Slamet Hendry

obxerve

Nov 2008

Innovation beyond the buzzword

Although it is true that not all innovations come out of innovative companies, innovative companies consistently innovate. And they are able to consistently innovate due to their innovation culture.

Many companies market themselves as being innovative, and in many cases, that is all there is, a marketing claim. Innovation has become a popular buzzword. Being called innovative is fashionable. Read many companies' marketing brochures and annual reports, and it is not too hard to find references to self-proclaimed innovation.

But being truly innovative is in the eye of the beholder, as evidenced by result. An “innovative” product or service that does not meet customers' need is hardly innovative. It is either the wrong time, the wrong interpretation, the wrong market, or any combination of the above. For example, a scientist discovers a new compound to treat an incurable disease, but the side effect of the treatment is so adverse that the drug would never get approved. Or an engineer invents a new super cool gadget, but the manufacturing cost is too prohibitively expensive. In both examples, the innovations do not materialise.

Innovative product or service comes from the practice of innovation. To produce innovations consistently, companies need to pervasively embed the practice of innovation in every day life of the organisation. In other words, they need to make it into an innovation culture.

The following discussion explores some key aspects of innovation culture.

Unified leadership

At the heart of every corporate culture is the culture of the leadership team — they greatly influence how their corporate culture shapes over time. Leadership team that is passionately unified in their attitude toward innovation behaviours will foster middle management that behaves likewise. And in turn, the middle managers will manage their teams accordingly. And in tough times, leadership team needs to fight off the tendency to halt or cut back innovation initiatives.

Big picture view

Innovation culture is about the whole company, not just the Research and Development department or the Marketing department, etc, etc. Innovation is sustainable when the company as a whole thinks and breathes innovation. Heroic effort from some people may be able to to produce an innovative product or service, but if the rest of the company does not live the innovation culture, they will slow down the rate of further innovations.

Continuous learning

The world does not stand still and competition does not disappear in the face of innovation. Competitors respond to each other and will try to out-innovate the last innovation. Once a company shakes the industry with its innovation, the rest of the industry responds, and the cycle does not stop. The question is, who is going to come out and remain on top?

Listening mindset

Given the true measure of innovation is in the eye of the beholder, so to speak, sensitivity to “listen” to the customer is imperative. Listen to what the customers say and do not say, and what they do and do not do. “Listening” is a discipline that everyone in the organisation need to engage in.

Execution

At the heart of a consistently-innovative company is the ability to execute well. A brilliant idea alone does not make an awesome product or service. What good is a product that wins accolades from critics, but despised by customers due to poor quality? What good is a unique service if it cannot be replicated or scaled up to satisfy clients? This is indeed the ingredient that is often missing: being innovative to execute well.

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Sep 2008

Building relationships daily

Lessons learned and introspection are two sides of the same coin. Lessons learned is used more in an organisational setting (often called other names) and introspection is used more in a personal setting. The process hinges on the observation along two dimensions: the visible (what happened) versus the non-visible (what did not happen), and the task versus the people. People are about relationships.

Companies cannot exist if not for the people in it – from the smallest to the largest of companies. Machineries and computers are operated by people. Information is analysed and synthesised by people. Business relationships happen among groups of people from various companies. Jay Ball from Banner wrote in his eBook, Cracked – A small guide to big ideas :

“We are, at the end of the day, always talking to people. Yes they may be IT-director-people or CEO-people or plasma-TV-buying people, but they are first and foremost people.” #quotes

People are not numbers; they have warm blood, free will, and feeling. Relationships among people are nurtured through understanding and trust. People can be complicated and relationships take time and effort. At the same time, their positions in the organisation do not make the relationships any easier, or more difficult, to nurture. Relationships are uniquely influenced by the “chemistry” of the people involved combined with the circumstances around them.

The “humblest” team members or stakeholders, the ones that are thought of as “least important”, they also deserve the investment of time and effort worthy of any relationship, irrespective of positions. And when time is short and to-do list is long, it seems like a natural decision to prioritise investment of time and effort on the “more important” stakeholders over the “less important” ones, with importance dynamically adjusted based on a given circumstance.

But there is a saying, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” ... The implication is that the “less important” stakeholders can be as critical as the “more important” ones at a given circumstance. And there is no telling in advance when and which circumstance it would be.

Nurturing relationships with team members and stakeholders – all of them – needs to be a daily goal, one relationship at a time. And more importantly, relationships with people in personal life must be nurtured too. Colleagues and business partners come and go as people move on in their careers, but families and friends whose relationships are well nurtured — they stay around.

The following poem is applicable for personal introspection as well as for organisational lessons learned. It speaks of relationships and more. The poetic language should not be dismissed as irrelevant, but, instead, it should be taken as an intellectual challenge to decipher and translate into both personal and corporate life. One would be wise to reflect on it often.

At the end of the day – a mirror of questions

What dreams did I create last night? Where did my eyes linger today? Where was I blind? Where was I hurt without anyone noticing? What did I learn today? What did I read? What new thoughts visited me? What differences did I notice in those closest to me? Who did I neglect? Where did I neglect myself? What did I begin today that might endure? How were my conversations? What did I do today for the poor and the excluded? Did I remember the dead today? Where could I have exposed myself to the risk of something different? Where did I allow myself to receive love? With whom today did I feel most myself? What reached me today? How deep did it imprint? Who saw me today? What visitations had I from the past and from the future? What did I avoid today? From the evidence – why was I given this day?

This poem is quoted from the book Benedictus (European version), or also called To Bless The Space Between Us (North American version), authored by the late John O'Donohue .

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Aug 2008

Best practice can be wrong

The phrase “best practice” is so popular in management circles and consultants that they are sometimes mis-applied by well-meaning individuals.

By definition, “best” implies that a comparative analysis has been completed, whose conclusion is that the “practice” in discussion is deemed to be better than any other known alternatives. Naturally, if someone claims “best practice”, then he or she is expected to be able to supply the comparative analysis to support such claim. More often than not, such comparative analysis is non-existent or, at best, flawed.

Even in scenario where such comparative analysis exists, “best” needs to be put within context. Some business practices are not applicable across industries. For example, some practices in the defense industry do not make sense to be copied by a paper clip manufacturer. And vice versa, a defense contractor cannot adopt some practices that produce “best” result for a paper clip manufacturer if it is to meet the minimum government requirement on defense contracting.

Another potential mis-application is in the word “practice”. A common story goes: Company C did “best practice” X, and got performance Y. So it is assumed that if X is copied, then Y should be repeatable outside of company C. That is a big assumption that undermines many differences among companies. More often than not, other companies cannot duplicate X due to many variables (even company C may not be able to repeat X and Y consistently year after year). It is not that X must be done, but the desired net effect is performance Y (or better). Thus the intended use of “best practice” is actually not the “practice” itself, but the result.

The difference is not just semantics; it is real enough that chasing the wrong “best practice” can yield a negative return on investments. The following gives some ideas on what to look for before implementing an improvement initiative based on “best practice”.

Metrics Analysis: If the performance of the business practice is not measurable, then it is difficult to factually justify why it needs to be improved in the first place. Also, the ability to measure the performance, before and after, provides the confirmation that the improvement initiative works.

Root Cause Analysis: Before too much is invested, it is wise to know what the current performance level is and why it is not where it should be. Adopting a “best practice” that will not address the root cause of poor performance is wasteful.

Impact Analysis: Even when a “best practice” can address the root cause and can demonstrably improve a performance metric, the impact to the overall organisation needs to be understood. It may affect more than one metric, and more importantly, it may affect the other metric in the wrong way. Putting more money to the left pocket with money that comes from the right pocket, does not increase the total amount of money.

Continuous Improvement: Nothing stands still – business environment changes all the time, and companies change too. A business practice that is good for a company in one year, may lead to negative impact in another year. A common mistake is to say, “we have always done it this way and we will continue to do it this way.”

In closing, what is “best practice” for one company at a given time may not be the right one for another company.

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Aug 2008

Reinventing the wheel can be good

Whoever popularised the phrase “do not reinvent the wheel” obviously did not work in the tyre / tire industry, nor raced professionally. In these cases, “reinventing the wheel” is a key ingredient to success. And yet, the phrase is so ingrained in everyday corporate language, that people say it without thinking it through.

Many would argue that it is just semantics. In the case of the tyre / tire or auto industry, that is product improvement, and the “wheel” is the product, so of course it needs to be “reinvented”. Maybe, but that is not the point. As is typical with other idiomatic metaphor, the point is not in the literal, but in the implied. The need for “reinvention” is valid.

To differentiate between a valid “reinvention”, metaphorically, versus an unnecessary one, one needs to analyse the circumstance: is it ignorant or is it intentional? When “reinvention” is conducted without prior understanding that “the wheel” already exists, and thus “reinvention” is incorrectly assumed to be needed, then it is ignorant “reinvention”. On the other hand, when there is a clear end in mind and “reinvention” is decided as a means to the end, then it is intentional reinvention.

When department X needs to track some data, and department Y of the same company already has a good-enough spreadsheet to do the job, is it known to department X that the spreadsheet can be re-used? Or does department X thinks, unknowingly, that they need to create the spreadsheet?

When a disease already has a drug that treats it, does it make business sense to develop another drug to treat the same disease? If the new drug has less side effects while being at least as effective, then yes. Even between groups or departments in the same company, if there is a clear need for a better “wheel”, then yes, please “reinvent” it.

The pitfall to this, clearly, is the “not invented here” syndrome. And to minimise this, the keyword is “prior understanding”. Is it properly understood that “the wheel” truly does not exist? And if it exists, is it properly understood that it is not good enough? If “the wheel” exists and is good enough, then “reinventing” it is a waste of time and resources. Whereas not knowing the answer is simply ignorant.

So, the next time someone utters he or she does not want to “reinvent the wheel”, take a moment to reflect and evaluate the circumstance. Is it because the existing “wheel” is properly understood to be good enough, or is it because of ignorance or, God forbids, laziness?

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Aug 2008

Topping off a successful career

For some executives at the top of their career, it is not always easy to move on, but success can be enriched in more than one way.

Many people grow up having some sort of ideals for a better world... And then life happens. Financial wants, family responsibilities, career ambitions, et cetera take priority and those ideals got de-prioritised. These ideals are not forgotten completely. Once in a while, opportunities present themselves to live out these ideals, although not everyone has the courage to go for it.

CEO of a multi-billion dollar UK-based company, Richard Harvey, went for it. He set out to live and do volunteer work for a year in Africa, accompanied by his wife. (*) He went to apply his management skills to help create sustainable solutions for real world challenges that many poor Africans face. Other executives may think this is just an identity crisis, a season that will eventually go away. But that is missing the point.

Many people are at least as wealthy and as successful as Mr. Harvey, but very few do what he did. There is no benchmark on how much money one needs to have nor what career one should have had to qualify. For many successful executives, loss of income for a year or two is not a financial concern. The smart ones have saved enough in their financial coffers to retire whenever they want to.

No, it is not about money. It is about state of mind. It is about fear of the unknown. It is about family support. It is about feeling secure in oneself to not worry what others might think. (Usually very positive, by the way.) Mr. Harvey was secure enough, financially, and successful enough, career-wise, that he could move his life in a totally different direction to pursue a more fulfilled life.

Those who would follow Mr. Harvey's lead, may find their minds expanded and their perspectives enriched, such that when they decide to go back to the corporate world, they will have the edge over other executives. Not to mention that it will round up their curriculum vitae / resumes and make for an interesting interview discussions.

*) https://www.aviva.com/newsroom/news-releases/2007/06/city-ceo-makes-surprise-choice-for-gap-year-in-africa-3294/

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08 Aug 2008

OSD Methodology: 'Observe – Strategise – Do'

Observe

  • Master both in-depth subject matter expertise and clear understanding of related factors within the big picture.
  • Observe continuously with open mind.
  • Consult others to eliminate blind spots.
  • Learn from the past and identify potential trends before they become forces to reckon.

Strategise

  • Avoid being put in reactive mode; be proactive and “expect the unexpected.”
  • Aim high and yet stay grounded.
  • Be open and promote shared understanding.
  • Prevent the strategy from collecting dust; keep observing that it stays relevant.

Do

  • Live the strategy; avoid empty words and lead by example.
  • Delegate and empower, but do not loose touch.
  • Balance asking for result with giving resources to produce the result.
  • Strive for excellence and, at the same time, be patient.
  • And while doing, be observant.

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Note: “Expect the unexpected” is a quote from Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation