Skating to Where the Puck Will Be

Wayne Gretzky

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.

Greger Wikstrand and I have been discussing that “insidious buzzword”, innovation, for more than six months now. This post is the 23rd in the series.

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.

[Wayne Gretzky photo by Håkan Dahlström via Wikimedia Commons]


8 thoughts on “Skating to Where the Puck Will Be

  1. “Most changes in evolution are small.”

    Most. Clearly not all. Apple didn’t create the .mp3 player or the smartphone. Microsoft created neither DOS nor the GUI operating system. Or, for that matter, the word processor. However, the iPhone, iPod, DOS, Windows, and Word all represent massive leaps in the evolution of their product. Jobs and Gates, despite massive personal and ethical flaws, knew how to create a product. Past tense in Gates’ case because he’s clearly no longer interested in doing so.

    The level of player needed for a change depends on the change. And you do hit the nail on the head about the Gretzky quote. It’s the same problem with Nietzsche “Uberman”. Everyone assumes they’re the Uberman.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The smartphone is a really good example. RIM was sitting on a winner and then suddenly it wasn’t, because it sat. It wasn’t some bolt out of the blue, but the natural convergence of several things that Jobs had the foresight to see (and, contrary to legend, I really, really doubt he was unique in this) and, most importantly, act on.


      • “It wasn’t some bolt out of the blue”

        Actually, it was. They had no idea AT&T was giving the iPhone unlimited full-browser capability until it happened. Until then, carriers were blocking that ability on everybody. RIM, Palm, Microsoft, Nokia, and anyone else I’ve forgotten. They were in “catch-up” mode after that.

        But I’m pretty convinced that if John Chen been helming BlackBerry then, we’d be talking about the “Big 3” OSs. He’s sharp and good at what he does. Unlike the last three CEOs. A good example of what happens when you need large jumps in innovation and don’t have the expertise to do it.


      • okay, except AT&T didn’t just “give” it to Apple, right? Apple worked for it, RIM took “no” for an answer.

        Also, what’s their excuse vs. Android? It got to the game later than both of them:

        “In January 2010, barely 3 million (7.1%) of the 42.7 million Smartphones in use at the time in the United States were running Android, compared to 18 million BlackBerry devices (43%).[42] Within a single year Android had passed the installed base of the BlackBerry in the United States.[43] By February 2016, only 1.59 million (0.8%) of the 198.9 million smartphone users in the United States were running BlackBerry compared to 104.82 million (52.7%) running Android.[13]”

        Liked by 1 person

      • Several days (weeks?) after the fact, but I kind of got distracted.
        RIM didn’t have an excuse against Android. That’s what happens when you have a (insert the name of a really bad hockey player) instead of Gretzky. The two co-CEOs for RIM (Yes- you read that right) responded too slowly and continued to market their phones on qualities that were not important. Then. Interestingly, their innovations in battery life, data security, and data compression to save data transfer sizes are extremely important today. One can say that they were ahead of their time, but they never managed to deliver on that vision.


  2. Phil McKinney of Killer Innovations fame (HP and others also) and serial innovator strongly suggests that innovation occurs based on a highly disciplined process. He is definitely not a fan of great man theory which suggests that incremental innovation is more the norm. Overall we need to remember that in the end, we only call changes innovation if they push a boundary and survive in the wild for some period.


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