Forbes: Readiness To Explore: Innovation That Could Be Super Bowl’s MVP

Innovation Disruption
Readiness To Explore Innovation That Could Be Super Bowl’s MVP

This article was originally published on Forbes.

As Taylor Swift watches from the stands in this weekend’s Super Bowl LVIII, she will see players wearing a new safety device aimed at reducing the risk of brain injuries. A recent two-year study concluded that the “Q Collar” may live up to claims that it can reduce the risk of serious brain injuries from repeated head contact.

Rugby faces a similar crisis, with former England World Cup winners, and Welsh international captains amongst those that are showing signs of early onset dementia. Fortunately, technological innovation is also racing to help stem the dangers to Rugby players in the professional and amateur games. Hedkayse is a new soft helmet approved by World Rugby (it does not permit NFL-style body armor) that can reduce the force of impacts to the head by up to 85 percent.

NFL and World Rugby have a clear reason reason to act and invest in exploratory innovation. Head injury remains an existential issue for high-contact sports. Rugby has done all it can to reduce the risk to players, but as players get bigger and the game gets faster, the dangers are only set to increase. As a Welshman, Rugby is etched into my being, but even I can see that at some point young people will be stopped from playing a sport with such adverse long-term consequences.

However, many businesses struggle to see the reason to invest in exploratory innovations. That is rarely because they do not see the threats to their business models. This is one of the great fallacies. Very few firms that lose out to disruptive innovation fail to see the change coming. IBM and software, Nokia and smartphones, Polaroid and digital – they were all active in the new domains. Polaroid even had the world’s first megapixel digital camera in the market. The problem is that they believed they had it covered. Nokia’s CFO famously stated in 2007, that “The iPhone is interesting. It’s very much a validation of what we’ve been doing.”

I get asked almost daily: how can we convince operational leaders to see the need to invest more in exploratory innovation? I find it hard to give a generic answer because each situation is different. There is no schoolbook answer you can provide that will convince someone to shift from generating profits to investing in possibilities; however, here are six points that guide my conversations with senior leaders in this situation.

1. Start by assuming positive intent – I spoke at a conference a few years ago with a startup guru who referred to “saboteurs of innovation” inside large organizations. This is flawed thinking. It is easy to characterize someone with whom you disagree as being badly motivated. When you do this, you stop trying to understand their motivations and you lose the opportunity to persuade them (I think that’s what’s happening in American politics).

2. See the world through their eyes – we know operational leaders have to deliver revenue and profit. If we are really going to understand their situation, we need to dig deeper and understand the specific pressures they are facing. Is there low-cost competition eating at margins, customers changing behavior, distributors failing to perform? Only when you have an understanding of what keeps them up at night can you start to unlock potential motivations for change.

3. Be specific with evidence – vague talk about disruption and ending up like Kodak and Polaroid doesn’t work. Although helpful for illustrating how organizations respond to threats, it is too generalized to convince someone that it applies to them personally. Leaders need to see specific evidence of a threat or opportunity before they are willing to engage.

4. Find problems to solve – the best kind of specific is a customer problem that is unaddressed by competitors. I have written elsewhere about how corporate explorers (my term for people who lead innovation from inside existing organizations) build a coalition of support around the opportunity for market impact. They do not come with a ready-made product idea and try to sell it to people. That’s much easier to dismiss and, unless it is properly incubated, may be ready to market.

5. Co-invent the solution – focusing on the problem opens the possibility to co-create. This is fundamental. If you are seeing the world through the eyes of the general manager, then you will know that many of them want to be innovators. They don’t want to give away work on the fun stuff to someone else, even when they know they can’t spend time on it. Innovation units that engage the business unit leaders in the ideation and incubation of new ventures are far more likely to secure long-term support.

6. Be ready to surprise – perhaps in contrast to co-invention is the value of surprises. One of my CTO clients has done a marvelous job of creating small scale pilots that he has then offered to the business as new assets around which to build future revenues. These were not randomly chosen; he followed points 1 through 4 with meticulous care, but just couldn’t get his colleagues to engage on co-invention. His surprises changed that dynamic.

NFL and World Rugby may have had a clearer case for change: safety of players and the legitimacy of the sport; however, I suspect they could move faster to adopt innovations that lessen the dangers of their sports. Perhaps there is a Corporate Explorer waiting to emerge from amongst the players on the field this weekend. Creating Minimum Viable Products to save the lives of Most Valuable Players!