Innovation is a Practice


We have our innovation metaphors all wrong.  Too many of them relate to point where we make the creative connection between ideas:

  • the flash of inspiration
  • the eureka moment
  • a stroke of genius

And so on.

All of this makes us think that innovation is an event.  But it’s not – innovation is a process.

If innovation is about having brilliant ideas, then there’s not much you can do to manage it or get better at it.  But if it’s a process, you can do both of those things – manage it and get better at it.

It’s best to think of innovation as a practice.

Here’s a better metaphor:

Who was the first person to score a double century in a One Day International cricket match?

Lots of people will guess Sachin Tendulkar, but the first person to do it was actually Belinda Clark for Australia in a World Cup match against Denmark.



I was fortunate to have Belinda as a participant in my executive education innovation management course recently, and I asked her about that double century.  I wanted to know if there was anything at the start of the day that made her know she would make cricket history in that match.

She said no.  They knew going in that Denmark wasn’t the strongest team in the tournament and that there would be tougher matches to come.  So her main goal that day was to spend as much time batting as she could so that we she would be in the groove for those tougher matches.  For the first 30 or 40 deliveries she said she didn’t feel that comfortable, but that as the game wore on, everything came together.

Then she made the key comment: the thing that got her through those first 40 uncomfortable deliveries was her technique, which came together over years and years of practice.

I think this is a great metaphor for innovation works – it’s a practice.  It’s the discipline, the practice and the process that made Belinda one of the greatest cricketers ever.  Well, all that and probably a fair bit of talent too.

Here’s another way to think of it, from Hugh MacLeod’s daily newsletter:



And here is what he said to go with it:

Sales is like anything else in business: It takes twice as long as it should, and five times as long as we’d prefer – and just when you think you’ve got the sale closed, there will be another delay.

Sales is messy because: Life is messy. Business is messy. They are all journeys, not destinations.

It’s the same with innovation – it’s messy.  And we don’t know what will work.  So we need to practice – innovation is hard work, and there aren’t any shortcuts.

So what should we do?

Practice.  Learn. Improve.

If you’re a person, build some skill at experimenting.  And start executing ideas.

If you’re an organisation, build some skill at experimenting.  And start building a culture of innovation.

All of this will take some time – probably twice as long as it should and five times as long as we’d prefer.  Putting in the effort to experiment, learn and improve is what will build that culture of innovation.  If you do that, then you’re on the way to making innovation a practice.

(The photo of Belinda Clark is by Kim Fraser, from Cricket Web)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

2 thoughts on “Innovation is a Practice

  1. Couldn’t agree with you more, Tim!

    As Samuel Palmisano, former CEO of IBM, said “We treat innovation as if it were magical, not subject to guidance or nurturing, much less planning. If we study history, however, we know that’s simply untrue.”

    Innovation is a process and should be managed as a process, just as manufacturing and sales are managed as processes.

    A good innovation management process will systematically convert raw materials to the desired outputs. You can learn more by checking out our blog post on the first step in an innovation management process:

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