From “HBR”…

Leading Your Team into the Unknown

It’s important for a company to have leaders who articulate the core strategy, act as guardians of the flagship offerings, and remain vigilant in serving valued customers. But if you are acting as an innovation leader, that is not your job. You must be an advocate for the new and the different, setting the grand challenge more by deed than by word—by keeping an eye out for the unusual (the outliers, the frustrated customers, the anomalies), fearlessly questioning the assumptions on which the core business runs, and demonstrating the willingness to try things that may be far outside the norm. Even (or especially) if they don’t work, that will send the message that you are serious about innovation.

The archetype of a strong leader setting a vision and marshaling resources is not anachronistic.  Rather, it is a maturity step phase that many organizations must navigate on their way to developing an innovative culture–striving toward and against a grand challenge.  There are many organizations that fail to reach even this intermediary step–they are assured failure.  But, it is important to acknowledge that this step phase is not the end state.  We have many examples of this phenomena (whether it is new or a function of changes in culture is unknown) in new model companies that have demonstrated outsized results from a culture of innovation–Apple, Tesla, Intuit, etc.  As noted in the article above, one of the key requirements is the idea of a grand challenge rather than a discrete vision.  For, a grand challenge provides a goal without the constraints of a dogmatic and defined path to success.  We must remember, however, that execution discipline, as learned through a step phased maturity process of delivery against vision is a prerequisite.

This dialectic is key to our understanding of what failure means.  Failure to execute on a vision is an answer to the wrong question.   Failures realized through the struggle against a grand challenge are where success lies.

From “The Junior Executive“…

For, from a long-term organizational point of view, success or failure on a discrete basis is not that impactful. What matters is where the value is generated. For an executive, in the majority of circumstances, the value is generated through the struggle required to make the endeavor a success. Thus rather than rapid, finite experimentation (Failing Fast) or minimal resource allocation (Positive Failure), the organizational benefit is not based on discrete outcomes. Using sailing as an example, we see that this is really only substituting one large rudder movement for many small rudder movements. True leverage of friction (failure) makes continual rudder adjustments, while also redesigning the sail, while also strength training the crew, while adjusting course assessments, while planning the next port of call. The successful executive organizes resources and processes under their purview to conduct, measure, and control perpetual experimentation across all functions. In this perspective, discrete success or failure is irrelevant. The friction generated by this perpetual experimentation and adjustment will mature the team and organization in such a way that, as an indirect benefit, friction itself will yield value. A key challenge for us is to determine the mechanism by which we develop and manage an organization that leverages the benefit of friction.

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