Innovation Exhaustion and the adaptive manager

pottsThe last few years, management thinking has been dominated by a big idea: innovation.  And by this time a certain fatigue is setting in.  Call it innovation exhaustion.

Innovation is much harder than it looks.  And even when we get it right, it proves not to answer all or the biggest of our problems.

The biggest of our problems is not that we need to take a constant flow of innovations to market to win share and fight the competition.  Though, of course, we do.  The biggest problem is that in the meantime we must live in a world that bucks and weaves with disruption, surprise, and confusion.

In fact, we can innovate constantly and well, and still find our organization at sea.

I think innovation arrested our attention because it looks like a good way to make ourselves responsive to a dynamic, increasingly unpredictable world.  It was all part of that management philosophy that said is that the best way to manage the future was to invent it.

Recently, I’ve started to wonder whether the proper object for our attention should be adaptation.  This is the study of adjustment that interacts constantly with strategy.

Innovation is hard.  But adaptation is in us.  It is perhaps our great and defining gift.

Rick Potts is director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Human Origins Program and curator of anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.  He argues that adaptability is the secret to our success.

“[W]e started out as a small, apelike, herbivorous species 6 million years ago in tropical Africa, and after a history of origin and extinction of species, what’s left today is us: a single species all over the planet with an astonishing array of abilities to adjust.”

This feels like an old story but in fact it resists conventional wisdom.  We are inclined to tell our story as if we (and it) were inevitable.  It’s a kind of presentism, as if nature conspired to produce us, and that this evolutionary development could not have been otherwise.

But Potts points out that there was nothing inevitable about our rise.  There were several hominid trials underway.  Our numbers were tiny, competitors were formdidable, and the environment changed radically.   Homo Sapiens was always an endangered species.

Why did we survive and thrive against the odds?  Why us and not someone else? It is, Potts says, due to our gift, our particular genius, for adaptation.

“My view is that great variability in our ancestral environment was the big challenge of human evolution. The key was the ability to respond to those changes. We are probably the most adaptable mammal that has ever evolved on earth.”

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Jill Neimark for the article in Discover Magazine.  Find it here.  And to Stephen Voss for the magnificent image.

Denial and the new, nimble, agile corporation

Ember Status ItemSome time in the last year, I spend 40 minutes and 55 slides telling a roomful of senior executives about a trend that was “on approach.”

Trend X emerged sometimes in the 1960s and was now moving towards them with something like the force of a Tsunami.

Trend X was in the process of disrupting the industry, hollowing out the client’s business model and turning their value proposition inside out.

Then something happened.

Denial happened.

For the rest of this post, please go to the HBR blog here.

Greta Van Susteren: plastic surgery trend setter?

I saw Greta Van Susteren recently. 

She is famous for her take-no-prisoners style of interviewing.  

She also famous for her plastic surgery.  

Everyone was a little surprised that she had any. She’s not a vain person.  Apparently, her husband has to remind her to comb her hair before an interview instead of after.  

So Greta getting plastic surgery was news.  

I scrutinized her carefully.  I looked at the "before" and "after" photos.  

It’s hard to see what she’s had done.  

It’s harder still to tell why she’s had work done

She is not prettier or more beautiful.  (I am not saying she’s not pretty. I’m saying she’s not prettier!) 

And then it occurred to me that we we might be looking at a new motive for plastic surgery

Perhaps Greta wanted to make herself look more formidable.  

And this would make her plastic surgery adaptive in an whole new way. 

Beauty is one thing.  But when everyone on camera plays this card, well, aren’t there other opportunities?  Formidable makes lots of sense for someone who scrutinizes people and topics for a living.  It makes sense for people who want credibility in the newsroom.  

And why stop there?  Could we be on the verge of a world in which we go under the knife to look more intelligent, more sensitive, more caring, more thoughtful, or more honorable.  To see this from an evolutionary point of view, every "species" is working the same angle. Everyone is being more beautiful…as if this were the only way to be more attractive.  

Greta is mum on the topic.  See the People story (below).  I may have missed it, but I don’t see her declaring herself explicitly one way or another.  And of course someone trained as a lawyer would play it just this way.  Let the world assume what it will.  And keep the truth to yourself.

Or maybe Greta did do it for the beauty.  We are still in possession of a possibility.  

References

McCracken, Grant. 2008. Transformations: Identity Construction in Contemporary Culture. Indiana University Press.  

Smolowe, Jill. 2002. “Nipped, Tucked and Talking.” People. February 18.  here

Brands behaving badly: the case for messiness

By this time, all the world is objecting to the proposal from G.M. to dump "Chevy" and hew to "Chevrolet."  it’s such a manifestly bad idea, it might actually be calculated to provoke the great linguistic love fest soon to follow.

But we can take issue not just with the what of the decision but the why.  Richard Chang of the Times gives us the memo from inside G.M.  It comes from the desk of Alan Batey, vice president for Chevrolet sales and service, and Jim Campbell, the G.M. division’s vice president for marketing.

“When you look at the most recognized brands throughout the world, such as Coke or Apple or instance, one of the things they all focus on is the consistency of their branding,” the memo said. “Why is this consistency so important? The more consistent a brand becomes, the more prominent and recognizable it is with the consumer.”

I beg to differ.  Brands did once labor to present the same face in every medium and all markets.  In the second half of the 20th century, the world of marketing and especially design was all about consistency.  This is what the corporation paid us for: to get their semiotic ducks in a row.

That was the 20th century.  Brands now want to be many things to many people.  They are called upon to adapt in real time.  Some overarching supervision is called for.  But we want the brand to give off a certain vitality, vivacity, charisma even.  And these things, as we know, come more surely from complexity than consistency. 

Naturally, this makes the marketer’s job more difficult.  In the old days, once the choice was made, due diligence was all about policing the departures that were sure to spring up in every corner of the corporation.  Now, it’s managing a bundle of sometimes discordant meanings, expressed with a variety of various visuals (and audibles). 

"Chevy" is a worthy part of this bundle.  Nay, it has deep roots in American culture.  This makes it a meaning most meaning managers would kill for.  

References

Chang, Richard.  2010.  Saving Chevrolet means sending "Chevy" to dump. June 10.  here.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Daniel Rosenblatt.