Brave February - Innovator or Charlatan?


Who doesn’t want more innovation?  Don’t all put your hands up at once.

All those who kept their hands down (surely all of you?): we want to share some thoughts about needing to take risks and how to do that.

Let’s say you’re lucky and you have people in your organisation who keep the ideas bubbling up.  Who’s worth listening to?

Let’s face it: none of us, if we’re honest, can be 100% confident we’d pick the right person, the right idea, every time.  Far from it.  So we all need a way to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Very few innovators are going to be wearing a sign that says “get ideas here.” (Hint: avoid anyone wearing that sign.)  They’re not going to have cut their ear off.  They aren’t all going to have a crazy hair cut/bow tie/[insert your preferred idea of quirkiness that indicates creativity].

Shock, horror – you might have to test, give space to some people, give the ideas some rope.  That means accepting that many ideas will fail.  But how else were you going to figure out which ones have legs?

Let’s contrast some examples from sports to illustrate the problem and its solution.  Don’t worry if you’re not into sports, it’ll make sense.

Corner 3

Basketball.  You want to score as many points as you can.  You want to score the highest average points per shot attempt – which means taking shots with the highest success rate possible.

Easiest way to do that is to get really close to the basket.  But it’s hard to get there because all the defenders are prepared to stop you getting there.  And you only get 2 points.

Then someone worked out, a little over 10 years ago, that actually 3-point shots from the corner of the court had pretty much the same success rate as every 2-point shot that isn’t taken from right near the basket.

It sounded crazy – 3-point shots are taken from further away than 2-point shots.  How could they possibly go in the basket as often?  But it is true, and the “corner 3” was born.

So, if you’re going to get 3 points, and you’re as likely to be successful as on most of the shots that earn you 2 points…why on earth wouldn’t you shoot for 3 from that spot on the court?  It’s your golden ticket – the highest average points per shot attempt you could get.

This innovation – whole strategies are now built on it – only happened because someone had a hypothesis and knuckled down to analysing the success of every shot taken in the NBA by location.  It took ages.  It could have been bull****.  It turned out to be revolutionary.

Imagine what would have happened if one team had first mover advantage on this.  Isn’t that exactly what you’d look for, commercially?

But that’s kind of only half the story.  Other sports are trying to find what their equivalent of the corner 3 is – going through exactly the innovation problem we’re thinking about here…

Patrick Roy

Which brings us to one of the most divisive coaches in ice hockey.

Patrick Roy, of the Colorado Avalanche, seems to think he has found a sort of equivalent to the corner 3.  The thing is, he looks like he’s crazy.  That’s because his approach flies in the face of all received wisdom.  Like when they started out working on the corner 3.  Is he an innovator?  Or a charlatan?

This isn’t a sports blog so we’ll restrain ourselves, but here’s a little detail to see the problem and its solution.

All the data on ice hockey indicates that more shots create more goals.  So conceding more shots means conceding more goals.  Sounds obvious.

Well, Mr Roy thinks differently.  He thinks he can set things up so that his team concedes more shots but doesn’t concede more goals.

Is he a charlatan?  Last season his team was highly successful.  This season, not so much.

The only way we find out is if he gets the chance to test his theory.  And across a large enough sample size to eliminate blind chance.  But he works in a results-driven business (ring any bells?) so will he get his chance?  Will we ever find out if he’s actually a real innovator?

It’s worth pointing out now that it looks like Roy is wrong.  But just imagine what would happen if he was right?  No need for elaborate defensive systems to try to stop shots on goal – just let the shots through and play a free-wheeling attacking game.  And he’d be way ahead, maybe even a whole season of first-mover advantage.

Now imagine that the Avalanche had never tried.  All that possibility lost.


This is a situation that we see playing out across so many lives, companies and industries.

Anyone who wants innovation has to accept risk: the risk of giving space and permission to experiment with hypotheses.  So the challenge is to find ways to take acceptable risk.

R&D heavy industries are already playing this game.  There’s usually a clear rubric for how to approach the research, the cost/benefit analysis, the checks and balances.

So then we have to look at how to create something which gives you an equivalent level of comfort with the risks involved in trying out all the ideas your people have.

Give people the space to raise their hypotheses.  Give them support to test some of those hypotheses.  Give them space for those hypotheses to go wrong.

There are lots of ways you might do this, but you have to take care that the approach on offer is properly tailored to your needs.  Beware the off-the-peg approach, applied without sensitivity to context: just giving people “20% time” in an organisation where people aren’t used to thinking that way may well leave most people lost.

It’s time to get your thinking caps on – to find what might work for you and your organisation. Then tailor make an approach to innovation that everyone is comfortable with.  Because that’s what we all want – to be comfortable that we’re sifting the innovators from the charlatans.

Adam Blue Steel Crop
Adam Blue Steel Crop

Adam Papaphilippopoulos, Chief Operations Officer