3 Lessons Youth Baseball Taught Me About Innovation
Maybe you played baseball or softball as a child and can recall the chant players belt out when the opposing team was up to bat. In an effort to influence the outcome squeaky 9 year old voices would belt out in unison…
“Hey batter, batter, batter, batter, batter….SWING!”
Commonly, the chant decibel level was in direct proportion to amount of runs the team was behind. The greater the deficit, the louder the chant, many times reaching ear piercing scream levels.
Fast forward to today. Gone are the days of Big League chew gum in your back pocket, the sponsoring local ice cream store name plastered across your uniform back, and smudged black eye paint on your face. Today you are all grown up and playing a new game. One of delivering new ideas to a consumer that will love it. However, you may be hearing the echoes of a different sort of chant reminiscent of your childhood years.
“Hey innovator, innovator, innovator….LAUNCH!”
Organizational leaders from across the globe are getting on their feet, putting their rally caps on, grabbing the chain link fence and desperately calling out the need for innovation. Like the good old little league days, the volume of the chant usually is in proportion to how much competition is ahead in the game. Sound familiar?
The parallels of youth baseball and innovation are not that far apart. Here’s how…
1. The Elusive Grand Slam
One of my childhood fantasies was to walk up to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning and hit a grand slam. It would be glorious! Fireworks, cheers from the crowd, and I would be carried off by my teammates on their shoulders and into the stuff of legends!
Many times organizations feel the same way about innovation. They want the innovation GRAND SLAM. Make us the stuff of legends!
The problem with grand slams is they don’t come around that often. Take Major League Baseball for instance. In 2012, there were 165,251 times that a professional baseball player stepped up to the plate. You know how many of those plate appearances resulted in a grand slam? Less than 0.06%. If you were expecting a grand slam, then 99.94% of the time you would be disappointed!
If you were expecting a grand slam, then 99.94% of the time you would be disappointed!
An innovation game plan that is based exclusively on innovation grand slams is like banking on a lottery ticket for your retirement plan. Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t happen. IRI’s Innovation Pacesetters proves this out every year. Of the tens of thousands of new product launches every year, only a handful even hit it to the warning track, fewer out of the park, with a grand slam coming along once in a great while. Swinging for the fence can be great, but know your percentages. Know that singles, doubles, and triples turn into runs more frequently then swinging out of your shoes every time up.
2. Everyone Can’t Pitch
Ask anyone under 10 years old what position they want to play in Little League and you will overwhelmingly hear “pitcher”. Teammates of my nine-year-old son’s baseball team asked the coach so frequently to pitch that he instituted a rule that anyone who asked to pitch wouldn’t be allowed to for the next two games!
Let’s face it, if your child throws a ball like the kid in the Volkswagon commercial, he shouldn’t be taking the mound. Great a catching a ball? Catcher or first base would be great. Fast runner? Outfielder or short stop might fit the bill. A team full of pitchers wouldn’t lead to a very effective team.
Avoid fielding an innovation team comprised only of marketing people.
Same goes for innovation. Avoid fielding an innovation team comprised only of marketing people. Diversity of thought leadership and experiences is what’s needed. I am constantly impressed by the insightful perspectives those out side of classic marketing and innovation roles bring to the new idea process. Some of the best concepts frequently come from those who you may least expect. The objective is to embed multiple “perspectives” on the team from the beginning. There isn’t a magic formula on where good ideas come from…most great ideas comes from teams with diversity of skill set.
3. Hall of Fame & Failure
I recall as a kid one of my baseball coaches huddling the team around at the very beginning of the season. It was the first practice and he wanted us to appreciate the challenge of the game. He told us, in no uncertain terms, that everyone on the team will make more outs then they get hits. Statistically, we will “fail”, more then we “succeed”. This is true even with the pro’s. The baseball Hall of Fame is full of players who by getting 3 hits out of 10, are considered to be the best of the best. Statues are raised outside of ballparks celebrating their accomplishment of “failing” 7 out of 10 times at the plate.
Statistically, we will “fail”, more then we “succeed”.
Same goes for innovation. Nobody goes 10 for 10. Most launches don’t achieve the desired result. Innovation is hard, requiring a commitment and effort. There are no short cuts. They key is to learn from every at-bat so we can get that much better the next time up. Plan and expect the ones that don’t work. Learn from them.
There is a scene in A League of Their Own, a great movie about a 1940’s women’s baseball team, where Tom Hanks character responds to a player who wants to quit because its become too hard. His response is one as innovators we should plaster somewhere as a daily reminder…”It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard, is what makes it great.”