In organizational change and even in innovation efforts there is often a battle (perceived and real) between management and leadership. In some cases, management and leadership are grouped together in a battle against organizational change agents. The narrative goes something like this, “Our management team are dinosaurs, they just don’t get the world has moved on. Their fossilized way of thinking will kill the business and they don’t care.” While it can sometimes be the case that organizational leaders and managers have a vested interest in the status quo, it is not always the case. Often management is the punch bag, but management is very necessary for innovators and change initiatives. We should not vilify management, rather we need only to introduce this practice at a later stage in the life cycle of an idea, business, product, or service. In essence, we need management to bring order to chaos.
Ideas Spring from Chaos
The word Chaos comes from the late 15th century. Chaos denotes a gaping void or chasm, and later formless primordial matter: via French and Latin from Greek khaos ‘vast chasm, void’. I like to think of chaos as a central source of ideas, like a mixing bowl of all the inputs we permit into our consciousness. Each of these weekly articles and indeed my book came from that central repository, a mixing bowl of inputs. To put order to those thoughts I require discipline, the hard work of writing each week, of selecting an appropriate image of checking my grammar. For me, that is putting order on the chaos and I am fortunate to have the benefit of discipline from my career as a professional rugby player.
New ideas spring from chaos, from disorganized (chaotic) thinking, from divergent thoughts and random insights. This type of thinking is a gift and is characteristic of those people in organizations who have great ideas. BUT. Having the idea is not enough. How many people do you know, perhaps you grew up with, perhaps it IS you, who have great ideas, but never act on them? The idea is the beginning. Acting on it is the hard part. To summon ideas from chaos and add some order, we need to toggle between muse and scribe (thank you, Anne Janzer, for the concept), chaos and order (thank you, Dee Hock), and in organizations: innovator/leader and manager.
The Idea is Not Enough
There is a quote attributed to H. Jackson Browne Jr. “Talent without discipline is like an octopus on roller skates. There’s plenty of movement, but you never know if it’s going to be forward, backwards, or sideways.” I see management and leadership through a similar lens. The organizational idea is not enough, we need discipline to deliver the idea. Innovation without discipline can be like an octopus on roller skates.
We discussed the topic of “the idea is not enough“, on a recent episode of the Innovation Show with the author of “The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron”, Bethany McLean.
I am keeping the story succinct to emphasize my point. Enron had a Head of Operations, named Rich Kinder, Kinder kept a tight rein on the nuts and bolts of the organization. Kinder’s departure from the company coincided with the newly minted CEO, Jeff Skilling. Skilling thought like a consultant, enamoured, always, with the “Big Idea”. He had surprisingly little appreciation for how things got done in the real world. He had zero interest in the nuts and bolts of operations. He had a narrow, selfish view of what constituted success that revolved solely around his ideas; he was largely indifferent to the rest of Enron. Yet suddenly Skilling was in charge, running a company that was generating $13 billion in annual (supposed) revenues, employed 11,700 people, operated in 22 countries, and had an array of problems that needed to be fixed.
“It was a recipe for disaster,” says an early ECT executive. “You had (Ken) Lay, who was disengaged (the founder and Chairman), and you had Skilling (CEO), who was a big-picture guy and a terrible manager.”
Skilling liked to use the phrase “loose-tight” to describe Enron’s culture, a phrase borrowed from the book, “In Search of Excellence”. The company, he said, could be managed loosely because of its tight internal-control mechanism. That was all great in principle, but it didn’t have any tight internal-control mechanisms. The company became so loose that it unraveled so badly it was like the Christmas Tree lights debacle many of us encounter every year.
The great innovator and thinker Buckminster Fuller said, “there is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it is going to be a butterfly”. In the early stages of R&D, Innovation and Invention, it is difficult to identify which ideas might become successful. It is the same in talent identification with young athletes. A shift in the tectonic plates of the business environment can change everything and a caterpillar that was facing extinction can suddenly emerge as a magnificent butterfly. If management gets their hands on emergent ideas too early, they may potentially strangle them, it is very hard for their more rational minds to identify potential, but that is not their role. Their role becomes essential once the idea takes flight.
Leaders, innovators, entrepreneurs, and change-makers identify ideas. Once established, managers are necessary to scale the idea and put some manners on it.