Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Success results from deeper engagement and more holistic thinking

 I've been a consultant most of my working life, doing all kinds of consulting - starting out in software development, moving on to process improvement, data analytics, new product development and strategy.  To paraphrase an old saying, all consulting is good, and some of it is useful.

I want to talk today about a point I keep seeing get repeated in many of my strategy and innovation customers, a problem that should be easy to solve but it isn't.  That is the problem of solving for symptoms instead of solving for root causes.  Or, conversely, solving for a specific problem when the real solution needs to be much more holistic.

Why do we miss the trees?

In the first instance, we stand in front of a forest, admiring the scenery, but completely miss the individual trees.  We are so taken by the enormity and complexity of the opportunity that it can be hard to see the component parts.  Some of those components may be working really well, while others aren't working so well or are failing. It can be hard to see which components aren't working well or failing when all you do is see the big picture.  It's entirely possible that the whole forest looks healthy, while many individual trees are sick or dying.  While the entirety is beautiful, getting into the weeds to look at selected individual components is vital.  Unfortunately for many executives, this takes time and could uncover issues that they aren't familiar with, or simply don't want to know about.

Zeroing in on a problem

A lot of times I see clients anxious to fix what seems to be an important problem, not realizing that it is a component of a larger whole.  I'm reminded of the old song about the thigh bone and how it is connected to the hip bone, and so forth.  It turns out that the skeleton, even when attached correctly, with all the bones in the right place, can't stand up without ligaments and tendons and muscles.  Even if I correct a problem with one of the thigh bones, if the rest of the machine isn't working correctly, I've solved a point problem but haven't solved the holistic problem.

The ability to identify a problem is valuable, the ability to understand how that problem or issue affects the entire whole is also really important.  Fixing the problem without considering what knock-on effects a discrete solution creates is almost worse than ignoring the problem at all.

Two dramatic but different errors

The first problem, the forest and trees problem, comes from remaining too abstracted from your business and its needs.  Flying along at 30,000 feet, it can seem like everything is working pretty well, while some people have their feet up on the desk and others are killing themselves to meet client expectations.  Problems can take root throughout the organization but it can still deliver a reasonably good quality product on time due to heroic actions by individuals.  The operations work, but they are not sustainable over time, and the machine will break down.

The second problem is a blinkering problem - that is, it is easy to find a problem and isolate it, but more difficult to consider how the small problem as you've chosen to frame it interacts and infects other parts of the business.  For example, you could be deciding to implement a new computer system to support machine learning.  If you rush out to acquire new machine learning algorithms, it can feel like the job is 80% done.  Most people who know anything about data can tell you that cleaning and normalizing the data, getting it ready to be used in machine learning, can take months.  But that isn't fun and seems like drudgery, so it gets overlooked so someone can claim that the company has machine learning algorithms.  Just don't look too close at the output.

Not an intelligence gap

Smart people in smart businesses make these two mistakes all the time.  This isn't an error of intelligence, its an error of not allocating the appropriate time to deeply understand the opportunity or problem, or an error of wanting to solve easy challenges.  Identifying the weak trees in a big forest is not something you can do with a snap of the fingers, but culling weak trees makes the entire forest healthier.  Likewise, taking time to be more holistic when you frame problems to solve may expand the scope or timeframe to resolution, but it makes the solution better.

This is where an overemphasis on time and a lack of emphasis on management engagement has led us - not seeing the problems because we are too abstracted (or distracted) or narrowing in to solve a small portion of a larger problem, because we cannot be bothered with actually thinking through the solution.

Time and engagement are the enemy, and only careful discernment and holistic thinking can solve these challenges.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:51 AM 0 comments

Thursday, September 08, 2022

When innovation is most important

 I don't know why, but I am a huge fan of Monty Python.  Perhaps my favorite film of theirs is the Search for the Holy Grail.  If you've never seen it, take a few minutes to watch it now.  I'll wait.

Some of my favorite parts are the over-the-top instances in the film where, for instance, the Black Knight has his arm cut off but insists on fighting. He claims "it's only a flesh wound".  Or, perhaps, when the people collecting dead bodies come to collect an older gentleman, he insists that he's "not dead yet" and feeling better.  The movie is funny, silly and makes a point with its constant hammering of the inane and obvious points it wants to make.

Sometimes, in writing about innovation, I feel like Eric Idle or John Cleese, not because I am a great comedian or an actor, but I feel I need to make a point ad infinitum.  That is, make the same point over and over again, because for some reason the concepts and reality about innovation don't seem to stick. Therefore, we need to return to them again and again, hoping against hope that repetition will make them seem more realistic.  

What are the important concepts about innovation that we need to constantly revisit?  Well, they are legion, but here are a few:

  • Innovation is vital for a company's growth and differentiation
  • Innovation is not magic - it is a process that can be learned and implemented
  • Innovation requires risk and creates uncertainty
  • Not everyone is great at innovation
There are plenty more truths where those came from, but I only have a few minutes to write this post so I won't bore you with all the things you should know.  There is one other topic I do want to address today, and that is this:  like having a baby, there is no perfect time for innovation, but there are opportunities almost all the time.

When is innovation important?

If you have to ask this question, then you might want to check how fully you believe in the power and change that innovation can deliver.  Innovation is important when a company has a commanding lead and wants to stay ahead of its competition.  Innovation is important in a dog fight with competitors, when you've decided that matching feature for feature leads only to declining prices and margins.  Innovation is important when your firm is a new contender, entering an established market, seeking to gain traction and differentiation.

Innovation is important and valuable when you want to improve an existing product or process.  Innovation is important when you want to create new relationships with customers or to rethink a business model.

The better question, quite frankly, should be:  is there a time when my company should avoid innovation?  I thought long and hard about this question, and you won't be surprised to learn that I struggled to think about a situation where innovation would not contribute to good strategy or good thought, even if innovation is not the final answer.  For example:

A company could argue that innovation isn't necessary when margins are at risk and costs need to be eliminated.  However, I've seen companies use innovative thinking to shift the question or to rework processes and staffing models.

A company could argue that in the midst of an acquisition or merger that innovation isn't necessary, but I can imagine rethinking or revising business models, products or customer service in the middle of a merger to create better products and services.

Innovation deserts

If we agree that there are a few times when innovation is not necessary (I am still struggling with that possibility, but I'll allow it is possible) then we ought to ask:  If there are so few instances when it is not useful or necessary, why is it so rarely applied?  Why do we treat innovation like a fire alarm, stuck behind the "break glass in case of emergency" installation on the wall?

It's because we treat innovation as a black art, rather than a learnable and teachable capability, that we are so suspicious of its power.  If executives and corporate team members simply took the time to understand what innovation is, and how to do it effectively, I think we'd see a lot more innovation and in a lot more circumstances.  As it is, we act as if only a few people can innovate, and they are reading from secret tomes that the rest of us cannot understand.  Or, we act as if innovation is so uncertain and so risky that to attempt it is to put the company at risk.

There's no time like the present

In reality, there's no better time to innovate than right now.  If you are in a company that is trying to grow, trying to differentiate its products or services, trying to increase profits or simply change its business model or improve customer experience, you should be innovating.  And if you aren't doing any of the things I listed, then your company is slowly dying, and until you decide to thrive, innovation isn't going to help.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 12:37 PM 0 comments