Organizations as Systems and Innovation

Portrait of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden

Over the last year or so, the concept of looking at organizations as systems has been a major theme for me. Enterprises, organizations and their ecosystems (context) are social systems composed of a fractal set of social and software systems. As such, enterprises have an architecture.

Another long-term theme for this site has been my conversation with Greger Wikstrand regarding innovation. This post is the thirty-fifth entry in that series.

So where do these two intersect? And why is there a picture of a Swedish king from four-hundred years ago up there?

Innovation, by its very nature (“…significant positive change”), does not happen in a vacuum. Greger’s last post, “Innovation arenas and outsourcing”, illustrates one aspect of this. Shepherding ideas into innovations is a deliberate activity requiring structural support. Being intentional doesn’t turn bad ideas into innovations, but lack of a system can cause an otherwise good idea to wither on the vine.

Another intersection, the one I’m focusing on here, can be found in the nature of innovation itself. It’s common to think of technological innovation, but innovation can also be found in changes to organizational structure and processes (e.g. Henry Ford and the assembly line). Organization, process, and technology are not only areas for innovation, but when coupled with people, form the primary elements of an enterprise architecture. It should be clear that the more these elements are intentionally coordinated towards a specific goal, the more cohesive the effort should be.

This brings us to Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. In his twenty years on the throne, he converted Sweden into a major power in Europe. Militarily, he upended the European status quo in a very short time (after intervening in the Thirty Years’ War in 1630, he was killed in battle in 1632) by marshaling organizational, procedural, technological innovations:

The Swedish army stood apart from its’ contemporaries through five characteristics. Its’ soldiers wore uniform and had a nucleus of native Swedes, raised from a surprisingly diplomatic system of conscription, at its’ core. The Swedish regiments were small in comparison to their opponents and were lightly equipped for speed. Each regiment had its’ own light and mobile field artillery guns called ‘leathern guns’ that were easy to handle and could be easily manoeuvred to meet sudden changes on the battlefield. The muskets carried by these soldiers were of a type superior to that in general use and allowed for much faster rates of fire. Swedish cavalry, instead of galloping up to the enemy, discharging their pistols and then turning around and galloping back to reload, ruthlessly charged with close quarter weapons once their initial shot had been expended. By analysing this paradigm it becomes apparent that the army under Gustavus emphasized speed and manoeuvrability above all – this greatly set him apart from his opponents.

By themselves, none of the innovations were original to Gustavus. Combining them together, however, was and European military practice was irrevocably changed. Inflection points can be dependent on multiple technologies catching up with one another (since the future is “…not very evenly distributed”), but in this case the pieces were all in place. The catalyst was someone with the vision to combine them, not random chance.

Emergence will be a factor in any complex system. That being said, the inevitability of those emergent events does not invalidate intentional design and planning. If anything, design and planning is more necessary to deal with the mundane, foreseeable things in order to leave more cognitive capacity to deal with that which can’t be foreseen.

Managing Fast and Slow

Tortoise and Hare Illustration

People have a complicated relationship with the concept of cause and effect. In spite of the old saying about the insanity of doing the same old thing looking for a different result, we hope against hope that this time it will work. Sometimes we inject unnecessary complexity into what should be very simple tasks, other times we over-simplify looking for shortcuts to success. Greger Wikstrand recently spoke to one aspect of this in his post “Cargo cult innovation, play buzzword bingo to spot it” (part of our ongoing conversion on innovation):

I am not saying that there is no basis of truth in what they say. The problem is that innovation is much more complex than they would have you believe. If you fall for the siren song of cargo cult innovationism, you will have all the effort and all the trouble of real innovation work but you will have none of the benefits.

I ran across an interesting example of this kind of simplistic thought not long ago on Forbes, titled “The Death of Strategy”, by Bill Fischer:

Strategy is dead!

Or, is it tactics?

In a world of never-ending change, it’s either one or the other; we can no longer count on having both. As innovation accelerates its assault on what we formerly referred to as “our planning process,” and as S-curves accordingly collapse, each one on top another, time is compressed. In the rubble of what is left of our strategy structure, we find that what we’ve lost is the orderly and measured progression of time. Tim Brown, of IDEO, recently put it this way at the Global Peter Drucker Forum 2016, in Vienna: “So many things that used to have a beginning, a middle and an end, no longer have a middle or an end.” Which is gone: strategy or tactics? And, does it matter?

Without a proper middle, or end, for any initiative, the distinction between strategy and tactics blurs: tactics become strategy, especially if they are performed in a coherent and consistent fashion. Strategy, in turn, now takes place in the moment, in the form of an agglomeration of a series (or not) of tactics.

The pace of change certainly feels faster than ever before (I’m curious, though, as to when the world has not been one of “never-ending change”). However, that nugget of truth is wrapped in layers of fallacy and a huge misunderstanding of the definitions of “tactics” and “strategy”. “Tactical and Strategic Interdependence”, a commentary from the Clausewitzian viewpoint, contrasts the terms in this manner:

Both strategy and tactics depend on combat, but, and this is their essential difference, they differ in their specific connection to it. Tactics are considered “the formation and conduct of these single combats in themselves” while strategy is “the combination of them with one another, with a view to the ultimate object of the War.”[8] Through the notion of combat we begin to see the differentiation forming between tactics and strategy. Tactics deals with the discrete employment of a single combat, while strategy handles their multiplicity and interdependence. Still we need a rigorous conception. Clausewitz strictly defines “tactics [as] the theory of the use of military forces in combat,” while “Strategy is the theory of the use of combats for the object of the War.”[9] These definitions highlight the difference between the means and ends of tactics and strategy. Tactics considers the permutations of military forces, strategy the combinations of combats, actual and possible.

In other words, tactics are the day to day methods you use to do things. Strategy is how you achieve your long term goals by doing the things you do. Tactics without strategy is a pile of bricks without an idea of what you’re going to build. Strategy without tactics is an idea of what to build without a clue as to how you’d build it.

Fischer is correct that strategy executed is the “…agglomeration of a series (or not) of tactics”, but his contention that it “…now takes place in the moment…” is suspect, predicated as it is on the idea that things suddenly lack “…a proper middle or end…”. I would argue that any notion of a middle or end that was determined in advance rather than retroactively, is an artificial one. Furthermore, the idea that there are no more endings due to the pace of change is more than a little ludicrous. If anything, the faster the pace, the more likely endings become as those who can’t keep up drop out. Best of all is the line “…tactics become strategy, especially if they are performed in a coherent and consistent fashion”. Tactics performed in “…a coherent and consistent fashion” is pretty much the definition of executing a strategy (negating the premise of the article).

Flailing around without direction will not result in innovation, no matter how fast you flail. While change is inevitable, innovation is not. Innovating, making “significant positive change”, is not a matter of doing a lot of things fast and hoping for the best. Breakthroughs may occasionally be “happy accidents”, but even then are generally ones where intentional effort has been expended towards making them likely.

In today’s business environment, organizations must be moving forward just to maintain the status quo, much less innovate. This requires knowing where you are, where you’re headed, and what obstacles you’re likely to face. This assessment of your operating context is known as situational awareness. It’s not simple, because your context isn’t simple. It’s not a recipe, because your context is ever-changing. It’s not a product you can buy nor a project you can finish and be done with. It’s an ongoing, deliberate process of making sense of your context and reacting accordingly.

Situational awareness exists on multiple levels, tactical through strategic. While the pace of change is high, the relative pace between the tactical and strategic is still one of faster and slower. Adjustments to strategic goals may come more frequently, but daily changes in long-term goals would be a red flag. Not having any long-term goals would be another. Very specific, very static long-range plans are probably wasted effort, but having some idea of what you’ll be doing twelve months down the road is a healthy sign.

Learning Organizations: When Wrens Take Down Wolfpacks

A Women's Royal Naval Service plotter at work in the Operations Room at Derby House in Liverpool, the headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief Western Approaches, September 1944.

What does the World War II naval campaign known as the Battle of the Atlantic have to do with learning and innovation?

Quite a lot, as it turns out. Early in the war, Britain found itself in a precarious position. While being an island nation provided defensive advantages, it also came with logistical challenges. Food, armaments, and other vital supplies as well as reinforcements had to come to it by sea. The shipping lanes were heavily threatened, primarily by the German u-boat (submarine) fleet. Needing more than a million tons of imports per week, maintaining the flow of goods was a matter of survival.

Businesses may not have to worry about literal torpedoes severing their lifelines, but they are at risk due to a number of factors. Whether its changing technology or tastes, competitive pressures, or even criminal activity, organizations cannot afford to sit idle. In his post “Heraclitus was wrong about innovation”, Greger Wikstrand talked about the mismatch between the speed of change (high) and rate of innovation (not fast enough). This is a recurrent theme in our ongoing discussion of innovation (we’ve been trading posts on the subject for over a year now).

The British response to the threat involved many facets, but an article I saw yesterday about one response in particular struck a chord. “The Wargaming “Wrens” of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit” told the story of a group of officers and ratings of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (nicknamed “Wrens”) who, under the command of a naval officer, Captain Gilbert Roberts, revolutionized British anti-submarine warfare (ASW). Their mandate was to “…explore and evaluate new tactics and then to pass them on to escort captains in a dedicated ASW course”.

Using simulation (wargaming) to develop and improve tactics was an unorthodox proposition, particularly in the eyes of Admiral Percy Noble, who was responsible for Britain’s shipping lifeline. However, Admiral Noble was capable of appreciating the value of unorthodox methods:

A sceptical Sir Percy Noble arrived with his staff the next day and watched as the team worked through a series of attacks on convoy HG.76. As Roberts described the logic behind their assumptions about the tactics being used by the U-Boats and demonstrated the counter move, one that Wren Officer Laidlaw had mischievously named Raspberry, Sir Percy changed his view of the unit. From now on the WATU would be regular visitors to the Operations Room and all escort officers were expected to attend the course.

Each of the courses looked at ASW and surface attacks on a convoy and the students were encouraged to take part in the wargames that evaluated potential new tactics. Raspbery was soon followed by Strawberry, Goosebery and Pineapple and as the RN went over to the offensive, the tactical priority shifted to hunting and killing U Boats. Roberts continued as Director of WATU but was also appointed as Assistant Chief of Staff Intelligence at Western Approaches Command.

This type of learning culture, such as I described in “Learning to Deal with the Inevitable”, was key to winning the naval war. Clinging to tradition would have led to a fatal inertia.

One aspect of the WATU approach that I find particularly interesting is the use of simulation to limit risk during learning. Experiments involving real ships cost real lives when they don’t pan out. Simulation (assuming sufficient validity of the theoretical underpinnings of the model used) is a technique that can be used to explore more without sending costs through the roof.

Amazon’s ‘Old is New Again’ Innovation

Amazon’s unveiling Monday of its new brick and mortar venture, Amazon Go is, rightly so, generating a lot of interest:

The full strategy, as reported on the Verge is for three types of stores in a range of sizes:

Of the three varieties of stores Amazon is considering opening, the convenience store model is the most concrete. Earlier today, the company took the wraps off Amazon Go, an ambitious cashier-less store in its hometown of Seattle that uses artificial intelligence and sensors to track which items consumers take off shelves. That way, you can simply walk out of the store without having to go through a checkout line. This gives Amazon a critical way to track consumer buying behavior offline.

The other store formats Amazon is considering include a smaller drive-thru variety and a huge, European-style discount chain. The drive-thru prototypes are weeks away from becoming a reality, The Wall Street Journal reports, with two stores under construction in the Seattle area. The larger discount chain model would involve constructing 30,000- to 40,000-square-foot stores that combine instant purchasing with a kind of IKEA model. That way, consumers could order in-store via touchscreens or online and then pick up the finished packages curbside later on. In a statement given to The Verge, an Amazon spokesperson said the company doesn’t comment on rumors or speculation.

While the technology behind the “walk in, grab, and go” convenience store model is cool, what’s even cooler (in my humble opinion) is that the large discount chain model is exactly like what I discussed in “Innovation – What’s Old can be New Again”, back in April. In other words, it’s the rebirth of Best Products, made viable by changes in technology. Not that I’m even remotely suggesting that anyone at Amazon read the post (I’d strongly suspect this has been in the planning stages for far, far longer), but it’s nice to have some confirmation of my ideas. In my opinion, marrying Amazon’s logistics capabilities with digital technology to revolutionize offline shopping is a clear winner.

Greger Wikstrand and I have been discussing the topic of innovation for a little more than a year now. In his last post, “Big bet innovation and other types of innovation”, Greger talked about the difference between making big bets, failing fast, and incremental, continuous innovation. Amazon’s move, particularly with the largest store, I think represents just this type of incremental innovation. Amazon has been experimenting with physical outlets for a while now, starting with bookstores. Moving into groceries and other consumer goods (which is a more complicated segment of retail – books don’t go bad on the shelf!) represents a way to keep pushing the envelope bit by bit.

The hybridization of online and physical retail represents an interesting situation, an innovation toward the middle, if you will. Having grown large in the digital space, Amazon is now continuing its evolution into areas considered the domain of more traditional retailers. It’s interesting that Greger’s article links to a similar case of e-commerce merging with physical presence (in Swedish, but translates well).

It’s been said before, not all change is innovative, but innovation implies change. Intentional change that allows your business to continually optimize its fit to its operating context is truly innovative.

Strategic Tunnel Vision

Mouth of a Tunnel

 

Change and innovation are topics that have been prominent on this blog over the last year. In fact, Greger Wikstrand and I have traded a total of twenty-six posts (twenty-seven counting this one) on the subject.

Greger’s last post, “Successful digitization requires focus on the entire customer experience – not just a neat app” (it’s in Swedish, but it translates well to English), discussed the critical nature of customer experience to digital innovation. According to Greger, without taking customer experience into account:

One can make the world’s best app without getting more, more satisfied and profitable customers. It’s like trying to make a boring games more exciting by spraying gold paint on the playing pieces.

Change and innovation are not the same thing. Change is inevitable, innovation is not (with a h/t to Tom Cagley for that quote). As Greger pointed out in his latest article, to get improved customer experience, you need depth. Sprinkling digital fairy dust over something is not likely result in innovation. New and different can be really great, but new and different solely for the sake of new and different doesn’t win the prize. Context is critical.

If you’ve read more than a couple of my posts, you’ve probably realized that among my rather varied interests, history is a major one. I lean heavily on military history in particular when discussing innovation. This post won’t break with that tradition.

The blog Defense in Depth, operated by the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, has published two posts this week dealing with the Suez Crisis of 1956, primarily in terms of the Anglo-French forces. One deals with the land operations and the other with naval operations. They struck a chord because they both illustrated how an overreaction to change can have drastic consequences from the strategic level down to the tactical.

Buying into a fad can be extremely expensive.

The advent of the nuclear age at the end of World War II dramatically transformed military and political thought. The atomic bomb was the ultimate game-changer in that respect. In the time-honored tradition, the response was over-reaction. “Atomic” was the “digital” of the late 40s into the 60s. They even developed a recoilless gun that could launch a 50 pound nuclear warhead 1.25-2.5 miles. “Move fast and break things” was serious business back in the day.

This extreme focus on what had changed, however, led to a rather common problem, tunnel vision. Nuclear capability became such an overarching consideration that other capabilities were neglected. Due to this neglect of more conventional capabilities, the UK’s forces were seriously hampered in their ability to perform their mission effectively. Misguided thinking at the strategic level affected operations all the way down to the lowest tactical formations.

It’s easy to imagine present-day IT scenarios that fall prey to the same issues. A cloud or digital initiative given top priority without regard to maintaining necessary capabilities could easily wind up failing in a costly manner and impairing the existing capability. It’s important to understand that time, money, and attention are finite resources. Adding capability requires increasing the resources available for it, either through adding new resources or freeing up existing ones by reducing the commitment to less important capabilities. If there is no real appreciation of what capabilities exist and what the relative value of each is, making this decision becomes a shot in the dark.

Situational awareness across all levels is required. To be effective, that awareness must integrate changes to the context while not losing sight of what already was. Otherwise, to use a metaphor from my high school football days, you risk acting like a “blind dog in a meat-packing plant”.

Form Follows Function on SPaMCast 415

SPaMCAST logo

This week’s episode of Tom Cagley’s Software Process and Measurement (SPaMCast) podcast, number 415, features Tom’s essay on recognizing risk and risk tolerance, Kim Pries on change models, a Form Follows Function installment based on my post “All Aboard the Innovation Band Wagon?”, and Jon Quigley on requirements management.

Innovation is the topic of our discussion this time – what it is, whether it’s something that every organization can achieve, and is there a recipe? Everyone wants to be an innovator, but there’s a lot of question around just what that entails.

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

All Aboard the Innovation Band Wagon?

Bandwagon

 

It seems like everyone wants to be an innovator nowadays. Being “digital” is in – never mind what it means, you’ve just got to be “digital”. Being innovative, however, is more than being buzzword-compliant. Being innovative, particularly in a digital sense, means solving problems (for customers, not yourself) in a new way with technology. Being innovative means meeting a need in a sustainable way (eventually you have to make money). Being innovative means understanding your strategy, not just following the latest thing.

Casimir Artmann published a post this week, “Digital is not enough”, outlining Kodak’s failures in the digital photography space. As digital cameras entered the market, Kodak introduced ways to turn film into digital images. Kodak’s move into digital photography (which, ironically, they invented in 1975), coincided with the rise of camera phones. By concentrating more on perpetuating their film product line than their customers’ needs, Kodak wound up chasing the trend and losing out.

Customers’ cash follow products that meet customer needs (even needs that they didn’t know they had).

Sometimes a product or service can meet a need and still fail. A Business Insider article yesterday morning discussed the weakness of the peer-to-peer foreign exchange business model, saying it only works in “fair weather”. In the article, Richard Kimber, CEO of the foreign exchange company OFX Group, observes:

When you’ve got currency moving dramatically one way or the other, what you can have happen is it encourages asymmetric activity. As we saw in Brexit, you had lots and lots of sellers and very few buyers. That can lead to an inability to transact because you simply have all these sellers lined up and no buyers. That’s one of the reasons why the peer-to-peer players opted out of their model during this period of volatility because it wouldn’t have been sustainable.

While Brexit might be the latest event to expose the weakness of the peer-to-peer model, it’s not the first. The Business Insider article referenced another article from January on The Memo that made the same point. Small wonder, the concept of a market maker is a well established component of financial markets.

Disintermediation, cutting out the “middleman”, is only innovative when the “middleman” is, or can be made, superfluous.

Blindly following a trend can be another innovation anti-pattern. In an article for the Wharton Business School, “Rethinking Retail: When Location Is a Liability”, the authors discussed the pressures on brick and mortar retailers and the need to be “Digital-first”. The following was recommended:

  1. Identify some of your common habits and perspectives about how the retail sector should function, including guiding principles, time and capital allocation patterns, primary skills and capabilities, and the key metrics and outcomes that you track.
  2. Uncover the core beliefs about retailing that motivate your behaviors, and are the priorities of your firm and board. This step usually takes some ongoing reflection and added perspective from your peers. Industry best practices likely influence your thinking greatly.
  3. Invert your core beliefs about retailing and consider the implications for your firm and board. There are many possible inversions in each instance. For example, all retailers should ask themselves, ‘Is digital our first priority? How about our customer network — do we put them in front of merchandise and do we have an entire department dedicated to mobilizing them?’
  4. Extrapolate what implications these new core beliefs, and the various ripple effects, would have for your organization and board. Observe what is happening in your industry and, more broadly, how different core beliefs might help you get ahead of digital disruption by companies like Amazon.
  5. Act on your new retail core beliefs (preferably with digital as the center) by sharing them broadly with your customers, employees, suppliers and investors. Purposely changing your business actions, particularly when it comes to time and capital allocation, is an important part of the process and helps reinforce the changes in mental models you are trying to achieve.

Note the generous usage of “your” (retailer) instead of “their” (customer). Sharing “…your new retail core beliefs (preferably with digital as the center)…” with your customers will only be fruitful if those new beliefs align with those the customer has or can be convinced to adopt. Retail is a very broad segment and a very large part of it needs to be digital. That being said, over-focusing on it carries risk as well. Convenience stores, for example, catering to a “we’re out and need it now” market, is unlikely to benefit from a digital-first strategy in the same way big-box retailers might. Not having a one-size-fits-all strategy is why Amazon is opening physical stores.

We don’t drive customer behavior. We provide opportunities that hopefully makes it more like for them to choose us.

Innovation doesn’t come from a recipe. Digital isn’t the magic secret sauce for everything. Change occurs, but at different speeds in different areas. The future is not evenly distributed. As Joanna Young observed in “Obsolescence: Take With Grain Of Salt”:

I recall clearly in the mid-1990s hearing an executive say “by the year 2000, we will be paperless.” I signed, with a pen, four approval forms just today. Has technology failed us? No. The technology exists to make mailboxes obsolete and signatures purely ceremonial. However the willingness to change behavior and ergo retire old methods is up to humans, not technology.

Innovation is significant positive change, an improvement in our customers’ lives, not a recipe.