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CEOs Playing Golf Show Us Where Innovation Lies

Through exploiting preconceptions companies can effectively innovate

11Jul

One of the enduring images of a successful businessman is on a sun dappled golf course, it is an image of success, power, and even a strong network of the elite businesspeople. This isn’t just anecdotal either, with one of the statistical correlations pointed out by YouGov being that people associate golfing with ‘leadership’, with a strong slant towards politically right wing males, the stereotypical company executive.

Golf courses are seen as the place where business is done, where deals are made, where networks are formed. This has been an issue for many years, not least because there are still many golf clubs who do not accept women to join, essentially cutting them out of these perceived high-level conversations.

However, a study conducted by Lee Biggerstaff, David Cicero and Andy Puckett, researchers from Miami University, Auburn University, and Haslam College of Business, showed that actually these places may not be the meccas of business that many believe. In fact, the study showed that the CEOs who played the most golf were in charge of the worst performing companies. The study also showed that if a CEO’s pay was linked to company performance, they played golf considerably less than those who’s pay had little correlation to how their company was doing.

The results were shocking in some ways and have shattered the idea that golf clubs were somehow these powerful places where the most powerful men did the most powerful deals. The reality is quite different, although when you think about it, it is completely logical. A golf course is a place for leisure and relaxation, it’s certainly not a place conducive to hard hitting business decision making. Of course if you spend more time there, you spend less time improving the company you’re in charge of. It makes perfect sense, but it is one of the aspects of business that many simply take for granted.

Golf is not the only example of illogical business thinking, it is unfortunately something that is rife across the world. Perceptions have a huge impact even if they aren’t based in truth. Take the late 2000’s credit crunch - people believed that there was no issue with the mortgage market because it had always been safe and people like Alan Greenspan who are seen as ‘experts’ said it was. All the data suggested that there was an issue, but commonly held beliefs meant that nobody really paid any attention to it.

This kind of analysis, taking the preconceptions out of any decisions being made or historical assumptions, is what modern innovation initiatives thrive on. Uber, for instance, blew the preconceptions that private taxis couldn’t be hailed. By adopting new technology they took what made regular taxis great - hailing - and what made minicabs great - price. If they had stuck to conventional thinking then they would have created one or the other, rather than a multi-billion dollar company that combines the best parts of both.

One of the key issues that companies struggle with when it comes to innovation are these preconceptions which then cloud their views about what they can and cannot do. 20 years ago there was a widely held view that to be considered a leader you needed to wear a power suit and the shiniest shoes. Today, the world’s 7th most valuable company is run by a man who wears the same hoody almost every day. There are still ideas today that limit the thinking of entrepreneurs that we don’t even consider. The challenge comes from trying to identify exactly where these misconceptions exist then exploiting them.

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