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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Organization Renewal – The Key To Being Healthy & Relevant

Renewal for Health & Relevance
As organizations mature they face the prospect of death through atrophy and disruption.  All companies start the same way: someone has a unique idea for a service or good for a specific customer; sales grow exponentially, then competitors enter the field.  Soon the organization enters the "desert of despair" where the market is saturated with look-a-likes that are "faster, better, cheaper." 

To maintain profitability, the next step for the company is to go to the premium end of customers and pricing.  Then they wake up to find that their mass market has disappeared and they have become a niche player in a disappearing market.  Death by a thousand cuts and irrelevance.  Blockbuster, Kodak, Blackberry, Nokia.

This doesn't have to be part of the natural business cycle; and some companies know this: Samsung, Pixar, Starbucks, P&G.  What do they know that others don't?  This question has fascinated me for my entire career.  What I have come to realize is that some companies understand that organizations aren’t build to change: we build them for efficiency, consistency, and low risk. 

Some leaders recognize that improving their organizations sets up a dilemma where constantly making the right decision is eventually the wrong decision.  They know, as Nokia learned, that excellence as the world's leading manufacturer of cell phone handsets comes at a cost of not developing smartphone technology - now Nokia is the handset manufacturer for Microsoft.  No amount of urgency or burning platforms could transform Nokia and prevent its demise through its success.

Some companies like the once dying Pixar, clue into the notion of what I call "organization renewal."  They know that protection against irrelevance comes from inside - death is not dictated by the market.  They avoid the need for "change management" and "organization transformation."  They know they must build a culture of renewal.  They know that everyone in the organization must be sensitized to the signals of decay, and they must have the knowledge of what to do and access to the organization to make changes.

This is not chaos or leadership through consensus on everything all the time.  It's about knowing what the organization is and protecting that core while testing, learning, and moving into unchartered territories.  Sometimes it's a simple operational improvement like putting healthy food choices at the grocery checkout; other times it's a simple work improvement like cutting most of the authorities needed for a regular purchase; and other times it moving into new domains like mobile apps for the growing Millennial market.  These changes cannot be controlled from the center - they are too unpredictable.  They must come from a culture of trust and openness where everyone knows how to influence the organization.

In my experience with marquee clients around the world - like Whirlpool, Microsoft Europe, Canadian Pacific, Toyota South Africa, and Korea Telecom – I stress the following essential principles:

1. Know who you are
What can you become - not what do you want to become?  Change
the right things.

2. Engage Employees through Trust, Openness, and Tolerance for failure
·   Know leadership behaviors that shut down the organization.  Learn to listen.  Be inclusive and even vulnerable.

3. Ideate based on Insight
·   Build a discipline and capability for Ideation.  Get ideas from everyone, everywhere.  Show people how to spot trends in their area of interest; understand customers and their unarticulated needs; challenge the organizational beliefs that once were required but now hold you back.

4. Identify & Test renewal opportunities
·    Show people how to convert an idea into a business opportunity.  Be sure employees really know: the customer, the product or service, and how it will make money - or at least a difference.  After defining the opportunity, identify its fatal assumptions then develop a hypothesis to test, learn, and commercialize at low risk.


Organization renewal is the ability to take what you have and keep it fresh so that your organization will always be healthy and relevant.  It's a mindset supported by disciplined tools that can be applied to specific problems. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Am I A Closet Millennial?

Are We All Millennials?
Millennials want to be heard.  They want to be involved.  They want to have a voice in decisions that affect them.  Is this new?  Isn’t this simply a statement of the innate human desire to be recognized as an individual?

It’s unfortunate that we feel compelled to apply labels and definitions to segments of our society.  I’m a late stage “boomer” who was followed by Gen X that has now morphed into Millennial’s (or is that Gen Y), which are being eroded by the new Gen Z.  I think there are fringe characteristics for all of these demographics, but it seems to me that the definitional core is remarkably similar.  People want to have a say in their lives.  And, as the world moves constantly upward and to the right, they have more opportunity for self-determination; however, that doesn’t make generations unique.

A Familiar Song
Let me turn back the clock to my generation of boomers that broke the social conventions of the “greatest generation.”  By the time the 60’s arrived we were struggling (if not rebelling) against the tight rules, stereotypes, and conventions that dominated our teen years.  We lived with strong discipline in the home; engrained roles for women; racial segregation; sexual repression; and governments run by traditionalists.

For right or wrong, boomers wanted to exercise personal freedom.  They rebelled against what they saw as society’s illegitimate exercise of power over their lives.  They changed their society forever (the results are open to debate).  Change came in many courageous forms: the Pill & Woodstock; Freedom Summer & Summer of Love; Kent State & Dow Chemical; Civil Rights & Equal Rights; and the shaking hips of Elvis on the Ed Sullivan show.

And don’t think that government’s weren’t worried.  They were highly concerned about disaffected youth and the devastation that this boomer “pig in a python” could wreak on society.  Governments were searching for answers.  My master’s thesis was on Youth Organizations, like the Peace Corp, that were experimenting with flat, consensus driven organization models.


A Different Song
So does this "wanting to be heard" make me a Millennial?  Probably, but not completely.  It’s the fringe characteristics of Millennials that separate them from other demographic groups.  Specifically, “wanting to be heard” slides into the notion that: “my idea is just as good as an idea tempered by experience.”  In fact, because the world is changing exponentially, experience is often viewed as a drag on innovation and progress.

There is a lesson here for Millennials.  They will learn that experience counts; that everyone has a boss and that their boss is evaluating their performance everyday.  They will learn that decision-making is a weighty privilege that doesn’t always accommodate consensus or the Millennials most brilliant new idea on “gamification.” 

Soon Millenialls will be looking over their shoulders at Gen Z.  As it grows up, this demographic is connected everywhere, all the time.  For them the awesome power of electronics is not an acquired skill – it is lifeblood; and our current eight second attention span will seem a lifetime to them.  Yet they are learning from the generation ahead of them.  They are learning that immediate self-gratification has to give way to a greater social purpose.  Being entitled is one thing; being entitled to help others is a better thing.

I expect to be an observer in this next transition of generations.  Yet a new cycle of people expressing their need to be heard.