Wednesday, February 08, 2012

If we had a blank slate

As you may have noticed, Paul Hobcraft and I have been interacting on the subject of "frozen" middle managers and their impact on innovation. No, they aren't cold, they are frozen in their thinking and perspectives.  The pressures of efficiency and short term profitability have frozen their visions, actions and incentives.  As we all know, middle managers are the folks who get things done - using resources efficiently and acting as a bridge between executives (who create vision and direction) and staff (who implement the plans to achieve the goals).  If the middle is frozen, it becomes difficult for the rest of the organization to move, regardless of how much they want to move.

In some discussions online Paul received this bit of feedback about the "Frozen" middle managers:
The cavalry is not coming. It is the responsibility of every manager to be innovative and grow the business. Very difficult to do when everyone is working 12 hour days.
So what are you going to stop doing to make room to run your innovation experiments.
This represents what I call the zero sum thinking approach, and unfortunately also represents reality in many companies.  The argument here is that the middle managers have no time for innovation.  If innovation is (or must be) introduced, what is the executive team going to de-emphasize or remove from its expectations?

There's a question I often like to ask at this point in the conversation to reframe the debate.  That question is:
If you were starting fresh in this market today, what would your offerings look like?
Yes, the "blank slate" "start from scratch" approach.  What this approach allows us to do, if even just for a moment, is to shift perspectives.  There are usually three insights:
  1. What I'd stop doing - every business is supporting products or initiatives that don't have any real value, and the investments in those activities crowd out other useful activities.
  2. What I'd do more of - every business should rebalance its portfolio and chose where to place emphasis
  3. What I'd do that's new - and here's where we move from defense into offense.  Doing more of the same, only faster and with fewer resources, is competing in the "red ocean".  Could we step back and find new solutions, new offerings, new markets that allow us to open up a "blue ocean"?
This mental exercise is meant to explore what's really valuable and important.  Sure, everyone has more work than they can possibly complete, and the pressure is on to do more with less, and accomplish all the important goals.  The "blank slate" review, which every management team, every product team, every business line should do at least twice a year, is meant to compare what you are spending time and valuable resources on, and ask if these are the BEST uses of time, focus and resources.  If not, then let's free up time and availability for innovation.

What are we going to stop doing to make room for innovation?  The question almost answers itself if you take a blank slate approach.  What products, services and business models are outdated or require more in investment and time than they return?  What would you do if you could start from scratch?  Even if you can't start from scratch, realize that other entrants and disrupters are doing exactly that.  It's better to obsolete your own products and services intentionally than have others do it for you as a surprise.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:06 AM


Blogger Unknown said...

I think that the 'blow it up' approach is a great mental activity to look at structures and processes in new ways. What is particularly interesting is the different judgments we make about the relative value of activities or products and the how the process can make tacit assumptions explicit (and therefore open to examination)

6:43 PM  

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