Skating to Where the Puck Will Be

Wayne Gretzky

I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.

 

Business people have a thing for sports metaphors, and this one in particular is a favorite. So much so, that Jason Kirby in “Why businesspeople won’t stop using that Gretzky quote” observed:

Its popularity has much to do with the ego of businesspeople who think they’re the Gretzkys of their industry. But, more than that, it appeals, in a way no other sports cliché does, to the current obsession with that other insidious buzzword, innovation. Get ahead of the competition by figuring out what the market will look like five years from now, says the management consultant to the client, while handing him a substantial bill. It’s that simple.

Of course, it’s not. Gretzky’s uncanny ability to read plays has never been matched. The hockey world has yet to produce another player capable of coming close to matching his record. Which makes the adoption of his quote by businesspeople all the more empty and galling. Warren Buffett can get away with it. Maybe Steve Jobs. But that’s it.

Do you have to be a Gretzky, or a Buffett, or a Jobs in order to get it right?

Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.

 

Nonetheless, difficult is not the same as impossible. Likewise, the future can be a very big target. Hitting the bits far down the road will be much more difficult than those closer in.

Greger Wikstrand and I have been discussing that “insidious buzzword”, innovation, for more than six months now. This post is the 23rd in the series.

Given the pace of change, “insidious buzzword” seems a bit dismissive. Someone born in 1903 when the Wright brothers first flew what was essentially a motorized kite might just be retiring in 1969 when the Concorde first flew. Almost an entire Radio Shack ad from 25 years ago is now available in the form of a cell phone (for a lot less money as well). Doubtless, some people misuse the term. The phenomenon, however, is very real.

So let’s return to the question of ability to anticipate change. Do you have to be a Gretzky, or a Buffett, or a Jobs in order to get it right? I think that’s a facile opinion, the Great Man theory applied to technology and business.

Greger’s last post, “Inevitable change”, contains part of the reason why I think it’s intellectually lazy to think that innovation is the province of the superstar:

Most changes in evolution are small. They are not big morphological changes. They are small physiological and immunological changes. The ability to resist new disease and the ability to consume new food is much more important than the (seemingly) bigger changes.

In his post, Greger talks about punctuated equilibrium versus phyletic gradualism, sudden radical change versus constant small incremental changes over time. In my opinion, it’s a combination. Species (and organizations) can reach a point where they are no longer fit for the ecosystem they inhabit. They reach that point, however, by degrees.

Likewise, Gretzky skated to where the puck would be, not in one leap, but step by step. Iterative sense-making and decision-making is, in my opinion, far more likely to lead to long-term consistent success than superhuman leaps of intuition. Rather than requiring just the right move at just the right time, what’s needed is awareness and adaptation. Constant, intentional learning is required to ward off the inertia that can be so deadly in an ever-changing environment.

Innovation is a matter of making changes to remain relevant/fit as the environment around you changes. Sometimes those changes may be sudden, but even gradual change can seem sudden to those standing still.

The straw that broke the camel’s back didn’t weigh any more than those that didn’t. It just happened to be one too many. That means there were lots of opportunities to move right up until there weren’t any more.

[Wayne Gretzky photo by Håkan Dahlström via Wikimedia Commons]

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Form Follows Function on SPaMCast 399

SPaMCAST logo

This week’s episode of Tom Cagley’s Software Process and Measurement (SPaMCast) podcast, number 399, features Tom’s essay “Storytelling: Developing The Big Picture for Agile Efforts”, Kim Pries on deliberate practice, and a Form Follows Function installment on customer-centricity for IT.

Tom and I discuss my post “A Meaningful Manifesto for IT”. It seems obvious that the business of IT is meeting needs, but how many organizations are really happy with what they’re getting? The prevalence of “shadow IT” would seem to indicate that there’s some real discontent.

You can find all my SPaMCast episodes using under the SPAMCast Appearances category on this blog. Enjoy!

Learning to Deal with the Inevitable

On Reconnaissance, Józef Brandt, 1876

 

My last post, “Barriers to Innovation”, began with a question. Is innovation inevitable? By the end of the post, that question had changed. Is innovation inevitable for your organization? Tom Cagley left a comment suggesting another change:

Think about changing the question again. “Is innovation inevitable?” might be better stated as “Is change inevitable?” The answer to the latter question is yes but no to the former. Change and innovation do not have the same thing.

Tom’s comment was, of course, right on the money. Change is inevitable and while all innovation is change, not all change is innovation. Scott Berkun’s definition of innovation is still my favorite:

If you must use the word, here is the best definition: Innovation is significant positive change. It’s a result. It’s an outcome. It’s something you work towards achieving on a project. If you are successful at solving important problems, peers you respect will call your work innovative and you an innovator. Let them choose the word.

Change, however, is not guaranteed to be either significant or positive. It will, however, be. It may be unwanted, it may be denied, but it not will be avoided. Organizations, like organisms, demonstrate their fitness for purpose via adapting to change. Organizations, like organisms, die when their ecosystems change around them and they fail to follow suit. Research in Motion, who quickly went from leader to laggard in the mobile communication space provides a graphic example of this.

Back in March, I noted that I find myself increasingly drawn to exploring the fractal nature of systems, both software and social, and their ecosystems. Understanding the social systems that make up the ecosystem of a software system is, in my opinion, key to getting and keeping the best possible fitness for purpose. Technology cannot help an organization when its structure and processes are working at cross purposes. Chasing these fractals to their logical end, we move from within the bounds of the organization out into its ecosystem. This is the level that Tom Graves refers to as the whole-enterprise, the “bold endeavour”.

This chasing of the fractals to form a mental model of the environment in which you’re operating is also known as situational awareness. Situational awareness is critical to effective sense-making which is critical to effective decision-making. Just as a body of troops with poor situational awareness risks walking into an ambush, an organization with poor situational awareness risks similarly unpleasant surprises (at least figuratively).

To be effective, the sense-making/decision-making process should be a ongoing process. Likewise, it is a process that should span the levels of concern, tactical through strategic, that make up the whole-enterprise architecture. To be effective, the process should yield action, adapting the organization to the changing context, not just insights into the divergence between the organization and its ecosystem. To be effective, you need to be intentional or lucky (and you can only control one of these).

My views regarding this are based on my own experience and what I’ve synthesized over the years from a variety of sources. I was pleased to get some affirmation recently while attending an event where Professor Edward Hess of the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business discussed his book, Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization. His premise was effective learning, something that humans can be really bad at, is key to organizational effectiveness. This view obviously resonates with me (which carries a hint of irony given that he talks about confirmation bias as something that inhibits effective learning – you’ll have to trust me that that’s not the case here).

Because of time constraints, Professor Hess’ talk did not go into the same depth as his book (which I’ve since read and will be referring to in upcoming posts), but some of the key points relevant here were:

  • a learning culture is useful regardless of whether the goal is efficiency or innovation
  • a learning culture is created intentionally
  • candor, facing the “brutal facts” is essential to a learning culture
  • permission to fail and psychological safety does not equate to lack of standards/control, a learning culture takes risk tolerance into account

His most important point is that while it is in our nature to be “suboptimal learners” who let ego and fear get in our way, we can learn to be better learners, both individually and as a group. Diversity, by virtue of bringing multiple mental models to the table, can diminish cognitive blindness (Gooch’s Paradox – “things not only have to be seen to be believed, but also believed to be seen”). By understanding that we are not rational thinkers, we can take measures to avoid the pitfalls of fast thinking.

In a changing world, sitting still can be deadly. Motion, however, provides little benefit if it’s not purposeful and intelligent. A cohesive whole-enterprise with a culture of intentional, effective sense-making and decision-making (learning) is well placed to make better moves in a dynamic world.

Barriers to Innovation

US Soldiers crossing Siegfried Line in WWII

 

Is innovation inevitable?

Greger Wikstrand and I have been trading blog posts on innovation since last November. In his latest post, “Credit card fraud and stalled innovation”, Greger discusses the relatively slow pace of innovation in credit card security. Those best placed to increase security neglect it because they don’t own the risk (a concept called “moral hazard”).

Sometimes, a potential innovation is not the best route to take. For example, the situation I discussed in “What’s Innovation Worth”, where change was avoided because the payoff didn’t justify the cost. Sometimes, however, potentially valuable innovation can be blocked in ways similar to what Greger outlined.

Laws and regulations can introduce perverse incentives that distort economic conditions. Ironically, where this hurts some innovations (e.g. Uber and other “gig economy” companies), it can also unintentionally push others. Increases in minimum wage laws are making automation more likely for some jobs.

External factors are far from the only barriers to innovation. Technological innovations, no matter how promising, will fail to flourish when placed in an inhospitable ecosystem. If all the systems, social and technological, fail to complement each other, then effectiveness will be diminished via friction. Technology, organization (structure), and process are all intertwined and interdependent.

Culture and structure are aspects of social systems that can contribute to impeding innovation. Organizations which are highly focused on efficiency and stability will be disposed to avoid the risk inherent in experimenting. Likewise, rigidly siloed organizations will have difficulty with activities that require crossing reporting structures. This can be the result of deliberate and destructive office politics, or less obvious (therefore, more insidious) cognitive biases that lead to evidence being overlooked:

Yet ‘evidence’ literally means ‘that which is seen’. And here we hit right up against a fundamental problem of cognitive-bias, sometimes known as Gooch’s Paradox: that “things not only have to be seen to be believed, but also have to be believed to be seen”.


Inertia, the “indisposition to motion, exertion, or change”, is another social system innovation killer. In the seventh installment of our series on innovation, “Organizations and Innovation – Swim or Die!”, I made the point that organizations need constantly to adapt to their changing contexts or risk “death”. Sitting still in a changing world is a losing tactic.

It should be obvious that all the barriers to innovation I’ve listed are aspects of the social systems involved. The technology part is relatively easy compared to the social. Technology (at least at present) isn’t lazy, complacent, biased, fearful, or malicious. The upside is that organizations, being composed of people, can change.

To return to the question above, is innovation inevitable?

Perhaps. The better question is whether it’s inevitable for your organization. The more your organization is subject to the barriers listed above, the more likely an organization not subject to them will eat your lunch.