Risk-takers, Originals and all of us

By Gaylin Jee

“The last time you had an original idea, what did you do with it?” Adam Grant

Originals QuoteWe’re still using yesterday’s models and hoping they will solve tomorrow’s challenges. That’s not impossible, but it will become increasingly unrewarding. The impending World Economic Forum’s Fourth Industrial Revolution will radically shift life as we know it. Technology will be at the core of most work, whatever form work will take. Digital transformation will make way for digital sustainability, and innovation hubs and heroes will only take you part of the way. End states and narrow, short-term profits are yesterday’s goals.

Yet some see and create worlds of opportunity amidst this rapid ‘chaos’. We assume these people are innately creative, natural-born natural leaders, or that people who have a larger purpose and impact in the world are ‘rare’. We ask what’s in their DNA so that we can identify with them, or we ask where we can find them, and how we can work with them to release our strategic visions and intent. We also ask “can we grow and develop them?”

Let’s ventilate this topic with fresh thinking. We are coming to learn that great creators aren’t necessarily ones with the most outlandish ideas, or the deepest expertise, but also those activating the broadest perspectives, acting at the right time, with the right people around them.

We have a picture of more radical risk-takers and innovators, called game changers, from 2015 research. And we understand more about the composition of the team that drives game changing outputs. Now we also know, thanks to Adam Grant’s work ‘Originals’, that not all originality requires extreme risk taking. “I want to persuade you”, he says, “that originals are actually far more ordinary than we realise.” Grant defines originals as people who take the road less traveled, championing novel ideas that go against the grain but ultimately make things better.

Why should this be significant? Because all of us can learn to be Originals.

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest many entrepreneurs are just ‘ordinary’, with the same fears and the same doubts as all of us. The best entrepreneurs, says Linda Rottenberg, are not risk maximisers. They take the risk out of risk taking.  They don’t like risk any more than the rest of us. They take calculated and measured risks, balancing their portfolios. Rottenberg is CEO of Endeavour, and has spent decades training many of the worlds great entrepreneurs. She is known as “la chica loca” (the crazy girl) for insisting that entrepreneurs existed not just in Silicon Valley but also in emerging markets around the world. Even when extreme risks are taken in one area, it seems they are balanced with caution in another.

Those who champion originality, rather than conformity, move us forward. And they are not so different from most us of us, says Grant. They appear bold and confident on the outside, but inside, they are also afraid of risk and avoid it. Originals start by questioning default positions, and then take calculated risks. All of us can learn to be Originals. As Sheryl Sandberg notes in her Forward to the book:

“… any one of us can champion ideas that improve the world around us.”

Crossing the Chasm: From Innovation Hub or Hero To Innovation as Usual – How do we get it right? was the focus session delivered at the recent 2017 Talent Talks Africa Conference.

What is your company’s Mindset Orientation?

By Gaylin Jee

Even a giant can streamline, increase speed and encourage innovation. 

General Electric (GE) has done this through making lean startup part of the mindset and the culture at the organisation, using a programme called FastWorks.

Leader of GE Culture and co-founder of GE FastWorks, Janice Sempe:

“We had a culture of being addicted to being right, … we had a culture of perfection. We didn’t know how to partner with our customers and see their problems from their perspective.” “We had to train our leaders to lead in a different way. We had to get them to ask questions in place of provide answers.”

Often our focus is on activity, or getting things done. If we shift the focus from customer requirements confusion to customer validation, to building a minimum viable product and then pivoting, to learning as we go along, we get better product to market more quickly. In place of having thinly spread teams, GE builds dedicated teams. These teams are fast, and focused. Using FastWorks, GE has successfully introduced lean startup principles in a non-tech environment, and in a highly regulated industry.

Based on the lean startup methodology principles of Eric Ries, creator of the Lean Startup methodology, FastWorks is essentially a set of tools and practices designed to build better products for customers, more quickly. There are 100s of FastWorks programmes across GE. FastWorks decreases the cycle time for product development. GE uses it to get closer to customers, to encourage innovation, increase speed to market, improve chances of success, and, generally, to make it easier to get things done.

Sempe shares the challenges and tangible successes that GE has driven through creating a culture of experimentation in the podcast interview How An Enterprise Makes Lean Startup Part of The Mindset And Culture. These kinds of successes she notes are about a lot more than training. You have to think more broadly about your organisations ability, in terms of its behaviours and cultures, to support the application of a lean startup approach. This is more than giving permission to fail, it is asking the questions: What new skills are needed and can be developed? Will new behaviours required be rewarded? How will our performance management system support this? What are the new expectations we have of employees?

At GE, 5 new belief statements were introduced. They wanted to think about failure in a different way, and to reframe barriers, giving permission for people to accept and adopt new ways of thinking and acting. Not meeting an outcome is a great way of getting to a better solution. You learn as you go along. The bold GE statements are:

  1. Customers determine our success
  2. Stay lean to go fast
  3. Learn and adapt to win
  4. Empower and inspire each other
  5. Deliver results in an uncertain world.

The GE performance management system has also been reworked, from a linear process of setting and measuring goals at the start and end of each year, to an on-going process that encourages asking the right questions. It allows for adaption. Employees are expected to experiment and pivot based on what they are learning from their customers.

It would be naïve to think that an organisational change like this is easy. Sempe says they are learning as they go, and she admits that it is hard. There has been considerable commitment to the programme. In the first year of implementation, Ries trained around 1000 GE executives on Lean Startup. There are also numerous coaches in the organization. But the results are tangible. Sempe offers two proof points in her interview:

  1. A new product (an engine) getting to market 2 years ahead of competitors with significant cost savings to the company, positioned very well with customers as a result, by using FastWorks principles;
  2. An efficient low cost energy solution for their power and water business, development costs were reduced by 60% by using the principles of FastWorks.

Define your company's mindset orentation

The Singularity Hub describe FastWorks as part of the company’s Mindset Orientation, or MO, one of 8 principles for leaders to make the most of the exponential age. It is worth reading the article to find out what the other 7 are.

What is your organization’s mindset orientation? What commitment is there to learning and adapting faster than the change that’s happening around you?

 

Tell me about the last time you failed

On the whole, expect to fail. Do it quickly. Learn. Move on. Perhaps even to something different. That’s the new formula. And it makes sense to have new formulas in light of the fact that the business models we used yesterday no longer seem to produce the results we need for tomorrow. The rules of the game have changed. And it happened while we were sleeping. It’s called the World After Midnight (WAM).

“Most of us spend our lives acting rationally in response to a world we recognise and understand but which no longer exists.” Eddie Obeng on the WAM

 

Smart FailureThis new formula for success goes by the name of rapid fire, rapid fail. Obeng calls it Smart Failure. Failing fast and often is the best approach and the key to success in many areas of business, says a Mu Sigma Report (a decision and analytics firm). Take it from the software industry, and as an approach echoed by engineers working in the pharmaceuticals, material sciences and automotive industries. To develop a successful product, try out many ideas through successive experimentations. Technology can enable that. Then learn from each small failure, so that your end product is better. Failure isn’t bad for business, it leads to something else happening.

‘When you view building a business as a series of experiments, you start to see failure as an inevitable step in the process.” Andrew Filev, CEO and founder of Wrike, a software firm in Mountain View, California.

But can we widen this approach to other working contexts? Are we ready to fail? And are customers and brands ready for that too?

In business we have spent a lot of time trying to reach ‘perfect first time.’ For years we have aimed to refine and control, to measure and predict, to reduce margin for error, streamline. We have thoroughly believed and put full effort into making our work, outputs and our futures more knowable, comfortable and sure.

Yet rapid change and technological evolution (which we all drive) is painting a future quite different from this. We can’t predict with too much accuracy. Now our task is to accept that and to learn to work with iterations of a future. We have to be committed to the experiment without being sure of success at the end, or what exactly the success might be. We need to be able to try something new that nobody has done, and get it wrong. We haven’t let go to that quite yet. We ask people to be creative and innovative, but in our organisations we still have a relatively poor tolerance for getting it wrong. We see it and often feel it as incompetence.

When we do start to let go, it will show in the people we look for – we’ll want people who know how to fail and can learn from it. In interviews, we’ll ask: “Tell me about the last time you failed?” or “How often do you fail?” At regular meetings we might ask “What are you learning from your failures?” or “How many failures have you had so far?” We might even ask future employers: “How does your organisation fail?”

Sound far-fetched? Maybe it’s the language we’re using. It seems somewhat black and white for the complexity of our world.

Some worldview adjustments on failure will emerge over time. Failing may just become smart.

From old to new rules – the space we choose to play in

I think we need a shift in lens.

The change we see (and drive) in the world generates a constant stream of opportunity to be explored. When we are paSky through barsranoid, we are defensive, which makes us operate by old rules, ‘close in and protect’.

If we lift ourselves away from paranoid, we have the space to get curious, expand, explore, collaborate.

We can’t predict what’s going to happen with any accuracy, or control too much for it. But we can build ourselves to play in the new future.

That’s the shift I think we need.

All change please

It is the human interface with new technologies that will mostly likely drive the best personal and business value propositions into the future. Yet both companies and individuals can miss the people behind the tools and the mindset of change for adoption of new tools. I sometimes wonder if one of the barriers to digital transformation lies in a thinking trap we’ve fallen into. It’s about change and the rhetoric around it.

climate-chalkboard_310x206I once attended a Social Anthropology lecture that covered “The myth of the unchanging past’. My much-admired, clever and somewhat quirky lecturer presented it so eruditely, and it’s been with me all the way since I was a student. But it’s taken a while for what was presented to fully sink in.

The myth speaks to the fact that we tend to assume the past never changed, and it was rather idyllic for that. We see the past as rose tinted, constant and in sharp juxtaposition to today, where there seems to be constant change clutter and chaos. Our worldview of change is as an imposter, arriving one night and settling in, needing management and containment. That’s why we have separate ‘change management projects and budgets’, run by change specialists. We don’t see change as part of who we are, and what we drive.

If you think about it, not even two days have ever been the same. Change has always been with us. Yes, the rate of change has increased. But aren’t we the ones with our feet on the pedals, accelerating the pace of change through our preferences, choices, actions and inventions?

If we have come to view change as an outsider to be managed, how does that shape our orientation to both the present and the future?

Drew Hanson interviewed Rita J King in an article for Forbes in 2012: Imagination: what you need to thrive in the future economy. Rita had this to say:

In the Imagination Age, we can collectively imagine and create the future we want to inhabit … The shape of the future is reliant on the ability to think ahead. In the Imagination Age, we are attempting to create the future we can imagine.

If we want truly novel things to happen in our organizations, we need to learn to let go of the thought that we can always foresee and plan what that newness is going to look like.’

Is that a bit of a departure from what is expected of our leaders now?

Change is all about us, it is us, and it always has been. The mindset we need for future imaginations doesn’t manage change the imposter (the thinking trap). It accepts it, lets it out and plays with it – not always an easy thing to get right in an organisation. But there are some skills that we can develop that would be useful for that. I’m interested to hear what you think those are.