By Dominic Irvine, Managing Partner, Epiphanies LLP
The CEO of the company stood on the stage in front of the senior leaders of the business. It was a lovely venue; the chairs were arranged in neat rows, coffee had just been served in the atrium and the agenda was on schedule.
“We need to innovate,” the CEO said, “We need to do things differently. Things have to change. We need to embrace new ideas, new ways of working.”
It’s hard to take such comments seriously when the environment in which they are being said is the same old conference environment. In the same way, if the structure of an organisation remains the same, then the chances are you will get the same old thinking. It would seem that people are struggling to find ways to deliver the increased number of innovations required to stay competitive.
It’s nothing new
Almost every great innovation in history has happened through the ability to bring two or more ideas, from seemingly unrelated areas, together to create a new product or service. This is nothing new, for example, Gutenburg brought together disparate technologies from wine making and paper manufacturing to develop the first European printing press.
It seems somewhat obvious to us that the more interactions you have with a diversity of people, the more likely you are to spot connections between unrelated ideas, the combination of which could ultimately benefit consumers, customers and the business. We need a culture of ‘relentless curiosity’. We need people to ask ‘why is that?’ and to explore possibilities through a myriad of channels.
Dough for dinner
The commonplace silo structure (and mentality) in most businesses means cross fertilisation of ideas is at best limited to the occasional cross functional meeting and at worst limited to the interactions within one team. It’s like going into a supermarket and limiting yourself to the meal you can make with the ingredients available in the bread aisle. This has to change.
The solution is not a matrix organisation either. As long as we define organisations in terms of inputs, e.g. marketing, finance, supply chain, logistics, we will inevitably have silo input oriented thinking. A customer doesn’t buy marketing, nor do they buy a physical product. They buy solutions to problems. There’s an old adage in sales, ‘a problem solved is a product sold’. The inputs to that solution might involve elements of marketing, finance, R&D, but only in so much as they solve the problem. Just as in manufacturing we have ‘just in time’ so too in business we need ‘just enough’, just enough time from the right people to solve each problem.
A problem solved is a product sold
Organisations need to cluster skills around customer problems that have to be solved. The nature of those involved will depend on the problem being addressed. When we say organisations we don’t just mean ‘the company’, we mean bringing suppliers, experts, customers, consumers as well as people within the company together to work on the issues. In this way a company can leverage the intellectual horsepower of a far greater diversity of people and hence increase the likelihood of genuine solutions to a specific problem.
It’s a win-win
Working in this way will mean taking a very different approach to the way people are employed. Flexibility and adaptability are going to be key. This plays to the expectations of the younger generations in our workforces who have greater expectations about their quality of life. The flexibility and adaptability an organisation needs can be met by the flexibility and adaptability employees seek. It will also mean we can access the hitherto often squandered talent of women who, because of the demands of childcare and the inflexibility of organisations, often are a neglected pool of talent. Despite all the rhetoric, the workplace remains a male oriented environment.
The knock on effect continues into the way we will all need to work together. Virtual working will become the norm. The difficulty is that most organisations have not invested much in the way of time to help make this work. It requires a different skill set, requires effort and comes with its own set of issues. However, once mastered, it fundamentally changes the way people can access each other and more importantly who they can access and when.
The transition to this way of working and thinking will not be easy. It is going to happen, the question is whether the current giants of our economy have the capability to adapt and change or whether they will become tomorrow’s dinosaurs.
Had our CEO lived and breathed the different approach he expected in his people, standing on a stage in front of a podium talking about doing things differently would have seemed as crass to him as it did to us. Had he engaged with a broader network, who knows how the presentation could have been delivered? We’d put money on it being more innovative.