The Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.
The current theme in much of today’s management writing and speaking focuses on the unparalleled speed and volume of change present in our world.
From the work of Gary Hamel (video: “Reinventing the Technology of Human Accomplishment”) to the excellent new book, “No Ordinary Disruption,” by Dobbs, Manyika and Woetzel at McKinsey, to a variety of other new works, the literature certainly suggests it’s a fascinating and simultaneously frightening time to be responsible for guiding an organization forward into the storm. While we’re all busy learning to navigate and leverage (or understand) Big Data, the real issue is or should be navigating Big Change.
In “No Ordinary Disruption,” the authors offer a powerful, research-backed narrative describing the four primary forces behind the shifting landscape of society and business. These include the massive movement of people to urban centers in much of the under-developed world; the ever-present and unrelenting pace of technological change; the aging of the world’s population and the powerful force of globalization.
The book is fascinating…the evidence compelling and if you’re in charge of one of yesterday’s businesses, you’re to be excused if one of your thoughts is to go back to bed, pull the blankets up tighter and hope to awaken in a period of stability and predictability.
Nice thoughts, but you can kiss that dream of stability and predictability goodbye. Welcome to the rest of your career where nothing looks particularly familiar and what brought you here won’t take you or your firm there.
My one disappointment with much of the current writing about change is that it is short on the “what to do about it,” content, in part because the notion of all this change makes for fascinating reading, and in part, because it’s not clear what exactly we should be doing in many cases.
Navigating the unknown…rethinking or discarding old strategies, offerings and approaches is uncomfortable and difficult work. Yet, it’s work we must undertake. While this is a big topic (worthy of book length), I’ll start small and keep building through the Art of Managing posts. (And yes, I know the words are easy and the actions challenging…but we have to start somewhere.)
5 Ideas to Get You Started on Navigating Big Change:
1. Learn to Look for Opportunity in Uncertainty. The operative word is “learn.” Our natural reaction to the notion of change in our business model is some combination of fear mixed with a drive to look harder for reasons to rationalize maintaining the status quo. The firms and teams I’m working with who are succeeding in rethinking their businesses are those who have embraced the idea that while change may disrupt the successful approaches of the past, it also opens the door to an almost endless set of new opportunities. They are focused on building the management tools, team talent and approaches needed to explore and test for ideas that stick.
2. Think Like an Explorer, Not a Manager. This is a great example where history is a teacher for the future. The polar adventures of Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton and others defined the original Great Age of Exploration and students of these adventures can apply the lessons from success and failure to our own circumstances. In “Great by Choice,” Jim Collins and Martin Hansen offer a detailed description of how Amundsen prepared himself and his team to navigate all manner of unknowns and uncertainties and succeed in great form while his capable adversary, Scott perished along with his entire team. The risk taking was calculated…the mission was crystal clear, the tools and training emphasized adaptability and the risk mitigation planning was exemplary. Study the explorers and look for ideas to apply to your firm’s or team’s business explorations.
3. Recognize that Innovation is the Currency of the Future and It’s More than Product Innovation. Much of our conventional approach to navigating uncertainty in our markets is to focus on investing in our products. The natural tendency of good product managers is to look for ways to make their offerings more relevant to customers. While this will never go out of style, the reality is that the forces of change open up massive opportunities to innovate beyond product. From business models to customer engagement approaches to network/ecosystem innovation, there are a myriad of ways to reach more customers and outflank competitors by innovating beyond the product. A must read for everyone concerned about the future is “Ten Types of Innovation,” where the authors offer up their periodic table of innovation elements and suggest that the most successful firm use multiple elements…beyond just product innovation.
4. Hunt for Ideas and Insights. Ram Charan calls this strengthening your perceptual acuity. Regardless of the label, it’s about teaching your team to go beyond their four walls and challenge themselves to observe and relate changing market, competitor and customer forces to one of the most powerful phrases that should be in your corporate vocabulary, “What this means for us, is… ,” or a variant, “Here’s how we can leverage this change to grow/strengthen our business.” Too many teams are inwardly focused…opining on customer issues and market trends while looking at the same view of the parking lot from the conference room window. One innovative firm sent their team out to a group of customers to observe a day in the life of data…as they tracked data flows around a particular set of processes in the business. The observations on process inefficiencies and challenges led to a significant number of insights for new offerings.
5. Pursue Intelligent Experimentation and Accept Compressed Time Horizons. Navigating uncertainty demands experimentation and experimentation embraces failure on the road to success. Traditionally, we view failure as something to be avoided…and mitigated. That worked fine during a period of time when next year in an industry looked a great deal like last year. Now, managers must learn to embrace the idea of failing forward to find innovations that might stick. Along with establishing conventions for widespread intelligent experimentation, we must shrink our view on acceptable time horizons. Experiments and subsequent strategy or offering development must resemble a series of sprints and our view to the expected marketplace life of our innovations must reduce to reflect the reality of shifting needs or tastes and the likelihood of disruption. This doesn’t preclude us from mining a lucrative vein for a long period of time, but the nature of our world is those veins will be seized upon and exhausted by fast and/or disruptive competitors and their offerings. Speed kills on the highway, but timeliness is of the essence in this new world.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
While far from exhausting this expansive topic of thriving at the speed of change, we’ve defined some starting points well within your control. You own your own attitude about navigating uncertainty and as a senior manager, you have a great deal of power to create the approaches and tools and to guide your talent to become more adept at observing external forces at work and translating those observations and insights into actions. While the essence of most organizations and most teams is to preserve the status quo, this is one case where standing still practically guarantees that you’ll end up as global road kill. Steering into the fog with the right attitude and committed to finding the way forward as you go is a much better alternative.