Usually at TED, people talk about success. I’m going to talk about why companies fail and specifically why the old rules — those that once made companies powerful — no longer work. The best way for me to do this is with 2 examples.
A company I was recently working with needed a new product manager to help pursue a market opportunity. I thought I knew the perfect guy, Anand, who had a background in founding several companies, knew mobile and the emerging space. So I was really surprised to hear the interview didn’t go well. What I heard back was that he was surely bright and capable, he “asked a ton of questions”, “challenged us on what we were doing” and was generally “in our face”. Yikes, I thought. So the interview team was saying, he just doesn’t fit.
And when they say he “didn’t fit”, what they were really saying was that he didn’t fit into their box they had defined. And that’s quite often how we think of success — the big campus, the reporting structure in the hierarchy, and the title the person would have.
But those boxes — they don’t help us to achieve success. Sure, they help us define what each person does. But as soon as we are thinking of boxes, what we also get is the space between the boxes. Those gaps — those spaces in between the boxes — they are where organizations fail. It’s the lack of connection across a company or a silo-ed approach to going in a new direction that quite often causes failure. Roles matter, but what matters more going forward is how those roles interact.
Another company I was working with needed to reinvent their core business. They needed to find and win a new market and they needed to do it fast. They brought together their top executives, gathered some forward thinking market research, gathered insights, formed a new direction and quite frankly imaged a new direction that was KILLER. They got all the “what” right. What they missed was the how. They now had a great idea really known by the top of the organization and then TOLD to the people to execute. So rather than getting results, what they got was an “Air Sandwich” — all the meaty things were missing. On a practical level, by not involving the people who could make a new direction a reality, they didn’t enable the 100 or 1000 small decisions that needed to be made. The air sandwich was created because the entire organization hadn’t made the necessary tradeoffs, and developed a shared vision of success.
Which reminds me of a concept in physics. It’s called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. It says that you can either focus on momentum or position, but not both. And it strikes me that Company B was too focused on a fixed point in time — the strategy in this case — and neglected to do the how in such a way that the vision became a reality.
This focus on the What or on the top of the organization setting direction for the company — this is an artifact of the past. It’s what we did when we didn’t have a highly educated, creative workforce. It’s what we did when information didn’t flow freely and we needed to tell people what to do. It is a relic of the time when markets and competitors moved more slowly.
A company focused on momentum focuses on how to create action. It acts more like a living, breathing organism that can take in information from the market, knows what questions to ask and answer, can envision many options to success, can decide amongst all those option quickly and can take the vision into reality. Momentum then keeps up with or sets the pace for the competition. Momentum allows us to act flat rather than wait to pass information up and down the hierarchy of an organization.
What this feels like inside the organization is a move from “I think, You do” to “We think, we win”. It allows people to contribute their ideas, to debate options, to be co-creators in a shared outcome. And work becomes a place where every light of every person shines more brightly because we’re engaged.
Which brings me back to the story of Anand. The team needed to recast their perspective on his questions and realize while did ask many questions, he wasn’t focused on his person success but on how the company would be successful. And once they could see this new angle on his approach, they could see that he was interested, engaged, and creative. They did hire him and today he chairs their Innovation Council which is their vehicle for figuring out which opportunities to pursue and what products to build. But this story is not just about Anand. But about the energy and creative force Anand represents for his firm. He along with his colleagues are collaboratively working, just as we all can.
The time has come for us to look at the way we conceive of success. We can continue the focus on bigness rather than action, having the “right” people participate rather than letting the merit of ideas come from anywhere and engaging everywhere in the organization. And when we do this — we’ll have a new how. We’ll create growing organizations that are creative, vibrant, resilient organizations that can win and win repeatedly.