Being successful in innovation is like getting gold at the Olympics

13 April 2018

By Linda Nieuwenhuizen, Manager Innovation, Digital Change & New Business at Centraal Beheer Achmea, IDCP* participant 2017-2018


90% of startups fail, it takes 4 years just to get toward a real business and it takes 7-10 years to make your startup truly the success that you had in mind and the majority of sustainable corporates exist for over 100 years. So I wonder, why it is still the case that there is that ‘executive impatience’ of corporates towards building new business and creating sustainable ventures.

It is not a surprise that executives excited about change are always helpful. But there is a thin line between enthusiasm and impatience. Transformations are more like marathons than sprints. If impatience kicks in, mistakes might be made and the entire project might suffer. Managing the relationship with impatient executives can sometimes prove harder than getting the initial buy-in.

If you think about it, it is quite interesting, because one of the most heard arguments of failures of startup and corporate collaborations is the slowness of the corporate, that it takes weeks or even months when decisions are made.

And moreover, what is not really helpful is, that we as ‘corporate innovators’ working hard to confirm this statement of the slowness of corporate, by introducing activities that helps to ‘speed up’ innovation activities within the corporate. Often be described as ‘innovation theatre’, such as, being involved in hackathons, startup competitions, introducing accelerating programs and other similar initiatives does not always drive real value.

And of course we have learned. We listened to the lessons and golden rules of successful innovation such as ‘fail fast and cheap’, ‘dream big’, ‘think 10x, not 10%’, ‘think as a platform’. But still, the majority of corporates see less than 25% of their initial pilots with startups scale into solutions that can be taken to the market. And corporates scaling an idea too soon, before validation, and that is a sign of failure waiting to happen. So what are the drives of that ‘executive impatience’ of the organization and how can we solve it?

An interesting perspective to look at it, is that from an Olympic athlete. A 2008 article in Forbes says that it’s common for Olympic athletes to spend “four to eight years training in a sport before making an Olympic team. They plan out their training schedules years in advance so that they can work towards and hit specific goals”. This seems similar to the 7-10 years that a new business needs to actually make business and with the importance of define specific checks and stage gates with clear objectives for each gate.

“And before the 2012 London Olympics, a study came out that said some athletes had put in 10,000 hours of practice before the Games.” So this implies that you need to dedication and a certain amount of training hours to become experienced in a new capability, such as innovation.

“Practice only accounted for 18 percent of performance. What else do athletes do to prepare for the Olympics? For one thing, they sleep. Getting enough rest is incredibly important for athletes their bodies need it, or they won’t be able to train at optimum level. They also have to stay on top of their diet to eat right for training and to keep themselves hydrated. Then there’s the mental prep athletes need to be in the right state of mind to stay on top of their game”. This also implies that there is a rigorous approach based on good principles, an ecosystem and a process in place to get from ideas to evaluation to execution. For successful innovation, good skills of project and management is required; schedule sequence of activities and stakeholder management.

“All in all, it seems like an Olympic athlete’s training is a pretty non-stop job. They seem to practice about the same amount of time the rest of us go to full-time jobs, but really, when they’re training for the Olympics, their mind is on that goal all the time.” This suggests the importance of focus on the mission and the challenging goal of innovation and not seeing innovation as an exception, but part of the core business.

Overall, being successful in innovation seems a tough job, requires practice, support, focus, a plan, but most important a mindset of commitment to succeed, even though that is sometimes an impatient job.


Background information

This opinion piece is one of the deliverables of participants of the *Innovation Driver Certification Programme (IDCP). 

Author: Linda Nieuwenhuizen, Manager Innovation, Digital Change & New Business at Centraal Beheer Achmea, IDCP participant 2017-2018


Disclaimer: This is a personal opinion piece. Any views represented in this post are personal and belong solely to the author and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity.

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