Making Innovation Second Nature

by Jeffrey Phillips

Making Innovation Second NatureAthletes 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. 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.

image credit: yankees batter image from bigstock

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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey 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 Relentless Innovation and the blog Innovate on Purpose.

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