Working with companies and their people, making things a little bit better, all of the time.


Outside in vs Inside Out

Change is all around us.

We are not good at it. We hold on for longer than we should. At least I do. What is true for individuals is by extension true for our companies, obviously. We see in big and little companies an inability to harness and adapt to change. We hold on to ideas about our products or services, our customers and employees. As we hold these ideas, they are all changing. The ever shifting tectonic plates are on the move, in ways seen and unseen; your business, your customer's businesses, the expectations of your partners, your employees, everyone, are constantly on the move. Ouch.

What to do about this?

Well, getting better at harnessing underlying change seems like a good start. Innovating is the ‘go to' word, by which we might just mean 'being better at change'. Are we adapting and responding to the changing needs of our people (whether yours is an organisation of ten or 10,000 people)? The ’super innovators’ - to the extent they are - talk about reinvention. Intel derives x% of its future revenue from products which don’t exist today. Gillette the same. Nokia the same too. Oh, except Nokia died.

Nokia’s journey from rubber boots to camera wielding mobile phones which ruled the world was the reinventors wet dream. But they went bust. Or as good as. The remnants now very much out to pasture in a Microsoft backwater. Intel going well, although ‘missed’ mobile. Seems like an oversight, to say the least. Gillette are fabled innovators too. They ran(/run) an innovation machine - carefully controlled, massive investment feeding a steady stream of new product release, synced to existing product life cycle. Gillette’s product development cycle was something like 5-10 years. Understandable, one might say, given the army of engineers and wizards paid handsomely to work it all out. Oh, then Dollar Shave Club happened and with it near 10% of their key market disappeared. Again, Gillette, like Intel, is far from a Nokia. Yet. (But what cost to reputation and Big Beast status when a new, young buck arrives at the watering hole, bashes you up the rear end and starts making good times with your once lady friends? Yep, like the dominant Stag or Elephant bull, image is everything. Lose your ‘Daddy’ status and the road back is a rocky one.)

All these companies have suffered what is commonly described as a ‘disruptive innovation’. That's a nice fancy term. A good marketing term. But actually all that happened was change.

That same change which, as individuals and companies, we’re generally pretty poor at harnessing.

Now, I don’t claim to be a master at it. As said, I hold on to ideas much longer than is healthy or necessary, but learning to both see and harness the change all around us not only makes good personal sense, its makes good business sense too.

There are a few ideas at the heart of doing this (I’ll offer 3, obviously, because no post is complete without a top 3. So say the List Gods anyway).

1) Confidence - This is rarely mentioned with innovation but, it seems to me, confidence lies at the very heart of it. If we are confident, if self-esteem is high, we are more able to experiment, to confidently create new. We are much more able to wriggle free of the warm blanket of inertia. Again, this being true for us as individuals so, by extension, it must be true for our companies (just for the avoidance of doubt, our companies being collections of people).

As such, it seems that the most inventive and adaptive companies must be those where people’s confidence, their self esteem, is super high. This sort of touchy feely nonsense doesn’t sit well with the idea of company as a machine, (or, worse still, an army!) but appears unavoidably true to me.

Maybe measuring confidence, even creating a Confidence Improvement Plan is actually the best new business /innovation tool any company could develop. It's quite measurable too, which will please McKinsey.

2) Outside In. I am quite contrary. I like Outsider ideas. I more obviously recognise with the outsider perspective. It is also true that most ‘innovation’ really happens at the margins. Conversely, most companies ‘expert’ in innovation, like Nokia (oh, no, sorry, not them. They’re dead.) or Intel or Gillette, run highly disciplined ‘Inside Out' thinking, systems and processes. They have machines which are manufacturing the future. Or attempting to. Whilst there are obviously upsides, the bigness, the efficiency of these systems are also, inevitably, their Achilles heel. The ‘Inside Out’ machine finds it almost impossible to simultaneously balance an Outside In perspective - that being another quirk of the human condition.

They are unlikely to see the little changes bubbling up on the margins, let alone respond to, build on or even improve on them. Dollar Shave Club is a consequence of technological, cultural and social changes. These underlying changes are the waves which new businesses, new ideas, new approaches ride…and they are seen at the margin first.

As such, the ‘Inside Out' perspective is good, but its also blinding.

I like the energy from the margins. Companies should find a way to harness this energy; the alchemy which happens when outside sparks with inside, when Big meets Little.

Seems, with a confident underbelly, big companies would do well to challenge their thinking with the most awkward, bubbling energy and ideas of the periphery. Networks - physical or virtual, online or off - which facilitate this would be a good start.

3) Right Deployment. Work habits are changing. I write this from a coffee shop. Big companies are wrestling with these ideas. What is a building for? (Actually - that might be a question deserving a more considered response!). With an ever growing number of people on the planet, as Ken Robinson talks about in his inspiring book - and much watched Ted talk - The Element, we need to find ways of harnessing everyone’s unique contribution. If we are choreographing people’s unique talents, as running a company might be described, we need to open to new ways of working and work ourselves to harnessing everyone’s unique contribution. The curious, the tinkerer, the outsider will always exist in companies, yet often in frustrated form. The rigidness of organisation rubbing against their deepest instincts. How might the structure of the company, the structure of the underlying network, change? What if big companies simply become a Mothership, unleashing networks of micro businesses - those creative souls whose passion is in creating change, creating the new? Rather than a company creating rules for others to fall into, the company becomes the platform to facilitate multiple endeavors. What if small companies did the same?

Would newspapers have dived so quickly, or record pubishers before them, or Nokia for that matter, if they were more dynamic collections of energetic micro businesses?

What would a confident workforce, constantly learning from the periphery, do? What multiple directions might these agitators take a company on? Who knows.

Whilst there are undoubtedly challenges in such approaches, at the very least it might make for companies who are in better dialogue with, and more responsive to, the underlying shifting, tectonic plates which will, in the end, deliver it’s end. It might make for organisations which are more resilient, more alive and responsive to the sparks of opportunity which are constantly fizzing. The being true for companies large and small. This being true for us as individuals too.

Are you alive to the sparks of opportunity which are constantly fizzing by?

Signal vs Noise

Do Nothing, Go Surfing Or Slow Down.