Innovation Perspectives – Don't Be Michael Jordan

by Ric Merrifield

This is the eleventh of several ‘Innovation Perspectives‘ articles we will publish this week from multiple authors to get different perspectives on ‘What are three specific actions that a non-innovative company can take to become more innovative?’. Here is the next perspective in the series:

by Ric Merrifield

Innovation Perspectives - Don't Be Michael JordanMichael Jordan failed at baseball because he tried to be something he’s not, a world class baseball player. Jordan is still considered one of the best basketball players ever, but he’s not great a baseball. So when a company decides it wants, or needs to be more innovative, it ought to look in the mirror and ask what it will take to start to be something it hasn’t been in the past, and wonder why it will succeed.

Before it does that though, there needs to be a conversation about why they want to be more innovative. Just because innovation is happening in a lot of places doesn’t mean it’s for everyone, which is true of most changes. Take Coke and Pepsi as an example. Pepsi changes their look and their motto all the time while Coke’s are much more enduring. It’s simply a decision of Pepsi to frequently make these changes, just as it’s Coke’s decision to not change and both organizations remain very successful.

So what are three things that can be done assuming that there is a demonstrated need or opportunity to innovate?

  1. Hire it. The easiest thing to do is hire someone who has innovation in their background as a way to credibly introduce innovation into the organizational culture. Having someone with experience helps everyone with the discussions about innovation, where it is needed, and isn’t. This will significantly reduce the risk of people trying to do something new and failing which can be a very expensive distraction and it can also be highly detrimental to the organization if the wrong area is selected. This is a great way to inject some fresh thinking, and even rethinking into an organization.
  2. Add it to your standard list of choices. It’s vital to have a definition of innovation. I see a lot of people talk about innovation as something that just happens, like a strike of lightening. My opinion is that innovation rarely, if ever, happens by accident. For me, an innovation is when you are able to come up with a way to do something so different from how people currently do it that it doesn’t resemble the current method. Checking in for a flight over the internet doesn’t resemble the experience at the counter at the airport where the airline employee checks you in. Renting movies through the mail doesn’t resemble the experience of going to the video rental store. So in when a situation arises that merits a reaction, it might be a problem and it might be an opportunity, I encourage people to think of their response options in three basic categories, scorecard, project, and innovation. The scorecard option means that whatever you do, it’s going to be a relatively minor change that is going to change the performance of what it is you are changing by a little bit, something that will show up on your scorecard as a minor change. The next level up is “project” where the change is going to be a bigger undertaking, and while the area of focus will resemble what it was before the project, it will also be noticeably different, a remodeled house is a good analogy for a project in that sense. Innovation is then at the end of the spectrum where the response requires something that doesn’t resemble what is in place today. How does someone make these decisions? It’s pretty simple actually, based on the magnitude of the problem or the opportunity the leaders of the organization need to weigh how dramatic their reaction needs to be. The point is that by having it on your list of choices every time you have to make a decision, it starts to be ingrained into the culture that innovation is always an option as a response to any problem or opportunity and it’s a matter of making the case for which choice is the best fit for the organization.
  3. Ask for it. If it’s not currently in the organizational culture, even when someone has an innovative suggestion, they may be disinclined to bring it up because that sort of thing just doesn’t happen at their company. So if organizations ask for innovations, hold challenges, and recognize those who participate, you not only add something that can be fun, the organization sends a very powerful “we care about your ideas” and that can be very powerful – in addition to getting some new ideas.

The last two are really easy to do. Hiring someone isn’t always the easiest thing for an organization, but it can lead to great results, so it shouldn’t be discounted as a way to jump-start the innovation.

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You can check out all of the ‘Innovation Perspectives‘ articles from the different contributing authors on ‘What are three specific actions that a non-innovative company can take to become more innovative?’ by clicking the link in this sentence.


Ric Merrifield is known at the “Business Scientist” at Microsoft Corporation in Redmond, WA and is the author of “Rethink“. He blogs about ways to rethink through getting out of what he calls “the ‘how’ trap”.

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