Going for Gold: Achieving Olympic Level Innovation

“The Olympics remain the most compelling search for excellence that exists in sport, and maybe in life itself.”
– Dawn Fraser (3-time Olympic medalists)

Hundreds of the world’s best athletes parade into the stadium for the opening ceremony.  Each is smiling and waving to the crowd, celebrating having made their winter Olympic team.  As they gather in mass, you can feel the comradery begin to give way to their competitive spirt. Every participant realizes to beat the best they will have to be at their best. Their preparation and training got them this far, but the games are just beginning. And similar to your business, success depends on your people’s ability to consistently out-think, out-create, and out-perform the competition. Is your organization prepared to compete for the future? Would your organization medal in innovation or miss standing on the winner’s podium all together? To answer this question, consider how effective your enterprise is at executing these foundational innovation tasks.

Strategizing: Setting direction and priorities for innovation
Exploring: Uncovering unmet needs and significant opportunities
Generating: Creating many high potential ideas
Optimizing: Iterating and improving the value of ideas
Selecting: Making good choices among new ideas
Developing: Designing, building, and testing new products and services
Implementing: Delivering innovative solutions on time and within budget
Commercializing: Launching and scaling up new businesses

The inability to complete these tasks on a consistent basis across the enterprise and with external partners leads to low returns on your enterprise’s total innovation investment.  Typically these organizations find their pursuit of the new to be slow, haphazard, and episodic. This lack of innovation fitness is high risk in today’s hyper fast and competitive economy.  Few enterprises can afford to have their high potential ideas end up being stalled from the start, diluted beyond recognition, or crushed by an overweight bureaucracy.  Which is why measuring your fitness level and identifying gaps is a great start toward improvement and market success.

Necessary, But Not Sufficient

However, having a general understanding of your innovation capabilities is not the same as knowing how to best use them to get results.  Being fit is advantageous in all sports, but it doesn’t ensure you will be a winner.  Consider the athletic profile of different athletes and the training they do to compete.  There is a reason that weightlifters are not usually good fencers and swimmers are rarely world-class hockey players. Different sports require different capabilities and fitness programs, and so do your innovation efforts.

The Four Innovation Sports

Using the simple and practical framework described below can help you decide how best to allocate your enterprise’s time, creativity, and resources across what I call “the four sports”.  The framework divides innovation strategies along two key variables; the enterprise’s Offerings (the products, services, and experiences they provide) and their Market (the customer segments they serve).  The strategies are further refined depending on whether they are focused on Existing or New Markets and Offerings.


Level Innovation

1: Bobsledding—The primary innovation goal is to lead the core business to peak profitability over the long run by getting employees to help continuously improve performance.  With no new markets or products to develop, the bobsledder mindset and training routine is geared toward avoiding crashes and getting teammates to optimize their timed sleigh runs down narrow, twisting, banked, iced tracks ahead of the competition. Managers encourage their workforce to come up with new ways to run the current business better, faster, and cheaper.

2: Ski Jumping— The primary innovation goal is to extend product lines with incremental improvements and next generation offerings.  Think of Apple refreshing and prolonging their computer line with the colorful iMacs. Given new jumping techniques and the fact that distance records are broken on a regular basis, your enterprise cannot stop performing at a high level. The good news is you know the market so the run down the ramp is a familiar one and the muscle memory needed to gain the necessary lift and extension for your new products is well ingrained.

3: Figure Skating—The primary innovation goal is to leverage something the enterprise does well into a new space.  This pivot requires the enterprise to take its basic skating skillset and develop compelling programs to impress new judges at every round of the competition. Each set of judges will expect extraordinary levels of artistic and technical achievement in order to give the routine high marks. Think of the splash Apple made when it opened its own exclusive retail stores around the world. Companies that successfully leap and land a double axel into an adjacent market draw on their existing innovation capabilities while aggressively gathering insight into new customer needs, technology trends, and market dynamics.

4: Biathlon— The primary innovation goal is to convert breakthrough ideas into bold new products and businesses.  Here Apple really had to “think different” as they disrupted the music industry with the iPod and iTunes. Like biathlon athletes, game changing innovations typically require companies to call on a diverse set of skills (accelerate and maintain high speed on skis, navigate obstacles and uncharted territory, use riffles to shoot high potential targets, etc.). These capabilities are needed to generate novel ideas, leverage new technologies, apply new business models, attract new customers, and exploit markets that aren’t yet mature. The risk is high, but the financial returns and benefits of first mover advantage can be great.

Innovating at the Top of Your Game

“If you fail to prepare, you’re prepared to fail.”

  • Mark Spitz, Olympic swimmer

Winning in each of these sports requires a high level of innovation fitness and a sound strategy that aligns the key tasks, structure and people of your enterprise toward a common goal. I highlighted the problems and potential solutions for an out of sync organization that is not “fit for purpose” in previous articles. These writings offer details on CO-STAR or the STEP model and the advantages of taking a systematic approach to enterprise-wide innovation.

Most enterprises are heavily oriented toward bobsledding—and must continue to be, given the risk involved in adjacent and game changing initiatives. But if that natural tendency leads to neglect of more-aggressive forms of innovation, the outcome will be a steady decline in business and relevance to customers. It is the disruptive innovations that often lead to gold medal performances and spectacular growth.

Gaining a Competitive Edge

“A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”  

  • Wayne Gretzky, hockey icon (1978–1999)

It makes sense to survey the enterprise’s innovation ecosystem. A comprehensive assessment will reveal the strengths and weaknesses of current capabilities and how much time, effort, and money are allocated to the four sports. With a clear picture of the present, managers can more aggressively compete for the future.  They can determine if they are on target and adjust their strategies accordingly—usually by scaling back bobsledding innovation efforts to those focused on the highest-value customers, encouraging more figure skating and ski jumping into new markets, and creating conditions more conducive to breakthroughs solutions.

The companies we’ve found to have the strongest innovation track records can articulate a clear innovation strategy. They have put in place the tools and capabilities to manage the four innovation sports as parts of an integrated whole. They keep track of their overall medal count, and not just the wins in a single event.  By figuring out how to measure, monitor, and manage innovation fitness within an overall portfolio strategy, they can harness its energy and make it a reliable driver of success.

Innovation Self-Assessment

Act quickly, there is no time to wait, the Olympics are under way. Take this free survey to evaluate your organization’s current innovation capabilities. If you have questions about the survey or how to enhance your enterprise’s fitness level in time for the 2020 summer games, please don’t hesitate to contact me at [email protected]

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