By Nick Warren, Principal Consultant, Performance Unlimited
With urgent deadlines, working across different continents, our team at our leadership consulting business, Performance Unlimited, just hadn’t met regularly enough last year. Finally, when we did catch up to share stories and compare notes, we discovered some startling evidence for leaders about what is now required as the world hauls itself out of the worst recession for 60 years.
Undoing the knot
For organisations in 2010, the old adage, “Do what you have always done, and you’ll get what you have always got” could not be more true.
In 333BC, while crossing Asia, Alexander the Great heard the legend of the Gordian Knot. A prophecy stated that whoever was able to untie the complicated knot would become the king of Asia. The story intrigued Alexander. He studied the knot, making some futile attempts to find the rope ends. Then he decided to make up his own rules and taking out his sword, sliced the knot in half. Legend has it that from that day Asia was fated to be Alexander’s.
So many times in a short life, Alexander excelled in doing differently. With courage and conviction he questioned traditions, changed the rules and set out a breathtaking vision of a new world order. Companies need to create a culture of innovation, disrupt the status quo and harness the creativity that exists but is so often untapped in their workforce.
Crazy dancing guy
Doing differently is not a solo or one-time event. Doing differently requires followers. Creativity is a team sport and innovation needs to be infectious.
If you are not one of the three million people who have seen the Sasquatch Music Festival video clip, it starts with a guy dancing by himself in a kind of crazy way. Soon another crazy dancing guy joins and then another. Those sitting around them look a little embarrassed, but then a few more people join and within a few minutes the field is alive with hundreds of people dancing.
What’s remarkable is that while the rest of the crowd just sat and watched, the crazy dancing guy kept dancing and soon hundreds of other spectators wanted to be part of what he was doing. Around the world, from multinational companies to small businesses, leaders right now need to do what the crazy dancing guy did: to do differently, to stand out from the crowd but, critically, to inspire and to enthuse others to want to join in.
I recently visited the HR director of a global FMCG business. There was something important on his mind — a major project that he was leading wasn’t delivering results. In 2008, he had launched an important innovation initiative, training leaders, designing new processes and investing heavily in new technology. “Last week I went to visit a plant. I had lunch with the plant manager and his team,” he said. “These were good people, these are the people that our company depends upon and we are still tying them in knots. My initiative was to make a difference, I am here to make a difference but nothing has changed, not really.”
Despite investing in restructuring and new processes and technology, the project had not changed the systemic thinking and belief of the organisation. In other words, the habits hadn’t changed and the old ways remained (“Do what you’ve always done ...”). In creating a culture of innovation, there is no shortcut. Our role as leaders is to help others think differently and “get outside their box” and to shift and align the habits of the organisation.
Out of the cold
In June 2007, the same week that Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, Business Week published the article ‘At 3M, A Struggle between Efficiency and Creativity’. In the 90s, 3M was heralded as the Invention Machine but by 2001 shareholder value was shrinking. In response, out went innovation and in came quality management and profits started to climb again. By 2005, as 3M’s innovation pipeline dried up so did sales and, after another executive shake up, innovation was back in vogue.
Since this article was published, balancing innovation and efficiency has become yet more business critical. Ken Chennault at American Express and Steve Jobs at Apple argue that recession is the time for innovation but, for most organisations, with an unrelenting focus on costs, efficiency and risk, innovation is out in the cold. For 3M, relegating innovation had a dramatic impact on long-term profitability and shareholder value. Our own experience over the last two decades would echo the views of Chennault and Jobs and the experience of 3M. Tomorrow’s leading companies will be those that, of course, drive efficiencies and cost discipline but they will also be those that dare to do differently; those who set a breathtaking vision, inspire innovation and harness creativity.
Nick Warren is principal consultant at leadership consulting business Performance Unlimited. Contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org
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