Wednesday, May 30, 2007

How can corporations best fight atrophy?

If organic atrophy is something to do with a weakening and loss of function due to lack of effective utilization or lack of nourishment, the metaphor suggest we do whatever it is that healthily exercises and nourishes an enterprise. Over the last few years and triggered by the popularity of outsourcing there has been a renewed focus on change management and innovation as defensive measures. They do provide exercise and nourishment but I'm concerned that the manner of adoption is unlikely to prevent atrophy.

Change management has become an analgesic, reducing the pain by working on the symptoms rather than causes. The problem is that while we are able to manage whatever is predictable about the pain of change, the process doesn't help us be more accepting of and adaptable to the randomness and chaos of change. Change management assumes that change is the exception rather than the rule and is a band-aid for leadership by persistence and control to the exclusion of acceptance and experimentation.

Much of the conversation about innovation gravitated to product design which, while important, in itself provides limited barriers to competition and neglects all the other activities in the corporation that can be nourished by innovation.

Change management and management generally is about implementation. When the managers of an enterprise feel pressured, the fear-driven response is usually to implement better and this generally means doing more of the same only quicker or cheaper. While this is great for doing more of the same it is still the same and meanwhile everything else is changing - customers needs, technology, society, macroeconomics and geopolitics are all changing. There may be a lot of exercise but no nourishment. So atrophy begins.

The trick, if there is one, is to accept change as ongoing and therefore that innovation is ongoing and inseparable from implementation. It is clearly atrophy-enabling to have one group of people responsible for implementation and another, usually less integrated and/or less resourced, group of people responsible for innovation as was so visibly the case at Xerox Rochester and PARC Palo Alto in the 80's. It was the quality movement, also a product of the 80's, that taught us differently but the issue now goes way beyond the production floor. Innovation and implementation are everyone's jobs and, if that is the case, it is up to corporate leaders to model this and develop cultures and structures that value both in a way that nourishment is guaranteed.

A couple of years ago I developed the ideas expressed here into an interactive model, "A Vision of Leadership for Collaboration and Innovation" and an interpretive blog, "The Leader-Follower."

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