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  • Thomas Thurston

It’s time to count

Updated: Jul 16, 2023

Let’s talk about innovation. Everybody loves innovation (it’s even more popular than the Macarena in the 90s).  A clever Wall St. Journal article counted 255 books published in the last 90 days alone with “innovation” in the title.  The word was used 33,528 times in quarterly and annual reports last year.[1]  So here’s a question for the Fortune 500 – how accurate are your innovation efforts? How often do you succeed or fail?  What’s your success rate?  You might be surprised by how many of the world’s topmost companies have no idea.  There may be some oddball exceptions, but as a rule… nobody knows.


I’ll take it further. What about top tier consultants? They’re the gurus, right? Do they know how accurate their multi-million dollar innovation advice is? Probably not. Professors? Authors on stage giving innovation keynotes? Nope, not them either.

Let it sink in: innovation “experts” don’t, as a general rule, have any idea how accurate their prognostications are.  Sure, they may have some well chosen case studies to back them up, but anyone looks good when they get to pick and choose their own evidence. Reality isn’t nearly as tidy.


I’m willing to stand corrected should I meet folks who actually count their accuracy, but that’s about as frequent as Haley’s Comet.  So… you can feel the question bubbling… if they don’t know how accurate their theories or predictions are, how do they know they’re any good?  What makes them “experts?” How do they know their judgment is even a scintilla better than the valet who parks their car?  Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?  Why should we listen to them?


The naked truth is, most people will take innovation advice from anyone with a better resume.  Ivey League credentials?  Sounds good.  Written a book?  Even better.  Been CEO of a huge company?  Case closed – total deference.  Like Tevye sings in Fiddler on the Roof, “and it won’t make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong.  When you’re rich, they think you really know!”


To be fair, one of the reasons people and organizations don’t normally know their accuracy is it can seem tedious to keep track of every big innovation effort or decision. Even extremely organized companies have a hard time keeping track of their innovation bets because there’s usually so much decentralized stuff going on that nobody has any idea what’s done in the aggregate. I have some sympathy for the problem, but that’s not to say counting (yes, just counting) is impossible.  Companies count all kinds of things far more tedious and obscure than their innovation bets.


Another objection is; it’s not how many swings you take, but how many home runs you hit. In other words, accuracy doesn’t matter.  After all, in 1923 the year Babe Ruth broke the record for most home runs in the season (and broke the highest batting average record, and won the World Series) he also struck out more times than any other player in Major League Baseball.  While there’s a kernel of truth in this defense, it’s not always a given. Not everything is baseball (unless you’re a Red Sox fan).  How comfortable would you feel if your doctor said “I needlessly kill waaay more patients than any other doctor who does this, but hey, when I get it right I really nail it.”


My point is this: why harbor such disdain for keeping track?  What’s the insult in counting?  If you don’t know how accurate you or your organization’s innovation processes are, how can you know if you’re getting better or worse year to year? You may feel as if you’re improving, but how can you really know? Sometimes business can feel a little like baseball but, in reality, innovation isn’t a game. There isn’t anything fun about shutting down failed projects, demoralizing people who worked their guts out for you, laying them off, watching them lose their homes. Unlike baseball, business holds the well-being of too many communities in its palm.  All I’m asking is that we keep score. What’s the fuss?


So let’s stop talking about innovation and let’s start counting.  Let’s start judging experts, companies and innovation efforts not by their glitzy veneers but by the quantifiable accuracy of their results. What’s the batting average? Let’s start treating innovation a little more like science and a little less like art.  As H. James Harrington likes to say, “if you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it.” Sure, innovation can be subtle and serendipitous. I’m not advocating unduly oppressive “controls” – but are we really content wandering forward, blind and contemptuous of examining our effectiveness?  We have to start somewhere. Innovation is too important. I say, it’s time for more of us to start counting.


 

[1] Kwoh, You Call That Innovation? Companies Love to Say They Innovate,but the Term Has Begun to Lose Meaning, The Wall Street Journal (May 23, 2012)

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