Change With Purpose – Part 2: the opportunity engine

November 17, 2014 by Olivier Blanchard - 1 Comment

I just got back from Dassault Systemes‘#3DXforum in Las Vegas, where I spent the better part of a week getting acquainted with some of the world’s most advanced innovation acceleration tools and many of the brilliant minds behind them, and since my mind is still abuzz with a thousand insights about innovation, let’s continue what we started with Part 1.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of this post, I want you to take a few minutes to catch up to where my head is. Well… sort of. You will catch a glimpse anyway, and that may be all you need at this juncture. Here are some quick videos for you to feast your eyes on:

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Innovation is just a superior form of adaptation… but adaptation is everything.

100 years ago, companies were just beginning to understand the value of the telephone, of electricity, and of entirely new manufacturing principles like assembly lines. 20 years ago, companies were just beginning to understand the value of the web. Many SMBs only had one computer connected to the internet, and only one email for the entire organization. Business was done via face to face meetings, telephones (land lines), fax machines and physical mail. 10 years ago, companies were just beginning to understand the value of mobile phones, and this was mostly limited to being able to reach employees and clients around the clock or, if they had a Blackberry, send them emails no matter where they were. Apps didn’t really exist yet and social networks were only just entering the mainstream. 5 years ago, companies were just beginning to understand the value of social channels (and many still don’t: is it about content? Is it about community management? Is it about engagement or sales? How do we calculate ROI? What are we supposed to do on Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn? Oh, the complexity of it all).

It isn’t to say that slow adoption to mainstream technology  and resistance to change will kill your company. It might not. Some businesses held on to their old school roots and it’s worked out: artisans, especially: shirt makers, tailors, bakers, butchers, even farmers… Not every business needs a super awesome website and all the latest gear and a stable of community managers to win the social internets. But for most businesses, businesses that aren’t so localized or extraordinary or unique that they will continue to enjoy legendary status with a core community of customers who can’t imagine life without them, resistance to change – or rather resistance to progress – is a death sentence. It doesn’t matter if you’re a 45-person architectural firm or a 50,000 employee global financial institution: if you don’t keep making better and better cheese, or at least learn to make the best cheese there is in the most [insert competitive advantage here] way, someone hungrier and smarter and more in tune with the times is going to come along and steal your cheese.

Having a visionary leader and good people from the top down to the bottom up is a great place to start when it comes to setting goals and direction, creating road maps, and executing the vision. There’s a series waiting to be written on that topic alone; that’s how rich and interesting it is. Today though, I want to point to one very specific aspect of this process, because it is crucial to progress inside companies of all sizes and in all industries: it isn’t enough to hire the best people. It isn’t enough to build entirely new lines of business (and we are going to talk about all of that in more detail very soon). You also have to create and nurture a process by which their insights can be properly tapped and leveraged for the company. In other words, it isn’t enough to hire the best marketing minds to perform marketing functions and the best IT pros to perform IT functions; those best marketing and IT minds (go ahead and add every single discipline you can think of to that list, from finance and engineering to customer service and retail design) must also be put to task in two crucial ways:

1) Identifying areas of opportunity for the organization.

2) Helping test these opportunities to see just how viable, adaptable, and scalable they are.

If you want to be at the forefront of innovation – and I don’t just mean technical innovation – you must have a system or process like this in place. Otherwise, what’s the model? Letting your competitors innovate, and take the risk you weren’t willing to take, and only once you are certain that it will work, go ahead and follow them? Where’s the value in being an ‘also in’ company? Where’s the value in scratching out a tiny little sliver of market share when you took the time to invest in the best minds in your industry and then didn’t use them to gain an advantage over your competition?

Opportunity hunters have to be sprinters:

I was watching NBC’s broadcast of the Spartan Race World Championship over the weekend, and somewhere towards the end of that endless deluge of cliché slow motion, teeth-gritting acts of oversold athletic valor finally came the nugget of insight I had been waiting for for the better part of an hour: One of the elite athletes in the women’s division – I believe it was April Luu OCR – came upon one of the final obstacles, where she noticed that one of her competitors, who had until then been ahead of her, was struggling. In the post-op interview, now voiced over the race footage, she explained something that resonated with me both as an athlete and a business strategist. It was simply this: that you have to wait for those moments, for those opportunities when you can make a move. Victory isn’t always the result of an incremental thing, a contest of who trained better and who is stronger, and who can be a little more efficient here and there. You also have to be ready to make decisive moves when the opportunity presents itself. Somewhere along the way, someone is going to open a door, and you have to be both attentive enough to see it and ready to not just walk through it but sprint through it. In other words, opportunities come in irregular cycles. They come when you least expect them, but knowing that they do come and that the only way to be able to seize them is to be ready and prepared to do so, will make it entirely more likely that you will.

Building the opportunity-aware organization:

The same mentality that allows elite athletes to turn a situation to their advantage during competition is also found in elite soldiers who find ways of turning a sudden change in their overall tactical situation to their advantage, and in marketing pros who find ways of leveraging a change in technology, a niche new trend or a subtle shift in cultural consciousness into a win for the brand they work for. In the marketing world, this manifests itself as innovative and enormously successful campaigns like, for example, Old Spice Man’s social channel Q&A crossover and Oreo’s real-time marketing win during the 2013 Super Bowl. (We will look at other examples outside of digital marketing in Part 3.)

The trait that drives this opportunity-aware mentality can be developed, encouraged and supported by deliberate hiring, training and management practices. In other words, companies that want to focus on not only driving innovation at every level of their organization but also see the importance of creating an opportunity-driven business model can, if they want to, bake this type of process into the day to day management of their business.

We are talking about a very different kind of organizational layer from what you are probably used to seeing in most organizations, where HR-friendly job functions, lines of business goals and silos typically run the day-to-day. But the thing is… this sort of layer, of active, purposeful connective tissue, is not that difficult to build and activate. We aren’t talking about breaking down silos here, or solving the political frictions that pit this department against that one. We aren’t even talking about culture change, really. I mean, to some extent, yes, but this is more of a culture shift than a culture change. It’s more about focus than change, even. It’s about moving forward again, about finding the how. It’s about starting up an engine of innovation and opportunity that might have been running at quarter steam for longer than it should have. The organization looking to start up that engine doesn’t have to completely reinvent itself or learn to do everything differently. Achieving this sort of shift is actually fairly painless and requires, at its inception, only two things: awareness and will. Processes come later. (Processes are, as business architects might say, merely engineering problems. They can be solved quickly enough, and elegantly at that.)

Accelerating progress: okay, now what?

So what does all of that have to do with accelerating progress? Well, in order to accelerate progress, you must first have an eye towards it. We’ve established the 10,000ft view of what that looks like: 1) hire competent people who understand the world and are intellectually curious, 2) task them with looking for ideas, opportunities and solutions, and 3) organize some sort of structure and mechanism around this process so the exercise actually produces outcomes, not just reports. Then you have to put it all to work.

These two questions have to become central to the org by that point:

1. How can we do x better?

2. How can we get there faster?

This is the starting point.

We will pick up where we just left off in Part 3, and discuss strategies and tools that can help your company accelerate its innovation process.



Additional reading:

Can Technology Save The Environment? by Leo Schlesinger

How To Boost Innovation In Cities by Victor Mulas

A New Way Of Fighting Cancer by Bill Hathaway

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Disclosure: both my participation in #3DXforum and my access to executives were made possible through the generosity of Dassault Systemes. Opinions regarding the company, the event, and all insights shared here, however, are entirely my own. 

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