Starcraft as a metaphor for innovation, foresight, and R&D

A screenshot from the game Starcraft 2 of infantry advancing down a road toward the dark fog of war

A few years ago (before the pandemic), I found myself in front of a group of R&D/Strategy execs at a large tech company. I was tasked with explaining how our unique way of working fit into their standard approach to coming up with ideas about products, services, features, future research areas, etc.

At the time, their expectations of innovation were to empower isolated technical teams to come up with their own ideas — basically a bunch of scientists and engineers running around inventing features in isolation. These were all brilliant professionals doing important and interesting work; but the results were often  solutions in search of a problem, if you will. They hailed it as a "ground-up approach."

Every quarter or two, those same scientists/engineers would shop their inventions up the chain to product and marketing execs –– who would then attempt to position them into new or existing product lines. If what you came up with fit nicely within an existing program, product or plan, then it would get turned into something. If not, then it's back to the drawing board for you. If unsuccessful enough times, then it's all the way back to the job board.

The result of this structure was that often the safest and most effective way to get your invention made was to look at what other competitors were doing (or talking about doing) and exploring how to emulate that. Follow the leader, essentially. This way your invention was more likely to be accepted into a product line, and you're more likely to keep your job (or perhaps even get a bonus).

Proposing something different was met with a strange mix of hesitancy, uncertainty, and confusion.

Actual grassroots exploration, imagination, and human-centred research exercises were perceived as a risk to them. The result of these activities might produce something other than a safe 'emulatable' idea already proven to be a success by a competitor. However; the competitors they followed so closely had figured out a way to develop their own new ideas organically and before anyone else, becoming the one that everyone followed as a result. Leaders know that you can't emulate your way to the number one spot; you need to take risks.  

So here I am trying to convey the value of our unique approach to these execs. In the past, metaphors and pop-culture references have been helpful to build understanding between different kinds of minds, so I chose to use the popular real-time strategy game Starcraft –– specifically, an in-game mechanic in Starcraft called the "fog of war."

For those unfamiliar, players start each new Starcraft match with the game's map completely occluded to them and blacked out by the ‘fog of war’. They cannot see the location of the other players, critical resources, or key areas that exist like bridges or chokepoints. To remove the fog and illuminate the map, players need to send out expendable scout units to explore and reveal the terrain.

Often, these expendable scout units bump into an enemy and don't make it home alive. They're kind of disposable that way, but they have provided an invaluable resource to the player: information. See, in strategy games like Starcraft it's critical to discover the location of your enemies/competitors early on and monitor their activities. However, experienced players know it's also equally important to explore the rest of the map to understand where the resources, natural terrain advantages, and defensive positions are — in addition to where your enemies aren't.

The message in the metaphor to these execs was that focussing on what your competitors are doing is important, but doing so too closely can be a trap.

In Starcraft, it's nearly impossible to determine a given player's strategy by stumbling onto a few of their units on an occluded map, which is why the ‘fog of war’ game mechanic exists. If the entire map was visible, real-time information on other player/competitor activities would make the game much less fun. It's also not how things work in the real world.

In a corporate innovation context, perfect information on a competitor's strategy doesn't exist. It's extremely difficult to determine what others are doing in a given space from their actions, patents, announcements, etc., alone. Even if one could glean enough information from these clues, it's unwise to use that knowledge to emulate what you speculate a competitor's strategy might be. It's akin to copying a guess, even if it is an educated guess.

When you're a leader in a space (or the space is very new), there may not be anyone to emulate either. In that case, the only way forward is to do the hard work of exploring on your own, bushwhacking through the jungle with your machete. Sure, it's essential to keep an eye on competitors, but leaders develop their own vision for what they want to achieve, why they want to achieve it, and then they clear the path to get there.  

The company execs I was trying to convince were doing the opposite — the equivalent of screen-watching other Starcraft players and reactively copying their moves, rather than exploring the rest of the map and looking for better ways to win. Leading vision & strategy in innovation comes from independent exploratory research, usually focusing on the humans involved. In other words, you need to send out scouts to gather information and illuminate the terrain/map you're playing on.

Fortunately, the gaming analogy worked. We were able to do some pretty wild research and design work, which in turn allowed us to co-create original visions/strategies with them that were unique in the space and non-derivative of their competitors. This enabled them to  finally zig when everyone else was zagging.

We learned a lot from this experience too. For us, the moral of the story was that strategic foresight, human-centred research, and exploratory/speculative design are relatively new ways of thinking for large R&D departments. As such, there can be some understandable confusion as to how they fit into the rather ingrained ways of doing things at big corporations.

Exploratory imagination activities may not always seem like they provide the most direct path to success, but they are crucial to illuminating the rest of the map and informing the larger contexts and systems where designed solutions will exist. More importantly, they shed light on which pathways or research areas are fruitful to explore and which are not. Because in the end, that is how companies generate unique industry-leading solutions that win the game –– and leave the other players struggling to follow.