Winning the Inner Game of Innovation Part 1 – Understanding the Game)

by Keith Harmeyer

Winning the Inner Game of Innovation Part 1 – Understanding the Game)

by Keith Harmeyer

by Keith Harmeyer

“Success depends almost entirely on how effectively you learn to manage the game’s two ultimate adversaries: the course and yourself.” —Jack Nicklaus, Golf Champion

Innovation is really just a game.

You may never have thought about innovation in quite that way that before; but in many ways, it is. In fact, it’s the most important and most competitive game played in business today. And it’s the game everyone is scrambling to understand, master and win.

In essence, every innovation initiative contains all the components of a game:

  • an ambitious goal to achieve (transforming your idea into a viable, game-changing product, service or process)
  • rules to follow (and some to break)
  • players and competitors
  • tests of knowledge, talent, skills, and fortitude
  • accumulation and application of resources
  • luck or chance
  • a series of interim victories and setbacks
  • a playing field (incubator/lab, test market/focus groups, marketplace, etc.)

The companies that play the game masterfully can achieve fame, customer adoration, dominate their markets (or create new ones), and amass record-breaking profits. The companies that play the game poorly weaken their competitiveness, lose market share and quickly fade into irrelevance (or bankruptcy).

Like many games, there are two different aspects to the game of innovation:

  1. There is the “outer game” of innovation, that occurs in the physical universe, and involves people, resources, finances, processes, systems, etc.
  2. And then there is the “inner game” of innovation, that occurs within the mind of the players—the individual leading the effort. (e.g., their vision, sense of mission, courage, fortitude, know-how, leadership ability, and creative problem-solving abilities, etc.), and of the various team members supporting the initiative.

The outer game, while certainly challenging, is pretty straightforward. It involves selling the idea; planning; organizing, finding and allocating resources; experimentation, etc.

The inner game is more intuitive and complex. The success or failure of any innovation effort can depend heavily on how skillfully the innovators play this inner game.

Successful innovators like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and others were all masters of the inner game, and are worthy role models for us to emulate. But unfortunately, the majority of people leading and participating in an innovation initiative have only a vague awareness of the inner game, let alone know how to play it to win.

The 7 secrets that follow in this series of articles will help you better understand the nature and intricacies of this inner game of innovation, so you can feel more confident and masterful in taking your big idea from concept to real-world innovation.

Secret #1. Understand the Rules of the Game You’re Playing

“You can’t break the rules until you know how to play the game.” –Rickie Lee Jones, Musician

The first and most important principle for winning the inner game of innovation is to understand the intrinsic nature and the goal of the game you are playing.

You may already assume you know what innovation is all about; and that the goal you want achieve is fairly obvious and straightforward. But that might not be the case. Without a thorough understanding of the innovation game, your assumptions could put you at a distinct competitive disadvantage.

The word “innovation” has become one of the most over-used (and misunderstood) words in today’s business world. What exactly is innovation? Chances are if you ask a hundred people to define the word, you will get a hundred different definitions or opinions. So before you can play the game effectively, you will need to get clear about what innovation actually is, as well as the different forms it can take.

In simple terms, innovation can be defined as, “The introduction of something new or different that delivers greater value or benefit.”

So, whatever new, innovative product, service, or process you are striving to introduce, in order to be a true innovation, it must be something that is distinctly new or different from everything else currently existing; and it must also deliver something of greater value or benefit to someone.

For example, “greater value” can translate into making something better, faster, simpler, longer-lasting, easier to use, more reliable, more powerful, more convenient, more economical, more enjoyable, etc. It can also apply to the introduction of something radically new—a game-changing technology, product, process, or business model with the power to disrupt existing markets (like Uber, Airbnb and Amazon), or create new ones.

With this definition in mind, you can see that innovation can take different forms; the 3 most common are:

  1. Incremental Innovation—improving something that already exists. For example, adding greater convenience (e.g., a pharmacy that is open 24-hours a day), lowering costs, saving time, improving quality (e.g., any “New & Improved” product), simplifying a process, adding more features or functionality, etc. This is the most common form of innovation.
  2. Evolutionary Innovation—creating something distinctly new and better than what is currently in use or in practice. Something that changes people’s perceptions about a product, service or category. For example, the evolutionary step from the propeller engine to the jet engine; or the evolutionary steps from records to CDs to streaming music.
  3. Revolutionary Innovation—something that is disruptive, radically new and different, and fundamentally changes the way things are done or perceived. For example, the Internet, email, social media, online shopping, and GPS technologies have completely transformed the way people live, work, communicate, shop and travel.

Armed with this simple, workable definition of innovation, and awareness of the different forms it can take, you should have a clearer understanding about the nature and goal of the innovation game.

To determine how well your innovative idea measures up to the definition criteria, take a moment to answer these questions as objectively as you can:

  1. Is your innovative idea distinctly new or different from everything else out there?
  2. Does your innovative idea solve a problem people need help solving?
  3. Does your innovative idea deliver meaningful value or benefit to your target customer or end-user?
  4. In what ways can your innovative idea be strengthened to become more differentiated, solve a problem better or provide even greater value or benefit?

To win this part of the inner game:

  • Make sure your innovative idea is distinctly new or different from everything else out there, and that it provides something of greater value or benefit.
  • Also, understand what form of innovation you are pursuing: incremental, evolutionary, or revolutionary (disruptive).

If your idea meets all the innovation criteria, you can play the game with greater confidence, knowing you (your idea) have the essential components necessary for success.