Each year I look out for Fast Company’s most innovative companies – it’s always a fascinating list not least because it is genuinely different every year. In 2017 its tempting to see its just the usual suspects with Amazon, Google, Uber, Facebook and Spotify in the top 10 but look a bit further and there are new companies I’ve never heard of and more established ones like Marriott. Last year GE was in at no 20. I take a look at where the companies are (it’s quite a US based list this year but again this varies) as well as which industries and levels of maturity are most represented. The very fact that the top 50 change on a regular basis makes this genuinely representative of innovation – and reflects that not everyone can be permanently innovative. Some companies do indeed make the list more frequently but there is a wide selection – this is the 10th year and I suspect it’s a long list when you look back over the whole lot.
The issue for me is not so much whether companies aspire to be on the list – that’s a pointless exercise, but whether they aspire to innovate as rapidly as many on the list – increasingly that’s a pre-requisite to deal with a VUCA world.
For any non-bird watchers amongst you the dawn chorus is one of the best indicators of spring – the choir of bird song which heralds sunrise and the active business of breeding, feeding, growing the next generation. And if you want to hear it there are two ways to do it – the first is to stay in bed, set an early alarm call and trust that your garden has a suitable representation of song birds (and your double glazing not completely sound proofed!). The second involves setting an even earlier alarm call and getting up, going out into the countryside or a nearby park and waiting for dawn and the chorus to arrive. That way you not only hear the music but with luck you feel in amongst it and will see the individual birds that make it up;
So is this a post about bird watching? No actually it isn’t but the analogy came to mind when I was thinking about foresight and innovation. I’ve been working in that area for nearly 10 years and suddenly in the last six months or so, I’ve heard the dawn chorus. I don’t mean that innovation hasn’t been around, or that futurists haven’t been predicting change and disruption for years – but suddenly there is a loud chorus of companies getting actively involved. My evidence? Well – take a look at Fastco’s 2016 Top 50 innovative companies and see how many are established organisations like GE or Bristol-Myers-Squibbs are there alongside the startups and the Alphabets & Apples. Take a look at the range of organisations involved in corporate venturing – Johnson & Johnson or Cisco have been in for the long haul, and Google Ventures (Alphabet) is certainly no surprise but GM have recently invested in Lyft and there are other new entrants. But these are not particularly novel indicators (I could have written pretty much this post n 1999 about the dotcom boom for example!) – what I think is different is the attitude behind these.
Traditional and established corporates seem to me, from those I have met over the last 12 months to have woken up to the VUCA world. They have begun to recognise that seeking growth in the same old ways is not necessarily going to succeed. And they have begun to accept experimentation and inherent uncertainty as business as usual – the new normal. Some of this has a defensive feel to it, arising as it does after the debut of new competitors (think Airbnb and the hotels business) but some is distinctively more pro-active and novel – GE is looking to be the leader in the industrial IoT space for example.
There is a greater confidence in digital solutions – not just the app which replicates the old process but something designed to be genuinely customer centric. I’ve just downloaded ‘Paint your room’ from Crown Paints -which allows me to see what my room will look like if painted in any colour I choose. So I don’t need to paint a range of blob on my wall, or to envisage my furniture replaced or the books removed (thank goodness).
And inevitably there is a related growth in the innovation support space – whether we are talking platforms, methodologies or services. But what intrigues me even more is where is this taking leadership skills? Can conventional organisational structures, roles and leadership capabilities simply expand to include experimentation, uncertainty and innovation as a core competence – or do we need a new kind of leader? And if the latter – is the tangible evidence of greater exploration and bravery being reflected today in leadership skills – or are the corporate antibodies just as active as ever? I hear mixed messages in the market place – so I think its a question of watch this space.
My latest addition to in the Economic & Commercial section of changeisanopportunity.info is around leadership and the role of learning. I’ve been musing on tolerance of ambiguity a lot – not least because when I mention the fundamental nature of this as a leadership characteristic in my foresight sessions and workshops with clients, it resonates really well with senior teams. And yet, there seems to be very little published on it.
I was first introduced to the concept by friends at Futureworld from where I found this paper. And a few years ago I started to think about the issues of mindfulness, spirituality, aesthetic judgement and creativity not from an academic perspective but from the practical. It seemed to me that none of this was possible without the concept of a learning mindset (the ability to recognise that what we know is by no means all we need to know as well as the possibility of change) and behind that curiosity. So I was fascinated to see that a recent post and survey has recognised exactly that.
The post makes reference to how difficult it is for conventional leaders to be curious and I would echo that – in my many foresight sessions, many of the leadership teams I’ve worked with want to go straight to the ‘so what’ and even more so the ‘now what’ – the action arising. Without really showing any curiosity as to what lies behind a multitude of megatrends.
Nor do I believe that the sole reason for being curious and open minded lies only in the ability to be innovative and have new ideas. I think there is an equal and potentially opposite need to be curious for risk management purposes. After all, without curiosity to seek out what new competitors or new technologies have to offer, and the humility to expect disruption, how will organisations spot the issue until it is too late?