No Silver Bullet

Managers have this bad habit of looking for a silver bullet. That magical holy grail that will make all of their problems go away quickly, and preferably painlessly. Those expensive consultants. That fancy new CRM system. This flashy acquisition. That confusing and demoralizing internal reorganization. Not the last one, this one.

Many have this same unrealistic expectation about innovation.

“We launched this innovation team last quarter, why haven’t we seen results yet?”

Not long ago we met with one of our clients to discuss the test and learn approach, and to encourage that they run many small experiments to maximize the learning and increase the probability and speed of success. We used an analogy that it was like planting a lot of seeds at once, since not all of them would bloom into something big and beautiful. The client, the COO of a midsize U.S. financial institution, replied that he understood, but warned that we had better make damn sure that the very first experiment was successful.

Innovation is Like Weight Loss

In some ways innovation is like weight loss. The process is simple; move more and eat less. So why are so many people overweight? Because achieving lasting results takes consistent application of the process over time.

We are now 7 weeks into 2017, and most well-intentioned new year’s resolutions have been overpowered by old habits. The gym is noticeably less crowded and Frappucino sales are booming again. Those first few pounds shed have returned, and the alarm clocks have been rolled back to less ambitious hours.

Likewise, with the innovation process. Managers get excited to chart a new course and to boost their flagging performance by implementing new ideas. The first few come out pretty easily because they were the proverbial low hanging fruit; quick wins to show success and build confidence. But they probably didn’t show up in the financial results because they were small improvements. More than likely, they really didn’t create any competitive advantage at all, they probably just helped close your lagging gap a little bit.

Throwing in the Towel

This is the time when the short-sighted silver bullet seekers want to pull the plug.

“This wasn’t the right program, we got bad advice, involved the wrong people, tackled the wrong opportunities, the timing was bad.” 

Any or all of that is possible of course. But the more likely explanation is that you hit your first plateau, and you need to power through it. Consistent application of the process is what drives results.

Your competitors that are sticking to their program are starting to create their own competitive advantages. Partly through the accumulation of a lot of small wins, and partly by getting better at successive experiments because they’re learning more quickly what works and what doesn’t. Tighter iteration loops.

As you go back to the drawing board and try something else, they’re really starting to benefit because some of the bigger bets that took longer to figure out are starting to pay off. Now they are in position to make even bigger improvements and the gap between them and you is about to get a lot bigger

You’re really going to need a silver bullet to catch up now.