What a day at the driving range teaches about innovation management

As a digital intrapreneur and mediocre golfer, it’s hard to separate the two in your mind. Especially when you head to the driving range after day’s work spent on innovation activities. This week I reflected on the connection between improved innovation and playing golf – and it has little to do with failing frequently.

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Why “fail frequently” is a doubtful innovation strategy

Many businesses drive innovation programs where a high failure rate is the norm. The strategy is based on the belief that if you try out a lot of ideas, a few good ones will come out. With this approach, you hope that luck is on your side and that success is built on experimenting. It is a process that relies on your staff to coming up with new and innovative solutions, with very little organizational muscle memory between initiatives.

The equivalent on the driving range is to accept a few slices and hooks between every straight shot and you try to improve the amount of straight shots by hitting more and more balls (perhaps buying new clubs every now and then as part of the process). Even though you hit a perfect shot occasionally, you cannot be sure you will hit straight when you’re on the course.

The primary reason this strategy is doubtful is two-fold. Firstly, the low success rate. Secondly, the lack of scientific milestones in the process which leaves a lot up to the manager’s gut feeling of what will and what will not work.

The new innovation management job to be done

A superior way to manage innovation initiatives is to improve the hit rate. Start the journey with an outside-in mind-set. Focus on identifying and articulating what jobs/capabilities your offerings should do for, or offer, your customers. Start each project with a clear desired outcome – and associated metrics. This model has been explored by Tony Ulwick over the last 25 years. So far with an 86% probability rate for successful outcomes.

The equivalent to my golf game is to change my approach on the driving range. Instead of hitting as many balls as possible and get a few straight, I book some time with the golf pro. The goal is to eliminate flaws in my swing, to consistently generate better ball strikes. When I have a clear and repeatable swing I can expect the percentage of straight strokes to go up significantly. In turn, this will lead to improved scores on the course.

This model builds on having a radically improved understanding of your customer. Not only by listening more to what your customers say about what their needs and requirements are, but by observing how they really buy and use your products and services. Try to distance yourself from what your products and services should “be”. Instead, focus more on the outcomes they should “deliver”. You will have to dive into details as you refine your customer understanding but such an analysis can typically result in 100-150 job descriptions.

Flip your approach 180 degrees

Businesses adopting this new innovation management methodology have to change their thinking on a number of fronts:

  1. From models with high failure rates to a model where almost all projects can succeed.
  2. From an innovation process starting with great product and service ideas with an unclear market, to one starting with a deep understanding of your customer.
  3. From a customer understanding, focused on needs and requirements of your offering, to an understanding of the business outcomes you are looking to improve.
  4. From understanding specific needs tied to a product or service, to articulating un-, under- and overserved jobs to be done, decoupled from your offerings.
  5. From a focus on what understanding it takes to sell your offerings, to understanding the jobs to be done from user, life cycle and decision-maker perspectives.

This turn-around in focus can be perceived as counter intuitive for many people. But shifting to a “jobs to be done-centered” understanding of your customers is the way to go if you are serious about delivering more from your innovation initiatives.

Outlook for the future

  • The digital transformation trends sweeping across all business segments call for a steep ramp-up of innovation capabilities.
  • Business cannot afford the high failure rates associated with classic innovation management models to succeed in a digital environment.
  • Winners in this new arena will rely on a quantum leap forward in customer understanding.
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