Sunday, November 18, 2012

Are all "Big Ideas" really that "Big"?

Today I finally got a chance to catch up on some reading. First up was my November 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR). I quickly turned to the "Big Idea" section that had caught my attention earlier. Titled "Accelerate!" and written by the well-regarded author, John Kotter, the "Big Idea" he discussed was how the most innovative companies capitalize on today's rapid-fire strategic challenges and still make their numbers. Frankly, I was not too impressed with the article. It seemed to primarily regurgitate and re-package concepts that we have been talking about for close to 20 years.

Here's my paraphrased version of the basic premise of the article:

  • Companies are designed for efficiency not innovation.
  • Companies must find a way to manage the present while also creating their future.
  • In a rapidly changing environment, what is value-adding "context" today can quickly become "vanilla" core tomorrow.

This premise should be of no surprise to anyone who has not just crawled out from under a rock. So, what is Kotter's advice to deal with these obvious conditions? He recommends creating a second "operating system" devoted to strategy and innovation. Kotter defines a company's operating system as the collection of its organizational hierarchies and processes. Since the primary operating system is too focused on day-to-day tactical operations, a secondary operating system is essential to ensuring that an all important focus on strategic initiatives is not lost. Here's why I am not at all excited by these suggestions - there's nothing new here. For decades companies have had a "second operating system" to deal with the "new and unexpected." This second operating system has been called many things including the all too famous "skunkworks". And based on years of various success (and failure) case studies, we now know that such skunkworks initiatives can be made much more effective by integrating them within the core of an organization's culture and strategy. In fact, even I talk quite extensively about this in Part two of my recent book, Living in the Innovation Age.

So, I am sorry Mr. Kotter. Although, I am still a fan of your writing, I am unimpressed by your latest article in HBR. 

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