There’s an old joke that starts with the question why should you never ask someone whether they are from Yorkshire. Answer: if they are from Yorkshire, they’ll already have told you. If they aren’t from Yorkshire, they’ll be embarrassed.
Which is to say that, seeing as you didn’t ask, I’m from Yorkshire. Born halfway between Valley Parade and the Bronte parsonage to be precise. Or in ‘The North’ if you want to be more precise.
Now I live in North Devon. Strictly speaking, North Devon is in the South West of England, but in reality, it is also in ‘The North’. As in ‘on the right side’ of the North-South divide that still exists in the UK, despite the best efforts of the current ‘government’ to ‘Level Up’. Efforts that so far don’t seem to involve either sending some of the money people in the South have to people in the North, or sending some of the work that people in the North do to the idle rent-seekers in the South.
I have to say that it has been something of an uphill struggle to convince friends that still live in the geographic North that my geographic south-westwern map location is also on the North side of the Great Divide.
Finally, I found the answer to the problem. All it took was a sixteen hundred year journey back in time to a point in history when the North and South looked something like this:
A map that makes clear the North-South Divide has its roots in deep tribal differences. The South from these tribal perspectives means the Anglo-Saxon south-eastern corner of the land; The North means the Britons and Picts occupying everywhere else.
Suddenly, all feels right in the world again.
Now all we need to do is shift the current political arguments for Scottish and maybe also Welsh independence to the far more sensible split of the Union into a south-eastern Angland, and everyone else into a United Britain.
That way everyone will be happy. The golf-club and cravat conservatives in the South West can put their lying populist Clown back in charge (or the two current also-lying replacement candidates*), and the rest of us can install a system of proportional representation and begin to work together for our benefit instead of theirs.
This politics game is a piece of piss.
* both candidates are making claims that they are from The North right now. Liz Truss keeps describing herself as a ‘Yorkshire lass’ when she’s actually from very-Anglo-Saxon, Oxford; and Rishi Sunak thinks that because he represents a Northern constituency that it makes him Northern by association. Not when he lives in a keep-the-plebs-out, trillion-dollar walled-mansion it doesn’t.
One of my favourite social engineering experiments is a computer simulation showing how ghettos form. A simple model of housing markets in which digital sellers are programmed to have a preference for certain types of buyer. If I move into a new housing development situated between, say, Bradford and Leeds, and my neighbours have a bias towards selling to someone from Leeds and against someone from Bradford, then, over time, the development will, horror of horrors, become chock-full of Loiners. The amazing part of the simulation is that it only needs a tiny amount of bias – a seller might have a 51% inclination to sell to another Loiner and a 49% inclination to sell to the Bradfordian – to eventually produce developments that are completely Bradford-free.
Meanwhile, on a separate subject, in theory, this (crisis) time in history is the perfect time for innovation. A few organisations seem to get it, but more don’t. Maybe it only needs a few? I don’t know. From a save-the-planet/save-society perspective, the likelihood is we need a lot more.
So where are they?
A big part of the problem, I think, has to be attached to the forty-plus years of Operational Excellence almost all organisations have been taught is critical to their success. Nothing is that simple of course, the almost complete replacement of actual leaders with meak, anti-brave, rule-following managers is an emergent phenomenon. Which means a conspiracy of multiple contributing factors. Like forty-plus years of ‘continuous improvement’ thinking, forty-plus years of MBA programmes teaching students how to use spreadsheets, draw Gantt charts, Manage By Objectives… I could go on. What the whole shebang ultimately leads to is c-suites crammed full of Red-World thinkers. People that know how to climb s-curves, but have no idea what to do when they hit the top. Or, in most cases, are aware that there is such a thing as a top.
Don’t get me wrong, having the skills to successfully navigate an organisation up the s-curve is important. It creates efficiency, economies of scale, and, for a while at least, impressive sounding EBITDA figures. On the down side, when taken too far, it makes the organisation extremely fragile. Such that when the outside world shifts – a pandemic arrives, for example – and the organisation finds itself thrown off their nice stable s-curve, Red World thinking is no longer going to help. What these organisations need is a healthy dose of Green World thinking. Something that Red World unfortunately fails to recognise. And so what tends to happen is a c-suite that doubles-down on the prevailing problems and becomes even more Red. Doubling down on getting people working harder, chopping costs and flogging the Sales team so they ‘try harder’. This is generally called a slippery-slope. And the thing with slippery slopes is they get slippier if we keep doing the wrong things to get off them.
When the world of management creates c-suites full of rule-followers, it is only a matter of time before things will start going wrong. Exponentially, slippery-slopery wrong. Rules, like almost everything, have a half-life. A half-life that was already past due before the arrival of Covid-19, and now look positively stupid to everyone except, it seems, Red World managers. Which is just about all managers.
How did that happen?
The answer merely requires us to think about how promotion works. The most visible mechanism is hitting KPIs. If I hit (or, better yet) exceed my targets I’m more likely to get promoted than someone that doesn’t hit theirs. Especially if I keep doing it. This gives an immediate problem for people operating in Green World roles, where, very often it makes no sense to set any kind of target. And, when Red World forces a declaration of ‘something to aim for’, Green World people know there’s a more than fair chance we’ll not end up where we said we’d end up when we were forced to make our solemn promise at the quarterly review. Either because something went wrong, or we found a more interesting, more productive direction. If something went wrong, Green World thinking tells us that it was valuable ‘learning’. If we found a better direction, it was also learning and a potentially much bigger prize for the company. Only, as far as Red World is concerned, neither is what we promised we’d do. In Red World, what gets promised had better get done. And getting stuff done repeatedly and reliably is what leads to promotion. Promotion-oriented people rapidly learn, when in Red World do as the Red Worldians do. Apply that logic for a few years and we end up with organisations in which Red Worldians have promoted themselves to fill all the senior positions inside the organisation, they know how to manipulate their personal targets to make sure they’ll be achieved, and they know how to set tough, ‘stretch’ targets for everyone lower in the hierarchy that will – pass or fail – still make them look good. Red World in this sense comes to look like a demented Ponzi scheme. And all the time, like any good Ponzi, the organisation is making itself more and more fragile. Usually with the Green World thinkers looking on with their jaws on the ground. How could managers be so dumb?
Answer: a not-so-winning case of Confirmation Bias. One that means all evidence, irrespective of bigger picture reality, confirms the Red dogma that Red delivers and Green procrastinates. Ergo, always promote Red.
And, worse, now the world has had forty-plus years of this Red Ponzi game, the people at the top of the organisation most likely never found themselves exposed to Green thinking at all. They know only Operational Excellence. They see only continuous improvement. They do not see the cliff-edge at the top of the s-curve. They are Green blind.
To the point, that in the last few years I’ve concluded that, when I’m given the rare opportunity to teach on MBA programmes, I’m giving the high-flying middle-manager students their first awareness that there is such a thing as Green World. Most of them, I know, will have a bit of confused fun during my time with them, but will then forget the message. Some, however, even though they may decide Green-World is not for them, will at least know that it exists and has a vital resilience-building function within any organisation. My hope is that when these people find themselves at the top of the corporate pyramid, they’ll be the first generation of leaders to understand that they need to make sure there’s a critical mass of Green thinking beneath them, so that when times get tough they know its time to bring these people to the front and let them work their rule-re-inventing, get-out-of-Leeds, magic.
A rule about online engagement has floated around the internet for a few years now. It is called the Rule of Participation Inequality, or the 90:9:1 Principle. It goes something like this:
User participation in any online internet community generally follows the 90:9:1 principle:
90% of community members are lurkers who read or observe, but don’t contribute
9% of community members edit or respond to content but don’t create content of their own
1% of community members create new content
I think the Principle applies to quite a lot more than just online communities. In fact, I’m struggling to find situations where it doesn’t apply. Certainly, when innovation attempts are seeking to understand prospective customers better, one of the most effective shortcuts says to go and find the 1% (‘influencers’) and tap into their perspectives and opinions.
Except, not quite. In Innovation World – a place where we’re looking for step-change, ’10x’ solutions – it is always important to remember the (too-)oft used Henry Ford quote, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Customers, in other words, tend to be step-change-blind. In amongst the myriad other biases we all carry around with us, comes Zero-Sum Bias. This is the bias that encourages us to believe that life is a big game of whack-a-mole. The moment we solve one problem, the next one turns up. Life is win-lose.
The combination of this pair of inherent weaknesses leads to the recognition that, when it comes to innovation, most people’s instincts are, at best, ‘unhelpful’. I have a sneaking suspicion that the pair also forms much of the basis for Carlo Cipolla’s ‘Basic Laws Of Human Stupidity. And especially Law 1: ‘Everyone always and inevitably underestimates the number of stupid people in circulation’.
It is with Cipolla’s life-changing (life-affirming? (Cipolla isn’t trying to be cruel)) essay in mind that has caused Systematic Innovation World to implement our own version of the 90:9:1 Principle. Enter the (90:9:1)squared version. Which states that, once you’ve found the 1% of useful ‘content providers’, that 1% is subject to another 90:9:1 split:
90% of the 1% will be irretrievably caught in the Faster-Horse/Zero-Sum traps
9% of the 1% can intellectually accept the traps are escapable
1% of the 1% have successfully escaped the traps at some point in their lives
Or, put another way, about 0.01% of a population are able to provide meaningful innovation insight.
The first implication of this is that, unless we have access to very high numbers of interviewees or surveyees and even better filters, we’re better off not bothering.
The second is that, if you can find the meaning providers, you should try and keep a tight hold of them.
The third is that the tighter you hold, the faster they will escape.
‘What are the most important contradictions?’ A question that comes into the SI Research Team on a regular basis. And one that, perhaps more than any other, warrants the dreaded consultant answer, ‘it depends’. If we’re focusing on tackling climate change, the most important contradictions are different to those we’d select if we were seeking to restore some semblance of trust in the politicians we elect. Or don’t. The answer, too, assuming there is one, also depends on our ability to affect any kind of change, rather than merely working on a problem to achieve the same sort of gratification we get from doing a crossword or playing Wordle. Lots of things – some technical, some business, some psychological – in other words, have an impact on which contradictions we might best spend our time focusing on.
That said, we tried to make a first stab at answering the importance question in the November 2014 SI ezine article, ‘Universal Hierarchy Of Contradictions’. Looking back on that article now, I see two areas of weakness. The first – contradictions associated with morality and ethics – we made a first attempt to address in a much longer article about some of the difficult challenges arising from the Covid pandemic, ‘Covid, Complexity & Contradictions’, that was published in the January 2021 issue of the ezine. The second was the lack of detail at the top of the universal hierarchy, and contradictions associated with the highest level driver, ‘meaning’. Here’s where we get to put a little more flesh on those bones.
Back in 2014, when it came to our attempts to understand human behaviour at a first principles level, we were talking about the ‘ABC’ model, and the idea that the three primary drivers of human behaviour were our parallel desires for Autonomy, Belonging and Competence. ‘Meaning’, and our innate desire to live lives that are ‘meaningful’, was and still is seen as a higher level principle than ABC, but somewhere between 2014 and today, and with some client projects, the ABC model evolved into the ABC-M model.
The Universal Hierarchy of Contradictions article talked about the inherent conflicts and contradictions between Autonomy, Belonging and Competence, but only peripherally discussed the inherent contradictions that also exist between those three and the higher level Meaning they support. Here, after several years worth of incubation is what we think those three ‘top level’ contradictions look like:
And in a little more detail:
Meaning-Autonomy: meaning only derives from the relationships between things. I might find a particular song or a painting or a book meaningful, for example, but what makes them meaningful are some or a combination of the memories of times with significant others they invoke, or my connection to the songwriter, artist or author, or how what they teach me might enable me to become a better person in the minds of the people around me. Our desire for autonomy and to do what I want to do thus conflicts with the fact that we only derive meaning when we focus on doing right by others.
Meaning-Belonging: being a valued member of the ‘tribe’ has, from an evolutionary perspective, been essential to survival. Activities like eating, sleeping or even just being with others are all meaningful acts. The problem comes when we seek new meaning. That comes only when we leave the safety of the tribe and go explore strange new worlds and have new experiences. And so the fundamental contradiction here is that we need to stay in the tribe and leave it. In line with our oft used John Naisbitt quote, ‘don’t get so far ahead of the parade no-one knows you’re in the parade anymore’, the often impossible challenge for the seeker of the new is how much of it they can hope to bring back to the tribe without being cast out because what they’re saying no longer fits with the values of other tribe members.
Meaning-Competence: the easiest way to ensure we feel competent is to avoid leaving our comfort zone. Learning of any description only really happens when we are prepared to be wrong about things and thus able to acknowledge that we are incompetent. The search for new meaning is again where we experience this contradiction in its most direct form: we need to be both inside and outside our comfort zone. New meaning derives only from our willingness to ‘suffer’ the discomfort of being wrong. Potentially for protracted periods of time. Which pretty much sounds like the core of any innovator’s working day. More on that front in this month’s SI ezine.
Here’s a second stab at a difficult conversation article. The first one (Reference 1) didn’t quite managed to get us cancelled, so I thought I’d have another go. Largely prompted by a client, who asked recently, how do you detect whether something is ‘woke’ or not? We like questions like that. Questions, in other words, where there’s a desire to measure something that, it turns out, the world doesn’t appear to have fully understood what it is yet.
In which case, Job 1 is to try and unravel the various different interpretations. Here’s a paraphrase of a commonly used definition:
Woke is an adjective meaning “alert to injustice”. It originated in African-American Vernacular English and was primarily concerned with encouraging people to become awake to racial prejudice. Beginning in the 2010s, it has come to encompass a broader awareness of social inequalities such as sexism, Amererican Left ideas involving identity politics and social justice. The phrase ‘stay woke’ had emerged in the 1930s, in some contexts referring to an awareness of the social and political issues affecting African Americans. The phrase was uttered in a recording by Lead Belly. Following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, the phrase was popularised by Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists seeking to raise awareness about police shootings of African Americans. More recently still, the woke waters have become further muddied by predominantly alt-right bubbles of the Social Media echo chamber and extensions ‘wokery’ and ‘woke-ism’ have been weaponised to criticise people – usually in arguments surrounding identity politics – to dethrone terms like ‘politically correct’ and ‘snowflake’ as the insult du jour for many internet trolls wishing to mock the so-called ‘hypersensitivity’ of the left.
When something has apparently turned into an ‘ism’, it’s a pretty good indication that there’s a Goldilocks Curve somewhere in the vicinity. Which in turn means there’s some kind of contradiction that needs to be, first, recognised, then managed, and ultimately, transcended. Each becoming increasingly difficult to achieve. And definitely doesn’t get helped while the Echo Chamber Machine keeps the two ends of the contradiction from talking to one another.
First up, let’s take a shot at drawing the Goldilocks Curve in order to help reveal the physical contradiction…
…and here’s that physical contradiction – we want high levels of alertness to injustice and we want low levels of alertness to injustice – translated into a Bubble Map:
Having obtained this picture, we’re now in a position to utilise three different approaches to manage, transcend or dissolve the contradiction. Let’s start with the easier option, because this one also allows us to close the loop on the client measurement problem that provoked this investigation:
Managing – the key to managing the woke contradiction starts with the need to be able to work out where the peak of the Goldilocks Curve lies. This challenge in turn takes us right to the heart of the need for a solid definition for woke and wokeism. Here are a couple of candidates:
Punching-Up/Punching-Down – in its original meaning, being awake to injustice also came with a punching-up obligation to challenge those in power to correct those injustices. In it’s ‘ism’ form, the direction of challenge shifts to the somewhat easier punching downward direction. Such as attacking random powerless people that happened to say something that didn’t fit our own view of the world. As if this will somehow make us feel better about ourselves…
…it won’t, of course, because the second ‘ism’ indicator is that individuals cease wanting to be held to account for their inevitably imperfect actions, and, partly through guilt, increasingly decide to hold everybody else to account. A switch most visibly identified by shifts in the types of pronouns found in a person’s narrative: from ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ to ‘it’s not me, it’s you.’ To which the most sensible response is, thankyou Jordan Peterson, “set your own house in perfect order before you criticise the world”
Transcending – here’s where we focus on the central ‘conflict’ part of the Bubble Map and an intention to eliminate rather than ‘optimise’ the problem:
Here the most likely solution directions start from Taking Out the desire to punch-down, increasing Transparency, escaping from Echo Chambers and Merging the other side of the Goldilocks Curve arguments, switching the problem the Other Way Around and putting your own affairs in order, and then helping to establish Self-reinforcing feedback loops that help prevent the formation of dysfunctional vicious cycles (Reference 2).
On that latter front, here’s the usual vicious cycle of despair created when we fall victim to Echo Chamber culture and thus increasingly fail to recognise that another side to our views of the world even exist:
If you only see half the truth, in other words, you also fail to see the Goldilocks Curve and hence fool yourself into thinking that a fundamentally up-down curve only has the up side. Which, if you’re not careful, can easily become a shortcut to mental illness.
SIEZ, ‘Difficult Conversations #1: Binary-Non-Binary’, Issue 237, December 2021.
SIEZ, ‘The Morality Of Toast’, Issue 180, March 2017.
Media commentator, James O’Brien, is becoming my go-to guy when it comes to hitting the nail on the head, problem-finding-wise. Here’s how a recent New Statesman article of his begins:
“I’m joined now by Galileo Galilei, a follower of Copernicus who has used modern telescope technology to make astronomical observations that he believes prove heliocentrism beyond any reasonable doubt. “Also joining us is Nigello Lawsini, who has no scientific training whatsoever but has written a short book insisting furiously that the sun does in fact revolve around the Earth. Because he says so. “As the presenter of this programme, I shall now offer exactly equal amounts of time to each guest and treat their conflicting positions as if they are of equal intellectual and epistemological value.”
Part of the problem here is that the cost of writing and publishing a book, especially an ebook, is rapidly tending towards zero. Therefore, anyone can create a book. About anything. Viva freedom of speech. The ‘thud of credibility’. The media, unfortunately, still thinks that an author with peculiar views and a book describing them makes for a ‘balanced’ argument against someone who actually understands their subject, has rigorously studied it and subjected themselves to years of peer review.
The situation is not helped by the shear amount of media that’s out there. The cost of assembling a podcast, ezine, blogsite, etc, etc also tends to zero. What counts in this kind of environment, therefore, is Share Of Mind. Facebook and Twitter are the masters of capturing it. They know – or rather their algorithms have worked out – that people love arguments, they love (self-)righteous anger and they love whoever tells the best story. The media knows, too, that to fight the dominance of Twit-Face, they also need to play the game.
The big problem though is that 99 times out of a hundred, the person that tells the stickiest story is the cretinous charlatan. It works something like this: If truth is on your side, you fool yourself into thinking that will be enough to win the day, so you devote the bulk of your time to finding more truths. Conversely, if the truth is not on your side, your only way to win an argument is to find better ways to tell your story. Which means you learn how to focus on cunning aphorisms, wild examples and, best of all, incredible stories that make listeners wish they were true. Stories that listeners want to then share with other listeners. All the while leaving the person that’s gone to the trouble of finding the truth sat alone at the end of the bar. Billy-No-Mates. Introvert book-worm versus ribbons-and-bows, loud-mouthed raconteur.
And thus the media unwittingly – or is it? – causes the spiral of lies and dysfunction to spin out of control. The best story wins the most likes.
In theory, the answer to this vicious cycle is for Billy-No-Mates go on a few intensive story-telling workshops. But then you end up with Brian Cox. Which definitely doesn’t help either.
The problem is deeper than that. It’s the one first described by Edward De Bono in his critiquing of what he labelled ‘The Gang Of Three’, and in particular, the Gang’s leader, Socrates. Socratic thinking is the world’s dominant thinking method. It’s what still gets taught at Journalism School. Get two opposing views together and have them slug it out until logic wins the day. It’s better than nothing. But it’s no longer good enough for the complex world we now all inhabit. Socratic thinking is either/or thinking. This was sort of okay when the world was simpler and didn’t change very fast. But now everything is connected to everything else, either/or thinking just means we all end up going around in circles, passing the trade-offs from one person to the next, with – as we now know – the person with the least interesting story ending up with the resulting shit on their lap.
The Jonathan Foster solution to this excess-Socrates problem is that the journalist is the one tasked with helping everyman to determine the truth. If their thinking is also Socratic in nature, though, the best they can hope for is to act as some kind of a referee. A referee that gets to look at the either/or spectrum and decide which is the best compromise point between the two extreme views. Except the ‘right’ answer – if there is such a thing – is never on that spectrum. It lies in a third dimension. The one introduced by Hegel. Thesis-antithesis-synthesis. The Third Way. A third person in the discussion. Fourth if the journalist doesn’t have the skills to look out the window and see ways forward that resolve the conflict between Bill-No-Mates and the loud-mouthed raconteur and generates a higher level solution. A solution that might reveal one or both of the thesis-antithesis opponents are talking bollocks. And a preceding discussion that, by putting conflict at its heart, could also help satisfy the media urge for share-of-mind generating thrills and spills.
Or maybe. There’s still the problem of people not liking smart-arses. And it would be very easy for the synthesis-focused Third Way spokesperson to find themselves trapped in that smart-arse position. Who made them the decider?
Every problem is solvable, of course, and, if we believe our own methods, someone, somewhere will already have found the solution for us. Or at least the basic foundations of a solution.
Which is what I think we can see in, of all places, the Welsh Government. An organisation that has in effect created a Third Way oriented person in the form of a Future Generations Commissioner. A person tasked – per the Well-being Of Future Generations Act of 2015 – with representing future generations during the usual Socratic either-or policy debates.
The fact that the role has existed since 2015 and is still there is probably some kind of testament that the idea works (especially when pitched in terms of a Commissioner that is in effect tasked with representing the future of our children). The fact that most people haven’t heard about it, or sought to replicate it elsewhere is that, when I read the Act, it doesn’t have enough teeth, and – more importantly – they haven’t done a good job of telling their story. And especially the idea of seeking to switch nugatory either/or choices into both/and breakthroughs. Which is a pity since, I think, the story is an almost unbeatable Hero’s Journey tale if it can be told right. Which is where things come full circle back to the media again. A shiny new Third-Way Media.
Moaning. The rule inside Systematic Innovation HQ is this. Anyone is allowed to take a minute to moan about any topic they like. Beyond that minute, unless you’re doing something to fix the source of the moan, your job is to shut-up. Often, the moaning focuses around the difficulties of getting books shipped to the EU. Or ‘who stole the damn parcel tape?’ Or ‘why does the volume always go up when there’s a Swans CD in the player?’ Brexit-related problems aside, these sorts of moan usually get fixed. We’ve also had quite a long phase of moaning about the depressing state of British politics. That’s probably where the one-minute rule came from. Short of a Cromwell-like insurrection, there’s not an awful lot we can do to get our global-laughing-stock, uber-liar Prime Minister out of office. Unless you count collective willpower. Which is probably going to require a few million wills as opposed to the SI collective.
Some encouragement on this front, however, appeared in the news today, when we saw a few thousand of what ought to have been Clown—Boy’s biggest (Royalist) fans roundly booing him as he walked into Day Two of the Jubilee celebrations. All power to them.
Meanwhile, I haven’t been able to get the self-appointed King Of The World’s car-crash interview with Mumsnet out of my mind since it came to light on Tuesday. I imagine he agree to the interview because, unlike most other pockets of the British media, on the face of it, talking to Mumsnet probably sounded like an easy gig. The first you-are-a-proven-habitual-liar question swiftly let him know that this wasn’t going to be the case. That he chose to try and answer it by justifying his crass PartyGate behaviour was probably telling in its own right. As was the moment, later in the interview when he was asked about what books he liked reading to his latest offspring at night, where he swiftly dug himself into another hole that not only re-confirmed he was a liar, but also showed that he was a shit dad too.
Here’s what he said about why it was okay for him to be holding parties in Downing Street when the rest of the country was under lockdown and people couldn’t visit dying relatives in hospital: “We had to keep morale high. Everybody was working blindingly hard… what I thought I was doing was simply doing what is right for a leader in any circumstances and that’s to thank people for their service. If you don’t do that people feel under-appreciated.”
Putting aside the fact that the majority of the parties seemed to start around mid-afternoon and therefore didn’t seem to suggest the kind of ‘blindingly hard’ work that I’ve ever had the privilege to experience, the response seemed to me to reveal not just some rather half-baked thinking, but also, like the Mumsnet reading-to-the-kid gaff, that if that’s what he really thinks being a good leader is about, he’s also a shit boss.
Here’s my logic. Which, these days, typically begins with some kind of 2×2 matrix. This one is based on what I think are the two main dimensions that will determine staff morale:
The first dimension relates to the level of meaning contained in the work that people are tasked with doing. The latest Gartner survey on staff engagement, published earlier this year, reveals an all time low 13% of the global workforce are engaged in their work. The other 87% (87%!) being either passively or actively dis-engaged. My suspicion is that the reducing engagement trend is causally linked to the reduction in meaningful work being given to employees. Now, in theory, out of all the jobs in the world, the one that at the top of the meaningful work league table, ought to belong to a civil servant working in Downing Street. If that were the case, I think it would be safe to say that the morale of those people would almost inherently be as high as it could possibly be. Everyone wants to make a positive difference in the world, and how could you not make a difference working at the literal epicentre of national government? The implication of Clown-Boy’s morale-building parties was that people in Downing Street are not doing meaningful work.
Before I get too depressed about that thought, I need to look at the second dimension on the matrix. This one talks about the effect of leadership on morale. My thinking in this situation starts with one of the most frequently used aphorisms I hear when I get to talk to people that have moved or are thinking about moving to a new employer: ‘people don’t leave jobs, they leave arseholes.’ A boss with poor (EQ) leadership skills, in other words, could be another reason why morale among staff might be low. We’ll try and forget for a second that a majority of the lockdown parties Johnson threw were leaving parties.
The question is which quadrant of the Meaning/Leadership matrix the Downing Street civil servants and their tousle-haired narcissist leader sit? My answer to that question stems from experiences working with myriad different leaders over the course of the last 25 years. This experience firmly indicates that any leader that believes getting a suitcase of Prosecco in to the office to improve morale is the sort of leader that is a) someone who wouldn’t know meaningful work if it hit him over the head with a baseball bat, and b) was an archetypal snake-in-suit sociopath. Britain’s current Prime Minister – a man that, lest we forget, has spent the last two years saving his job and the Conservative Party while letting the rest of the country descends into chaos – thus sits in the bottom-left corner of the matrix. Which, by my reckoning, puts him in the same category as the Emperor Nero. Or David Brent. Or, if you’re a little older, Major Frank Burns from M*A*S*H. Either way, I find myself thinking about collective willpower again. And what I’m going to do now my minute is up.
Money is the fuel that keeps organisations going. I used to say that Red World was the one that knew how to make money. That’s true, but it forgets that getting money from customers in return for providing them with useful products and services isn’t the only source of money. Red World exists to generate repeatable and reliable sources of revenue that allow the organisation to keep going. Part of this ‘keep going’ revenue involves an amount of money to support the work of Green World to create the new products and services that will eventually have to replace the current ones. Green World in this context is typically seen as a ‘drain’ on resources. Particularly by all those people in Red World tasked with generating the cash that allows Green World to exist.
What often gets missed in this Red-today/Green-tomorrow dynamic though is that many members of Green World have also learned to become good at finding their own sources of fuel. Usually in the form of either government-supported grant schemes or, more commonly, investors. Attracting money from these Green ‘customers’ is a very different job to attracting money from Red World’s already-made customer base.
One of the biggest differences is between tangible and intangible. Red World selling, while it will inevitably involve intangible elements (‘when all else is equal, we buy from our friends; when all else is unequal, we still buy from our friends’), is able to focus on the highly measurable, eminently quantifiable and very tangible attributes of an already established product or service.
Green World selling, on the other hand, is almost exclusively about selling the intangibles. Simply because little to none of the tangible stuff exists yet. Green selling is about selling customers dreams of the future. Which, as you might expect, is about being creative and, more specifically, about being able to tell compelling stories.
Red-selling is built around data and facts, supply and demand, helping customers to get their pre-existing jobs done and demonstrating that the benefits and attributes of our solution are better than those of our competitors. The Who, What, When, Where, How and Why’s have all been worked out, and it is about using the same ‘script’ over and over again, with periodic carrot-or-stick variations depending on whether it looks like we’re going to hit our sales targets this quarter or not.
Green-selling starts from a point where that script doesn’t exist yet. None of the 5Ws or the H have been worked out. It is therefore about conducting as many experiments as we can, saying things in different and hopefully eventually better ways to as many prospective future customers as we can muster. All the time walking a cruel tightrope walk that reminds us that every time we fail to convince one of those prospective customers, we are eating away at what may already be a pretty small pool of brave, early-adopting dreamers. In so many words, every new product or service offering that an organisation is hoping to take to market needs to be accompanied by a corresponding amount of Green Sales ‘business innovation’ to accompany the Green Engineering technical innovation work that went into creating the new thing.
I’m mentioning this now because one of the things we’ve been noticing in this strange between-s-curves time in society – a time when most industries should be realising this is also the perfect time for them to be innovating – is that the most important attribute of just about any innovation attempt right now is to be quick. Which means that the business innovation task of working out the stories that will sell the future dreams to prospective customers are largely going to have to happen in parallel with the product/service development activities. In a normal market (if such a thing exists) the smart innovator ought not to contemplate selling new products that are still only halfway along the Technology Readiness Level scale. In today’s turbulence, it is highly likely that the braves souls that work out how to sell R&D outputs at TRL3 or 4 or 5, in parallel with the ongoing technical development work that will be the winners.
Here we perhaps find ourselves contemplating the double-edged sword that is the Minimum Viable Product. Another of those business buzzword ideas that is likely to go out of fashion before anyone works out what it was supposed to mean. My theory is that the business world finds itself talking about MVPs because it sounds like something that Red World might find acceptable. i.e. it is a Green World conception that has rapidly found itself corrupted in order to pander to business leaders that usually have no conception that a Green World even exists. Consequently, as with most important ideas, it rapidly descends into lowest common denominator territory. So the Red World focused version of a MVP focuses on the main elements of functionality. As opposed to the original intent of having MVPs that also helped designers to gain the earliest possible opportunity to explore usability and desirability parameters. And, now that it has become important to think about having a Green Sales capability as a business imperative, to also be able to explore the higher level story-related characteristics of a new product or service. Something like this:
Thinking through this kind of Green-MVP strategy is something that I believe the best Green World inhabitants have always been able to do. I’m thinking specifically about those people that are able to simultaneously pitch their dreams to investors and sponsors and demonstrate that they know how to safely and reliably transition from the dream to money-making (Red World) reality.
…Clay Christensen followed up the big question posed in 1997s Innovator’s Dilemma with the Innovator’s Solution book. The answer took six years and a co-author. And 292 pages. The only problem was that the Solution wasn’t really any kind of solution at all. Which, I guess, is a pity. Except for the fact it probably sold more copies than the question book, so Christensen and Raynor probably didn’t mind too much.
The irony in this story is that if either of them had bothered to check out TRIZ they could’ve answered the Dilemma question and saved themselves 100,000 words worth of going around in circles. Albeit the circles were both entertaining and eminently readable.
If you don’t know where the future disruptors are going to come from or what their solution is going to look like, 292 pages of not very meaningful text is probably about par for the course. But the TRIZ Trends give us some very clear descriptions of what the future solutions will look like. If you’re making, say, band-aids, the Dynamisation Trend alone will tell you that the future is liquids, gases and fields:
Very likely in that order. The existence of these kinds of roadmap offer the plastic-strip-based incumbents all the useful future-proofing directions for their business:
if they’re lazy and in possession of below-average morality and ethics, they could simply patent the liquid, gas and field-based solutions. The only downside of this (aside from perhaps not being able to sleep at night at the thought they were using the patent system to do the precise opposite of what it was intended to do) is they may have to conduct some insurance-policy type research in order to be able to demonstrate to the Patent Examiner that their novel solutions are ‘manufacturable by one skilled in the art’. Beyond that, the patents would then ensure ~20 years of protection against any meaningful disruption. By which time it would in any event be likely that there would be a new set of leaders in place, hopefully one or two of which would have raised their moral standards a tad.
if they’re lazy and in possession of already higher than average moral standards, they could patent the same TRIZ-derived solutions and then, rather than sitting on them for 20 years, they could look to license them to a friendly new-entrant. They would then let this new entrant play the Innovator’s Dilemma game up until the point where the new solution is starting to take away valuable customers, and then allow the incumbent to buy them. Ideally using a pre-determined arrangement agreed upon at the time of the initial license contract.
If they’re not lazy, possess good moral standards and a decent level of Innovation Capability Maturity (Level 3 or above), they could develop the disruptive ‘inferior’ new solution themselves. Most likely using a separate-from-the-main-business SkunkWorks type development arrangement and then launching under a different brand name, gradually then managing the retirement of the old technology and fully transitioning to the new.
Seems fairly straightforward. The (TRIZ) Innovator’s Solution in 500 words or less. The only problem now is that the knowledge won’t earn me nearly as much in royalty payments or client engagements as the none-TRIZ version did for the esteemed Professor Christensen. Which, now I think about it, sounds like a really important contradiction to go work on…
The paradox explored in my book ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’
is that successful companies can fail by making the ‘right’ decisions
in the wrong situations.
Clayton M. Christensen
This year marks the silver anniversary of Clay Christensen’s classic text, The Innovator’s Dilemma, a book that, unlike the vast majority of business titles, is still being referenced twenty-five years after publication.
There was a time during the mid-noughties when I spent a lot of time working with the senior leadership team of an American-headquartered MNC. It felt like they were alternating between me and Professor Christensen: I would be in there one month telling them one thing, and he’d then be in the next month telling them something different. Well, hopefully different. Although, hopefully also, not too different.
In one of those blinding flashes of the obvious that has somehow managed to take fifteen years to arrive, the other day I finally recognised a missing connection between Christensen’s Dilemma and TRIZ. One that, I believe, helps to eliminate some of the criticisms of Christensen’s work. Work that, according to my MNC leaders at least, started with a useful but incomplete theory and gradually, over the remaining course of his career, became increasingly convoluted in an ultimately vain attempt to try and make the theory complete.
For those that aren’t familiar with the Innovator’s Dilemma (full title: ‘When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail’), it works something like this:
Someone, often a new player, enters a market with a product or service that has ‘inferior’ performance (and usually lower price) to the existing and established offerings coming from the large incumbent players.
Because the new offering is ‘inferior’ it attracts the lower end of the incumbents’ customer base. Then, because the incumbent likes the idea of being able to focus on their more profitable higher-end customers, they are inclined to welcome the new player into the market and to take over the hassle and low margins associated with the low-end customers.
The entrant improves the likelihood and speed of their future success by identifying a new measure of performance that they can sell to customers alongside their inferior performance against the traditional measures of performance established and being monitored by the incumbent providers (e.g. when hydraulic earth-moving machines first appeared, their earth moving capacity was massively inferior to that of the incumbent cable-driven machines, but they were much more maneuverable; similarly – one of Christensen’s most widely cited case studies – new generation computer disc-drives had inferior memory but offered the benefit of being physically much smaller).
Engineers and designers, given half an opportunity, will work diligently to improve the performance and value of the products and services under their care. The rate at which they are able to make these improvements tends to be greater than the average rate of increase of customer need. Inside the large incumbent organisation, the engineers focus on meeting the future needs of their highest value customers. For the new entrant engineers, their improvement efforts increasingly attract not just the low-end incumbent customers but also progressively more of the middle and higher end customers. Hence the innovator’s dilemma: incumbents want entrants to take away their least valuable, ‘worst’, customers, but in so doing sow the seeds of the progressive loss of their more valuable customers as the entrant improves their offering. They invite an ‘inferior’ player into the market only for that player to then kill them.
The book was initially written for leaders working in the large incumbent companies. Perhaps ironically, today it more often gets used as a kind of playbook for the so-called ‘inferior’ entrants. And it is from their side that we see the vital missing connection to TRIZ: In the same way that the disrupting entrant makes their journey easier by finding a new performance measure to attract incumbent customers, they can also increase their likelihood and speed of success by following the TRIZ Trends of Evolution:
These trend patterns show engineers, designers and scientists of all industries a clear route-map to more ideal solutions. Prospective market entrants looking for their disruptive ‘inferior’ solutions could choose to find them by looking backwards along the Trends. This would definitely achieve the goal of delivering an ‘inferior’ solution, but it will almost certainly not allow them to win the Innovator’s Dilemma game. To do that they need to recognise that their ‘inferior’ solution needs to be based on forward jumps along at least one of the Trends.
The reason this works is that, because the Trends are built on patterns of successful s-curve jumps: whenever an industry makes a jump from one stage of a Trend to the next, they are effectively jumping from the top of the current curve to the bottom of the next. In such situations, the performance of the new solution will almost inevitably be inferior to the matured old solution. But – crucially – because the Trend pattern has provided us with a roadmap to future success, we can be certain that as the new solution makes its inexorable rise up the new s-curve, it will eventually reach a point where its performance will exceed the maximum capability of incumbent solutions still stuck at the top of the previous s-curve.
The TRIZ Trends in other words serve as the disruptive innovator’s near perfect play-book. Any prospective market entrant can find an ‘inferior’ solution to try and do the job with, but only those using the Trends will be able to identify the ‘inferior’ solutions that will inherently turn into the solution that will dominate the future market once the engineers work their improvement miracles. Good for the new entrants. Less good for incumbents… until we show them a better Innovator’s Solution…