Can mastery and innovation coexist?

Jonathan Fields posted this question in a Psychology Today article last week. Here is my answer and would love to hear yours.

It’s a great question and not at all difficult to answer, though it’s better said than done. First of all, mastery is never achieved. It’s a goal, but a goal we’ll never reach. As much as you think that somebody is  ‘the master’ of something, it’s just a psychological illusion. It’s your human biases at work. It’s an illusion because you’re already thinking that it can’t be improved in some way. And that my friend, is your endgame.

In the world of sports this phenomenon is more obvious, and even the people who are considered the best at what they do will tell you they’re always improving because they know they’ll never fully master their craft.

In the business world it’s not all different. Companies have evolved since forever, some started as a completely different business than what they are today. You may master some process but that process will eventually become irrelevant. It will be replaced by either another process (incremental) or by an unforeseen evolutionary paradigm (disruptive).

Take for example IBM, who recently celebrated it’s 100th anniversary. It didn’t start as a IT services and consulting company. But that’s what it is today. But that’s not where it will stay for another 10 to 100 years. There are even IBM’ers who are already questioning whether they’ll even make it given their current focus on integration. They’re thinking about it’s next reinvention aka innovation.

And that is the point.

What we should really be concerned with mastering is reinvention. IBM is a master of reinvention. However it is that it reinvented itself whether because of a crisis or because it chose to, it’s still standing 100 years later. There are countless other companies like P&G and Sony who have also reinvented themselves because of a crisis.

But why wait for a crisis?

How do you master reinvention?

There are some clues in business literature as to how to ‘force your company’ to reinvent itself while at the same time it operates the core business. For example, earlier this year HBR published an article on how Hasbro reinvented itself by adopting the 3-box approach:

The three box approach at Hasbro

How does it work? From HBR:

The starting point is to look at the projects you plan to implement in the next 12 months and sort them into the three boxes. How many of those projects are improving the performance of your core business, which is box 1? How many are truly innovative and could fundamentally change your business, which is box 3? And how many are geared at overcoming your dominant logic, which is box 2? An example of a box 2 project would be plans to recruit people from the outside, because outsiders tend to challenge the status quo. This exercise will likely point out that you are overemphasizing box 1 projects and underinvesting in box 2 and box 3. Then you need to think about the desired mix across the three boxes and begin working toward that.

Because the future requires a different set of competencies, what made you great in the past won’t make you great in the future.

Google is another company that also understands this. Their 70/20/10 model to cultivate and manage innovation has the same intent that the 3-box approach has: To create an evolutionary process for Google to reinvent itself while at the same time managing the present:

  • 70% of time should be dedicated to core business tasks.
  • 20% of time should be dedicated to projects related to the core business.
  • 10% of time should be dedicated to projects unrelated to the core business.

Most recently, a company that is reinventing itself before our eyes is Netflix. Their announcement that it is splitting off its DVD-by-mail business from its streaming business is just such an experiment. The DVD business will now go by the name Qwikster, and the streaming business will stay under the Netflix brand.

In his blog post about the split, CEO Reed Hastings says (bold for emphasis):

“For the past five years, my greatest fear at Netflix has been that we wouldn’t make the leap from success in DVDs to success in streaming. Most companies that are great at something — like AOL dial-up or Borders bookstores — do not become great at new things people want (streaming for us) because they are afraid to hurt their initial business. Eventually these companies realize their error of not focusing enough on the new thing, and then the company fights desperately and hopelessly to recover. Companies rarely die from moving too fast, and they frequently die from moving too slowly.”


So yes, mastery and innovation can coexist. And you can pursue both at once. As the examples above show, it’s not without it’s challenges but if you want to remain relevant in the future you have to do pursue mastery and and innovation at once.

What do you think? What would you add?

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