Thursday, 21 October 2010

Green Door and Elephants

“Green Door" is a 1956 song whose lyrics describe a green door, behind which "a happy crowd" play piano, smoke and "laugh a lot", from which the singer is excluded.

We are probably aware of the social phenomenon in organisations and teams when people refuse to talk about the “Elephant-In-The-Room” or the big issue that needs to be resolved, avoidance of which helps to maintain an artificial social stability as people perform intellectual and linguistic feats of avoidance in order not to begin the dangerous process of facing current reality and questioning the legitimacy of power and existing Relational Capital whose leadership is leading down an obvious path to failure.

I want to propose a technique “ITR – In-The-Room” for innovators who are trying implement successful improvement strategies, based upon recent experiences of working with innovation practitioners to construct generic Practice Maps of what is actually required to be successful in their roles and what really works.

I recently used the Baton Passing technique to facilitate the construction of a Practice Map based on current experience from over 20 organisations and over 30 practitioners, which was revisited and drastically rewritten at a subsequent session. Whilst the structure of the knowledge was interesting and valuable, populating what turned out to be a 5-Step generic process model, each step breaking down into Lesson Themes, each supported by individual Lessons using a robust structured template, I noticed 2 phenomena which exposed emergent Elephants-In-The-Room for innovation practitioners.

1. Once the Practice Map existed, it became possible for practitioners to ask each other very specific questions: in other words, it became possible for them to identify the shape and size of the unknowns (or new Elephants) that they need to convert into personal knowledge for use in order to survive.

2. There was a giant but invisible issue that ran across and through the Practice Map: an issue that I call “ITR”.

It was only once we got to a level of “granularity” that came from being able to see a practical Practice Map, that a major conversational theme emerged (perhaps the biggest Elephant-In-The-Room for people trying to do their kind of job): their political marginality as mere instruments and not participants in delivering new value.

It became clear that their biggest problem was convincing the Board (or the body that inhabits “The Room” where the real decisions get made) that they were delivering enough value or savings to justify their continued existence. But this was difficult if you couldn’t access the meeting or “Room” where the real strategy (not just the metrics or broad goals) was discussed, because your political marginality made it difficult to acquire Relational Capital with the Board members to let you enter this “Room”.
This is similar to the experience of Quality Directors in R&D organisations, where they realise that unless they can get into the high-level strategy meetings, their lives will be dedicated to tidying up wasteful strategies that they could have influenced at birth and focused on delivering value.

At the moment, ITR has 3 key stages:
A. How to Find and Understand The Room (where is it, what’s in it: locating it, finding out who’s in it, what do they care about/ their agenda, and who could be persuaded to introduce you?)
B. How to Fit in The Room (constructing your activity to meet their agenda, using their language to demonstrate that you are a key player in delivering their goals and bonuses, getting yourself invited)
C. How to Enter The Room and Get Invited Back (identifying players who you can help, working with them 1:1 outside The Room; learning about the ongoing agenda and making contact with the agenda-holder to invite you back again).

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Lessons for Innovation Practitioners (3): C. Get Close to the Strategy, Help them to Know What they Really Want, and the Linguistic Torpedo

One of the problems of being a change specialist lies in the temptation of going out and harvesting the Low-Hanging-Fruit. This appears to be a good thing at the time, but when you have harvested the LHFs, and applied local and tactical solutions: you will inevitably get faced with the tough, systemic issues that no-one wants to address because they are about the decay of the core technology that everyone has learnt to stabilise, and its replacement. And those with the most Relationship Capital to maintain and lose in acquiring a new technology and riding it, must fight for efficiency and destroy the arrival of alternative strategies with the potential to deliver new effective value in the market and a new cohort of leaders who will establish their own more recent, and more highly-valued currency of Relationship Capital.

The difficulty of working with customers is that often they don’t and cannot know what they want until they see it, or they hear themselves saying it out loud. There’s a great story about Professor Martin Elliott and his hole-in-the-heart team at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children (Greaves, W., “Ferrari Pit Stop Saves Alexander’s Life”. Daily Telegraph, 29 August 2006). It was only after years of attempting to apply lean techniques to their procedures, and benchmarking with the aerospace industry (which was seen as sufficiently high status), and after a “particularly bad day at the office” that Martin Elliott and his colleague Dr. Allen Goldman sat slumped in front of the television, accidentally watching a motor racing grand prix, that the two of them simultaneously became aware of the similarities between the handover disciplines from surgery to intensive care and what was going on in the pit of a formula one racing team.

In effect, lean thinking (in their current frame of mind or context) could only take them so far. They needed a systemic shift that moved them from focusing on efficiency to becoming effective: in other words, they needed to change the mental rules behind the way they expected to do business if they were going to innovate.

So how do you get the CEO to want something they don’t know they need, to want something new and different which would devalue all existing stocks of shared Relationship Capital? The trick involves three items: proximity, questioning and language. In other words, to get close to the strategy, ask the right personal question about ambition and legacy, and to infect the organisation with the language of the future.

Strategic proximity can begin by offering to facilitate tactical chunks of the strategy, or to lead warm-up sessions to widen the scope of thinking about the future – without asking to be involved in the deliberations of the core team. Once they feel comfortable with you, Relationship Capital will be established and you can get closer to facilitating the strategic discussion itself.
Once you have done this, you can begin “Asking the Right Question” which involves extending your facilitation approach into discussions in confidence with the CEO or senior leader to help them craft what they want to achieve in terms of their legacy to the organisation. Hopefully this isn’t a new building or a statue!

Part of the above process, the third leg of the stool is what I call the “Linguistic Torpedo”. Until people in the organisation have the language to describe the problem or to name the solution to the problem that everyone sees, they find it difficult to act. Linguistic Torpedo is where you specify a problem and its solution in non-bullshit characteristic language, naming them and introducing them to at least 5 key meetings with people you want to influence, and saying it at least 3 times in each meeting. You may have to muddy authorship in these meetings, suggesting that you have heard people in the organisation using these terms. This requires patience, but within 6-9 months you may hear your idea coming back to you (like the boom of torpedo hitting the target and coming back to the submarine hunter, magnified by power of water to carry sound). If you do it right, people will not remember you as the source and will honestly believe that they have invented the terms.

Final Warning

Obviously the key to being a great change specialist lies in being ambidextrous: developing the ability to feed today’s ravening numbers “beast” whilst also helping leaders and potential leaders to dream new dreams, able to facilitate thinking and change around both efficiency and effectiveness.

We need to develop both capabilities, but these require consciously managing your behaviour and interactions to grow Relationship Capital, the ability to renegotiate robustly as circumstances shift, and a willingness to serve when it comes to “seeding” and influencing the strategic conversation about the future of the organisation, and the new technologies, products, services and business models required in a world where the S-curve around knowledge lifecycles is becoming increasingly compressed and in need of replacements.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Lessons for Innovation Practitioners (2): The Deal is the Deal: Always Renegotiate

In Luc Besson’s excellent first “Transporter” movie, the hero (played by Jason Statham) has 3 rules. The first two apply to your situation: 1) The deal is the deal; 2) Never open the package.

However, for the Change Specialist or Innovation Practitioner, these “rules” need a slight modification:

1) Only the latest deal is the deal. Keep the deal fresh and documented.

2) Always open the package. Make sure you know what’s in the deal and what’s changed.

The optimal moment for making yourself effective and managing the power of other peoples’ accumulated Relationship Capital and their need to devalue any that you may develop, is the moment when you are appointed and when you have the opportunity to negotiate “the deal” around those elements that must be managed in order for you to deliver your best to the organisation.

Fundamentally, this involves objectifying the ambition of the organisation out of the context that drove your appointment, by defining the key “chunks” of your programme in terms of time, resources and political backing required in order to deliver. This needs to be documented in some form of Memorandum of Understanding with the CEO, and other functional heads. In reality, we all know that customers change their minds, stuff happens, reality shifts and ambitions shrink and expand. The key thing to remember is that when the Deal you have drawn up with the Organisation can no longer be operationalised: then you must renegotiate the Deal and all the detail involved.

Failure to renegotiate when circumstances change, on the assumption that everyone after all, was in the same meeting and has a shared understanding of the new circumstances that delayed your programme or reprioritised investment, is dangerous and naive. Someone, at board level will exploit that curious collective amnesia and groupthink of top teams and degrade your growing Relationship Capital by pointing out that you have failed, the whisper will grow to become fact. So being right in retrospect, is not a defence.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Giving It Away To Win: From Power Push to Viral Pull

One of the core contradictions at the heart of change management is the idea that for a new idea to be successful, leaders must sign up to the proposed change. The problem is, how can you be committed to a form of change that you have never experienced and which will devalue your carefully-acquired Relationship Capital?

It’s important to recognise the viral element of successful change management. Sometimes, as with products, it’s a good idea to be a fast-follower who can exploit the pioneer’s market creation. One of the most dangerous things that can happen to an organisation is when a CEO takes a long flight and gets time to think without distractions, or is invited to speak at a conference and gets infected with a new idea for changing or improving a business’s performance. What happens next probably explains the 70% failure rate of first-wave systemic change methodologies, and is a further demonstration of what happens when a change-agent tries to pretend that they can be effective without building Relationship Capital:

  • Someone has a “vision” for an improved business, and hires a change Practitioner “who’s done it before”. This Practitioner thinks they have a mandate for change, but it’s merely an understanding that will flex when circumstances change.
  • The Practitioner builds a “Machine” to deliver the change, which turns into a new function (aping current organisational behaviour, in order to survive among the competing functions) and becomes an overhead. 
  • The Machine starts constructing metrics to look good and attacks the Low-Hanging-Fruit (LHF) to justify the investment; the Machine’s purpose mutates into feeding itself, looking for good stories of its work among the functions (which alienates the functions by suggesting that it was all down to the Machine); it becomes disconnected from the business.
  • The Business gets pestered by Machine consultants who keep arriving to do stuff and distracting its people. The Business functions begin to question having to pay for feeding a Machine that’s increasingly seen as disconnected from the Business, and leaders start blocking any moves away from LHF into systemic change. 
  • The Machine creates its own efficiency numbers to demonstrate activity and apparent benefits. Business functions gang up on the Machine, or a crisis occurs and the Machine is closed down, or quietly dies a death. Things go very quiet.
  • Then (after an interval of time, with luck) an Internal Business Visionary rooted in the real world of the Business functions starts it up again BUT at a lower level within their own function. This internal visionary has learnt from the failure of the Machine that fed itself to death, that change has to be business-focussed and initiated and should not try to ape the clothing and behaviour of the Business functions.
The change lessons could turn out to be:
  1. Let someone else fail and then follow them, or work with someone who really wants to do it. It’s not about doing it TO the business, but for the Business to do it TO and FOR ITSELF.
  2. If you build a change Machine to compete with the Business functions, they will have to destroy you at some point.
  3. The Practitioner who succeeds in the long term will give away their practice and focus on maintaining a Centre of Excellence and the development of thought-leadership, learning to act as a guide, and not as a Machine builder or driver.

Monday, 29 March 2010

The Pace of Innovation Leadership

At last a Knowledge and Innovation Management Book in the military context.

I must recommend Mark Urban’s recent book “Task Force Black” (‘The Explosive True Story of The SAS and the Secret War in Iraq’: Little, Brown; 2010). What appears to be another book about the war in Iraq, is actually a book about Strategic Knowledge Management and a leading practitioner.

What is fascinating about Urban’s account of the Special Air Service contribution to the “hidden” war against Al-Qaeda and related insurgent groups are the innovations around knowledge management that Stan McChrystal wove together, which have potential for establishing and maintaining innovation leadership within a volatile global market.

It is the integration of surveillance technologies, elite teams, and information management to change the pace of decision-making that is noteworthy. Major-General Stan McChrystal realised that it would take a military social network to defeat a cultural insurgent network, and consciously accelerated the pace of data-gathering and interpretation, cutting out the traditional siloed, and layered, “Chinese Whispers” migration of intelligence aggregation, analysis and synthesis through creating his own intelligence network, with its own media in the form of intranet spaces to display it in, that could be accessed and interpreted by participants in real time.

Fundamentally, McChrysal consciously took Boyd’s OODA loop philosophy out of its traditional air combat context (Boyd’s fighter-pilot proposition being that in order to win in air combat, the first combatant with a superior pace to their Observe-Orient- Decide- Act cycle, is the winner), connected it with energy and applied it hunting down insurgent cells, to roll up structured networks faster than they could respond, and thus “win” or at least destroy the opposition’s ability to dictate the pace of the war.


If we simplify innovation thinking to at least 3 basic thinking rules: move, test, and break; then McChrystal and his disciples have added a fourth element to demonstrate that so-called “asymmetric” networked warfare can be defeated, as long as military leadership has the courage and energy to
1.Move: consciously changing perspective –to empathise, to think like an insurgent, understand where and how they are being manufactured, as well as their victims;
2.Test: explore current assumptions around purpose, context and rationale for yourself and the insurgent, remodelling these to work with better assumptions, deliberately discarding obsolete thinking and structures; and finally:
3.Break: consciously game-breaking or changing the rules to create new opportunities, recognising when to flex your rules of engagement, when and at what pace to change the rules of the current game, in order to win.
4.Up the Pace: use 1-3 to change the quality of thinking and decision making whilst accelerating the pace of decision-making, so that the opposition cannot compete with you.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Sticky Organisations and How They Make Smart People Stupid

The thrill of being headhunted to a senior role in a successful and knowledge-intensive corporate on the basis of expertise is only balanced by the downside of finding yourself trapped in a cycle of ritualised meetings, unable to influence the strategic direction of the organisation that paid the recruiter so well to recruit you. In such a situation, several options become available:
  1. Lie back and enjoy the management cycle of activity (like pedalling a static exercise bike with minimal resistance).
  2. Get upset about the fact you have become a corporate adornment, that you can’t influence the strategy, become cynical and constructively dismiss yourself, or
  3. Try to understand the situation, and do something about it.

Let me explain the relationship between a “sticky” organisation and Relationship Capital.

  • All cultures are relatively “sticky” in the sense that they resist pressures to change.

  • A culture is a by-product of a technology stabilization process, it is composed of the problem-solving experiences and processes involved in turning an invention into an innovation.

  • Strong cultures continually evolve new behaviours to block change, to maintain social stability and power structures based upon existing patterns and accumulated reserves of mutual Relationship Capital.
  • The greater the mutual Relationship Capital in the network, the “stickier” the organisation.

Relationship Capital is the social “capital” you build through establishing positive impressions and trusting relationships with key colleagues, stakeholders and potential internal customers, through trading and being able to bank favours at crucial times in the lifecycle of the business and personal careers. It explains the tendency within major corporations and political parties to appoint that “safe pair of hands” who turns out to be a dangerous idiot instead of the innovator who wants to move the strategy in a new direction, to change the rules. That “safe pair of hands” is usually the manager who is owed the most in Relation Capital transactions, the value of which would disappear if the technology and direction of the business changed and made the existing transactions void.
This explains the tendency to optimise existing products, services and business models instead of moving into the territory of creating genuinely new value by focusing on becoming effective. If you hold a big account of Relationship Capital, would you want to give it up? This also explains the 60-70% failure rate of systemic change programmes. When you change organisations, you make existing Relationship Capital void.

The message is: If you are a subject-matter expert or even a thought-leader, you cannot put your knowledge to work within a “sticky” organisation unless you can rapidly develop Relationship Capital. Without Relationship Capital, you will not be invited to the “right” meetings where you can make a contribution based upon your hard-won expertise.

The personal strategy that applies, involves enduring a rite of passage in meetings, negotiating deeper stages of trust, where your behaviour must be positive without appearing to threaten existing knowledge power and established Relationship Capital in the room. These will involve working your way through a sequence of meetings, demonstrating your respect for existing Relationship Capital, meetings where provocations to your expertise will be offered but to which you must not react.

Simplified Relationship Capital Building Labyrinth Sequence

Level 1 Meeting: Wrong Problem / Wrong Method
Level 2 Meeting: Right Problem / Wrong Method
Level 3 Meeting: Wrong Problem / Right Method, and finally
Level 4 Meeting: Right Problem / Right Method

The Expert’s Journey to Effectiveness

Ideally, an expert would be allowed into a meeting level 4 meeting from the start. In reality, the expert goes through a rite of passage (1, 2, 3 level meeting types) to socialise them, test their “right stuff” and their willingness to respect the primacy of existing, dominant (but often decaying) knowledge forms and their established Relationship Capital. Once you have developed high Relationship Capital, you will get invited to the real meetings that determine survival. It may take 18 months of self-control and sticking to the rules.
This explains why genuine “out-of-the-box” or even “no-box” thinking needs leadership sanction or a major crisis of survival that wipes out the bankability of existing Relationship Capital.

The Rules

  1. Respect existing Relationship Capital, find out who has the most banked and whose is most at risk.

  2. Don’t preach using your Craft Knowledge to define the problem or appropriate solution or techniques.

  3. Use their language to define the problem they want to work on: don’t be surprised if they want to solve the wrong problem. Help them to do the wrong thing, better.

  4. Don’t explain where an enabling technique comes from, pretend to invent it on the spur of the moment.

  5. Try to use local contextual examples rather than using comparative case studies of external practice.

  6. Be patient and control your body language.

I will be talking about this at the Henley KM Forum Conference on 24th February 2010.