But We Had a Plan!

When my younger son, Quinn, played basketball at Salve Regina University, I noticed something: When things went badly during a game, the coach would call a time-out and summon the team to the sideline. As the players assembled, he’d pull an index card out of the breast pocket of his shirt, scan it, put it back in his pocket, and start screaming at the players.

One evening, after another Salve loss, Quinn and I — along with my older son, Sean — were in a pizza joint in Newport. I asked Quinn what the index card and the screaming were all about.

He said, “Coach writes his game plan on the index card. When he’s screaming, he’s telling us we’re not following the plan.”

I looked at Sean, who already was a successful basketball coach: “Do you have a plan for every game? I’ve never seen you look at notes of any kind.”

Sean said, “I scout every team and have a plan for every game. But I can’t know what’s going to happen till the ball goes up.”

There it is.

Long-range planning does not deal with future decisions but with the future of present decisions. (Peter Drucker)

Buckle Up

Especially in business, plans fail — or fail to live up to expectations — for three reasons:

  1. They’re viewed as ends, not as means. As a consequence, there’s no constructive response, no contingency, no Plan B for those occasions on which the ball goes up … but doesn’t come down as expected.
  2. They’re conducted as strategic exercises that never translate into tactical realities. In this regard, they’re like mission statements: Our mission is to be the biggest, best, baddest, and most modest. Really? In a vacuum? What happens when your competitors start getting bigger, better, and badder?
  3. As a result of 1 and 2, they’re never used to run the business:

Le Grand Fromage: We just completed our strategic plan for the year.
Le Petit Laquais.: Nice! How will that affect the company operationally?
Le Grand Fromage: Who?

If the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, the road to obsolescence is paved with moot plans. If the plan doesn’t include change as a variable, if it doesn’t allow for observation and adjustment when the ball goes up, if it doesn’t allow for flexible adaptation to change at the tactical level, and if it’s never put into operation, buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

And it’s not likely to end well.

Science Friction

I recently read a blog post about technology (marketing-automation technology, specifically) and finished a book, Great Sky River, by Gregory Benford. The latter opened my eyes to the former.

In Great Sky River, the last of humanity fights to survive on Snowglade, pursued by murderous mechs, robotic creatures that recycle, retain, and evolve remnants of themselves to prevent their passing from temporal existence. In their soulless yet determined desire to self-sustain, I saw the future.

In one sense, that future is here. We already conduct financial transactions in which no currency changes hands. Computers exchange digital data, debits and credits are processed, records are logged. So, it’s no leap to imagine your computer tracking mine. Mine will know what it wants, when it wants it, and what it wants to pay for it. Yours will sell it to mine via electronic automation. Even though you and I won’t be involved at all, we’ll be tickled pink about the whole, disembodied business.

That’s precisely what the technologists of all stripes want us to believe.

But Great Sky River makes it clear why the mechanized dehumanization of marketing and sales (among other things) can’t succeed long term: We’re human beings. It’s a matter of nature and definition that we’ll never escape, defy, or surrender our tendencies to interact as human beings. Neither will we forego our social sensibilities or our need to engage each other emotionally and to be so engaged, even in commercial contexts. No emotion, no brand. No brand, no sale (except at Walmart).

Imagine a salesman in the not-too-distant future scorning the technological gimcrackery of inbound marketing and its logic-defying, pie-in-the-sky ilk, sneering in the face of Marketing Rockstars, striding boldly into the office of a flesh-and-blood prospect, and saying, against all prevailing wisdom, popular voodoo, do-it-yourself fantasies, and self-service nonsense:

“Hi. What do you need?”

Then imagine the salesman having this telepathic exchange with his boss through the chips in their heads:

Boss: Good God, Man! What have you done?
Salesman: I made a sale.
Boss: But how … the database … connectivity … technology …?
Salesman: I asked him what he needed.
Boss: But you’ve nullified the machines!

Like the mechs in Great Sky River, inbound marketing does what every techno-utopian scheme does: It precludes humanity. It must. If Utopia were conducive to the vagaries of human nature, we’d have achieved it by now. Inbound marketing is just another siren song, seducing us with the promise of more sales with less work in less time with fewer people. We chase that siren with the feverish derangement of Ulysses’ mutinous men, overthrowing objectives and outcomes in the pursuit of output: leads, numbers, statistics, trends, patterns, scoring, behavior — more, more, more!

Innovation is certainly necessary. But tails wag dogs. Horses precede carts. And in the search for binary connections — “Analyze the data!” — we ignore the humanity that binds us all. In the process, we elevate Henry David Thoreau to the status of prophet:

But lo! men have become the tools of their tools.

Thoreau and Benford would have gotten along famously.

Think About the Future

There are a number of memorable lines in the 1989 Tim Burton/Michael Keaton film, Batman, many of them delivered by Jack Nicholson as The Joker. Here are just a few:

  • “You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?”
  • “Batman … Batman … Can somebody tell me what kind of a world we live in, where a man dressed up as a *bat* gets all of my press? This town needs an enema!”
  • “I’ve been dead once already. It’s very liberating. You should think of it as, uh … therapy.”
  • “And where is the Batman? HE’S AT HOME WASHING HIS TIGHTS!”

But one of The Joker’s lines — “Think about the future” — is particularly pertinent to innovation.

Don’t Look Back

When contemplating innovation initiatives, companies often take stock of their core competencies. And where do they look to find those competencies? In the past. That’s where they live. In that regard, core competencies are like best practices: We can know what our core competencies and our best practices were yesterday. We can know what they are today. But we can’t know what they’ll be tomorrow — unless we’re systemically and systematically creating them.

Will you be able to compete tomorrow with the products and services you offered yesterday? Will you be able to thrive on the things you’ll have to do tomorrow if you do those things the way you did them yesterday? Are you prepared enough, resourceful enough, creative enough, open-minded enough, and resilient enough to manage uncertainty? Isn’t uncertainty one of the very few things we can be certain about?

And all those questions invite another one: Shouldn’t innovation be one of your core, corporate competencies?

Survey Says …

The fact is making innovation a core, corporate competency is a competitive necessity. It’s become something of a cliché to think or say, “If I don’t do it, someone else will.” It’s become something of a cliché because it’s increasingly true. If you don’t think it’s true, chances are you’re already behind to some degree. On the other hand, if you’re a fan of Batman (if not, why not?), you know it’s important to think about the future (fast forward to 00:57). If you don’t, the consequences might not be as dire as they were for Lieutenant Eckhart. But they won’t be terribly pleasant.

Don’t run that risk.

Innovation is Just Good Business

There are countless examples of solidly established companies that reinvented themselves. They developed successful new products or business models. Most times, they were seeking new ways to solve customer problems. Many times, their reinventions were seemingly unnecessary. Many of these companies held enviable industry positions with cash-cow products or services. Some examples are:

  • Corning Glass – Evolved from producing glass for light bulbs, to producing Pyrex cookware, to producing optical fiber for telecommunications, to producing Gorilla Glass for cell phone screens.
  • Netflix – Pivoted from delivering DVDs via US Mail to offering streaming movies.
  • IBM – Migrated from producing computer hardware to offering business and technical consulting services.
  • Microsoft – Shifted from selling software licenses to offering software subscriptions.
  • Hilti – Changed from producing and selling high-end construction tools to leasing construction equipment to contractors.
  • Dow Corning – Adjusted from producing high-cost customized silicone products to developing commoditized silicone products.
  • Apple – Advanced from producing personal computers to producing handheld devices to offering streaming music, movies, and TV programming.

In hindsight, these innovations are easy to recognize as winners. But at the time they were being developed, they seemed to threaten the successful business models or products from which they evolved.

Why did the companies that innovated in those ways do it? They did it because they’re resilient. And resilient companies understand constant innovation is necessary to their survival. They don’t innovate because they feel threatened. They innovate to preclude the possibility that they will be threatened. They innovate to make sure they won’t be threatened.

Foresight seems to be built into their DNA. Since their markets, their suppliers, their competitors, their customers, and technologies are constantly changing, those companies recognize they have to keep changing, too. They’re resilient because they change in ways that continue to provide value to they customers. The fact that their changes also create new markets and new customers doesn’t hurt, either.

Whether you call what those companies do reinvention, innovation, change, evolution, or just good business, it’s required for resilience.

That’s why they’re all still here.

The Coachable Innovator: Part Three

In the second post in this series, I argued that one person with vision, with purpose and intention, with a concrete plan and unshakeable resolve, and with a disciplined framework in which to bring that plan to fruition could consistently innovate. While EinFrame certainly is a framework, I wasn’t convinced I had the vision, the purpose and intention, the concrete plan, or the unshakeable resolve to actually innovate. But then I remembered an incident from my working past.

From the time I was 21 until I was 23, I drove a truck for a construction company that specialized in suspended ceilings. My responsibilities were to deliver materials and scaffolding to jobs as they were beginning and to pick up leftover materials and the scaffolding when the jobs were finished.

One day, I was sent to pick up stuff from a supermarket that had been renovated. In addition to installing new ceilings (and other things), the supermarket had replaced its skate wheel conveyor system with a power belt conveyor system. The sections of the skate wheel system were still there, ready to be junked. I immediately realized two things: First, the bundles of ceiling tiles I had to schlep still weighed 63 pounds apiece. Second, I still believed in gravity. I used both of those realizations to innovate.

Let it Roll

The invention of the wheel is most often credited to Ahmet (Gus) Öztürk, who lived in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Copper Age. But some historians credit Mrs. Öztürk, who, in response to Ahmet’s chronic laziness, used to tell him to get his ass rolling. While Gus beat me to the invention of the wheel by some 5,000 to 6,000 years or so, I nevertheless believed I could still come up some new and novel uses for the wheel, especially if a whole bunch of wheels were aligned in a track.

I loaded the sections of the skate wheel conveyor system on my truck, along with everything else I had to pick up. When I got back to the warehouse and lifted the overhead door of my truck, my boss, Bob, happened to be standing there. He saw the skate wheel sections.

“What are you going to do with those things?” Bob asked.

“Wrong question,” I said. “The right question is, ‘What aren’t you going to do with those things?’”

“Okay,” Bob said. “What aren’t you going to do with those things?”

“I’m not going to bust a gut humping those 63-pound bundles of ceiling tiles anymore.”

“Wow. That’s a great idea,” Bob said with what sounded like admiration. “Gus would be proud of you.”

“Aw, shucks,” I said, blushing.

Close But No Cigar

Okay. Maybe using that skate wheel conveyor to unload bundles of ceiling panels didn’t necessarily constitute innovation. But as my father loved to say, “It’s close enough for government work.” The point is that if you’re constantly creating new things — or if you’re constantly creating new uses for existing things — you’re getting closer to innovation than most folks ever get.

In my case, I had the vision, the purpose, the intention, and the unshakeable resolve to avoid having to lug those ceiling panels. I might not have had the concrete plan until I saw those conveyor sections. But four out of five ain’t bad.

Bob and Gus were proud. And that was enough for me.

Take the Cult Out of Culture

The time I spent on the Board of Directors and as interim Executive Director of Literacy Volunteers Valley Shore taught me this abidingly valuable lesson: Every stereotype breaks down at the level of the individual.

I was reminded of that lesson recently while watching a video on LinkedIn in which a woman said, “I evaluate companies’ cultures.” That’s the rough equivalent of saying, “I evaluate the species of each tree by looking at the forest.”

Culture is not a cause. It’s an effect. It’s a symptom, a result. It’s the product of treating individuals with respect, of giving them senses of belonging, of encouraging their participation, of giving them responsibility and the commensurate decision-making authority. By the same token, it’s not a free-for-all.

When In Doubt, Follow Directions

Along with, “Make yourself useful,” the statement in the subhead above was one of my father’s most frequently used expressions. I thought of it when I saw a promotion for a a leadership webinar. It began with this question:

Does the idea of confronting an insubordinate worker make you nervous?

What? My first thought was, “No. The idea of being confronted should make the insubordinate worker nervous.” And I wanted to ask these questions of the person conducting the webinar; although, I didn’t because I would likely have been perceived to be offensive or antagonistic:

  • Does the organization have policies and procedures?
  • Were they given to the insubordinate worker?
  • Can the insubordinate worker read?
  • Is there one set of rules for everyone?

Does that make me a hard-ass? No. Does it mean I’m unwilling to consider extenuating circumstances or to treat every person as an individual? No. Does it mean I (or anyone else) should be afraid to approach a person who’s clearly failed to heed the established rules? No.

Draw the Line

Organizations that have leaders who make rules inclusively and enforce them judiciously have cultures of accountability. Organizations that have leaders who make rules arbitrarily and enforce them punitively are cults. Organizations that have leaders who make no rules at all are failures. The lines between them must be drawn with equal parts care and conscientiousness.

How about if we try communicating with people openly, drawing behavioral lines clearly, and:

  • Enabling and encouraging everyone to contribute ideas, systemically and systematically, regardless of position or title?
  • Evaluating and qualifying all of those ideas objectively by the same set of criteria?
  • Rewarding those whose ideas qualify to be brought to market, regardless of position or title?
  • Taking the cult out of culture and letting every individual exhibit what Henry Miller called the miracle of personality?

Now that would be innovative.

Running for Daylight

A young woman, a former student from Stanford University, just 19 years old at the time, founded a company that will become part of corporate-scandal lore alongside Enron, Madoff Investment Securities, Lehman Brothers, WeWork, Purdue Pharma, and Facebook. That company is Theranos. As if to prove the point, Inc. recently published this article — “Two Insights to Prevent Your Company from Unknowingly Becoming Another Theranos” — which says this, in part:

Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos … was recently convicted of four federal charges of wire fraud for exaggerating to investors what her blood testing company’s machines could do, how widely those machines were being used, and how much money the company could earn. She created a culture of fear and lying. And that’s a shame. Here’s how to prevent your company from unknowingly becoming another Theranos.

Those two insights?

  1. Thank your employees for giving you bad news.

  2. Teach your employees to experiment without fear of failure.

It’s profoundly sad that those two things need to be stated. It’s also completely self-defeating if they’re not already practiced in your business. It’s sad because companies in which employees are fearful of sharing bad news have created environments in which responsibility is assigned but authority is not granted. It’s self-defeating because if employees can’t experiment without fear of failure, the message being sent is this: “Try whatever you want — but don’t fail. And whatever you do, don’t learn.”

Unnecessary Roughness

Given the fact that Elizabeth Holmes was perfectly capable of getting herself in more than enough trouble all by herself (she’s looking at a potential 80 years in the can), piling on is completely uncalled for. But this is the proverbial teachable moment. And the lessons are as simple as they are self-evident:

  • Make transparency an inviolable element of your culture. People who know they’re being leveled with always exceed expectations.
  • Encourage experimentation. Nothing new was ever developed or created by people who were penalized for trying.
  • Make every failure a learning opportunity to be carried into the next experiment. Think of it as a combination of risk management and reward.

Every failure is an investment in the education of the person who made it. As long as you’re managing the risk and cost of every failure — and as long as you’re learning from and recording the history of each one — every step back will likely yield at least two steps forward. And as long as you’re being completely transparent — as long as you’re encouraging your people to be equally transparent — you’ll be creating a very bright future.

No transparency, no daylight.

Lead People, Manage Processes … What About Innovation?

We still struggle to understand whether innovation is process, people, mindset, or some combination of all of those.

We know innovation is a lot about exploratory action and leadership that empowers action. There’s still room for managing innovation and risk, particularly in corporate settings. There’s also a lot written about leadership vs. management — and leading vs. managing people, processes, and businesses. Some of that, when viewed through the lens of innovation, looks like this:

Innovators – Solve complex problems
Innovation Managers – Control complexity in development

Innovation Leaders – Transform companies, industries, and ecosystems

Innovators – Develop new products and services
Innovation Managers – Deliver to the roadmap
Innovation Leaders – Create vision, strategy, and roadmap

Innovators – Create the future they conceive
Innovation Managers – Predict the future based on trends
Innovation Leaders – Prepare for the unpredictable future

Innovators – Deploy their expertise to resolve situations
Innovation Managers – Organize, staff, and manage resources
Innovation Leaders – Align expertise and offerings with markets

Innovators – Create new outcomes
Innovation Managers – Prevent negative outcomes
Innovation Leaders – Promote positive outcomes

Innovators – Be creative and explore
Innovation Managers – Control creativity and experimentation
Innovation Leaders – Empower people to experiment and learn

Innovators – Develop their expertise
Innovation Managers – Assess the expertise and fill the gaps
Innovation Leaders – Proactively fill gaps with the required expertise

Innovators – Build relationships of value
Innovation Managers – Restructure to accomplish goals
Innovation Leaders – Create relationships to be highly effective

Innovators – Do it the way they know best
Innovation Managers – Do it the right way
Innovation Leaders – Do the right things

Innovators – Defend their viewpoint
Innovation Managers – Sell solutions to get everyone on board
Innovation Leaders – Acknowledge and surface healthy conflict

Innovators – Collaborate, learn, and produce
Innovation Managers – Motivate but control collaborative practices
Innovation Leaders – Inspire collaboration and learning

Innovators – Strive for excellence
Innovation Managers – Maintain a Center of Excellence
Innovation Leaders – Build a Network of Excellence

Innovators – Want to feel important
Innovation Managers – Want to look important
Innovation Leaders – Make others feel important

Innovators – Compete and collaborate as required
Innovation Managers – Create competitive strategies to win
Innovation Leaders – Create collaborative strategies for win-win

Innovators – Focus on the Innovation Value Chain
Innovation Managers – Focus on the Innovation Framework
Innovation Leaders – Focus on the Innovation Purpose and Mindset

An innovation-focused organization needs all three roles — leaders, managers, and innovators. I emphasize the term role, not title. I’ve seen CTOs actively engaged in technical discussions. I’ve seen engineers creating a vision and collaborating with competitors for a win-win.

A successfully innovative organization allows a bit of all three roles across all of its staff members – from technicians to the C-suite. Through working meetings and casual chats, in person or virtual, that crossover promotes sound teamwork, transparency, integrity, and internal empathy — all of which are required to be adaptive and agile.

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