The corporation is very good at problem solving.
Next to getting things done, this is what it does best.
The trouble is the problems are getting tougher.
This is exactly what we would expect. After all, the world is speeding up. Most corporations expect to reinvent themselves continually, and they do. This is what it is to live in the world that Tom (Peters) built.
In the event that someone missed the news, the business presses put us on notice with titles like "Faster," "Blur," "Out of Control," "Blown to Bits" "Fast Forward," "Creative Destruction." We are learning to live with dynamism.
Please have a look at my little model above.
I believe we’ve spent most of the last 20 years learning to live with life at (C). This is where problems are difficult but not intractable. They test our systems and our assumptions, but with a concerted effort we can put things right. Often the corporation will call in the consultants, send everyone off to a brainstorm or two, and search it’s soul until old models and assumptions are unrooted, and a new approach is put in place.
Whew! We’re good for 6 months.
Now is the time to prepare ourselves for living at (D). This is where the world inflicts upon us a blind side hit so grievous that we feel exactly like the quarterback who was just visited by a defensive end weighing 260 pounds and travelling at ten yards a second (over 40 yards). The coach asks "How many fingers?" The QB replies, "let me get back to you on that one."
We are now much better at opposable problem solving and creative thinking. We are better at collaboration, brainstorms and skunk works. We are better at "thinking outside the box," and a host of other cliches.
But we have gone a long way to go. The thing about (D) is that we have to think our way out of confusion. And the only way to do that is to embrace assumptions we know are wrong. And to put these assumptions into constellations we know are wrong.
We are terraforming. We are creating a great mass of bad ideas as a platform on which to create some good ideas. ??? (D) is now beginning to look more like (C). Eventually, this will give way to (B). And eventually, for a brief while, we will be at (A).
Now it used to be enough to build our new systems when we got to D. But it’s clear, I think, that we need a faster response time. We need a team of people who spend their professional lives creating new models, lots of new models, so that if and when the corporation finds itself at (D), it’s got alternative ideas at the ready. By this reckoning the corporation will now constantly entertain many visions of itself, so to protect against against intellectual stasis that comes from (D).
This Special Teams unit doesn’t have to have the perfect answer. (Guess who spent too much time watching football yesterday? How bout them Browns?) But it has several possible models, each of which is far enough along that the corporation can be returned to (C) and retrieved from the wilderness and the horror of (D). The trouble with (D) is that there is no platform. There’s just chaos. And failure.
Installation of new models, that’s another model. Someone from the Special Teams unit will suddenly appear at our desk. The conversation will go something like this,
"Oh oh. Special Teams. You people are never fun."
"We just want to put a new model in places. Not to worry. Won’t take long. You know, the way we’ve been thinking about product innovation? Ok. Here’s the new model. And you know the way we distinguished between the collaboration and competition? Big change there. Here’s the way it works now."
Remember when we used to terrify one another with stories of how the Japanese could re-engineer a product line with almost no downtime. That’s what we are looking at here. A kind of corporation reprogramming that can be made to happen almost in real time.
Technical change will continue to speed up. Cultural changes will continue to speed up. The corporation is going to have to make ready. It’s going to take on new order of intellectual difficulty. It’s going to need a new order of intellectual power. And, yes, it’s going to need a Special Teams unit.
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Champy, James, and Nitin Nohria. 1996. Fast Forward: The Best Ideas on Managing Business Change. Harvard Business Press.
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Martin, Roger L. 2009. Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking. Harvard Business School Press.
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great post – certainly rings true from where I am. You might be interested in some tools that Arup have developed to help deal with sort of thing.
I guess the thing that is changing is that the pace of dealing with disruptive change is increasing, and wont just be confined to organisations who’ve traditionally had to have a very long term view of how the world might be…
You’re probably aware that the rhetoric of accelerating change in business has been going on since the 19th century at least. You may be aware that Nohria (who coauthored one of your references) also coauthored a book pointing out the overheated nature of this rhetoric. I really don’t think anything we’re going through is comparable to the introduction of interchangeable parts, steam power, the corporation, electricity, the telegraph, railroads, mass urbanization, mass immigration, etc., all of which slammed into business in the 19th century. That doesn’t mean things are stable now, but it helps to have some perspective.
The post’s idea of routinizing radical change is precisely what we want managers to do–one could argue that all management is about productive routinization, taking the adventure out of things to make them more predictable. Whether they can or should do it any given instance is more problematic. Starting with the fixed points, the sticky stuff that is not getting blown around, and building out from there is probably the best way to reduce the confusion factor and ensure that the company is not giving up its raison d’etre. If you hold five cards and you ask the dealer for five new ones it seems unlikely that things are going to improve on average.
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