Adjusting Your Fight Plan: Business Strategy In The Age Of Agile Innovation

plan“Everybody’s got a plan until they get hit in the mouth.”

– Mike Tyson, Los Angeles Times, 28 August 1987

Iron Mike’s famous quote on the “sweet science” of boxing is surprisingly good advice for the environment business leaders face in the era of hyper-innovation and digital transformation. Three-to five-year business plans – once a staple of good governance – are a thing of the past as disruption increases and change quickens.

The rapidly changing environment is a body blow for many traditional players, who find traditional ways of conducting business – and planning – no longer work. Today’s environment requires an approach that anticipates sophisticated maneuvers from underdog competitors and enables organizations to adjust fight strategies on the fly.

Here are some key strategies (inspired from my very short career as an amateur boxer) for corporate leadership – particularly members of the board – to make innovation an ongoing process and plans more flexible.

Know your weaknesses

Before facing an opponent, boxers need to know their own vulnerabilities. When it comes to the process of innovation, understanding the organization’s starting point (governance, culture, creative talent, ecosystem of partners, methodology, etc.) and its biggest gaps is essential.

“To stay ahead, boards must encourage leaders to adopt shorter planning timelines, ones focused on driving and bringing to market discrete innovations.”

Every leader loves to talk about disruption, and the tools and technology to drive disruption are ubiquitous and more widely available than ever. But organizations fail at the process of innovation when they view it as something to be performed in silos, rather than as a culture shift and process that extends into every part of the business. The more an organization is aware of its gaps like these, the better chance it stands of proactively managing to work around and through them.

No organization can be great at everything, so breaking down silos and ensuring a well-balanced approach to the innovation process – not just creativity – is where the board and C-suite can make a difference. By making innovation a regular topic of discussion, board members can concentrate on asking the right questions of management to ensure it is addressed holistically and proactively.

The following questions should be a part of every organization’s next board meeting:

  • How are we accelerating and industrializing innovation as a repeatable process? Is there a framework in place to rapidly design, develop and test innovative assets?
  • What are we doing to recruit innovative employees? Are we rewarding risks, building a physical ecosystem where innovation can thrive, showcasing innovation, putting the right tools and methodologies in place, and rethinking skills development?
  • Which efforts are underway to instill new methods and processes? Do we have events such as hackathons, challenges, workshops and transformation journeys to unearth new ideas?
  • What are our KPIs and metrics tying innovation activities to the top and bottom line? Do we have lean innovation governance based on data and facts, not just on “expert” opinions?
  • Have we built bridges between our “suits” (business leaders) and our “jeans” (creative teams and engineers) to efficiently scale and profit from promising ideas?

Play to your strengths

The great Muhammad Ali brilliantly used the “rope-a-dope” strategy in his 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” match against a much more powerful (and younger) George Foreman. Knowing where and when you have an advantage over the competition – and how to deploy it – is also critical to success in innovation.

Traditional providers should not get caught in the hype and irrational fear of upstarts. Instead, act on advantages over younger, nimbler competition: brand recognition, working financial models, distribution networks, large customer bases and deep pools of data begging to become strategic insights.

Boards and management need to understand what differentiates them from the competition so they can focus the direction of their innovation efforts where it makes the most sense for the business.

In situations where strength alone is not sufficient to win the fight, organizations can use open innovation – participatory, decentralized processes – to develop new products and services. Technologies or assets that do not fit into an organization’s business model can nonetheless be leveraged and sourced from the broader ecosystem for commercial success.

Improve your flexibility

Boxing isn’t always about who has the best jab or left hook. Often, it comes down to knowing how and when to deploy a different strategy. This requires developing new skills and competencies.

Similarly, companies cannot simply rely on what’s worked in the past. The business itself needs to support a culture of constant evolution and innovation at every level, and this requires that its most important assets – people – evolve along with the business.

Board members have an important role to play here by encouraging management to empower talent across the enterprise and asking hard questions about skills development, training methods and resources. This includes:

  • Exposing teams to the technology, training, vendors and partners they need to succeed.
  • Moving the best resources from across and outside the business into agile teams that follow different rules, and empowering them to solve problems or develop new products – essentially establishing a start-up culture within the infrastructure of a mature business. Over time, this combination of “new” and “traditional” will filter throughout the entire organization.
  • Building momentum for transformation efforts by encouraging competition and rewarding innovative success and failure across the company.

Get in the ring

Organizations unfocused on innovation at the board and management levels risk the very survival of the business. Only with buy-in from the top can companies avoid getting knocked out.

To stay ahead, boards must encourage leaders to adopt shorter planning timelines, ones focused on driving and bringing to market discrete innovations. They also need to ask more questions about how innovation is institutionalized and governed, and work with the C-suite to keep the business in a constant state of evolution.

Moving from ad hoc, sporadic innovation to 24/7/365 innovation will be the new normal and will require a significant cultural shift that corporate boards will need to champion.