Recently I facilitated a planning meeting for an engineering company in need of fresh strategy after years of flat growth. But the ideas the group came up with in two planning sessions broke little new ground.
I led a workshop designed to teach emerging leaders how to promote
innovation in their respective offices and departments. We employed
several techniques known to expedite the creative process—stretch goal
planning, associative thinking, brainstorming sessions, and
cross-disciplinary collaboration. But again the group fell short of
coming up with truly innovative solutions to our sample problems.
these results point to my deficiencies as a facilitator. Or maybe it's
unrealistic to expect real breakthroughs in a span of a few hours (as
one participant observed, "It's hard to produce inspiration on demand").
Indeed, in my experience, real innovation is usually the product of a
prolonged iterative process. Or sometimes it comes suddenly,
unexpectedly, without any formal prompting.
Absent fresh ideas,
both groups nevertheless came to an important conclusion: The actions
they listed, while not really new, had not been accomplished. In many
cases, they were common-sense steps that had been identified before, but
remained unfinished or untried. "Maybe if we really did these things,"
one participant suggested, "that would be innovative enough."
I think he may be onto something.
David Maister wrote that "much of what individuals and firms do in the
name of strategic planning is a complete waste of time and about as
effective as making New Year's resolutions. The reasons are the same in
both situations. Personally and professionally, we already know what we
should do...but we don't do what's good for us, because the rewards (and
pleasure) are in the future; the disruption, discomfort and discipline
needed to get there are immediate" (from Strategy and the Fat Smoker).
firm would like to come up with a unique marketplace strategy. But if
you are unable to implement that strategy, what good is it? On the other
hand, imagine the firm that merely accomplishes what we all know we
should be doing—excelling at business development, delighting our
clients, developing our people, improving our productivity. Would that
firm not have a substantial competitive advantage, even minus any novel
Maister observed that he saw little meaningful differences
in the strategic plans of competing professional service firms. Any
leading insights or new services or pursuit of growing markets were
quickly replicated by other firms. The best firms, however, excelled in
putting their plans into motion. It was their follow-through, not their
strategy, that truly set them apart.
Clearly innovation is a
powerful force in business. Yet the companies we all admire and want to
emulate have succeeded not just because they've had great ideas, but
because they've been able to bring them to life. They are implementation
masters. In fact, many top companies have prospered by building on
others' innovations (e.g., Japanese companies that dominate U.S. market
share with products developed from American inventions).
the real innovation in the A/E industry is the ability to succeed at
what most firms are unable to achieve. Doing what we all know we should
be doing, but can't for whatever reason. How can your firm get over the
hump? I've written on this topic before, but let me add a few additional insights (including from Maister):
Align short-term operational goals with long-term strategy. The
two are often in conflict. For example, the push to meet business unit
profit goals may discourage managers from investing money and
nonbillable labor into new services or expansion plans. It's not that
you can't do both, but you need to remove the obstacles to acting in the
long-range interests of the company. One such obstacle may be a reward
system that favors only short-term achievements.
Personalize corporate strategic goals.
Strategy often exists as a disembodied vision of what would be good for
the firm but not necessarily for the people involved in making it
happen. That ignores a basic truth: People are more inclined to do
what's in their own best interest. The most powerful form of strategy is
that which achieves personal ambitions. It's not always possible to
bring the two—corporate and personal goals—into alignment. But you
should take what steps are available to make company success personally
rewarding for those most responsible for it (by the way, don't overestimate the value of financial rewards).
Deal with leaders who won't lead.
In my extensive work with strategy implementation over the years,
there's one cause of failure that trumps all others—the unwillingness of
some influential managers to support the strategy. The may resist
loudly or quietly, but the result is the same: It usually undermines
attempts to move forward. It's hard to convince staff to work hard
towards achieving strategic goals when some key managers treat them as
Maister put it this way: "Professional firms are afraid
of this conclusion. They try to work around the skeptics, the
nonbelievers, and the nonparticipants in their senior ranks, preferring
to hold on to revenue volume rather than put together a senior team
whose members are equally committed to reaching [strategic goals].
That's fine, but you can't call it strategy."
Nor can you call it
innovative if you can't get the organization out of neutral. Strive for
the best ideas you can come up with, but if you must, settle for
ordinary goals pursued in extraordinary fashion.