Unleashing Your Molecules Of Change

June 13th 2012

Why do some companies survive crises, and others simply crumple? And stranger still, why is innovation alone not enough? Yahoo, RIM, and HP all unleashed serious resources on R&D initiatives, innovation departments, and expensive strategy advisors and yet all three firms nevertheless now circle dark and uncertain fates. Part of the problem is that leaders favour big solutions for big problems, whereas in nature as well as business - change first begins at the molecular level.

Top down strategy is sexy. Wall Street gets it, your board gets it, your employees get it - and most importantly if you happen to be the top dog at work - your ego gets it. But here's the catch. You can spend a weekend strategy retreat thinking about blue oceans, innovator's dilemmas, and tipping points - but come Monday, you will be faced with a simple but tough challenge. How do you get the rest of the organisation to change their thinking and behaviour along with you?

Creating a bold new innovation division may not be the solution you were hoping for. As you may have already discovered - whenever you announce the ‘really important exciting department that will change the company forever’ - it becomes over-analyzed, politicized and then finally, bureaucratized. I call this the ‘mirror effect’. The bigger your innovation department, the more likely it becomes a microcosm for all the things you are trying to revolutionize in the first place!

One of the lessons I've learnt working with many different types of businesses over the years, is that successful companies start small. They focus on the most basic molecule of change in the enterprise - the project. Accountants like the idea of projects. They apply things like discount cash flow analyses to them to determine their valuation. But you should learn to love them too - because they are the basic building blocks of how you can jumpstart the change process at work.

Here's a thought experiment for you. Grab a piece of paper and rule a line down the middle. Write a list of all the projects you managing or involved in at the moment. Put the ones that focused on protecting your existing business practices and fighting fires on the left. And now, add any of the remaining projects that might involve new ways of making money, new markets or challenges to the status quo. Finally, be honest. How much of you and your company's time is spent on defending the past as opposed to building for the future?

Future focused projects are powerful. They are the small building blocks that smart companies use to ultimately build platforms that dominate markets. In my view, great projects are defined by four important characteristics. They are:

- Bottom up: championed by the people closest to the customer's pain points - Horizontal : supported by a cross functional team of people from different parts of the business - Visible: transparent and actionable by the rest of the organisation - Small: nimble, focused, and targeted to a well defined problem or opportunity

Ultimately rethinking the way you initiate, support and accelerate internal projects is not just a way of driving innovation - it is an essential part of an entirely new way of working. I've been researching and speaking about this topic over the last few months and I'm convinced that we are now seeing a new type of enterprise on the horizon - flexible, adaptable, and natural born for the 21st century.

So - are you ready to re-imagine the way you do business?

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Unleashing Your Molecules Of Change
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