Why many companies don’t innovate well

While discussing this post about innovation with a friend, it occurred to me why so many managers “don’t put enough hooks in the water” with their innovation efforts.

That post likened primitive survival fishing to business innovation.

A good primitive survival fishing strategy is to put 10 or more hooks in the water. This recognizes that any one hook has a 10% chance of catching a fish each day. If you want to catch a fish every day, you need to put 10 hooks in the water.

This is also a good business innovation strategy. Each innovation experiment has a low chance of success (even the ones that sound like sure winners), so best to get as many hooks in the water as possible, to improve your chances of finding a few that work.

Many primitive survivalists don’t consider those odds or think they can beat them by knowing the best spots to fish. This is like managers who think they know how to pick winning innovations.

These types of managers tend to view the ‘putting more hooks in the water’ strategy as a sign of weakness, an admission that they don’t have the answer to lead the organization forward. And, they believe their job is to have that answer.

Sometimes they are lucky and catch a fish. They then mistakenly view that as a success of knowing where to fish instead of chance.

Over the course of their career they are likely to hit a one or two successes, which is enough for them to believe it was their skill, instead of luck. The failures, though, they write off as bad luck.

When they fail, they move on to their next employment and hope for the best.

The core problem is with who hires them. They hire people who exude confidence in knowing where to fish and, like the less successful primitive survivalists, don’t find putting more hooks in the water as desirable.

I can envision how these interviews go.

“What are your ideas for moving the company forward?”

“I don’t know. I like to try a lot of stuff and see what works.”

If your mindset is in the ‘knowing where to fish’ camp, this does not sound acceptable. You might think, ‘Well, if it was as simple as that, we could do that without you. Why do we need you?”

More on how I would answer that in a future post.

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