It’s hard to read the label when you are the genie in the bottle
Futurists spend time analysing the forces that drive change more than they do trying predict the actual changes likely to occur. It makes sense that outsiders cannot predict specifically the path of an industry market, technology or culture with any real accuracy. Instead it is more logical that the people who are within a certain ‘space’ are the ones to make the choices that shape the future of that space. Innovative builders should shape the future of construction, innovative lawyers should shape the future of governance and innovative technologists should shape the future of gadgets. Alan Kay, the creator of Graphical User Interface, said it well when he suggested ‘the only way to predict the future is to create it.’ Nice bit of rah rah right there.
There is only one problem with this ‘self directing future’ theory, and that is that rarely does history show industry leaders as the ones to lead change. They are often bound by their success; it’s as if they have decided that their biography is their destiny. It really is hard to read the label when you are the genie in the bottle.
Rarely does history show industry leaders as the ones to lead change.
Kodak invented the technology that put them out of business (well almost); they were in the business of better photos and we wanted to share memories. Nokia failed to see the shift that the iPhone created and in under a year lost catastrophic market share. The rich industrialists of North America who laid the railway tracks and opened a nation failed to get into aviation early enough; they were in the steel and railway business and failed to seize the transport opportunity.
In each case, smart intelligent industry leaders did not see the writing on the wall and failed to adapt. Not because they were clueless; indeed their very success was built on a series of strong foundations. Foundations that kept them grounded in the ‘success habits’ that made them successful. They didn’t fail to adapt because they were stupid, they failed to adapt because they were wildly successful. The problem with foundations is that they are useless in a zero gravity environment. It is counterintuitive to let go of your gravity anchors, your identity anchors and your success anchors. Success breeds stability, it’s kind of the point of success. This stability though becomes a liability in an age of extraordinary change.
They didn’t fail to adapt because they were stupid, they failed to adapt because they were wildly successful.
Letting the genie out of the bottle
It takes a certain courage to put the status quo on notice, to disrupt yourself. And yet that’s exactly what we all need to do if we are going to lead our families, businesses and industries into this decade of disruption.
In his book The Age of Paradox Charles Handy unpacks the sigmoid growth curve as this ever-present S-shaped curve that plots not only the life of any organism or the life-cycle of any product, but also the life of an organisation, the progress of a civilisation, and even the course of a relationship. Handy stated, “The world keeps changing. It is one of the paradoxes of success that the things and the ways which got you where you are, are seldom those that keep you there.”
The key to sustained success is recognising not only that it's essential to reinvent, but to begin doing so before the idea / culture / people / etc responsible for you current success inevitably begin to decline. To start a new curve, right at the moment when all the usual indicators might suggest sticking to the current course.
The first observation is to understand that there is a dip before there is a period of growth. This is the moment after a decision when the decision is truly tested. Stefan Kerwell, a published authority on the S curve, relates this to the time when a new born baby loses weight for a while. First time parents panic if they are not aware that this is normal. Think of it more as the squat before you jump.
The second thing to notice about S curve theory is that two curves co-exist for a while. This time is often called ‘the period of great confusion’. It’s into this space that duelling ideas may need to co-exist for a while. This is a time of contradiction, ambiguity and paradox. It’s a time when a quarantined ‘skunkworks’ might serve a business or it’s the time when a leader needs to protect and run interference for a team that needs to operate outside of the existing cultural rules. One line of action needs to continue on its upward growth while the other will be struggling to find its feet. Both need to be supported.
The third observation to make is around the increased speed of change that this next decade will hold. The curve is compressing. Changes will happen more often. So the ability to be more agile, to be more willing to fail and to be open to new counterintuitive processes is a competitive advantage.
So how do we know when to start a new change? Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean you are not being followed! This idea that positive paranoia is a strength in the now and in the future is key to making sure you are not the genie ‘stuck’ in the bottle. Positive paranoia is the core idea behind doomsday thinking and scenario planning.
Positive paranoia is key to making sure you are not the genie ‘stuck’ in the bottle.
There is a benefit to being a little paranoid, spending time asking yourself the questions that cause a fear of loss, a clench in your belly. These include questions like: What if the truth I adhere to is false? If our primary way of making money disappeared tomorrow, what would we do? What should we do if Amazon eats our server business?
These questions, or more accurately the issues they unravel, highlight blind spots for many leaders. This is why its so hard to do. It’s like looking a tiger in the eyes. Many won’t allow this kind of conversation to enter their team meetings. It’s as if by entertaining what might go wrong you’re being disloyal to ‘confidence’. You may become labelled a negative thinker and called out as being counter culture. Do it anyway. Question everything, and prepare solutions for challenges that haven’t happened yet.
Question everything, and prepare solutions for challenges that haven’t happened yet.
Most companies wait too long. That change needs to begin before the first curve reaches its peak. This is when the team has the resources and the energy to start a new change. The difficulty is though, there have not yet been any signs that this change is necessary! Attempts to bring in change are often met by resistance, so it’s tempting to put it off.
Charles Roxburgh, a director at McKinsey and Co, explains the power of scenario thinking:
Scenarios allow people to challenge conventional wisdom. In large corporations, there is typically a very strong status quo bias. After all, large sums of money, and many senior executives’ careers, have been invested in the core assumptions underpinning the current strategy—which means that challenging these assumptions can be difficult.
He goes on to explain the three major benefits to working alternate scenarios:
- Scenarios uncover inevitable or near-inevitable futures
- Scenarios protect against ‘group think’
- Scenarios allow people to challenge conventional wisdom
We are often afraid to participate in ‘what if?’ conversations, we feel at some level that they erode confidence, seed uncertainty and prevent momentum. This is why it's hard to do, confidence become a camouflage that hides the tiger of change. Until one day it pounces on you as if by surprise. It’s okay to question the path we are on, it's helpful to entertain dangerous ideas. This is why a business should encourage sceptics, this is why leaders need to surround themselves with ‘no’ people, those people willing to push back, fight for a position, even if—perhaps especially if—it’s unpopular. In his book Creativity, Inc Ed Catmul discusses how at Pixar the culture of creative tension (healthy debate and disagreement) was critical to their continuous innovations and commercially creative success. His three tips for increasing the innovation include regularly sharing unfinished work, breaking down silos and empowering teams to do great work while at the same time embracing constraints.
It’s okay to question the path we are on, it's helpful to entertain dangerous ideas.
This idea of dissent being constructive is picked up in the work of Harvard professor Linda Hill in her TED talk around generating collective creativity. Pixar was one of many global businesses she and her colleagues researched for creative, collaborative best practice. They identified that three things need to be in place to explore great creative collaborations: creative abrasion, creative agility and creative resolution.
Creative abrasion is about generating a market place of ideas through debate and trying to come up with a portfolio of alternatives. Creative agility is about being quick to pursue new ideas, experiment, fail and adjust. Creative resolution is about doing decision making so it has no compromise and no domination that you develop a patient and inclusive decision making atmosphere.
Super cool but hard to implement without a wholesale rebuild or your organisational culture and team’s DNA. So some little steps that help with setting the genie free: make status quo the enemy, cook your sacred cows and stand for something.
- Status quo is the state of normality, a plateau state which suggests that the chaos of change is over and we can catch our breath for a while. The time for plateaus is shrinking and the idea that you can rest for a while should be rejected. Get on the front foot and be the disruptors. Lead the change.
- Sacred cows are the metaphoric assumptions that are unquestionable. Make no doubt that outsiders have no compunction killing your sacred cows, after all they make the best burgers! Challenge the assumptions, question everything. The more sacred the idea, the more threatened others are, the more dangerous and exposed to change you are, the better. Look for the most entrenched ideas and ask the dangerous, unpopular question. Do so from a positive paranoia based on being opportunistic not afraid.
- The third guiding light that helps genies get out of the bottle for a while is to stop fitting in, stop trying to please everyone. Pick a battle, throw a rock, take a stand. People and businesses become beige over time. The bigger you are, the more you become people pleasers. Your very scale means you become more conforming. So if you are big and complex and slow moving then start to celebrate difference of opinion. The trick is to balance your confidence with politeness.
Stop fitting in and start standing out. Of course doing this takes some understanding of nuance and a subtlety. The energy of Jim Rohn’s famous leadership statement captures the personality of this ethos so well:
The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humour, but without folly.