By: Chuck Frey
Sometimes the approaches used by kids to solve problems can provide a good model for all of us to follow.
This week my young niece and nephew are visiting us for a few days. As usual, entertaining them is a challenge, and movies are usually a good diversion. Having already seen most of my collection of kids movies, we decided on one of my all time favorites – The Sandlot.
I won’t go into the details of the plot line, but as I watched the movie it dawned on me that there is quite a story of innovation subtly hidden amongst the many antics of the pre-teen characters. In short, the story is about a bunch of rag-tag kids who have to retrieve a baseball from the yard next to the sandlot where they play. Not just any baseball though, but one signed by none other than the “Great Bambino.”
Near the middle of the movie there are several scenes where the kids come up with creative ways to retrieve the ball, which is guarded by a dog appropriately named “the beast.” As I watched the movie, I realized there were several lessons to be learned from their trials and tribulations.
Understand and agree upon the driver(s) of your innovation. In their case, it was fear that took on several forms. Fear of “the beast.” Fear of retribution. Fear of failure. They clearly understood what was driving their strategies for creating solutions to their problem. This is a key element in building an innovation strategy. Simply innovating with the hope of creating something or doing something worthwhile has a very low probability of success.
In today’s market where competition is fierce, resources are scarce and chances for survival are tougher than ever, it’s essential to invest your resources as wisely as possible. You must be able to rationalize, agree upon, and communicate your strategy.
Use the resources you have at hand. The setting for the movie was the 1960s, a time when baseballs cost 98 cents. For this bunch of kids, that was a huge amount of money. So creating solutions to their problem required the creative use of items at their disposal – vacuum cleaners, erecter sets, ropes and pulleys. Innovation does not require huge investments. Granted, it can be accelerated by having the latest and greatest tools at your disposal, but creating new capabilities or solutions to problems can be realized through the use of existing corporate assets. The key is discovering them and then using them in creative and innovative ways – feeding the cycle of innovation.
Innovate rapidly. In the movie, the kids were under tremendous pressure to retrieve the ball before its owner (one of the dads) returns from a business trip. This led to the rapid development of different “ball retrieval” solutions in a very short time frame. Product development cycles that are shorter than ever, combined with intense market pressures, requires that we continue to innovate at a pace heretofore unseen.
The good news is that we can learn from the work of others. No longer are we in isolation (unless we choose to be) when we are working on ideas. We have a wealth of information at our fingertips. Learn from your mistakes and move on – don’t dwell on them.
Know when to change direction. After a few failed attempts at retrieving the ball, one of the kids makes a suggestion that they have been going about it all wrong. Thus a new strategy is born. One of the traps of innovation is sticking with an approach in the hopes that the answer will be found, or just another ounce or two of improvement can be squeezed out, or maybe just a little more competitive advantage can be realized. We should all heed the popular definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over with the hope that the outcome will be different. Don’t waste valuable, scarce resources on minor incremental improvements.
Know when to quit innovating. Unfortunately for the kids, all their great ideas came to the same conclusion – the baseball was still in possession of “the beast.” At some point we all have to make that tough decision to call it quits and declare failure. It’s a tough thing to do, especially when you have invested singificant corporate (or your own) resources in the process. But EVERY innovation cycle should be viewed as a victory. Innovation is about learning. And learning is valuable.
Play to your strengths. One of the kids, Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez, is known for his blazing speed. In the end, he’s the solution the ball retrieval problem. Just like knowing when to quit innovating, going back to and leveraging your core strengths can be a tough decision. Innovation is fun. But at some point you need to be able to step back and make the determination that what you may already have is pretty good. Realizing that value can be tough sometimes – especially when you are caught up in the day-to-day issues of creating shareholder value. But coming to that realization in and of itself is part of the innovation process.
Sometimes the simplest answer in the best. James Earl Jones plays the owner (Mr. Mertle) of the house next to the sandlot -where “the beast” lives. Near the end of the movie the kids finally get up the courage to talk to him about what has happened. To their surprise he asks them a very simple question: “Why didn’t you just knock on the door?”
Sometimes stepping back and asking very simple questions may lead you to a different strategy. Do you really need to invest in innovation for this problem or opportunity? Could our scarce resources be better spent solving another problem? Is there a simpler way to find the answer we are seeking? Will this investment give us the best ROI? Questions may lead you to a better investment strategy for your innovation dollars!
These are simple examples from somewhat of a unique source for innovation inspiration. But I think if you look at them (and maybe watch the movie) you will see that real-world solutions often provide some of the best guidance when embarking on a path of creating something new or solving a tough problem.