Why “Gretzky’s Rule” Represents the Past – Not the Future – of Product Innovation

By Ken Durand, Head of Innovation, Ericsson’s Atlanta Idea Factory

Most of us have heard the advice that Walter Gretzky gave to his son Wayne, who became perhaps the greatest hockey player of all time: the key to success is to “skate where the puck is going, not to where it has been.”

It’s a wonderful statement about using everything at our disposal to look forward to the future, instead of the past. It has become one of the great PowerPoint clichés of our time. But few have questioned its validity in building out an innovation culture within a large organization.  In reality, “skating to where the puck is going” (from now on known as the “Gretzky Rule”) is undermining the high-impact innovation that product organizations want.

We need to first understand the environment that Gretzky worked within — the conditions that made it possible for him to be “where the puck was going.”

  1. The Rules of the Game: The sport of hockey organized its first formal rulemaking in 1917.  All teams that compete agree to be governed by the same set of rules.  Additionally, the various leagues around the world place referees on the ice with the teams to enforce the rules.
  2. The Space of Play: The game of hockey is played in a confined space — the rink.  Only approved players or referees are allowed in the space.  All rinks have the same dimensions, the same line markings, and identical goals in which to score points. The puck is confined to this space — which greatly limits the potential locations where the puck can be now and in the future.
  3. Scoring: There is universal agreement on how score is kept. If there is a question about whether a score has occurred, professional leagues generally employ video replay to assist the referees in making the right call, ensuring fairness to both teams.
  4. Known Opponents: If you read articles about Gretzky’s career, one thing will appear repeatedly: he had the uncanny ability to know not only where his opponents were on the ice, but also to anticipate what they would do next. This ability extended not only to his opponents, but also to his own teammates (this is one reason that Gretzky had more assists in the NHL than any other player had points.)  Gretzky was a student of the game and of the opponents he would face on the ice. He studied their tendencies, their weaknesses, and how to beat them. This allowed Gretzky to achieve a level of preparation that was second to none.

Each of these four factors played significantly into Gretzky’s ability to intuit where the puck was going. Through exhaustive preparation and practice, he applied his immense talent to the circumstances of winning on the ice, and Gretzky did this better than any hockey player who has ever lived. So why should we not apply the Gretzky rule to our product innovation efforts?

Ask yourself these questions about your business:

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