March Madness - 3 Lessons to Apply to Leading Innovation


Middle of March is one of my favorite times of year. The weather is warming up here in Cincinnati (well it should be, but apparently we are expecting 12 inches of snow), we celebrated pi day and then there is a college basketball tournament going on right now! 

I know I’m not the only fan of filling out a tournament bracket, in fact I read a few years back that more brackets are completed than votes for. A somewhat silly statistic, but statistics is what makes this time of year so much fun for me. Which brings me to my first of 3 lessons from March Madness to apply to leading innovation:

  1. Data is helpful, but statistics can not completely eliminate risk. is the world’s largest community of data scientist. The past 2 years they have hosted a data modeling competition to predict the odds of every possible match up in the NCAA tournament. If you visit their website you can download an almost overwhelming amount of data from past seasons and tournaments. The first year I participated I thought that with so much data it had to be possible to predict 90 to 95% of the winners, but I was wrong. Even with all the data, my models were only getting a little over 70% of the games correct. Lesson is that while using data is way better than random chance and even better than expert opinion (no upsets at all), it is far from perfect. When your organization chooses ideas to move forward into development, how are you choosing winners? Data won’t be perfect, but considering most companies rely on chance, I think it is time to consider investing in a system for research.
  2. You are going to fail. 
    When completing a bracket we accept the fact that we will be wrong. One year Warren Buffet was so confident that we’d all be wrong that he offered up a billion dollar prize, which no one came close to winning. Yet 70 some million times we completed a bracket. Why? Well, because you can’t win if you don’t play. Same with innovation. I can guarantee you will experience failure with innovation, but I can also guarantee success if you keep trying. Good news is that unlike the tournament where you’re likely busted after the first weekend, with innovation you can learn and try again. It is time to stop letting fear of failure prevent you from innovating.
  3. When an underdog wins, it is a lot of fun. 
    I know it is fun to see your team win, but for me what makes the tournament special is that it gives smaller, lesser known teams a chance. My favorite basketball experience was when my wife I attended the 2010 championship game where Butler, then in a smaller conference, came one hail Mary shot away from upsetting a #1 seed Duke. Same idea applies to innovation. All my favorite innovations I worked on in the past 8 years were the ones that everyone else said wouldn’t work. The level of excitement, passion and energy that comes from moving an underdog idea forward is orders of magnitudes higher than any basketball moment.

So this March, I challenge you to a different type of madness.
In the next few weeks, I want you to test 64 ideas.
I promise you 3 things will happen.
1. The data will help you reduce risk.
2. Most ideas will fail, but you will be smarter. 
3. When a weird underdog wins, someone is going to be excited to move that idea forward.