In one of the great sports movies of all time, Hoosiers, Gene Hackman/Norman Dale implores his “shoot first” team: “I’ve seen you guys can shoot but there’s more to the game than shooting. There’s fundamentals and defense.” There’s only a handful of movies that, as I channel surf on occasion, I’ll always stop and watch, and Hoosiers is one of them. After one recent, repeated viewing, I started thinking about how a statement like that might apply in the world of product development and innovation.
Think about your favorite sports athlete or, even the greatest athletes in your or our generation. Take Michael, Magic or Lebron, Gretsky or Sydney Crosby, Jack, Arnie or Tiger in golf, Roger Federer in Tennis, Barry Sanders or Gale Sayers in Football, Pele, Ronaldo, Beckham in soccer. Think about what you’ve seen them do whether it’s Michael’s layup hand-switch against the Lakers, 63 against the Celtics, Tiger’s incredible chip-in at 16 in the Masters, Sydney Crosby winning Olympic Gold or the Stanley Cup, Pele’s bicycle kick, Federer’s between the legs winner. These are some of the greatest moments in sports, made or created by exceptional athletes. We’ve seen them consistently create and, in the process, make a lot of other professional athletes look slow and flat footed.
Yet, before they could do any of that, they had to learn, practice, repeat and repeat again all of the basic, fundamental aspects of their sport until they could, almost literally, do them in their sleep. Jordan knew the fundamentals so well that he could plan for the spectacular. Combined with hard-won physical talent and work-ethic, he is/was probably the best ever. How many slap shots do you think Gretsky took in practice? How much time skating, spinning, skating backwards in practice? How many forehands and backhands has a player like Federer taken? Almost uncountable, yet, had they not mastered the fundamentals, they would never have been able to reach such creative heights.
Are you certain that you and your employees are true masters of the fundamentals of development and innovation? If you’re in innovation and product development, I’m already skeptical. There are great innovators, great thinkers, fantastic execution-minded individuals and we teach, talk and encourage our people to be that kind of person in the office. But have you taught them to dribble, pass, defend, putt, chip, drive, serve, volley and hold onto the ball? Do they really know the basics or are you simply assuming they do? Do you “expect” your culture to instill that in them? You likely do, but, in my experience, I’d bet against it.
Here’s a test, and there’s another one built on this very website…if you are confident that your people know the fundamentals then simply ask them “what are the fundamentals of product development and innovation?” Any of the athletes above would know their fundamentals and, I’d claim, any professional athlete in any sport would know. I’ll bet you get a lot of different answers to a very simple question from your professional innovators and, I’d claim, that’s not good. Ask them for definitions of some of the fundamentals they cite. If they don’t recite it like they’ve said it 500 times a day, they’re probably just good with words.
What are the fundamentals? I’ll assert that it’s a fairly short list:
1. Customer – if you hear someone say this as a fundamental, buy them lunch, but, first ask them for a definition of customer. If you get anything different than “the people who keep our company in business” save your money.
2. Ideas – whether is a direct customer expectation or other, these are what we try to turn into our product/service offerings. Where and how we get them, to me, always starts with #1.
3. Business Requirements – there are many kinds of requirements and each company likely refers to them in a different way, but, at some point, a business requirement is the translation of the “idea” into the written word. That’s not a definition, it’s more an attempt to bridge the various ‘names’ that you or your colleagues might provide. Whatever word your company uses…do you all agree on the definition of what it means? Should you? Should we as an innovation community agree on a definition? Do you know how to differentiate a good one from a bad one?
4. Quality – what if you work in a services environment? How do you define quality? If you’re not sure, try starting with a clearer understanding of the expectations that you’re setting with your customers. Success is achieved, in nearly all cases, by accurate expectations.
5. Execution – If you can’t build or craft it, what good is an idea? Are ‘stage gates” enough? There is a best way to dribble, there’s a right way to shoot or kick. There’s a way to execute that requires more detail than you are likely providing to your professionals
6. Sell – the value of your product must be easily identifiable and explainable. If you utilize #1 in your idea process, then this is the 2nd customer related phase. If you utilize them in Execution as well, it’s their 3rd. The more you utilize your customers, the easier it will be to define the value of your products and services.
7. Implement – your customer needs to be able to easily ‘get up and running’ on your product or ‘engage’ your service. We spend so much of our money in the ‘feature/function’ phase, we often forget to plan for how the customer will first see and use our product.
8. Service – Since we rarely anticipate things going wrong as we’re building our products/services, our customer service is almost always reactionary in nature. Build quality, based on the fundamentals in #3 & #4, to reduce the need here. Plan for how you’ll handle things when they break down in advance.
Start by defining your fundamentals and then find out how many of your people agree or have even ever thought about them. If you or they haven’t mastered them, creativity is going to be a continuous challenge for them, you and your organization.