In baseball, you can fail 70 percent of the time and still be considered a strong player. Why is it that businesses give an employee with a new idea just one chance? Pitchers lose games, batters strike out, fielders make errors. Instead of firing them or sending them back to the minor leagues, managers study what went wrong. CEOs need to do the same thing. Kill the project, not the person. Instead of telling Bob, “You’re done,” they should tell Bob, “The project’s dead. What do you want to do next?”
To succeed today, businesses absolutely must be innovative, and they can’t be if they’re unwilling to have some failures. Too many companies punish failure and fail to adequately reward success. How does that motivate the employees with great new ideas?
In this World Series season, here are a few other baseball analogies that will help any business score on innovation:
- Most games are won with singles and doubles. Home runs are great. They are that 10 percent of innovation that is transformational, exciting and extremely rewarding. But the 70 percent of innovation that involves improving core products, and the 20 percent that represents adjacent changes — pulling together existing innovations in a new way, like the iPhone — are the singles and doubles that can win games.
- Know that your home-run hitters will strike out a few times. The people coming up with the radical new ideas that account for big, transformative innovation aren’t going to hit a home run every time — and neither did Babe Ruth. In fact, Babe Ruth had more strike-outs than home runs. While radical successes, like Dyson using its vacuum technology to create restroom hand-dryers, account for only 10 percent of innovation, they produce about 70 percent of a company’s future revenue. So allow your home-run hitters their swings and misses.
- Watch the game tapes. Sports teams fanatically analyze every aspect of losing games with the same process and vigor they use for winning ones. The Federal Aviation Authority has a painstaking process for analyzing every airline incident and crash. As a result, its safety record gets better every year. Look for solutions when something goes wrong — not where to lay the blame. Inspect the process, find the defect and strategize how to make it better. (Note: If the same people keep making the same mistakes, arrange for training, counseling or, if that fails, a bus ticket out of town.)
Innovation is about responding to needs instead of trying to dictate them. Companies need to listen to their customer service complaints — what are customers saying that can help them improve their product or process? And they need to talk about the crazy ideas — including those that seem too simple to succeed. Proctor & Gamble made diapers and cleaning products; someone suggested putting a diaper on a mop handle, and voila! The Swiffer!
Terry Jones, author of On Innovation, founded Travelocity.com in 1996 and led the company as president and CEO until May 2002. He is managing principal of Essential Ideas, a consultancy he co-founded to help companies in their transition to the digital economy, and serves as chairman of the board at Kayak.com, which he also founded.