Archive for the ‘Innovation’ Category

Lighting up the day for me

Light-bulb moments are precious things.   How you get to them is often a bit of luck, usually something to do with synchronicity.  When timing helps you make the connection between different areas of knowledge and mentally put two and two together.

Yesterday I was blessed with some of that good luck. At lunch time, I gave a webinar on knowledge in decision making. I was sharing some research we’d completed in 2009 with a very diverse audience sitting as far apart as South Africa, USA and the Middle East. Being filmed talking to myself was a new experienced, but it was interactive and actually good  fun. If you feel inclined you can watch a recording of the webinar,  just register via this link.  Immediately after that I went home to prepare for a Breakfast Briefing event that Christine and I are doing in London on 20th October (sorry the event is full, but you can get details of future events in the Leadership@ henley series here). The topic for the 20th is is Developing ambidexterity: How leaders create the conditions to engage both sides of the organisational brain.

To prepare for the webinar I was revisiting some well established research on decision biases, and also some work by Dave Snowden on how decision makers need to change the way they respond according to whether they are facing a complex, complicated, chaotic or simple problem situation. One of the biases in any situation is the fact that how something is communicated has a strong influence on the recipient’s decisions, simply because we feel as well as a reason. I used the example of patients being told about a major operation. If you try to give them confidence by telling that the operation only has a 15% failure rate, they are much less likely to go for the operation, that if you tell them it has an 85% success rate.

Then I came home a started to think about some ideas from a Harvard Business Review article called The Ambidextrous CEO ( Tushman et al 2011 full reference at the end), and how they might relate to the research we did on organisational ambidexterity. Ambidextrous organisations are those which know how to manage their performance in the short term through efficiencies and cost control, whilst at the same time looking forward to where the organisation needs to be in the future by maintaining their focus on innovation. It sounds straightforward. But the process of exploiting current knowledge and optimising its value generation relies on repetition, reducing risk and structures which tend to introduce rigidity, whereas exploration of unfamiliar ways of doing things as the basis for innovation needs flexibility, determination in the face of uncertainty and entrepreneurial judgement. That in itself creates several tensions around organisational priorities. One is around identity, what is the organisation all about. If you define it too narrowly as the authors of the article explain, you limit perspective on what is possible. If you define it too broadly the decision making boundaries about what is included and what is excluded from organisational capabilities become fuzzy, decisions are more complex, and efficiency goes down. And what is more, people don’t feel they belong to something coherent. Another tension arises around timing: what matters now and what will matter in the future in terms of knowledge and expertise that support business capabilities. How do we reconcile the pressures of meeting targets now and giving resources to something that only promises of some future ill-defined returns? A third is learning, or more specifically unlearning, when do you turn away from the knowledge that has been the source of your success and put your faith in knowledge that is fresh but untested The article suggests is that often the CEO is the only ‘friend’ of innovation, yet may end up with trade-offs between core business and innovation by default, because they delegate responsibility to unit heads and the unit heads are focused on performance targets. Far better to ensure the top team is targeted to deal explicitly with the tensions inherent in the dual demands, both in terms of their personal responsibilities and their procedures for negotiating solutions. Even then, if times are tough and the pressure is on to deliver quarterly results, often the potential failure rate of new innovations can loom large. A quote from the article illustrates the enormity of the challenge

“As Cray Computer’s Pete Ungaro told us, “We had to convince ourselves that spending 50% of our time on something that is delivering 5% of the company’s revenues was worth the effort.” Nonetheless, the results speak for themselves. Once near death, Cray has fought back to profitability, and in 2010, revenues grew by more than 6%.”

So what was my insight? Well it was small, but maybe useful. If decision makers are generally better disposed to the positive messages – the 85% success rate communication, rather than the potential of 15% failure, then even if they structure the top team to hold and examine the tension, conversations about the contradictory demands of efficiency and innovation will always have an inherent bias towards efficiency, because top team members will have much more experience of success compared to innovation. In addition the ambient economic climate at present is full of pessimism rather than optimism. Consequently, because of the timing, learning, resources and structuring challenges, the exploration of risk probabilities will probably be seen as compounding. Still it is important not to shy away from innovation to fuel future economic growth. To overcome the negative bias, it seemed to me that it might be worthwhile adopting a discipline in top team negotiations focused on the ambidexterity paradox, which requires everyone to pay particular attention to the successful risk mitigation strategies from previous innovation projects. By considering what they can learn and apply from positive events in the past, perhaps the temptation to can another innovation project in the face of immediate performance pressures, will be lessened and the top team may feel more comfortable holding the tension.


TUSHMAN, M.L. SMITH, W.K. and BINNS, A. (2011). The Ambidextrous CEO. Harvard Business Review. Harvard Business School Publication Corp.,

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Should we think differently about how we manage businesses? Gary Hamel and Julian Birkinshaw from London Business School would certainly answer with a resounding yes. A moment’s reflection and you can see why.

When we operate in a world that is so intimately interconnected and financially interdependent, local ’dis-ease’ (be that lack of confidence or disruption to ‘normal’ operating parameters) in any part of the value chain quickly becomes a pandemic that disrupts the planned pattern of business activities. Think of the ripple effects of Greek debt, the Japanese Tsunami, the Arab Spring, the European E-Coli scare, the Icelandic Ash cloud, and now the prospect of the American debt crisis. Each of these events has had some significant impact on business and the economy, whether in terms of increasing oil prices, damaging confidence in the financial markets, or disrupting supplies and business travel. They’ve all happened this year, and we’re only in August. Whilst in the past management has been about creating stability and security, now the search is on for the source of agility and resilience. There are so many angles that need to be though through, so in 2009, Gary Hamel assembled a self styled Renegade Brigade of big thinkers from industry and academia to start the exploration. They came up with a set of Management Moonshots and you can join the ongoing conversation and contribute your thoughts. Those of you who are members of the KM Forum will remember Julian Birkinshaw speaking about his ideas on Re-Inventing Management, and if you missed it, you can always download his slides from the members website ( sorry to those of you who are not members this is a private area, which only becomes accessible if you join the Henley KM Forum

Clearly knowledge and learning are going to play a big part in the process of re-inventing management, so in 2010, in our own small way, the Henley KM Forum conducted a similar experiment to Gary Hamel. We assembled a group of 14 well known thinkers in the knowledge and learning world and asked them what they thought would help business thrive in a volatile world. This produced some interesting complementary ideas. You can read more about who was involved and learn from over 200 years of collective intelligence that was in the room that afternoon. It is summarised in a short article here,  You can also think about how you can follow the same sort of process by downloading Issue 17 of our Knowledge in Action Series, called Swarm Creativity.

What happens when two black swans come along at once?

Then we might all be better prepared for the arrival of those Black Swans !



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July has been a big month for adventurous take-offs. We saw the launch of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows- Part 2, the final film in the series, with epic battles between good and evil, and characters disapparating and re-appearing all over Muggle territory as well as across the wizarding world. (If you have no idea, what I am talking about, you’ve missed out on a some fantastic flights of fancy in the last 10 years!). Back in the real world at 11.29am EDT on July 8th, NASA launched STS-135 – the launch of the final flight in the Space Shuttle programme.

Where’s the connection you might ask? Well for me the magic took place in virtual space; in the Eddie Obeng’s Qube. This is where I learned to fly through walls. Disapparating and re-appearing in another place became reality for the first time in my life. It was quite an adventure. (Many of you who participate in MMORPG’s, may find it more mundane, but I usually play tennis and bowls so this was new territory for me). In more down to earth terms, the Qube is where I attended a conference on Innovation without boundaries, without leaving the comfort of my own armchair.

It was just like any conference you would attend in the physical world, except I was an avatar, with a Henley logo on my tummy! (Some people had mastered the process of getting their face on the head of the avatar, and really expert users could produce body language with a few keystrokes of their left hand, which really helped the realism.) As you would expect, there was delegate registration, time to network, a big auditorium (very grandly decorated like a room in Versaille) with some great live speakers making dynamic powerpoint presentations, and smaller rooms with table discussions between delegates. Q & A was catered for through live voice over IP discussion, and conversations with your fellow delegates happened through an online chat function. In between sessions, we could explore the exhibition area, chat or post ideas on sticky notes on walls. The only downside was the virtual champagne, which doesn’t give you the same buzz as the real stuff.

There were delegates coming in from all over the world and speakers from their office, but the technology held up well. It was robust, even with many people using the system. I thought the sound zones were clever. So when you were sitting at a table talking with others, those voices were the loudest, and the background noise of other conversations was muted but clearly present. That made it a very realistic experience.

Initially I found two aspects hard to acclimatise to
1. Turning around to orient myself in the space either in the exhibition area, or when we did exercises to post sticky notes in three different spaces on walls; It made me feel physically sick. (I guess I probably turned too fast and too far, and on occasions I ended up facing a grey wall, which was quite claustrophobic until I worked out how to escape!) If you are used to online gaming in virtual worlds I’m sure you’d get your e-legs much quicker than I did!
2. The lack of peripheral vision. When people started talking to you, and they could see you, but you could not see them, it was hard to know which way to turn to find them (more turning required, so again more potential for e-sickness in my case). However, once I learned that a backward roll of the mouse allowed me to pan out take the helicopter view, rather than looking directly out of my avatar’s eyes, that problem was resolved too.

That aside, once you got used to moving your avatar around using the key board, and once I discovered a very useful compass at the bottom of the screen to help me orient myself, I really found I became quite involved in the conference interactions. Being virtual was less of a boundary than I thought, because I could hear real voices, and see a live presentation. You might say, well we can do that through conventional webinar technology or Skype conferences, or all sorts of other technology. Undeniably yes, but there is something about the visual manifestation of yourself in a space that makes you feel in some way more present with the other people. You don’t feel so inclined to email or text or do other things. – It would be difficult anyway because you have headphones and a microphone on, and the keyboard is your mechanism for navigating. That combined with the visualisation of a space to work collectively in, means all your senses are engaged in focusing on the interaction in the Qube. That gives you a stronger sense of connection to the action. It does make it tiring though, and it certainly means that you need short sessions, and lots of breaks to go and get a cup of real coffee, or stretch your legs. But the team at Pentacle seem to have a most of those things worked out. Excellent, facilitation skills seem to be essential for making this work well, but since the Pentacle team use the Qube to run their own business and meet together as well as using it as an extension of their own training venue, they have learned how to master this.

Overall my first magical adventure was really a great experience. The Qube is a well thought out space which has infinite possibilities for learning and development, events, and collaboration. If you get a chance to join another of Eddies conferences then I would recommend you try it. And one of the other advantages is that you can go back to the future and revisit the space. Everything will still be there as you left it, with the same colours, positions, and visual triggers to help you remember and reflect on the experience.

And my experience of disapparating? Well this was actually when I disappeared suddenly from the registration session because I was only an afternoon delegate. I had started to relate a little with the other delegates, through my avatar, so it had a real feeling of instantaneously leaving the room, and I felt quite out of it until I could return.

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