ambidexterityMost people will be aware of the psychiatric condition Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). To oversimplify, it refers to set of behaviours whereby children or adults find it difficult to concentrate for extended periods of time and often become ‘hyperactive’.  While, clinically, there is no ‘group equivalent’ of this, I believe that a lot of executive teams suffer from something quite similar, continually moving from one idea onto the next.It can be difficult to spot, as it masquerades under the guise of a ‘range of initiatives’. This is communicated as if it were a good thing, a positive part of the culture.  We are busy.  We are action oriented. We are leading, not following and so on.  While I’m not suggesting medicating the entire management cadre (”hand me that Tranquilizer Gun, Paddy”) there are ways to ‘treat’ this. Stay with me on this … there’s a really good idea trying to escape!

Making Sausages:

When I worked as a Butcher (1970’s) I often made sausages.  The secret is as follows. Start with a great recipe. Source good ingredients. Then follow the same process every week. Bingo! It works. That’s why Superquinn sausages taste the same every Sunday morning. The exact same idea (developing a standardized process which can be replicated) applies to all successful organizations (a Big Mac tastes the same in Arklow and Antwerp).  Organizations which do the same thing over and over again (issue prize bonds, sell mortgages, build bicycles) need to build a sausage factory to ensure consistency. That’s the baseline for high performance. You take all the drama out of the place and make it consistent, even boring. Once this baseline of high performance is established, you can notch up the game by continually improving this. How? By understanding how different sources of innovation – some of which focus on today and some of which have the cross-hairs lined up on tomorrow – add value.

Ambidextrous Organizations:

The old joke “I’d give my left arm to be ambidextrous” has been given a new lease of life by Dr Michael Tushman the US based academic and management consultant. A couple of years back I had a chance to work alongside Mike (he has about 2.5 normal sized brains). His latest writing is about ‘ambidextrous organizations’ or, in shorthand, fixing today’s problems while building for tomorrow.  Success for most organizations is not about big bang change. And, it’s not about small incremental change. They need both. Now this is where it gets a bit complex. In thinking about ‘tomorrow’ – you can envisage an organization which is ‘today+10% more efficient’ (making those sausages faster, cheaper, with more flavour or all 3). Or you can think about something which is entirely different (‘Why don’t we manufacturing window blinds instead of sausages; the margins are higher?’).  This is exactly the route taken by all of the petrol retailers in Ireland when they became mini-supermarkets (margins are about 10 times higher on sandwiches than petrol).So they were managing the day job (selling petrol) side by side with moving onto tomorrow (becoming mini-supermarkets).

Innovation Sources:

While people think about innovation as a eureka moment, it’s seldom as dramatic. Innovation is about improving existing processes (better sausages) and mental breakthroughs like the invention of the IPad (creating an entire new market for tablet computers).   To improve both ‘today’ and ‘tomorrow’ – creating what Tushman referred to as an ambidextrous organization – you need to access a range of different tools.

White or Green Dollars?

Ideas are sometimes referred to as white dollars (idea itself) and green dollars (when the idea is applied). This makes the useful distinction that ideas, by themselves, are worthless and only add value when they are implemented.The central goal is to convert ideas into real changes that add € value. To help organizations think this through, it can be useful to group ideas into three ‘buckets’ as follows:

Invention: Brand-new idea (e.g. moving into a new line of business)

Innovation: Step change (breakthrough idea with an existing business)

Renovation: Incremental change (improving the existing business)

As ideas are generated, they get subjected to a rigorous evaluation – essentially to see if those white dollars can be turned green. Example: Someone suggests that you can improve customer service by developing relationship management (CRM) software. Good idea? On face value it seems like a solid idea. Green dollar idea? Depending on how long it would take, this may not be commercially feasible. As a leader, your role is to develop evaluation criteria, show this to staff and give them encouraging feedback – even when individual ideas don’t make it through the wringer. By acknowledging all ideas and rewarding those that ‘make it’, the system becomes self-perpetuating. Staff become oil-gushers of creativity if you know how to tap into this seam.

Dual Role:

The Executive team play a dual role here. Firstly they ‘milk’ employees ideas. Secondly, they look to see how competitors/other industries work i.e. become a conduit for ideas themselves. In this way ideas continually flow into and across the organization. Jim Collins reminded us that “Good is the enemy of great”. Without a systematic method to generate new ideas, you’ve probably been accepting good i.e. setting the bar too low.

Structured Process:

You can see from the above that innovation is a structured process. It’s not something that ‘just happens’ – like those light bulbs that flash on over the heads of cartoon characters. At a deeper level, organizations that ignore workforce creativity are working on the assumption that the ‘senior team have a monopoly on great ideas’. During a recent conversation (multi-national executive) the person suggested: “Actually, we don’t do that. All innovation in this company is done in the US.”  This fundamental assumption of ‘Brains in America; brawn in Ireland’ is nuts as it leaves the operation vulnerable to low cost suppliers in the 3rd world. Oops. Next!

Red Adair:

In the world I live in, some consulting projects are high adrenaline. For example, a couple of years back I completed a job for the World Bank job in Pakistan. Fly in. Sort it. Fly home. Feel like a hero. You can see the attraction of this ‘expert’ role and it can certainly become addictive.  That’s grand if you are a consultant. It’s not grand if you are a leader. Yet, lots of leaders define their role in this problem-solving way. They like ‘fixing’ things, putting out organization fires, like some form of Red Adair. The leadership role is to anticipate problems, not to resolve them. Here’s the thought for this week. Wean yourself off that addiction to action by following this recipe:

Job # 1 = make the organization boring by standardizing processes.

Job # 2 = notch up the game through constant innovation – using ideas sourced both internally and externally.

Job # 3 =  watch productivity (and your own career) go North.

Easy, isn’t it? Now, where did I put that boarding card…