Importance of continuous improvement in processes and products cannot be compared with the importance of incremental innovations. Both these cannot be compared with breakthrough innovations either. Sometimes we get bogged down so much with breakthroughs that we forget about the incremental innovations and improvements. MS Dhoni teaches us that to be successful one needs to patiently wait to get breakthroughs but during this waiting period, one should neither be reckless nor be standstill and should rather be busy making small and steady progress.
For those who do not know or do not believe that Dhoni stands out in his batting performance after winning the World Cup as a captain in 2011, here are some statistics. Coming in to bat at number 6 or 7 and maintaining an average strike rate of 89 (strike rate of 80 means the batsman scored 80 runs while facing 100 balls) in six years with an average of more than 61 runs per innings in a total of 105 matches clearly shows that he works on his plans. (Data of 2017 has proved that the year of 2016 was an outlier). Let’s analyse this a bit more and try to learn as innovators and leaders who nurture innovations.
Every ball a batsman faces is an opportunity to score. One day matches are all about scoring at a brisk pace. A dot ball (a ball on which batsman fails to score any run) brings cheers to the fielding side but could be a strong reason for naive spectators to boo the batsman. Let us analyse the treatment Dhoni has given to the balls he has faced every year since 2012 through the graph given below. Around 91% of the balls that Dhoni has faced in this period are used by him to either score one run or a two runs or actually let them go as a dot ball. This is quite unbelievable and counter-intuitive especially after knowing that the strike rate is around 90. He faced 3247 such balls and scored 1739 runs in singles and doubles. Assuming that all these runs were scored in singles, the dot balls would be 42% of the total balls faced and assuming that all these were twos, the dot balls would be 67%! I am sure this percentage number would be more than 50% as Dhoni is known to be an aggressive runner between the wickets.
Let us also look at the contribution of different scoring shots of Dhoni. He scored 55% of his total runs through singles and doubles for which, as mentioned earlier, he used 91% of the balls he faced. The remaining 9% of the balls were used to score his remaining 45% of the runs which come in the form of fours and sixes (many sail over long-on and log-off!)
Learning for Innovators: 91% of the balls he has used to score 55% of his runs in singles and twos are like improvements and incremental innovations. The time that he spent to get these runs was used by him to observe and learn about the opposition and the environment. This also gives him confidence and comforts others in the team and viewers as they feel that the team is progressing. This confidence is used by Dhoni to plan and take calculated risks and intersperse his innings with fours and later with sixes.
Most companies and individuals operate on two extremes:
One extreme: They are busy scoring ones and twos and playing dots balls (no visible improvement for the stakeholders) and do not plan to play big shots (innovations) at all. Such (people in cricket) companies would fail to live up to the expectations of the stakeholders and would be out of business soon.
Another extreme: When companies feel the pressure of competitors or stakeholders, they recklessly take risks to play big shots without preparing themselves and end up in making big mistakes that wouldn’t qualify as smart. (In cricket, we call it ‘throwing his wicket away’ and I have never heard of Dhoni’s dismissal where he played to the gallery)
It is important that companies, leaders and managers plan their organization’s progress with an appropriate mix of improvement projects (using 70% resources) and incremental innovations (by using 20% resources). Both these are important for sustenance of the organisation. The company must plan a few breakthrough innovations (by diverting 10% of their resources) that would help surge ahead of its competitors and bring cheers to the stakeholders. Innovation is a a risky organisational sport and needs a comprehensive understanding, practice and incentive for managers to play.
My friend Srinath at ESPN has been kind enough to provide me the much needed references: