Monday, February 06, 2012

From smooth and steady to rough and ready

I pondered, for a least a few minutes, what to title this post.  Sometimes as a writer you know innately what you want to say, and how "right" the point you want to make is, but it can be difficult to distill it down to a catchy title.

I entitled this post "From smooth and steady to rough and ready" because I want to point out the importance of perspectives, especially for the true engine of innovation - middle management.  Middle managers have been encouraged to create programs and processes that run "smooth and steady".  In the future, they'll need processes that are "rough and ready".  Let me attempt to explain.

In my book Relentless Innovation I examined a number of consistent innovators, firms like P&G or Apple.  These firms are able to consistently generate interesting, valuable new products and services while maintaining a reasonably high level of efficiency and effectiveness.  In other words, they've managed to square the circle.  They are simultaneously innovative, and efficient.  In my book I noted that there are two factors which sustain such a rare pairing:  a "business as usual" process that sustains innovation rather than rejecting it, and a middle management team that embraces innovation rather than dampening it or ignoring it.

Paul Hobcraft, in a nice summary, writes that we must "unfreeze the middle" to achieve more innovation, and I think in this regard we agree completely.  Many managers have had their perspectives "frozen" to focus specifically and uniquely on efficiency, cost cutting and short term financial results.  This frozen perspective has limited their vision, their thinking, the risk tolerances and the timelines within which they work.  As the vision and scope calcifies, it becomes easier and easier to focus on short term, highly efficient products and processes, and increasingly difficult to think beyond that cramped framework.  The middle is frozen, and while it is frozen the rest of the organization can't move.

We've encouraged a "smooth and steady" mentality - slow and careful growth based on long product life cycles, defensive strategies and incremental improvements to existing products.  This slow and steady mentality is based on low risk, low competition, making few mistakes and extracting all the value possible out of a product or service.  For a 20th century economy and 20th century management style and 20th century competition, this model makes eminent sense.  But the ground is shifting under our feet, forcing change.  A rigid, smooth and steady process is becoming not a pinnacle, as Paul points out, but, increasingly, simple table stakes.  Of course you need a smooth, steady, efficient production capability.  But you need to marry that to a rough and ready innovation capability, because change, nimbleness, quick response and staying ahead of the customer and market are far more important than they were.

It's hard to be responsive and nimble with a frozen core, dedicated to sustaining a perspective, vision and model that isn't in line with current expectations.  We need middle managers who are capable of creating and sustaining efficient processes and messy, uncertain idea generation.  We need managers who understand the importance of meeting short term financial goals and who understand the importance of developing ideas with longer term payoff.  We need command and control, and explore and expand, divergence and convergence.  Middle managers who can only offer efficiency don't simply slow innovation, they slow change, growth and differentiation.

We need middle managers who understand a balance between efficiency, and the use of valuable inputs and resources, but who also understand that ideas are valuable assets that must be effectively converted into new products, just as existing products must be shepherded to market with the lowest cost and highest value proposition.  This is not an either/or proposition.  As Paul points out, middle managers need new perspectives, new skills and new directions.  We need to unfreeze the middle so the rest of the organization can adapt and change. Only then can innovation become what we need it to be.

So, what's the prescription?  Why the shift from smooth and steady to "rough and ready"?  By rough and ready I mean that organizations must accept a few failures, a process that's less than perfect, which spawns more innovation.  Innovation by its very nature is messy and uncertain - a bit rough around the edges.  It also needs to be "ready".  Ready for new threats, ready to make change proactively, ready and willing when needed.  That means more definition, more training, more process definition.  Innovation doesn't have to be perfect - in fact we can't afford for it to be perfect - but we do need it to be ready and able to perform on a much more consistent basis.  Again, it's a balance between a perfectly tuned operating system cranking out products and services with no variance but failing to adapt to market threats, versus a haphazard and poorly defined innovation process that's never ready and never proactive.  We need the "both/and" approach to create a well honed, efficient operating model for the near term working in conjunction with a nimble, well defined but slightly messy innovation process for the mid-range and longer term.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:51 AM


Blogger Jerrold McGrath said...

Having done my time as a middle manager, I appreciate the important role they play in supporting any shift. All too often, however, there exists a deep-seated fear that an expressed desire for new behaviour is superficial and that jumping in will create more risk than opportunity. Senior leaders play a critical role in creating spaces where middle managers can take courageous action and modelling the way becomes critical to any shift. Thanks for sharing your thoughts around this!

2:43 PM  

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