Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Exercising Patience

In moral matters, patience is a virtue. In innovation, patience is not only a virtue, it’s a necessity—a corporate “muscle” in need of constant exercise. 

Venture capitalists are not the only ones losing their patience these days. Established companies competing for financial capital and talent push harder to show better results, faster. Declining investments in R&D (as a percentage of sales), shorter cycle times, and every increasing “D” in proportion to “R,” are just a few symptoms of this growing corporate impatience. Many companies’ patience muscles may be getting a little weak.

The rewards for patience can be significant. R&D investments can produce returns that surprise even investors. For example, Kimberly-Clark Corporation originally estimated the disposable training pants market to be $250 million. Yet in a few short years after they introduced Pull-Ups®, sales exceeded $450 million for their product alone. While Pull-Ups was introduced to the market in 1989, it was almost ten years after the two product development visionaries—Glen Fleischer and Walt Pearls—patiently listened to mother after mother to help them conceive of this new product. Perhaps the cycle time could have been shorter, but it’s dubious the gestation period for this innovation could have been rushed.

In their impatience to make the number, many companies risk missing out on bigger numbers than can come from moments of discovery that precede invention and innovation—moments that require patience.

From the growing number of market discovery assignments and collaborative invention assignments we do each year, a pattern appears to be emerging—discovery precedes invention and successful innovation. Invention can certainly occur without some preceding discovery. Yet innovations that follow a fresh discovery—be it a surprise result in the lab or a new perspective on the market—seem to carry a quality far superior to and more strategic than their “stand alone” counterparts. If this is true then how can a company build in the regular exercise that the muscle of patience requires?

Strategy can be one way of making patience a regular practice. Cisco takes a minority interest in smaller companies with interesting technology for a time before acquiring them—and their talent.  Policy can be another way of building patience. The board of Marriott International, among others, deliberately refuses to make decisions at the same meeting in which an issue is raised. They wait until the next meeting, just to increase the quality of the decision by adding a little patience. Segregating and dedicating selected resources to an effort is yet another way of exercising patience.

Ezra Pound said, “Glance is the enemy of wisdom.” We are coming to believe that wisdom, and the patience required to develop it, may be the silent partner that sustains a company’s innovation efforts well into its future.

This article by Lanny Vincent originally appeared in Innovating Perspectives in April 2000. For other issues of our newsletter, please go to www.innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270.  

© 2013 Vincent & Associates, Ltd. 

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Positioned to Receive Signals

An unwritten rule for assembling a working group—especially for inventive or creative problem solving—is to have no more than three levels of the organization’s hierarchy present in the same room at the same time. Sometimes you want only two. When too many levels are in the same place at the same time, asymmetries of power can inhibit dissent and constrain the free expression of divergent thinking—both essential ingredients in collaborative and generative efforts.

As there are exceptions to every rule, there are to this one as well. Exceptions include when higher-ups have collegial rapport with their direct reports or when the discernment of faint signals from complex and ambiguous external conditions outweighs the need for command and control directives. Thanks to Greg Blythe, master technology strategist at HP, for bringing our attention to the Cynefin framework’s description of complex versus chaotic conditions (see Wikipedia’s entry on Cynefin—a very useful diagnostic taxonomy for different types of external conditions). Cynefin goes even so far as to suggest that command and control oriented leadership may be appropriate for turbulent and chaotic conditions, but is inappropriate for complex and uncertain conditions. 

Over the past few months I have had the privilege of facilitating several working sessions where both these exceptions were in play. Success was achieved, much to the credit of the ego-strength (i.e., humility) of the participating higher ups, and the guidance of Cynefin. Had we encountered a lack of rapport between organizational levels or had we misdiagnosed the type of external conditions, organizational power would have presented a significant hindrance to these innovating efforts. Why? 

Innovating efforts depend so heavily on reading faint signals—signals that come to and through the bottom, middle and top levels of an organization’s hierarchy.  If the bottom, middle and top are not freed from the signal distortions of power, the ability of the whole organization to respond will be crippled, often leading to a response that makes matters worse.

When market conditions are sufficiently clear and external dynamics are sufficiently known, the delegation and distribution of power is relatively clear and straightforward in corporate governance and management systems. Here a command and control mindset works pretty well. Leaders lead, managers manage, employees follow and governing bodies oversee when operating conditions for corporations are relatively stable. 

However, when external market conditions become more complex and volatile, leading, managing, following and governing require participants in governance and management systems to leave their “fixed” positions and move into the clear so as to read the faint signals, which need to be discerned. Like a basketball team with possession of the ball, players need to leave their set positions and move to free themselves to be open to receive the ball from their teammates and find an open shot.

Disruptions often turn familiar, friendly environments into unfamiliar, unfriendly ones. Whether those disruptions come from another’s innovation, the arrival of a tipping point, a gradual slippage of relevance, or the seemingly spontaneous combustion of a complex soup of factors, the disrupted will likely always outnumber the disruptors.

Disruption can be lessened by a governance, leadership and management system that is able to flex itself from a “command and control” set to a “sense and respond” movement. The heart of this latter posture—actually a “readiness” more than a posture—resides in collaborative dialogues, not in hierarchical reviews.” (See Adaptive Enterprise: Creating and Leading Sense and Respond Organizations by Stephan H. Haeckel, and also Michael Kusnic and Daniel Owen’s piece on “Collaborative Decision-Making in Adaptive Enterprises” in Appendix B of Haeckel's book.)

Much of the innovation literature and practice will keep senior executives and board members fixed in their reviewer roles. But when they come out of those fixed roles and find the “opening,” their individual and collective contributions to the company’s innovating system increase significantly.

A company’s innovating system requires a constant balancing and rebalancing between governing, leading and managing. Recent investigations by the Innovation Practitioners Network in applying systems principles to innovating practice suggest too many corporate innovating systems are over-managed and under-led, and quite possibly under-governed.

In the rebalancing, the governance, leadership and management of innovating systems should always leave plenty of room to invite the governors (i.e., innovation council or board members), leaders (i.e., sponsors) and managers (including midwives) to leave their starting positions, at least temporarily, and share with each other what each is perceiving from the complexities and turbulence of the external environment.

Without these collaborative dialogues, undistorted by rank power, knowledge will remain segmented, dots will remain unconnected, innovating will suffer, innovators will be handicapped, and the opposing team will likely find the hoop more often.    

This article by Lanny Vincent originally appeared in Innovating Perspectives in March 2013. For other issues of our newsletter, please go to www.innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270.  

© 2013 Vincent & Associates, Ltd.