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You know, for me, the last 18-plus months have felt like a science fiction movie. Hasn’t it? On the one hand, a global pandemic is causing record-setting despair, travel is restricted, the economy goes into shock, people everywhere are either at home or managing some type of cautious return to work activity.
On the other hand, a kind of technological revolution is afoot as the pandemic has served as a catalyst for some rapid technological growth, pushing our world further into the digital sphere than ever before.
A lot has happened. It’s been a very extraordinary time!
Believe it or not, a lot of folks have asked me about a word I use increasingly more often — metamorphosis — which, by the way, means a profound change in form, from one stage in life to the next, as from a caterpillar to a butterfly.
Biological reference aside, metamorphosis is just a partial reason for my inclusion in this column’s title. There is a bit more to the story than caterpillars and butterflies.
Yes, I believe there is no choice other than to embrace change and what we’ve come to call disruption (one of the first words in the word salad). Disruption is a real thing. The question is: How do we respond to it?
To ignore it, I believe, is a form of arrogance. Call it fear of change. Call it risk or threat if you want to, but it’s a coverup for arrogance and possibly blinding overconfidence.
So, in this column, I’ll attempt to untangle it all, as well as provide some thoughts as to how you might navigate in the chaos.
I know you don’t have any binoculars with you right now — but, metaphorically at least, get your binoculars on! Because as we’ll discover, that was one of the major problems for the Titanic — a real-life example of both arrogance and overconfidence.
The Truth About Driving Change and Innovation
It’s probably been two years or more since I wrote an article on that topic (https://bit.ly/3yEnCyp). Over that time, I’ve had many comments on it, particularly as it regarded my perspective on something called transformational leadership. My attempt was to re-enforce the concept of disruptive forces — the disruptive influences — brought about by technology as well as a myriad of other factors impacting how you do business.
The article was a product of my own experience with clients, potential clients, reading some recent books on the topic, attendance at conferences, online webinars, etc.
One of the first things I learned was that leadership and innovation conferences are now a $15 billion industry! Apparently, in my own arrogance, I never thought this discussion would reach the level of intensity that it has.
Now, something I came away with — my impression — was these sessions got people all riled-up, similar to a rah-rah session: thinking differently about their businesses; preparing for the future; and elevating, empowering and inspiring those around them to do innovative, extraordinary things. Now, what’s not to like about that?
What I discovered is what often got left out was who will lead the effort? Do we really have a leader? What’s the actual internal process?
I’m pretty sure most of the people attending these conferences went home, probably enthusiastically, but ultimately were either unable or unwilling to execute the change or a so-called innovation through transformational leadership after all that cheerleading. Why? Because innovation is hard!
Not everyone is or can be a Steve Jobs or a Jeff Bezos or a number of other people who we may admire for their real innovational thinking. If I substituted another term — let’s say, reinvention — somehow it just doesn’t have that same kind of ring or buzz, does it? I bet it would be pretty difficult to come up with even a few names associated with something called reinvention.
However, the reality is that only 2.5 percent of us worldwide are considered “real” innovators. About 13 percent to 14 percent of us are the early adopters — the ones who love trying and testing new things. Pretty much everyone else is a follower. There’s even a category for laggards of one degree or another.
A research team at the University of Toronto surveyed 1,000 American and Canadian knowledge workers (all employed and with college degrees) — surely a different demographic than the worldwide example — to assess their attitudes toward innovation. They were assigned to six different groups and even broken into three age groups (https://bit.ly/3DOCqya).
The groups were presented with the following thesis: Innovation is all about something new — new features, new solutions and new business models. Innovation demands freedom and creativity so you are not caged-in by past and present limitations. Most of the time, the question of “what do we do with the old” falls outside the scope of innovation efforts.
Interestingly, while the drive for innovation among participants varied from 14 percent to 28 percent, only two of the six groups measured actually broke the 25 percent mark.
Willingness to take risks was even more telling: at best, 19 percent were willing to take risks, with some age groups dipping as low as 11 percent.
Remember: This is data for two first-world and most innovative countries. You have to wonder what most everybody else is doing.
I think the study says that most people are not inclined to be innovative. We’re all wired differently. Yet we know, however, that life does not start from scratch. Companies have existing products, assets and people, just like families have histories, traditions and possessions. Can we abandon or ignore those legacies? Most of us just don’t have the luxury to invent in a vacuum.
So, maybe we need to figure out how to create the new while also preserving the best of the old — how to drive change while also assuring continuity.
Now, I happen to come from a different perspective, one of renewal, which, I think, is within most people’s and company’s reach. I suggest that’s precisely what reinvention is all about. Almost anyone can offer a reinvention idea, subject to evaluation and testing — and yes, sometimes you will get some wild ideas. But that’s OK! It’s offset by the strength of the participatory process.
Also, when we talk about innovation, we talk about it as if it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event or moment. Historically, that was enough.
Kodak lived off photographic film for decades. George Eastman, its founder, took his own life. In his final letter, he said, “My work is done — why wait?” Kodak invented digital photography, and we know what happened there. Nokia once owned 50 percent of the smartphone market. Blockbuster? We know what happened there, too. Pure arrogance! And, of course, we only see the disaster that has occurred after it’s happened.
Surely, we can’t take that approach anymore. With today’s speed of change, we need to anticipate.
The Titanic Syndrome
Organizations facing disruption create their downfall through arrogance, excessive attachment to past success, or an inability to recognize and adapt to new and emerging realities. In other words, they had no binoculars; they couldn’t anticipate.
Look what happened to the Titanic!
Its radio communications room was bogged down with transmitting first-class passengers’ messages to their friends and family. Warning messages from other ships in the same travel lane were virtually ignored as a result. The assistant captain was brought aboard at the last moment because of his experience in barriers avoidance. In other words, other ships had no experience with icebergs.
David Blair, one of the second officers, had responsibility for maintaining a supply of binoculars in a secure locker. For some unexplained reason, he was relieved of duty at the first port stop the Titanic made. He neglected to turn over the locker keys to his replacement.
So what’s happened? We’ve created a word salad in our reaction to change — our business ether is littered with new terms. It’s become a word salad of conflated terminology, mostly conceived to get your attention and motivate you to some form of transformation in your business (although frankly, I don’t believe that’s even the right word).
I humbly admit, I’ve probably been as guilty as anyone in perpetuating all this confusing jargon. Honestly, it seems to me that we ying-yang people around with this loose terminology.
The Word Salad
Innovation. Something completely new or different being introduced that changes the marketplace.
If someone asks you to “come up with something innovative,” based on this dictionary definition, your mind will probably freeze! It’s just a natural reaction.
Transformation. A change in form, appearance, nature or character.
Now, I happen to be very tired of this word. In itself, it rarely produces results. It is just another word that describes the result of other actions you may take through other systematic means. A result doesn’t describe any specific pathway.
Continuous improvement. Uninterrupted in time, without cessation.
Continuous improvement, whether incrementally or radically, is involved in the process of reinvention. Just the term itself suggests that. It’s not a one-time event; it’s a respected series of ongoing business improvement actions. I would contend that it has to become more systemic.
Reinvention. To remake or makeover, as in a different form.
It is a practice of embracing change by reimagining and remaking something so that it manifests new and improved attributes, qualities and results.
So why not make reinvention a regular exercise, like taking a shower? Because we all know what happens when you don’t take a shower! To put it nicely, you get “stale.”
To survive today, you consistently — continuously — need to reinvent. It’s not a one-and-done thing! Reinvention through continuous improvement is a structured and deliberate effort to engage in healthy cycles of planned renewal, building on the past to ensure current and future viability.
My Own Lessons
You know, a mentor once said to me many years ago, “Think big, start small, and then scale like hell.” It resonated with me as a perfect recipe for reinvention (that renewal) through continuous improvement.
His other words of wisdom? “Focus on speed over perfection.” “Don’t ‘complexify.’” Now, I’m not even sure that’s a word, but I know it is an enemy of speed.
Lastly, he said, “Always remember that change will go on — with or without you!”
Continuous improvement, renewal, of your processes, technology and people culture are all widely accepted today as the three core elements of change and improvement. It puts transformation in a different context, although it’s really reinvention — because most of us will never achieve real innovation, particularly as I’ve defined it in this space.
Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt, the father of the Theory of Constraints, a form of reinvention/continuous improvement methodology, wrote, “Value is created by removing a significant limitation for the customer in a way that was not possible before.” In other words, identifying and removing a bottleneck. Do that and you’ll have a continuous flow of process — and product!
Now, he never said anything about having to blow up all the bridges behind you. You don’t need to freeze people’s minds searching for that grand innovation.
The advantage gained through any improvement we make, of course, diminishes over time — technology changes, competitors copy you and eventually catch up. So, we must renew, reinvent so that the improvement curve doesn’t ultimately go into a free fall. The recovery statistics are pretty dismal, according to most studies on this topic. Therefore, reinvention, at least every three years, is probably a bare minimum.
We all need healthy cycles of planned renewal. It’s good because consistency ultimately builds a habit, a culture of reinvention. Although you can’t prevent that iceberg from appearing, you can make sure you don’t hit it!
So, invite reinvention into your life and your company. With or without you, this metamorphosis will continue. Will you be future-ready?