In walking, just walk. In sitting, just sit. Above all, don’t wobble.
The companies I’ve worked for have been neurotic. They dither. When decisions are made they have an irrational and anxious quality about them.
My experience of work can be described as a shuddering paralysis. In an effort to take everything into account teams I’ve been on enter into an infinite regression of analysis that often takes us off course, delaying action. (I have been guilty of contributing to this.) However, the essence of a business is to act, to do.
When we do act, we don’t just act, but worry about whether that action is the best possible; we complain about all the flaws we find in the method; we even wonder whether the goal is the right goal. So our attention is split, bouncing between acting and thinking. Instead of moving gracefully toward our goal, we wobble. I wobble.
Perhaps Yúnmén wouldn’t mind if I rephrased his quote as “In planning, just plan. In doing, just do. Above all, don’t wobble.”
Most of us have been taught to live our lives singularly focused on outcomes. We are a result oriented society. We worship winners and revile losers. With that as the context, is it any wonder that the majority of us are risk averse? Why do something if there is a chance we might not achieve our desired end? Who would want to be labeled a failure or a loser?
I remember an incident back in middle school. I had got a ‘D’ in one of my classes. It generated such anxiety that I doctored my report card. With a couple of well placed dots penciled in on the dot matrix printout I changed the grade from the ‘D’ to a ‘B’. I knew it was wrong, but the fear of failure was dominating. Even though my parents had never set any expectations for grades – they had always wanted me to just do my best – I had nevertheless internalized the stigma of failure from other social contexts.
The message we all, student or professional, get every waking moment is clear even if it is just implied: hit the target. It does not matter how. Anything less is not only worthless but it will bring negative consequences. What we fail to grasp is the fact that just as you cannot inspect quality into a product, you cannot test knowledge into a student. Trying to do it just fosters our present culture wherein we are all afraid to take chances and risk failure.
We must shift our focus upstream to the learning process. We must be taught how to learn beyond just what to learn. All of us have to understand how knowledge is built and then use that process to grow our own knowledge. That process, the learning cycle, is elegantly expressed by Dr. Shewhart and Dr. Deming: PDSA or Plan-Do-Study-Act. Its deceptive simplicity hides the profound impact it has had in growing human knowledge.
Make a guess at the solution to the problem you’re facing and plan a way to test your guess. Following the plan, actually do the test; carry it out. Study the result by comparing it against your guess. Do they match each other? How you act, depends on the answer. If the result matches your guess, you have confirmation of your guess. If not, you will need to modify your guess with the new found data and run through the cycle once more. Either way, you have increased your knowledge. There is no failure!
How many cycles it takes to understand the nature of the problem we face depends on how good our initial guess is. We must afford everyone the opportunity to run through as many cycles as they need without judging them as a success or a failure based on the outcome of any given iteration of the cycle. Doing so is a way to kill intrinsic curiosity and stop the learning process cold. If we want people to take risks, then we have to foster an environment of experimentation and cooperation.
Life is a journey, not a destination. — Ralph Waldo Emerson
The fundamental assumption that “the other side of innovation: SOLVING THE EXECUTION CHALLENGE” is based on is that your organization is attempting innovation initiatives beyond its current capabilities. Capabilities that you are not willing to develop internally. In other words you are attempting to climb Mt. Rainier, to use the authors’ opening example, when you are neither fit for the challenge nor possess the skills for it. Think about this for a second. Contemplate the likely outcome of such an attempt. If it doesn’t kill you it will most assuredly maim you leaving you worse off for having tried.
However, Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble “see no reason why established organizations should be incapable of executing any innovation initiative”. So, what is the solution these authors dictate? After 10 years of field research at “[innovative companies] as diverse as Allstate, BMW, Harley-Davidson, IBM, Nucor, and Timberland”, they recommend that you “Build the Right Team” and “Run a Disciplined Experiment”. Let us understand something clearly: it doesn’t matter how many expert mountain guides you hire or how well you plan your expedition, if you are not fit, if you do not possess the necessary skills, it will fail… disastrously. So, shame on the authors for making a flawed assumption and then impelling organizations to attempt such challenges.
To be fair, they have made valid observations of several crucial shortcomings in organizations today:
- It is not an organization’s creativity and technology that falls short, it is its management’s capability: leaders just aren’t trained to drive innovation.
- Organizations vest most of their innovation efforts in defining opportunity and not much in executing it. This is tied to the previous point.
- As companies mature, they disengage from innovation efforts, relying on profit from increasing operational efficiency.
These are problems that organizations have to overcome internally through rigorous self reflection which leads to creating projects that (re)build the organization’s fitness and skills. They can thus expand their core competencies and cultivate deep domain knowledge necessary to address the total challenge of innovation. Not do it through hired outside experts or mergers and acquisitions.
Hugely successful innovation initiatives in recent memory such as Toyota’s Lexus or Scion, or Apple’s iPod, iPhone, iPad or iCloud have been internal to their respective companies. Neither Toyota nor Apple were first to market with these products. Each took its time to develop domain knowledge; stretching itself through multiple learning cycles before introducing class redefining products.
The authors underestimate and trivialize the value of such continuous improvement programs even when their own studies at Nucor and Deere & Company demonstrate successful outcomes. In fact they dismiss their own observations of successful innovation initiatives at many companies in favor of “What If?” scenarios. Never mind whether these hypothetical initiatives were ones these companies might have pursued but didn’t for lack of capability. They never say so.
The one example the authors cite where a transformative innovation initiative was required: the New York Times. But, this was necessary as the landscape of the entire newspaper industry was unexpectedly and fundamentally changed by an unaccounted force: the internet. An extremely rare event that no book or expert can help to plan for.
In any case, given that the book’s fundamental premise is faulty, the structure built upon it is rickety at best. Don’t get me wrong, there are some good ideas, but they are either poorly communicated or poorly reasoned or both. The authors assume an unjustified authoritative tone that often patronize the reader on his/her complaint (constructed in the authors’ imagination). There is a smugness in the manner they criticize their partner companies’ approach to innovation. I wonder if any of them will have these researchers back to work with them again. And, they fail to properly attribute their learning cycle – Plan-Do-Study-Act – to its developers and advocates: Walter Shewhart and W Edward Deming.
My suggestion is you pass on reading this book. It teaches the wrong lessons. Learn the proper way to execute innovation initiatives by benchmarking the best in class. Two excellent reads are “The Toyota Way” & “The Elegant Solution”. Develop your organization’s management foundations and knowledge building efforts with “Out of the Crisis”. There is a tough climb ahead, but not an insurmountable one provided you start preparing for it now.