Flying was huge part of my father’s life. He was the mechanic and navigator on a good will flight from New York to Bogota in the early days of flight. That’s him on the left in the photo of the two man crew just before leaving on the trip. Later, he toured South America demonstrating the latest fighter planes for the Curtiss Hawk company, and was a flight instructor to the Colombian air force. He even wrote a book on air navigation.
So, it was no surprise that when I was eleven I found myself attending flight school and learning to fly sailplanes. Among many things I learned in flight school was the importance of planning your flight and understanding how to monitor and make corrections to your course. Whether you are operating under visual flight rules or instruments, you always need to know where you are, where are you going, and what path you intend to take.
Years later, after moving to Boston, I decide to learn to sail. I trundled down to India Wharf and joined the Boston Harbor Sailing Club. There I learned to handle ships of different sizes both in the protected harbor and on the open waters of the Atlantic. I’ll never forget my final exam for the Club’s sailing certification course. I found myself handling a 36 foot boat by myself in the middle of a raging thunder storm. I’ll also never forget the time and attention spent on learning the rules of navigation on the open sea.
I find these lessons of flying and sailing are also very applicable to the world of innovation. Too many practitioners approach innovation as if just thinking about it will yield big results. But this is never the case. High value innovation requires diligent planning and crisp execution. This is true for both the every day incremental innovations that sustain the value of existing products and the breakthrough innovations that open up new revenue channels for the enterprise.
Some people argue that innovation isn’t predictable and therefore attempts to manage it are futile. Fortunately, these individuals are simply mistaken. It is certainly true that when we embark on the path of innovation, there are many unknowns and as consequence it’s difficult to be sure of the outcome. But it is important that we not confuse uncertainty of outcome with predictability in the path of innovation. That is to say, irrespective of the outcome there are well understood best practices of innovation that will reliably get you to the optimal conclusion more rapidly. Sometimes this conclusion will mean canceling a project sooner because you have been able to identify quickly the flaws in the program and thereby avoid wasted costs. Other times this will mean opening up a market sooner and with a higher value proposition.
When during the course of an innovation project you run across the unexpected rut in the road, having a well structured approach to innovation allows you to quickly analyze the issue and adjust your bearing. Knowing how to systematically identify and select alternative paths to value spells out the difference between the winning execution that leads to high value creation and the being just another victim of the accidental school of innovation.
Remember, you can’t make course corrections if you don’t know what course you’re on. Repeatable, sustainable innovation practice gives you the tools to plot the course to value creation and make the mid-course adjustments that are part of innovation.