Thinking | Articles

The Cloud, The Fence, and The Stretch Factor

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Mark Payne

President, Founder | Partner

Farenheit 212


The cloud was on Time Warner Cable’s radar.

Sitting outside their core business of television, phone, and internet services, cloud computing held the potential for significant new-to-company demand. But cloud computing is not a new-to-the-world business, and with a field of established incumbents, entering into the market was a risky proposition.

With company leaders carefully scrutinizing the risk profiles of any opportunities that push beyond their core business, how did TWC’s innovation team hone in on viable growth opportunities that survived the company gauntlet?

When going beyond close-in improvements to a company’s time-tested products and business models towards more dramatic moves to catalyze steeper growth curves, innovation leaders often get caught in an awkward tug-of-war. Aggressive growth goals, low risk tolerances, resource constraints, and short-term ROI pressures all pull in opposite directions.

At the center of this tug-of-war is the relationship between scale of opportunity and degree of difficulty. At Fahrenheit 212, we call this the stretch factor.

CHALLENGING CONVENTIONAL WISDOM

On the question of scale vs. difficulty, conventional wisdom will tell you that a basic law of innovation physics states that big ideas are by definition much harder, slower, riskier, and more expensive than incremental changes.

Challenging this ubiquitous assumption is a commercial imperative. Companies need to reliably achieve high-impact innovations that don’t break the organization while trying to execute them.

By being obsessed with raising both the scale and hit rate of innovation, we’ve found that the connection between big and hard is not a rigid one. In fact, it’s often entirely a function of the choices we make as innovation leaders and practitioners.

SWINGING FOR THE FENCES

The way to break the “big means hard” trap spans both factors of process and people. Let’s start with the people.

When an innovation team gathers for day one of a big new project and hears the project leader’s rallying cry – this is going to be big guys, we’re swinging for the fences – imaginations are launched into motion.

But without the right constraints, the forces of imagination and ambition can easily send the team’s explorations hurtling past the realm of the doable, into the land of things we know will not be realized in this lifetime.

Spending time in those outer reaches of possibility is important and can be worthwhile, particularly as a vantage point to look back on present reality. But being too fixated on far-off future states has risky side effects. You get detached from the imperatives, capabilities, and realities of the business you’re trying to grow. With distorted perspective, you can find yourself equating big ideas with ideas that are nearly impossible to pull off. Ultimately, “big and impossible” just means impossible. It isn’t big at all.

We want our best innovators swinging for the fences, but first we have to think about what that really means. In baseball, that fence is a known boundary, three to four hundred feet from home plate. Home runs are big, game changing, and relatively rare, but doable within the existing capabilities of a baseball player.

What swinging for the fences really means is: let’s go for the maximum impact possible with the capabilities we already have or know how to get.

You can read more of this excerpt on Innovation Excellence.


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About the author:

Mark Payne

As co-founder and president of the leading innovation consultancy Fahrenheit 212, Mark Payne has spearheaded innovation projects that have created over $3 billion in revenue for Fortune 500 companies, entrepreneurial emerging businesses, and private equity firms. As the architect of the firm’s Money + Magic philosophy, its outcome-based business model and its breakthrough Two-Sided Innovation […]

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