Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Managing Agreement: The Abilene Paradox.

I want to be a team player, but….

I used to think it was difficult to manage conflict. Now I wonder if it isn’t more difficult to manage agreement.

A conflicted organization is fairly easy to analyze. The signs are abundant. You can quickly identify the conflicting groups as well as the members of each. You can identify grievances simply by talking with people. You can figure out who is “us” and who is “them”. Solving the problem may prove challenging but, at the very least, you know two things: 1) there is a problem; 2) its general contours are easy to see.

When an organization is in agreement, on the other hand, you may not even know that a problem exists. Everything floats along smoothly. People may not quiver with enthusiasm but no one is throwing furniture or shouting obscenities. Employees work and things get done.

The problem with an organization in agreement is that many participants actually disagree. But the disagreement doesn’t bubble up and out. There are at least two scenarios in which this happens:

  1. The Abilene Paradox – in the original telling, four members of a family in Coleman, Texas drove 53 miles to Abilene in a car without air conditioning in 104-degree heat to have dinner at a crummy diner. After driving 53 miles back, they ‘fessed up: not one of them had wanted to go. Each person thought the others wanted to go. They agreed to be agreeable. (A variant of this is known as the risky shift).

Similar paradoxes arise in organizations all the time. Each employee wants to be seen as a team player. They may have reservations about a decision but — because everyone else agrees or seems to agree — they keep quiet. Perhaps nobody agrees to a given project but they believe that everyone else does. Perhaps nobody wants to work on Project X. Nevertheless, Project X persists. Unlike a conflicted organization, nobody realizes that a problem exists.

  1. Fear – in organizations where failure is not an option, employees work hard to salvage success even from doomed projects. Admitting that a project has failed invites punishment. Employees happily throw good money after bad, hoping to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Employees agree that failure must be delayed or hidden.

The second scenario is perhaps more dangerous but less common. A fear-based culture – if left untreated – will eventually corrupt the entire organization. Employees grow afraid of telling the truth. The remedy is easy to discern but hard to execute: the organization needs to replace executive management and create a new culture.

The Abilene paradox is perhaps less dangerous but far more common. Any organization that strives to “play as a team” or “hire team players” is at risk. Employees learn to go along with the team, even if they believe the team is wrong.

What can be done to overcome the Abilene paradox in an organization? Rosabeth Moss Kanter points out that there are two parts to the problem. First, employees make inaccurate assumptions about what others believe. Second, even though they disagree, they don’t feel comfortable speaking up. A good manager can work on both sides of the problem. Kanter suggests the following:

  • Debates – include an active debate in all decision processes. Choose sides and formally air out the pros and cons of a situation. (I’ve suggested something similar in the decision by trial process).
  • Assign devil’s advocates and give them the time and resources to develop a real position.
  • Encourage organizational graffiti – I think of this as the electronic equivalent of Hyde Park’s Speaker’s Corner – a place where people can get things off their chests.
  • Make confronters into heroes — even if you disagree with the message, reward the process.
  • Develop a culture of pride – build collective self-esteem, not just individual self-esteem. We’re proud of what we have, including the right (or even the obligation) to disagree.

The activities needed to ward off the Abilene paradox are not draconian. Indeed, they’re fairly easy to implement. But you can only implement them if you realize that a problem exists. That’s the hard part.

On-Demand Innovation?

Unless you turn the innovation engine off.

Unless you turn the innovation engine off.

It’s not easy to innovate. Many companies make it even harder on themselves by trying to turn the innovation engine on and off. Turn it on when a crisis erupts. Turn it off again when things are rolling along smoothly. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way. Innovation tends to be all on or all off. You can’t just turn it on when you need it. You have to bake it in to everything you do.

Samsung is my favorite recent example of “all-on” innovation. Samsung recently rose to number two in Boston Consulting Group’s annual ranking of the world’s most innovative companies. According to BCG, Samsung is ahead of Google and only slightly behind Apple. Samsung’s mantra – which they apparently repeat at every meeting – is “Change everything but your spouse and your children.” In other words, everything must change. No wonder they make such cool refrigerators.

I was reminded of Samsung as I browsed through Rita Gunther McGrath’s book, The End of Competitive Advantage. McGrath identifies six warning signs that your innovation engine is broken. In general, all six signs have to do with turning the engine on and off. Here are McGrath’s big six:

Innovation is episodic – it’s the on/off switch. Would you bet your career on a project that might be switched off? Maybe not. In the environment that Samsung fosters, you don’t have to make that bet.

Process is invented from scratch – each time we turn on the innovation engine, we act as if it’s never been done before. Time for a brainstorming session! But there’s a lot to be learned (even on this website) about the nature and processes of innovation. Why re-invent the wheel?

Resources are held hostage – as Rosabeth Moss Kanter has pointed out, if you’re trying to finance innovation out of the “regular” budget, you’ll fail. Too many people already have dibs on the funds. McGrath writes that too many companies don’t play to win but rather play not to lose. To innovate, you’ll need to gamble. You’ll need a person with the authority to gamble and some funds for her to do it with.

Innovations placed in existing structures – if you turn the innovation engine on and off frequently, where would you place an innovative project? After all, it’s likely to be temporary. So, just make it a “bag on the side” of the existing organization. But innovations require new processes, not just temporary homes.

Judging innovations by “historic” criteria – perhaps the worst example of this is to measure the ROI of innovative new products. ROI works best when there’s some consistency and predictability in the mix. An innovation has no history. Applying standard financial metrics to an innovative product will simply stifle innovation. In an “all-on” environment, you can afford to develop innovative metrics for innovative products. In an on/off environment, you can’t. (For some non-traditional metrics, click here).

Holding the innovation to plan – of course, you’re going to create a plan for the innovation. The danger comes in sticking to it and holding people accountable for the plan as originally created. Things change. Some innovations fail. You’ll need agile leaders rather than by-the-book managers. Punishing an executive for failing to stick to the plan will eliminate any incentive for other executives to innovate.

Moral of the story: once you get the innovation engine running, never switch it off.


Innovation and Symbioscience

Place two ideas here. Then press "mash".

Place two ideas here. Then press “mash”.

What’s so hard about wheeled luggage? We’ve had wheels for thousands of years. We’ve had luggage for thousands of years. These are not exotic, leading-edge concepts. Yet it took us thousand of years to put wheels on luggage. I remember when it happened. I slapped my head and thought, “What took us so long?”

Part of the problem is that we think too big. When we want to think outside the box and get creative, we often aim for something truly revolutionary. We’re looking to change the world. We don’t think of mundane things like wheels and luggage. Yet, the people who did put wheels on luggage certainly made my world more convenient.

Putting wheels on luggage is generally known as mashup thinking. We mashup two or more things or ideas to get something new. As it happens, a significant portion – perhaps a majority – of our most important innovations result from mashing things up. If you mash up x-rays with computer processing, you get CT scans. Mashing up a mobile phone and a tablet yields a “phablet” like Samsung’s best-selling Galaxy series. Mashing up multiple (government sponsored) technologies yields the iPhone. Mashing up a flywheel and a bicycle yields the Copenhagen wheel. The wheel stores energy as you bike along and releases it when you need some extra power.

The problem is that we just don’t think about mashing stuff up. We’re too busy pushing the envelope. We want something shiny, bright, and new. Not something composed of old – perhaps very old – technologies.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter tells the story of a mashup that didn’t happen. Gillette owned Oral B, Braun, and Duracell. You might think that they would mash these up and produce a battery-powered toothbrush. But they weren’t the first to market. Other companies won the race while Gillette lagged behind.

I’ve been looking for companies that do a good job of mashing things up. Companies that are considered to be very innovative – Apple, Samsung, Google – may fit the bill but I’ve also been looking for “mere mortal” companies. In other words, companies that we might reasonably be able to emulate. Then one of my students alerted me to Mars.

I think of Mars as a chocolates and sweets company. It turns out they do a lot more. In fact they have six different brand clusters: Petcare, Chocolate, Wrigley, Food, Drinks, and Symbioscience. It was Symbioscience that caught my eye. According to its website, “Mars Symbioscience acts as an incubator for business ideas generated throughout our segments … “ Further, it’s “a technology-based health and life sciences business focused on evidence-based product development.”

Mars Symbioscience has already developed products (and brands) in three different segments: Petcare, Plant Care, and Human Healthcare. I’m not an expert on these categories but I’ve reviewed the products on the Mars website and I’m willing to bet that mashup thinking was part of the process.

Mars Symbioscience seems to be a good example of a company that dedicates resources to innovation and mashup thinking. How do they do it? More on that in the near future.

(By the way, I’ve never met the student who brought Mars Symbioscience to my attention. He lives in San Antonio and takes my online classes, which are a mash up of college education and the Internet.)

(By the way (2), I’m looking for other good examples of companies that do mashup thinking. Please pass along any examples you’re familiar with.)


Innovation: Signals and Processes

It's a process.

It’s a process.

Innovation is a two-part process. First, we need to create ideas. Second, we need to take those ideas and convert them into something practical and useful. In some ways, creating the idea is the easy part.

Too often, our efforts to innovate focus on one or the other but not both. We may develop lots of ideas on how to be more creative. Yet, creativity without discipline usually doesn’t produce innovation. The reverse is also true. Disciplined implementation processes don’t produce innovation unless we can feed creative ideas into the system.

One way to think about this is to understand the differences between signals and processes. To create innovative organizations, we’ll need both. Signals are about culture. Processes are about decisions.

Many organizations don’t actively foster innovation. They may talk about innovation but the culture doesn’t seek out and promote new ideas, new products, or new ways of doing business. The culture may be innovation resistant; it actively opposes change. Or it may simply be innovation neutral; it doesn’t oppose change but nor does it promote it. Change is hard. To succeed, the culture needs to actively foster change, not merely be neutral to it.

Let’s say we want to change our culture to actively promote change. That’s where signals come in. A signal lets our employees know that we’re changing our attitude toward change. Signals may be simple and obvious. It could be the way employees dress – Birkenstock Fridays! It could be the way work is organized – hackathons! It could be as simple as changing the seating chart or the lighting level or where the coffee stations are located.

Signals are useful but not sufficient. We also need processes that are baked into the culture. Let’s assume, for instance, that our new culture (with its new signals) creates lots of good ideas. Now we need a set of decision processes for evaluating new ideas and deciding which ones to invest in. As Rosabeth Moss Kanter points out classic financial metrics (ROI etc.) probably don’t apply. Classic financial metrics require predictability. Innovations aren’t predictable. We’ll need new processes.

Processes are useful but also not sufficient. You need processes to make the decisions to get the innovative work done. But you need signals to let people know that innovative work is acceptable and encouraged – and that new processes are emerging. As always, it’s the balance that counts.

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