M S Dhoni – a perfect example of innovation portfolio

posted by Ravi Arora September 13, 2017

Driving continuous improvement in processes and products is one of the most important roles of managers but improvements cannot replace the need of innovations – incremental or breakthrough. When it comes to innovations, managers sometimes get bogged down with breakthrough innovations and ignore incremental innovations. Mahendra Singh Dhoni (MS Dhoni), one of the most successful Indian cricket captain, 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 but should 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 analyze 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 analyze 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 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 twos. If all these runs were scored in singles, the dot balls would be 42% of the total balls faced and if 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 managers

91% of the balls that Dhoni has used to score 55% of his runs in singles and twos are like improvements and incremental innovations. The time that he spends to get these runs is used by him to observe and learn about the opposition and the environment. This gives him confidence and comforts his team as they are aware of his typical style. This confidence is used by Dhoni to plan and take calculated risks and intersperse his innings with fours and later with sixes.

Unfortunately, most companies and individuals operate on either of the two extremes:

One extreme: This is true for most companies as they are busy making small improvements (scoring ones and twos or dot balls), which get appreciated but do not play big shots (innovations) at all for a very long time because of the associated risk and fear of failure. The laser sharp focus on annual business plan and the rhythm of PDCA makes this part of the culture in organizations. All such companies are susceptible to a breakthrough innovation from the competitor or a startup.

Another extreme: This happens when companies, under a lot of pressure to perform, take risks and recklessly play big shots without preparing themselves and end up in making big mistakes. (In cricket, we call it ‘throwing the wicket away’ and I have never heard of Dhoni’s dismissal where he played either a reckless shot or played to the gallery).

Remember innovations are always top-down and Dhoni as a captain of India, has himself taught us this lesson of using a portfolio approach of driving innovations.

It is important that business 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 organization. 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 tough organizational sport and needs a comprehensive understanding, practice and incentive for managers to engage with this sport.


My friend Srinath at ESPN has been kind enough to provide me the much needed references: