How Innovation Is Like Golf

Last Updated Jan 4, 2008 5:44 PM EST

How Innovation Is Like GolfFor a game that's so maddeningly difficult, golf inspires real fanaticism in its fans. Among them, apparently, is management guru, Gary Hamel. His post on today's Harvard Business Review Conversation Starters opens with a passionate description of the game's charms and aggravations (if you're a golfer, it's a must-read for that alone). But Hamel is not only interested in taking a stab at the sports paean, his larger point is that golf is a lot like innovation. How's that? Both require a lot of training. But while golfers often seek out expert instruction, managers routinely expect employees to innovate without teaching them how.
Imagine that you coaxed a keen, but woefully inexperienced golfer onto the first tee at Pebble Beach. After arming the tyro with the latest titanium driver, you challenge him to split the fairway with a monster drive. You promise the neophyte a $100 bonus every time he hits a long bomb that stays out of the rough, and another $100 for every hole where he manages to break par. But what you don't do is this: You don't give him any instruction--no books, no tips from Golf Digest, no Dave Pelz and Butch Harmon, no video feedback, and no time off to perfect his swing on the practice range. Given this scenario, how many 200-yard drives is our beginner likely to land in the fairway? How long is he likely to stay avidly devoted to the task at hand? And what kind of return are you likely to get on the $2,000 you spent on a bag full of high tech clubs and the 450 bucks you shelled out for a tee time? The answers are: Not many, not long, and not much. And no one who knows anything about golf would ever set up such a half-assed contest... That's why I'm dumbfounded by the fact that so few executives have invested in the innovation skills of their frontline employees.
Hamel offers possible explanations for this failure (managers believe only a few are gifted enough to innovate) but settles on a more likely scenario: managers lack a 'theory of innovation.' But Hamel has one. "Successful innovators have ways of seeing the world that throw new opportunities into sharp relief. They have developed, usually by accident, a set of perceptual "lenses" that allow them to pierce the fog of "what is" in order to see the promise of "what could be." How? By paying close attention to four things that usually go unnoticed:
  1. Unchallenged orthodoxies
  2. Underleveraged competencies
  3. Underappreciated trends
  4. Unarticulated needs
Want a better golf swing? Learn the theory, get instruction, practice. Want innovation? Do the same.

(Image of golfer by Face-2-Face, CC 2.0)

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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.