training and with practice, innovation can become second nature to you and your colleagues.  And increasingly, innovation must become second nature to organizations that hope to be around for a long time.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 11:04 PM


Blogger Professor Modeste said...

I really enjoyed this article. I am glad you used the sports analogy. In my realm, music is the "thing" that requires practice and muscle memory and so your discussion really resonates (hey, an unintended pun!) with me. Music (and sports) also teach us a great deal about character -- who we are and the "stuff" we're made of. Resilience, determination, ingenuity, etc. We also learn that excellence doesn't come quickly; if it is achieved ( is it ever?), it is acquired over time, no short cuts.

Wy we need more music and sports in our k-12 system and why music and sports are still necessary in the adult professional realm. Corporate teams (baseball, basketball, flag, soccer, etc), ensembles (jazz, chamber, etc), would go far in teaching collaboration, communication, identifying leadership, etc.

Anyway... thanks for this.


6:08 AM  
Blogger jonblu said...

Innovation and risk are related. I felt a huge urge to take on a new project. I saw the end results and dove into it head first. In the middle of the project, I got swamped by intense challenges. I was ready to give up. I had to stick with it or fail. Failure is not an option. Getting deeper into these problems and not giving up has led me into incredible growth. Taking on a huge project has thrown me into situations where I innovate or die. I have to deal with problems. I've got to make decisions. Innovating is about making decisions and experimenting, about keeping in mind the what is lost if I don't make the right solution, and realizing that failing is better than not doing anything or not taking a huge risk. Now, I have to take risks. In that nest, I must innovate, experiment and generate solutions.

7:45 AM  
Blogger Randy Sabourin said...

Good article. we have a saying with our Sales Team - "Practice with on, not clients". We used this org to help us with practicing. www.e-roleplay.com

5:58 AM  

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