Management Innovation Image

What Should Senior Executives Focus On When Pursuing Innovation?

A lot of executives say they want to enhance innovation in their organisations. I tell senior executives not to focus on products, services or processes because they have many colleagues who can focus on those. Senior executives should be focusing on strategic innovation, answering three fundamental questions: ‘Who, what, how?’ : Who is my customer? What am I offering that customer? How am I offering it?

This is also known as business model innovation, challenging the assumptions implicit in the answers to those three questions. If you can innovate around your strategy, you can develop an inimitable competitive advantage. To improve the quality of internal conversations in an organisation, leaders have to encourage that their assumptions be questioned. They should be asking their colleagues, including those more junior, ‘Based on what you’ve just heard me say, what assumptions do you think I’m making?’

Once those assumptions are surfaced, then ask, ‘OK, which of those assumptions may not be true or may no longer be true? Maybe some of the ways I look at the world were fit for purpose five or ten years ago, but they aren’t so today.’ That’s a really simple hack to make yourself automatically a more innovative executive. Of course, in a COVID and post-COVID world, the relevance of one’s perspective may be limited to months rather than years!

This approach to encourage questioning is rather antithetical to the old paradigms of the leader as the font of wisdom. Experience is sometimes an ally and sometimes a professional hazard. So do consider encouraging others to identify and then question your assumptions in order to progress on the road to enjoying an innovative environment in your team or company.

Next Generation Leadership Image

How to Develop Your Young People in Lockdown

How to Develop Your Young People in Lockdown

One of the main conclusions I came to in researching my book, Next Generation Leadership, is that Generation Ys (Millennials) crave development more than almost anything else from their organisations.  But the question I hear now that we are in lockdown under Covid is: How can we recreate the development that would have happened organically by our youngest colleagues’ observing how senior people go about doing business?

There are still at least a couple of things that we can do.  First, even under lockdown, we can invite our young team members to senior stakeholder meetings, senior customers or strategic conversations, even if they are just observing.  If we want to enhance a culture of development, one way to do that is to help our people observe desired behaviours.  The best definition I’ve ever heard of ‘culture’ is so good because it is so simple.  It’s just two words: ‘shared behaviours’.  That’s it!  But that definition implies that you have to give your people the opportunity to observe behaviours in action, and you can certainly still do that under lockdown.

The second piece of advice I would give is to consider mentoring your youngest employees.  These don’t have to be your direct reports, but also make that a reverse mentoring opportunity.  You can teach them about how to navigate your organization, advance their careers, serve more sophisticated customers, and they help you with issues such as leveraging social media, identifying new customer segments, and using skills and tools they have acquired which many of their older colleagues have not.  It’s also an opportunity to find out for yourself what younger generations want from life, their career and their leaders.  I think you’ll find it illuminating!

So how do you still organically develop your Millennial colleagues under lockdown, in ways that don’t cost you anything?  First, invite them to senior virtual meetings, and ask them to observe and note behaviours.  And second, consider mentoring and asking for reverse mentoring.

Virtual Team Cloud

Virtual Management in a Virtual Age

In these times, virtual teamwork will be a critical function in the workforce.  I have little doubt that mastering virtual teamwork in practical application will be a hallmark of the successful, next generation leader.

Putting “Virtual” to the Test

Even ten years ago, I thought that managing virtual teams would be a critical skill of the twenty-first century leader.  I had hypotheses about how to do this well, but I needed data to test these.  So while directing the Emerging Leaders Programme at London Business School, I added a simulation to the curriculum both to invite participants to reflect on their effectiveness at virtual teamwork and, for myself, to identify the critical success factors.

I invited participants to complete a competitive challenge, using both face-to-face and virtual methods. Before arriving to the program, I asked students to submit pressing dilemmas that their companies faced. I then identified two of these questions for the students to tackle in the competition; questions were easily comprehended, did not rely on technical or deep, industry-specific knowledge, and would have great impact on the business if these thorny issues were cracked.  For example, in one cohort, the dilemmas were related to the news industry:

How can an international news division bring to life its new brand tagline, “Never Stop Asking?”
How can newspapers make money selling to a Google generation used to reading content for free?

Students were split into two teams that incorporated a diverse set of expertise, nationalities and industries.  They had one week to brainstorm and refine solutions to each question. They were allowed—and encouraged—to take advantage of the “wisdom of crowds” by soliciting input from people outside the program too.

There was one catch: Team A had to answer question one using only face-to-face communications only and question two using solely virtual methods.  For Team B, these requirements were reversed.  When working virtually, students could use any tools or forums they wished, including video or teleconference, e-mail or social networking sites.  We also constructed a simple website that allowed teams to post, categorize, rank, and discuss proposed solutions. The website was also accessible to people outside the course, if they were invited, who could then review and contribute to the online discussion.

At the end of the week, the teams presented their conclusions to a panel who scored the merits of each solution without knowing whether students used face-to-face or virtual methods.[i] After the panel gave its feedback, we discussed what the students found to be the advantages and pitfalls of virtual teamwork, as well as the key differences between working virtually and working face-to-face.  This exercise brought to light many dynamics about the nature and requirements of leading and working in a virtual team.

What Works, What Doesn’t

Virtual teams that set too many rules or were too rigid about how and when participants contributed were not as successful as those that were more flexible. Different time zones, for instance, required that teams set slightly longer deadlines.  Allowing for asynchronous discussion versus requiring real-time “chat” generated higher quality ideas and responses to colleagues’ suggestions.

Virtual teams that collaborated using customized, online team rooms produced final ideas and presentations that the panel scored better than those teams who used social networking sites such as Facebook.  These sites often offer little functionality to organize activities effectively, search information, engage in complex discussions, or rank ideas.  Teams using Facebook, for instance, either did not participate in brainstorming activities or did so unproductively, perhaps because interactions on the site tend to be largely superficial. Users weren’t used to using the site for this exercise’s purpose.

Although virtual teamwork isn’t necessarily more effective than face-to-face teamwork, we concluded that virtual teamwork that is well-facilitated and well-supported by a platform that is more fit for the purpose can actually be superior to face-to-face interaction, particularly for large or geographically dispersed teams. We encouraged students returning to work to have conversations with their IT departments about creating customized team rooms rather than relying on existing sites with pre-determined features.

A Different Set of Skills

The program’s participants consistently converged on at least two realizations about virtual teamwork:

First, charisma, a traditional leadership trait, is usually disintermediated in a virtual environment.  Therefore, team members could not rely on force of personality, but on clarity and the ability to delegate. “Leading” in these interactions was less about exhibiting authority and more about emphasizing team accountability, reaching consensus, and being open to challenge.

Second, merit has more power than personality or hierarchy in virtual teams.  Introverts or those who are working in a second language may actually thrive in a virtual team. We have all experienced how factors such as introversion/extraversion, cultural norms, gender, career level, and reporting lines contribute to only a few voices, sometimes only one voice, dominating.

At its worst, an overly hierarchical dynamic can not only ruin engagement, or even careers, it can aggravate catastrophic decisions.  The story of the tragic 2009 crash of Air France flight 447, which killed 228 people, is the cautionary tale.  On that flight, the crew came up through both a national and industry culture (though the latter is changing) where the captain is always right, who brooks no “interference” from his subordinates.  In turn, the captain’s co-pilots, such as those on that fateful day, do not feel it is their place to disagree with their superior officer whether it is a command, a suggestion or an opinion.

On May 31st, 2009, en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, storms lay in the way of the planned flight path, and a rare but not unheard-of mechanical fault occurred when ice crystals at high altitude clogged the airplane’s air pressure probes, causing altitude measures to read less accurately.  The co-pilots chose not to alert the captain to the storms that lay ahead, deferring to him to identify the bad weather and plot a course to avoid it, which did not happen.  The flight crew made a series of poor decisions and even worse communications that ultimately drove the plane into the Atlantic Ocean.[ii]    The Air France case illustrates the all-too-common dynamic that occurs in so many offices, factories and stores around the world, where initiative, productive dialogue, challenge and imagination are preemptively suppressed.

Most of our organizations’ architectures are predicated on a pyramidal hierarchy, which for centuries has suggested a tacit dogma of the manager’s infallibility.  This canon has ruined many millions of meetings, where idea creation gives way to waiting for the leader to say something, and agreeing or remaining silent, where the extrovert jumps in with their contribution first and often, while the introvert is still processing options and responses.

In a virtual, asynchronous environment, introverts can reflect before answering, the less confident can reply thoughtfully and bravely.  Adding anonymity to contributions reduces the senior voices from owning the lion’s share of the conversation.  The best ideas rise to the top instead of those which happen to be from the most senior.  Therefore, if an important objective of any leader is to bring out the best in everyone, then he or she should utilize a virtual forum for at least some discussion and particularly on very diverse teams.  Two important points to remember when considering virtual teamwork:

First, technology does not solve every problem.  Virtual teamwork can fail if leaders do not attend to the fundamental problems of coordinating, engaging, and motivating individuals across time zones.  It’s easy for team members to disengage when they’re not face-to-face, so the leader must convey a high degree of enthusiasm and clarity, and agree on who is accountable for what from the start.

Second, assumptions are dangerous. If team members are from different cultures, countries, and time zones, leaders cannot assume that everyone shares the same understanding of how the team will work. For example, will everyone be in one virtual “place” at the same time, or will they contribute on their own time? Our students’ most important takeaway is that to lead a virtual team, they must focus on team maintenance (How are we going to work together?) before task maintenance (What is the problem we are trying to solve?).

[i] I’m grateful to Moti Shahani for his collaboration with this exercise.

[ii] William Langewiesche, “The Human Factor,” Vanity Fair, October 2014.

The above is a chapter excerpt from my book Next Generation Leadership:

http://nextgenerationleadershipbook.com

Screen Shot 2012 08 17 At 3.26.50 PM

The Leader’s Creative Challenge

I despair when CEOs tell me that they have finally filled in their organisation’s creative deficit by hiring a Chief Innovation Officer. They abrogate not only their own responsibility for the company’s creative output, but that of every other person in the organisation. Not to put too fine a point on it – every leader and every colleague is responsible for maximising innovation.

If we define ‘creative activity’ as ‘inventing and implementing a new idea’, then it’s useful to break down this ideation process into four steps: generation, evaluation, selection, and implementation. I will focus on the first two stages here.

With every client with whom I’ve worked, the first and often most significant obstacle to unlocking team creativity is that the team leader does not distinguish between generation and evaluation of ideas and stage these two discussions sequentially. In other words, if a team attempts to come up with ideas and to evaluate the merit of those ideas at the same time, then each person in the group is turning up the dial on their inner critic to eleven. No one wants to be criticised in front of one’s peers, so everyone tends to hold back on suggesting ideas until they have one that’s at best magnificent – a once in a lifetime idea – and at worst one in which they can’t poke any holes. The result – lots of uncomfortable silence as each person’s brain assesses its own ideas’ potential for perfection.

The leader’s task therefore in enhancing creative output is to announce that first we are generating as many ideas as possible without assessing their merits. If colleagues seek validation, then they should focus on volume, not quality. There are at least two reasons to follow this recommendation. First, there are reams of research that tell us that creativity starts with having a lot of options from which to choose. Second, too many interesting ideas are immediately sacrificed at the altar of perfection. Many, with a tweak or two, could be brilliant, so better to raise them and let them gestate for a while. This is a terribly important role that the leader must play because so much of corporate life at its worst has been one-upmanship: colleagues’ demonstrating how clever they are by how swiftly they can shoot down suggestions.

The leader’s next task is similar to the first now that the team has produced an ample list of ideas. Before we consider which suggestions to eliminate, let us marinate in the dry rub of the possible. Rather than beginning with why it won’t work, an incredibly important question by the leader is, ‘Why and how could this idea work?’ It’s a subtle but fundamental pivot in creative conversation. In considering a world in which an organisation can launch something genuinely new, begin by creating ‘idea houses’. In other words, how tall of a vision can you build from a foundational idea? These suggestions are but the tip of the iceberg in terms of how the leader shapes the environment in which innovation excels.

Gamma Waves

Riding the Waves

I’ve recently been reading more about the neuroscience of creativity.  I realise it’s a tricky balance, that it would be dangerous to reduce the spark of human ingenuity to the quality or quantity of a certain number of neurons.  At the same time, one must always respect evidence-based learning, and so it’s useful to know what’s happening in our heads when we have moments of inspiration.  Though the creative act itself is still much of a mystery, it could only be helpful surely if leaders understood more about the conditions in which creativity can thrive.  I have long held that while leaders do not necessarily have to be creative paragons themselves, if their organisations value innovation then it is their leaders’ responsibility to ensure that they are cultivating the right environment for innovation to happen – by more people and more often.  The worst mistake that companies could do would be to abrogate all accountability for creativity by assuming that they just need to hire one role like a Chief Innovation or Creative Officer, and the creative waterfall would just flow.

But the question that we must ask ourselves then is: how would a leader know that she or he is creating the right environment?  For this reason, I’ve been perusing the neuroscience literature.  What I am currently finding most intriguing in my exploration are beta and gamma waves.  Brain waves are defined based on their frequencies, or cycles per second, measured in hertz (Hz).  If this sounds like an instruction manual for an analog radio, you wouldn’t be far off since frequencies are simply electrical pulses.  The number of pulses that the approximately 10 to the power of 11 neurons in the human brain send to one another per second via 10 to the the power of 14 contacts (or synapses) suggests that the adult brain carries out about one thousand trillion operations per second.  As a comparison, the Blue Water supercomputer has only about the same hardware capability.  That’s a lot of neurons firing a lot of electrical impulses in order to transmit and process information, which is why the brain consumes about 20% of all the body’s energy.

So, back to beta and gamma waves.  If in deep sleep, our brain waves reduce to 1-3 Hz (delta waves), at work the brain at normal consciousness experiences a beta wave state of 14-30 Hz.  Aside from the higher frequency, what’s most interesting about beta waves is that they are hard to interrupt.  We like solving everyday problems and pursuing linear thinking; we get loads of tiny rewards (dopamine) throughout the day for all those minor achievements.  In addition, our schooling and normal work tasks have conditioned us to exist in a beta wave state.  In other words, our brain has been habituated to be a little lazy, so we don’t achieve and/or cannot remain in the higher level of activity (gamma waves at 31-70 Hz) that peak performance and optimal creativity need.  An analogy I would suggest is giving a colleague a day’s worth of algebra problems to solve, and then interrupt him once every four hours demanding that he comes up with a new product idea in three minutes or less, then return to the math work.  Isn’t this what happens in a typical work environment?  We only rarely surface from the deep pool of linear thinking, identifying ‘best practice’, and chasing incremental KPIs.  Then in those precious few hours or days in the year, we’re not only allowed to be creative, but our leaders somehow expect that granting this limited time will somehow unlock Da Vinci-like genius innovation.

I’m not suggesting that linear thinking, incremental improvement, or engineering efficiencies can’t be helpful for businesses to survive and thrive.  I am proposing, however, that there is no balance between these activities and creative thinking.  If leaders want to experience true balance between the two in their organisations, then they have to offer much more time to innovation activity so that their colleagues’ brains may be reconditioned to move between beta and gamma wave activity more fluidly, and to stay in gamma (super focus and peak consciousness) for longer periods of time.  If we genuinely want performance that exceeds the competition, then irregular leadership is required to achieve irregular results.