Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Improvement Prophets and Innovation Heretics

“Innovations that entail a shift in strategy are successful because they are deliberately subversive.  New wealth is created not by prophets but by heretics. They are the ones who not only challenge the way an existing business runs, but offer an entirely new way of thinking about an industry. Not satisfied with something better, they want something different.” Gary Hamel, who wrote this in the Wall Street Journal, captured an important and often overlooked distinction: prophets and heretics.

Some say prophets, and their modern equivalents—management consultants—constitute the “second oldest profession.” There is ample evidence, as far back as the 8th Century BC, of an established class of paid advisers who many contend were a part of a king’s court. These advisers were called prophets, and they were paid to prognosticate on behalf of the king.

Ancient wisdom is seasoned with warnings about false prophets. The only reliable test of a prophet and his or her prophecy was the test of hindsight—whether the prophecy of what was to come turned out to be true or not. The purpose of the prophet’s message, however, was to stimulate change—repentance or a change of mind.

Therefore, ironically, if the prophet was successful in provoking a change in the way the king and his court were thinking, then the prophecy of what was to come may not happen, leaving the prophet exposed to criticism and false prophecy. The dilemma for the prophet is that if he is successful in getting the king to change his mind, then the prophet risks ruining his own credibility and career.  Unless, of course, he has an understanding and grateful king.

The perennial presence of prophets in today’s world of corporate and governmental “kingdoms” is a testament to their usefulness. At the very least, prophets can help us see the error of our ways and how the arrogance of success sows the seeds of its own failure. However, Hamel has made a very useful distinction: most prophets and their modern equivalents tend to be more interested in making things better; e.g., continuous improvement. While these efforts are absolutely necessary for most corporations, a growing number of companies appear to be awakening to the fact that making things better, while necessary, is not sufficient. Corporate renewal requires “something different,” and that is more likely to come from a heretic than a prophet.

Hence the necessity of the heretic. When asked what his most important responsibility was in leading the staff at the Pentagon, General Matthew Ridgeway (MacArthur’s successor) simply said, “Protect the maverick.” Many of our corporate organizations have failed to reflect Ridgeway’s wisdom. Last year I was with a client group planning a series of strategic planning and invention sessions, and when it came time to discuss who would participate I suggested that we be sure to include their resident maverick. Without exception, everyone knew the kind of person about whom I was referring. Not a pain-in-the-neck iconoclast, but the prolific, inventive, productive, and often pain-in-the-neck heretic. “But Lanny,” said the director of R&D, “you don’t understand. With all the re-engineering and down-sizings we have been through over the past ten years, all the mavericks have left.”

George Bernard Shaw once wrote that “reasonable men adapt to their environment. Unreasonable men try to adapt the environment to themselves. Thus, all progress is the result of the efforts of the unreasonable man.”

We might all do better to honor the prophet among us—even those who are in our own “country and land.” However, we might all build a bridge to our corporation’s future by protecting the maverick among us.

This article by Lanny Vincent was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in April 1998. For other issues of our newsletter, please go to www.innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270.  

© 2013 Vincent & Associates, Ltd. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Visionary versus Competitive Innovation

My father taught me to race a small sailboat on a lake in northern Wisconsin. One of the cardinal rules of racing is to always “cover the boat behind you,” assuming, of course, that you are not the last boat in the fleet. This means that when the boat following you changes direction to find clean air, you should change course in parallel with them. If they find better air, you will also.

There was another rule I learned later, after many seasons of racing. It came from the expert lake sailor Stuart Walker, who observed that there are always two winds on a lake. He said, “Pick one and stay with it.” Walker observed from all his years of racing experience that the wind direction next to the shoreline typically differs a few degrees from the wind direction out in the middle of the lake. If you go from one to the other you can lose out, due to the lull in between.

Paying attention to the competition is one thing. Reading the wind is another. Sometimes you have to choose one or the other.

These rules and choices apply to innovators too as colleague and veteran innovator, Carol O’Neill, senior vice president at Spartech, reminded me recently. Thank you, Carol, for referring us to “The Creative Monopoly,” an article by David Brooks published in the New York Times. It is a must read. (nytimes.com/2012/04/24/opinion/brooks-the-creative-monopoly.html).

Mr. Brooks does a riff on a course Peter Thiel (founder of PayPal) is teaching at Stanford. One of the core points of the course is that we tend to confuse capitalism with competition. When that confusion extends into the realm of innovating, innovating can suffer at the hand of competition. “Competition has trumped value-creation,” Brooks says, and this undermines innovation.

My own experience facilitating invention and R&D-driven innovating efforts over the past 30 years resonates with and confirms Brook’s conclusion. Steadily over those three decades, innovating efforts seem to have become more competitive and less visionary. Increasingly innovators are focusing on “adjacencies.” Adjacent opportunities, theoretically, are arenas where risks appear hedged by an entirely rational pursuit of improvements in value already established and validated for existing customers. Focusing on adjacencies carries the reassurance that in the risky endeavor of innovating, one can minimize the risk by staying close to the customer and just ahead of the competition. Covering the boats behind you. 

As more companies take this more rational and less risky approach, fewer established companies are looking to create new value for people and create new customers, markets and initiate “monopolies” in the process. Now it seems that looking for the new winds, whether in the center of the lake or along the shorelines, is an innovating strategy being left to the entrepreneurial start-up.

What if you are in the boat behind, or see a wind on the other shore? You may have the incentive not only to think differently, but also act differently, and break away from the pack. It’s risky for sure. But if you see a new wind, it just may be worth it. If you fail, you will have learned a valuable lesson—perhaps that is the real value that cannot be taken away.   

In his book, Birth of the Chaordic Age, Dee Hock, the founder of VISA, said in his wonderful story of the company’s creation “what is possible cannot be determined by opinions: only by attempt.”                 

This article by Lanny Vincent was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in May 2012. For other issues of our newsletter, please go to www.innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270.  

© 2013 Vincent & Associates, Ltd.