Brand Building
April 4, 2015
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6 Ways Innovation is Like Running a Marathon

It’s a known fact that the need for speed is critical in today’s world of new product innovation. As such, it could be easy to compare the innovation process to running a sprint—where the faster you move the better you finish.

But truly great innovation isn’t about rushing to the end—it’s a strategic, planned and deliberate venture, much more like a marathon. By progressing at a thoughtful, determined pace, the odds of reaching the finish line are not only greater, but speed can actually be increased by avoiding pitfalls and missteps.  Here are 6 marathoning principles to help bring your next innovation project to a successful finish.

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Similar to the rigorous training regimens most marathoners use, a successful innovation project needs a disciplined plan. Taking time to think through the details—such as objectives, success criteria, platforms/drill sites, cross-functional team inputs, internal and external stage gates and the commercialization process—will keep the project moving, establish realistic expectations and guide the way to success.

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While trying to sprint a marathon would ensure fast times for the early miles, it definitely wouldn’t end in success. That’s why marathoners take time to devise a strategy for how they’ll run their race: decreasing split times, strategic short bursts of speed and so on. The same is true of innovation. Identifying and planning for phases that allow for speed, like internal ideation sessions, can provide important mid-project momentum. It’s equally important to know which phases will require a slower, more methodical approach and cannot be rushed, like data analysis. Every race and every project is unique, so be sure to critically assess what’s best for the situation at hand.

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Much as marathoners train in groups, feed off cheering crowds and pace themselves with other runners during a race, innovation is a team sport. During planning, ideation and evaluation sessions, be sure to involve a diverse cast of internal cross-organizational players, agencies and even experts from outside the business to encourage divergent thinking that can yield more robust ideas.

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During the multiple hours it takes to complete a marathon, the mind can wander and runners can lose sight of the ultimate goal. Innovation can fall into similar traps, straying from project parameters, going too far down rabbit holes or focusing too much on short-term easy wins. At those trying times, simply remember your mission—circle-back to the established objectives to regain laser-focus and deep-seated motivation that can help pull you to the finish line.

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“Hitting the wall” is common runner-speak for when the body starts to fight the mind, making the urge to stop stronger than ever. Overcoming that feeling often starts with drawing inspiration from completed miles rather than focusing on the distance remaining. Within the innovation process, looming phases and stage gates can also be daunting. Leveraging completed work—sound strategy, process and accomplishments to date—and communicating them in a succinct and powerful “project story” can provide the needed push to keep things moving.

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For all but a few elite marathoners, finishing is not a surge to “break the tape.” It is, however, still important to have a strong push across the finish line. When it comes to innovation, being able to make a surge for the finish—whether that’s quantitative testing, hand-off to another group or commercialization—can make or break a project. So make sure to avoid bumps in the road (naysayers, transitioning team members, team exhaustion, etc.) and dig deep for a final push when your particular finish line is in sight.

So, the next time you’re faced with an innovation project, try applying these principles throughout the process. You might just end up with results that are like a runner’s best time: a PR—personal record!

6 Ways Innovation is Like Running a Marathon from Seed Strategy

Chad Buecker is the Chief Operating Officer at Seed Strategy where he uses his diverse experience to break down clients’ complex challenges and unearth abounding opportunities. A former sprinter who recently joined the ranks of Seed’s resident marathoners, Chad has completed 4 marathons in the last 2 years with his next venture quickly approaching.

Have a favorite marathon experience or other examples of how innovation can be like a marathon? Leave your thoughts in the comments below or send me an email at cbuecker@seedstrategy.com.

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