The pace of change in the modern world is something that has been widely reported on in recent years. Patent records reveal that the majority of innovations today and what’s known as recombinative. In other words, they take something that works in one area and apply it in another. What’s more, this phenomenon is increasing, and it’s doing so due to the speed with which information flows throughout our society.
This leads to many new ideas being born by companies that are scarcely out of nappies, leaving those with proud and illustrious histories floundering to keep up. We also know that many of these established companies are unhappy with the time it takes them to get new products or services to market, and that this route to market has not improved in recent years.
Necessity is the mother of invention
As with much in life, necessity is the mother of invention, and for many start-ups they lack the resources to make the perfect product. Think about it. Money is usually tight, so there’s a big incentive to start earning as soon as possible (or at least get to market to attractive investment). You’re also often racing against time in case a competitor gazumps you, so being first to market is really important. These might be considered as constraints, but they’ve actually underpinned much of the agile development movement that is incredibly popular today.
The thing is, those constraints often don’t apply in a big company. Innovation usually occurs outside of the core, cash cow side of the business, so cash-flow isn’t really that much of an issue as income is coming from elsewhere. Likewise, time to market is less of a concern as the main income is coming from elsewhere (are you spotting a trend?). In my experience, this often leads to projects running over time, over budget and failing to deliver on expectations.
The pursuit of perfection
Central to the agile approach mentioned earlier is the so called Minimum Viable Product (MVP). As with so many things, whilst the general idea is a good one, the implementation of it can veer from the great to the awful. I’m sure we’ve all been involved in projects where the launch has just been plain bad. It’s been rushed out before it’s in anyway ready and falls so far short of expectations that it generally sinks without trace. Adding a trendy label to what you’ve just done isn’t going to make it better.
Alternatively, taking an overly perfectionist approach is not great either, and the traditional waterfall method of product development has largely been discredited due to the difficulties it presents in adapting to a changing marketplace. This can result in a vicious cycle of perpetual tinkering with the product (behind the scenes of course), with something always needing to be fixed before it’s ready to see the whites of a customer’s eyes, which is ironic really, as beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder, and the only true judge of the product’s value is the customer themselves.
When speaking with executives in these situations, I often make a friendly bet with them. My contention is that customers will do things that you haven’t predicted. To date it’s been as close to a sure thing as I’ve experienced in my professional life.
Closing the knowing-doing gap
Of course, I’m not going to sit here and pretend that this is easy, and it’s fairly simple to know what the right course of action is, but often considerably harder to act on it. Leadership plays a crucial role in closing that knowing-doing gap, but leaders aren’t superheroes and we can’t expect them to do everything on their own. There are some important steps they can take to make a difference however.
- Establish what good looks like for your new proposition. This is a bit like an MVP but without the baggage attached to the phrase. What are you as a team, and as an organisation prepared to go live with?
- What are the principles you wish to abide by? These will guide you in the design of the new proposition. For instance, you might go with ‘sooner rather than perfect’ or ‘the art of the possible’. These will help your team appreciate that the project doesn’t end, but rather it begins when you launch.
To give you an example of how this might look in practice, consider the case of a company that was looking to launch a new proposition in a new territory. Their core principle was…
“to deliver a solution for XYZ country. Only once this is satisfied will we consider if parts of the solution could be applied to our UK business and other European countries”.
This simple statement helped to focus attention on the right things, and ensure that the launch in this initial territory was a success. It also helped ensure the team focused on the initial job at hand and didn’t get giddy with thoughts of wider European opportunities.
Get these core principles right and it feeds directly into the culture, mindset and therefore the behaviours of the team tasked with implementing the change.
Of course, a central aspect of getting this culture of innovation right is to ensure that your team are confident to give and receive feedback so that you can make the adaptations to your proposition. This is far from guaranteed, and there are a number of ways for decisions to be distorted in an organisation. See how many of the following you recognise from your own work:
- Silence as acceptance – I often hear this in design meetings or when documents are issued for sign – off/approval. For me this thinking can lead to a mindset of abdication of responsibility – with people being so busy it’s easy for someone to come back at a later date and say “I didn’t agree that” and “I didn’t approve that”.
- Opinions versus decisions – having people engaged and passionate about the project is something every change leader wants but sometimes this can go too far and engaged people have lots of opinions which can cloud decision making, particularly when people have opinions which are outside the scope of the personal role.
- Deferring decisions – the constant need for more information, particularly more detail, can often slow progress significantly. Often this is caused by the reliance of people on facts to make a decision rather than being prepared to make a judgement on the right thing to do.
- Decisions by process – papers get prepared for governance meetings , they pass through the various forums but are they actually being approved or is it assumed approval just by virtue of papers passing through the process?
All of these are examples I’ve personally seen in my work with organisations, and sadly they’re examples that I see all too frequently, and all play their part in slowing change.
Organisations live and die by the decisions they make, so as a change leader you will need to do all you can to create the right decision making culture. This might involve ensuring that the right data is available, to the right people, at the right time, to support good decisions. It might involve ensuring that people are emboldened and supported to make decisions, even if the decision proves to be wrong and corrective action is required. Sitting on your hands and not making key decisions is nearly always worse. You want people to feel bold enough to speak up and make decisions.