I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.
Business people have a thing for sports metaphors, and this one in particular is a favorite. So much so, that Jason Kirby in “Why businesspeople won’t stop using that Gretzky quote” observed:
Its popularity has much to do with the ego of businesspeople who think they’re the Gretzkys of their industry. But, more than that, it appeals, in a way no other sports cliché does, to the current obsession with that other insidious buzzword, innovation. Get ahead of the competition by figuring out what the market will look like five years from now, says the management consultant to the client, while handing him a substantial bill. It’s that simple.
Of course, it’s not. Gretzky’s uncanny ability to read plays has never been matched. The hockey world has yet to produce another player capable of coming close to matching his record. Which makes the adoption of his quote by businesspeople all the more empty and galling. Warren Buffett can get away with it. Maybe Steve Jobs. But that’s it.
Do you have to be a Gretzky, or a Buffett, or a Jobs in order to get it right?
Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.
Nonetheless, difficult is not the same as impossible. Likewise, the future can be a very big target. Hitting the bits far down the road will be much more difficult than those closer in.
Given the pace of change, “insidious buzzword” seems a bit dismissive. Someone born in 1903 when the Wright brothers first flew what was essentially a motorized kite might just be retiring in 1969 when the Concorde first flew. Almost an entire Radio Shack ad from 25 years ago is now available in the form of a cell phone (for a lot less money as well). Doubtless, some people misuse the term. The phenomenon, however, is very real.
So let’s return to the question of ability to anticipate change. Do you have to be a Gretzky, or a Buffett, or a Jobs in order to get it right? I think that’s a facile opinion, the Great Man theory applied to technology and business.
Greger’s last post, “Inevitable change”, contains part of the reason why I think it’s intellectually lazy to think that innovation is the province of the superstar:
Most changes in evolution are small. They are not big morphological changes. They are small physiological and immunological changes. The ability to resist new disease and the ability to consume new food is much more important than the (seemingly) bigger changes.
In his post, Greger talks about punctuated equilibrium versus phyletic gradualism, sudden radical change versus constant small incremental changes over time. In my opinion, it’s a combination. Species (and organizations) can reach a point where they are no longer fit for the ecosystem they inhabit. They reach that point, however, by degrees.
Likewise, Gretzky skated to where the puck would be, not in one leap, but step by step. Iterative sense-making and decision-making is, in my opinion, far more likely to lead to long-term consistent success than superhuman leaps of intuition. Rather than requiring just the right move at just the right time, what’s needed is awareness and adaptation. Constant, intentional learning is required to ward off the inertia that can be so deadly in an ever-changing environment.
Innovation is a matter of making changes to remain relevant/fit as the environment around you changes. Sometimes those changes may be sudden, but even gradual change can seem sudden to those standing still.
The straw that broke the camel’s back didn’t weigh any more than those that didn’t. It just happened to be one too many. That means there were lots of opportunities to move right up until there weren’t any more.