Golf club and golf ball

I hope I don’t turn away non-golfers with this blog, but it’s Friday, the weather (at our office in New York, at least) is beautiful, and I’m wishing I was hitting the links. That being said, I’m not going to go into a “sports as life or business metaphor”…too much.

So here is why getting innovative results can stem from golf: innovation is in many ways like a birdie—one under par for a hole for all you non-golfers. Birdies, at least for the average golfer, are a bit of a rarity. According to the USGA, the average handicap for men in the US is 16.1 and the average for women is 29.2. What this means is that every round, men are on average shooting 16 OVER par and women 29 OVER par.

So, as you can see, not a lot of under-par holes happening here. The birdies are few and far between. Much like innovation.

Innovation is in many cases a spark that catches fire, but the concept of catching fire is a lot of work, practice, thinking, and execution. Rare is the lucky shot on the golf course that bounces off a tree and ends up three feet from the hole. Similarly, the idea that innovation can just happen without a significant amount of execution is misguided. Catching lightning in a bottle isn’t an innovation strategy—it’s luck.

So if innovation, as reported in Harvard Business Review, is the act of thinking differently, and a birdie is an anomaly for most of us, how can we ramp up our potential for each?

Well, I can go to my own reference for birdies (I’ve made a few but not as many as I’d like). What’s occurred is that I’ve developed a strategy for how to play the hole:

1. Weigh the risks and rewards and create a map in my head of how to employ my shots.
2. Remember the fundamentals and swing just like I’ve practiced.
3. Execute efficiently with each and every club that I use, from a driver to a mid-range iron to a putter.
4. Be ready to change mid-strategy to account for unforeseen developments like gusts of wind, undulating greens, and so on.
5. Be confident and forge ahead…and probably get a little lucky.

When I look to innovation best practices, like that from an article in BusinessWeek called “Embedding Innovation in Leadership,” these lessons apply. The tenets of the authors (GE’s CLO Susan Peters and Vijay Govindarajan, International Business Professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business) lay out mesh well with the way to play golf:

  • Secure Leadership Support for Innovation – Develop a strategy and a map for leading forward.
  • Create a Common Language – Build a framework of fundamentals and commonality that every employee can understand, remember, and utilize.
  • Create and Maintain Intact Teams – Leverage the diverse people to create a full team of individuals who all need to execute successfully in order to create innovation.
  • Sharing Best Practices – This hits at the idea of knowing what has been learned in the past and how to change midstream (or mid-hole or mid-shot to stay with our golf theme) in order to ensure that the strongest ideas can carry through.
  • Leverage Actionable Frameworks – Having a process where confidence can be instilled in employees via a strong leadership framework can import a replicable action plan for execution and ultimately hitting their goals and marks.

Finally, the article points to the importance of conducting extensive follow-up, which they say “may seem obvious, but all too often [innovation] programs end once people leave the classroom.” It makes sense and, unfortunately, follows suit on the course; I’ve cruised along a hole, doing everything I need to for success and after that breakthrough, have not engaged in any reflection or follow-up on WHY I was successful, and then confidently walked into a double-bogey (for the non-golfers, let’s just call that not good and leave it at that).

A birdie and an innovative idea may be rarities, but they don’t have to be. We can dramatically increase our chances for both with a little strategic forethought and a lot of practice.

See you at the driving range.

Print This Post Print This Post