By Scott Anthony
Even non-football fans probably heard about Bill Belichick's "blunder" of a call on Sunday night. Believe it or not, the call — and the firestorm that followed — has important lessons for innovation managers.
A quick recap. The New England Patriots led the Indianapolis Colts by six points with two minutes to go. It was fourth down, the ball was on the New England 28 yard line, and the Patriots needed just two yards for a first down that would almost certainly have sealed a victory. Conventional wisdom called for a punt, but Coach Belichick decided to go for it. After the Patriots fell just short of the first down, the Colts marched into the end zone and won the game.
Reaction was swift and almost universally negative.
But there's statistical evidence that Belichick followed the right approach, that his move marginally increased the odds that the Patriots would win the game. Of course, the Patriots didn't win the game, but had the situation played out hundreds of times, a coach using Belichick's tactics would win more frequently than one who didn't.
What does this have to do with innovation?
First, the "Belichick incident" highlights the challenges facing a leader who makes the hard, right choices.
If Belichick had punted and the Patriots lost, no one would have complained. Following a seemingly non-conventional approach opened Belichick up to criticism. Successful innovation requires similar bravery. It isn't easy to go after non-existent markets or follow non-obvious approaches when analysts and investors are grilling you over minute-by-minute results. After all, naysayers tend not to criticize risks you don't take.
The other important implication relates to rewards. People moaned about Belichick's decision because the result was negative. Just like companies reward people who hit their numbers and penalize those who don't.
Getting world-class at innovation requires moving beyond rewarding results to rewarding behaviors. Remember, the odds that an initial strategy is right are very low. If a team learns quickly and cheaply that initial assumptions won't pan out, they should be celebrated, not castigated. In the long run, those behaviors will lead to more successes than failures.
No one said leading innovation was easy. Getting uncommon results, however, sometimes requires following uncommon approaches.