Innovating is easier than winning a transatlantic race
Two days into the Route du Rhum transatlantic race and, as the map shows, some bold choices have already been made. The name of the game at that stage of the race is to go around the Azores High, the high atmospheric pressure area where boats would be becalmed. Frank Cammas who’s got the fastest boat has choosen the Southern route: it is the longest but also the one that will allow him to catch the trade winds and make full use of his extra speed. Sidney Gavignet has choosen the Northern route: he will have to sail close to the wind, but it is the orthodromic route ie the shortest. He’s probably decided that he can’t beat Cammas on speed, therefore he has to take his chances on a radically different option. On the middle way is Thomas Coville: he hasn’t decided yet and is heading straight into the Azores High. While this makes him the leader of the race as I write, it is clear that he will have to make a choice soon: either crawl his way back to the North route or dive South. Either way, he’s going to drop back. My amateur’s instinct is that he’s blown it (pun intended, sorry!)
By contrast, this makes the management of innovation look a lot easier. There are specifically two recipes that the innovating organisation can use, that are not available to the ocean race skipper: the portfolio approach and delaying judgement.
The portfolio approach allows several competing projects or project options to co-exist. There has to be a limit: even a resource-rich organisation will not pour money into a bottomless innovation pit. But, by and large, it is possible to do what a single skipper cannot do: to run a Northern-route option AND a Southern-route option. The innovation endeavour will be a success if only one of the options works.
Delaying judgement is an art. Of course, at some point in time, some projects or options have to be cut off: it has become obvious they won’t deliver, keeping them alive would be a waste of resource. But making the call too early is a sure way of eliminating all non-traditional ideas, keeping only the ones that our business-as-usual sense is most comfortable with, without realising that little innovation is bound to spring from business-as-usual. There is no clock to tell us when is the right time to make a judgement, but in my experience it has to be earlier than the sailors (aka the project managers) would like, and later than the captain (aka the executive) would normally accept. The job of the lieutenants, the ones who drive the innovation process, is to buy time from the captain while pressing the sailors for the evidence (facts, experiments, tests) that will enable a sound judgement to be made. When you race, not across the Atlantic, but down the innovation funnel, Thomas Coville’s delayed-judgement route may be the winning option.