Lessons the Tour de France can teach us about innovation

Innovation is often seen as the Holy Grail to business growth or salvation, leading to un co-ordinated approaches that don’t deliver the results that business leaders want or expect. The timing of the Tour de France arriving on these shores is relevant to considering why this is the case and reframing about how we approach innovation.   Thinking about innovation as a bike race – and an arduous stage race at that – is one of the most useful metaphors for understanding how you can increase your chances of creative commercial success.

Peloton_fotorThe individual team sport. 
The strange conundrum at the heart of cycling is that it is an individual team sport. There will be one winner. But the individual cannot win without a strong team. Think of any of cycling’s greats: Gino Bartali; Fausto Coppi; Jacques Anquetil; Eddy Merckx; Bernard Hainault; Miguel Indurain. All immensely talented and super strong bike racers. But none of them, bearing catastrophic bad luck on behalf of their competitors or lightning-strikes-thrice serendipity for them would be strong enough to win a three week long race by themselves. They would eventually be ground down; ganged up on or tactically caught out. The strong team around them protects, shelters, fights their fights, until they can deliver the coup de grâce.

Too often, businesses look to the innovation team to provide silver bullets to either light the rocket under growth or more typically fill that business plan gap.

This is flawed as innovation requires an individual team sport approach.

  • It needs direction, a clear leader and a strong team. And that team isn’t just the ‘team on the road’. It needs senior sponsors (say, the CEO and Board) to be committed, supportive and advocating the innovation agenda.
  • It needs senior leaders to trust the process (timing, decision making) and push to artificially accelerate everything so that the whole breaks down (Lance Armstrong shows us that you can cheat but you get caught).
  • Then it needs a leader on the road: this may be the Sales Director who will be responsible to make it a success in market;
  • It needs specialists (in a cycling team, this could be a climber, in innovation this could be dedicated insight or technical resource) who have the specialist skills to overcome blockages and see solutions.
  • And finally it needs domestiques who do the hardwork: the innovators themselves, spotting the opportunities, snuffing out the blockages, covering false moves, build the pipeline, execute the plan.

It’s a Peloton NOT a breakaway.
A rider seeking exposure for his sponsors or transient glory for himself will sprint off the front within a few miles of the start and attempt to hold off the bunch all day – the ‘breakaway’. When it works, they become moments of folklore: the possibly the most romantic aspect of cycling. But they typically fail. Sandy Casar, a professional cyclist famed for his breakaway ability, only won 3 in 14 years trying.

And yet most innovation mimics ‘breakaway’ behaviour.   One good research result and suddenly senior leadership load all their resources against that role of the dice. Put all the resource behind it. Stop other activities. Accelerate timelines. Beat the competitors to market or more likely, catch up fast. The rewards may come but rarely do. The risks are certainly heightened.

The are three reasons why innovation should use the ‘peloton’ to win:

  • Drafting. The slipstreaming effect uses up to 40% less energy. When embedded in the peloton, a professional rider can treat a 180km race as a ‘rest day’.  With innovation it is more efficient to develop innovations in parallel – particularly up front – identifying insights for innovation for example.
  • More chances of success. Planning for a sprint but two of your riders infiltrate a breakaway? Then you now have three chances of success: the original plan and the two riders in Plan B. With innovation ideas beget ideas. You may be backing one horse, but the peloton effect allows you to identify a better performing new ideas as you go along whilst still keeping your original idea in contention.
  • A pipeline.   In 2012 Bradley Wiggins wins the Tour de France. At the start of the race no one knew that Chris Froome, his domestique could be a potential tour winner.   By the end of the race everyone did – a pipeline was created.

The Stage Race.
In cycling, many races are One Day races. But business isn’t like that; if you stop, some else gains.   Idea generation should be thought of longitudinally. How often does a one off “brainstorm” lead to break-through ideas – really?   Rather, idea generation should be thought of as a stage race where ideas can spring up at any time, cross pollinate, become freshly stimulated, be critiqued, be influenced by new perspectives: an approach that much more closely mimics how entrepreneurs find success.

‘The Move’.
At some point, you have to commit. At some point you have to put everything on the line and risk losing as much as winning. Chris Froome is an exciting racer because he is willing to commit. He – and his team – put everything on the line. With Froome, this is in the mountains. In 2013 on the monstrous Mont Ventoux, which most riders just hope to survive, he went for it and killed the race off.     At the right point, you need to do this with innovation. There comes a point where another Quantitative Test result is not going to help; there comes a point where Marketing Pounds, company resources and company time need to be committed in the knowledge that it could still fail. There is no alternative. Stage Racers – and great Innovators – recognise this.

Plan to win.
This is not a chest thumping, Motherhood and Apple pie piece of rhetoric. Typically, there will be just a small number of plans that will win. In Stage Racing, there are two: (a) defend in the mountains and win on the time trials (Miguel Indurain, Bradley Wiggins, Jacques Anquetil) and (b) attack in the mountains and defend on the time trials (Charly Gaul, Fausto Coppi).

In innovation, there is a ‘formula’ to work out where, why and how to innovate:

  • Innovate the big levers (what brand / format / business / market opportunity will move the needle for you)
  • Innovate from your purpose (does this take us in the direction we want to head?)
  • Innovate in line with your values (will this champion our cause?)
  • Stage Investment (what are we willing to back? What are we willing to lose on?)

And finally…create a purpose then execute the details.
Innovation is not a process that you implement, but a belief embodied in your culture. When Team Sky set out an ambition to ‘Win the Tour de France with a British rider within 5 years’ everyone scoffed. When they set about this ambition with a belief in marginal gains, others mocked. But everyone at Sky believed. They didn’t talk the game but walked it. Extended training at high altitude; innovation in nutrition, tactics, fewer races but racing to win, innovation in rest and recuperation, clothing, bike technology, equipment; innovation in doping transparency, mental support and psychology.

Result? They won it in three.

In innovation, stretching goals are pure wishes unless they walk hand in hand with genuine and resolute belief from top to bottom in the organisation; a stretching and believable innovation purpose to set the agenda for what is innovated upon and what isn’t, and then an unerring focus on delivering that purpose.

As Christian Prudhomme, the organiser of the tour de France might say, “Vive Le Tour de Yorkshire et vive l’innovation!”

IMG_1067David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, an innovation, research and strategy company that finds the direct route to success for brands, including company and brand purposing. To learn more, sprint an e mail up the ‘Cote de Buttertubs’ to david@thecrowflies.co.uk ; call on +44 (0) 7885 408367 or send a direct message to @crowflieshigh


© The Crow Flies, 2014

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