The Innovation Blog

Wayne Gretzky and the Perfect Metaphor for Innovation

Posted by Creative Realities on March 9, 2011

In a recent workshop I was asked this question: “If you could only share one thing that executive decision-makers must learn if they are to get what they expect from their innovation investments what would it be?” I didn’t hesitate for a second. I immediately flashed this hockey graphic onto the wall. They thought I was nuts.

Innovation Metaphor 1

I said they’ve probably heard that Wayne Gretzky quote about skating to where the puck is going to be at least a hundred times. “But did you really see it as the central metaphor for what truly innovative organizations must do?” They of course said no.

Innovation Metaphor 2

A few years ago Fast Company Magazine’s Consulting Debunking Unit tried to prove conclusively that Wayne was not the first to say it. Turns out that Pee-Wee hockey coaches in Canada have been using that line on their kids forever. Imagine my surprise when the Fast Company article cited me as the first person that needed to be debunked for being so passionate about an unoriginal phrase. They missed the point.

I don’t really care who said it. Nor do I care that it’s been used since they invented hockey. What I care about is the message it tries to send to executives who want their organizations to be more innovative, which is this: Only you can decide to take the big bets for where your industry’s hockey pucks are going. And you have to use what we call The Educated Gut to make bets that will fail more times than not. And unfortunately, too many of you know you need to do it but you can’t. And the consequence of this is that you inadvertently make your organizations skate to where the puck is now.

In 1997 I presented the Gretzky metaphor to a division of a large, global bank. Suddenly the president of the division got very agitated, jumped up, came to the front of the room, pointed at the wall and said something like this: “That’s Us! Three years ago we determined that two of our key customer segments, Small Businesses and Affluent Consumers, were going to want PC banking in the next 2-3 years. But instead of trusting our ‘educated gut’ and making the bet we used traditional market research to ask customers in those two segments what they thought about the idea now! At that time they told us they hated their computers and had no interest in any kind of online banking…because they didn’t know what we knew was coming. So, we shelved the idea. Now we are losing those same customers to our competitors because they are offering PC banking and we desperately need to catch up. And I made that decision.” 

If that’s true at the top, then what does it mean for the people below? The truth is that 90% of those at the operating levels who are tasked with bringing forth big new ideas always skate to where the puck is now for three reasons:

1.     Because they mistakenly believe they are being customer-driven.

2.     Because they can defend the pursuit of those “where the puck is now” ideas to their management decision-makers with the traditional core business metrics that their executives demand from any idea.

3.     Because they know they would get laughed out of the room, with their personal credibility permanently damaged, if they were to advocate for “a hunch,” something they could never defend with metrics. So, as my friend Jay Paap likes to say, “In order to get a potentially big idea some air time the troops must present ‘imaginary numbers.”

We have a wonderful client who used to actually demand net-present-value estimates for “beginning” ideas. This is not uncommon.

Skating to where the puck is now is not being customer-driven. It’s being customer-reactive; responding to things they say they want now. The sad truth, however, is that in the time it takes to deliver on what the customer says they want now (which can be justified to management decision-makers), the customer moves forward and those supposedly customer-driven ideas are late to the party. And yet the decision-making models for innovation continue to muddle along unchallenged. We continue to do the same thing and expect different results.

Henry Ford once said, “If we’d asked the customer what they wanted they’d have said faster horses!”

This is the Innovator’s Conundrum. It’s easy to skate to where the puck is. The challenge to any company, but particularly the big ones, is they demand core business metrics for “beginning” ideas. Executive decision-makers can’t wrap their collective minds around the need for a different decision-making model on big bets, where The Educated Gut rules, nothing is certain or even measurable, and only the very top of the organization can decide.

Remember this. If an idea has the potential to be a truly, truly, game-changing breakthrough then by definition there is nothing to compare it against. Joel Barker used to say, “When the paradigm shifts everything goes to zero.” Being the paradigm shifter is not something most big company decision-makers are willing to learn how to do, so they continue to unintentionally force their organizations to skate to where the puck is now. And then they get frustrated because “they aren’t doing what I have empowered [gag!] them to do.”

Let’s go back to those executives who wanted to know why they weren’t getting the bang for their innovation bucks. With Gretzky still fresh in their minds I explained the Catch 22 of breakthrough game-changing innovation, which is that the only ones who can provide the resources, money and time to pursue big bets are those who can say yes without permission; and that usually means the CEO or division president. And they must make decisions with their Educated Gut, not the warm fuzzies of core business metrics or imaginary numbers.

Incremental innovation can and should be pushed down into the operating levels of the organization. But big bets must report to the top. We say, “The Higher the Goal, the Higher the Role.” Only top management can say yes without permission, and they must put skin in the game.

Easier said than done!

by Mark Sebell, Founder and CEO, Creative Realities, Inc.

Topics: Mark Sebell, Innovation Strategy, Innovation Metaphor, Innovation Metrics