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.