Two cars at full speed, the second positioning itself directly on the tail of the first – slipstreaming, then moving to the side and slingshotting past the first car – just before the corner. To see a recent example, have a look at this clip of Max Verstappen overtaking.

This is a very complex manoeuvre. The second car has to be close enough to the first to benefit from the first’s ‘dirty’ (turbulent) air draught.  By sitting in this slipstream and having to spend less energy to reach the same speed, the second driver can slingshot themselves around the first – just in time to be in front before the corner.  Crucially, it must get its front wing in the clean air in time for the turn into the corner because massive downforce is needed to keep it planted through the corner.  Fail to do so and the challenger will lose grip because the air directly behind the first car is too turbulent to generate enough downforce.

These overtaking manoeuvres are therefore about courage, timing and positioning … all of which are also important in the ‘innovation race’.

Pioneers vs Fast Follower – who will win the innovation race?

We recently presented at the Innovation Roundtable Summit in Copenhagen. Through informal conversations, and a survey of delegates, we gained important insight into the opinions held by innovation executives. They shared their innovation ambitions: both their personal ambitions and also the innovation ambitions of their organisations.

Executives from firms whose innovation strategy is focused on being a ‘pioneer’ are more satisfied with their performance against this strategy than are executives from organisations that have a ‘fast follower’ strategy.  Striving to be (and remain) in front feels better!

Life in the Innovation Slipstream

There are a number of factors that play a role in how ‘pioneers’ and ‘fast followers’ approach innovation:

Mismatch between stated innovation ambition and company culture

First of all, the organisation’s ambition has to fit its staff’s ambitions and vice-versa. Not every organisation has and can have the same level of ambition regarding innovation. Some company cultures are less focused on creating breakthrough innovations and more tuned to incremental improvements – and they can be very successful doing so.Organisations cannot transform themselves just by stating that they have a ‘pioneering’ strategy – this has to be lived across all levels of the organisation. Mixing up radical and incremental innovation efforts in one organisation has been further explored by my colleague AJ van Bochoven in his recent blog.As was mentioned at a panel discussion at the Innovation Roundtable Summit: “Non-innovators will quit if the company pushes an innovation culture”. Being successful, both as a ‘pioneer’ and as a ‘fast follower’ requires a delicate balance.

Personal role

Delegates at the Summit who identified with a ‘visionary’ role within their organisation were more often stating their company’s ambition as ‘pioneer’. Delegates who saw themselves as ‘facilitators’ for innovation mainly identified as ‘fast follower’. Visionaries stated that a lack of commitment and backing was the most important barrier to innovation; whereas facilitators mentioned a lack of vision as the key barrier.It is clear that different roles have different expectations from the organisation. Visionaries want to feel that others are as engaged as they are. Facilitators want to enable others to become as focused on innovation as they are, but they need an established vision to rally behind. Clearly this is often lacking and this is a something that needs attention from the top. Colleagues who do not know where a company is going will not feel empowered to innovate.

Learning from pioneers

Many executives we talked to realise they are in catch-up mode and they want to learn from the pioneers. What sometimes might be forgotten is that pioneers and ‘fast followers’ have distinctly different approaches to innovation. The same holds true for start-ups and big corporates – yes, big companies can learn from start-ups, but they cannot just blindly copy their approaches to innovation.What ‘fast followers’ can do is pay good attention to what the pioneers are aiming for. What are the underlying market needs that they are addressing? What are the value propositions they are presenting to the market and how do these differ from the established players? What is their go-to-market approach? And crucially: how could the ‘fast follower’ be able to stay in the slipstream of the pioneer for long enough to be able to create a stronger offer?

Lack of inertia

Pioneers often launch products and services quickly and iterate continually in order to learn and optimise – e.g. using lean startup methods.   This is essential to honing propositions in the context of changing user/market needs.At the Summit we often heard attendees say that they don’t know where to start or that they find it hard to establish an innovation area to focus on. Being a ‘fast follower’ actually makes it easier to start: pioneers are demonstrating examples in the market from which ‘fast followers’ can learn both what works well, and what works less well.

It’s a team effort

In Formula 1 racing, winning is a team effort: the car constructor, the engine manufacturer, the pit team, the driver, etc. In innovation often we only see the shiny success stories, presented when all the hard work is done.  But there is a lot of graft happening before success can be celebrated. This is an important investment for ‘fast followers’ to understand: refined skills and dogged hard work are needed to place the team in a position to win. Getting to this place is something that many companies could achieve.

Creating the right set of circumstances to establish good innovation culture will take time and requires a proper change in people’s behaviour and approaches. In a series of upcoming blog posts, my colleague Cassi Padbury will talk about why change is needed and how to approach this successfully.

The importance of practising what you preach

From the various discussions we had at the Innovation Roundtable Summit it became clear that in many cases the right noises about innovation are being made at board level. New initiatives are being launched, grand statements of disrupting the status quo in an industry are being put out, innovation teams or co-creation labs are being set-up. However, the perceived reality on the ground is often different. This is especially true when a company might try to show pioneering traits to the outside world but does not resource nor communicate them sufficiently internally. To be a successful ‘fast follower’ it is important to know what the organisation is aiming for.

Whereas in Formula 1 there’s only one way to win, in business there are multiple ways to ‘win’ – market leader by volume, by revenue, sector diversification, geographic coverage, etc. Establishing an innovation ambition clearly and supporting it with actions and commitments will make teams perform better.

Get moving

During the final speech of the Innovation Roundtable Summit, Paul Misener, VP Global Innovation Policy & Communications of Amazon said: “Launch is the starting line, not the finish line”.  Winning is not possible from standstill when the competition is flying along at 330km/h … therefore ‘fast followers’, too, need to start moving quickly.

Antonno Versteeg

As a consultant in the Strategy, Innovation and Process team I help executives make the right decisions about their company's innovation, design and product development direction.