By MICHAEL G. MANES
Manes and Associates
Dale Dauten is one of my favorite writers. His weekly syndicated column, The Corporate Curmudgeon, appears in about a hundred newspapers. To me, one of his most memorable columns was published in July 2003, Innovation Comes from Exploration.
It opens, “Perhaps the most underrated sentence in our language is this: ‘I don’t know.’ The voice of practicality asks, ‘What good will that do?’ The voice of adventure answers: ‘I don’t know. I just know I’m going to try.’”
Dauten’s column closes, “The people who accomplish the most are rarely the most visionary, just the most experimentary, the ones who say: ‘I don’t know. Let’s do it anyway.’”
Sandwiched between this beginning and end is a most interesting observation: “… most creativity is not about seeing the future, it’s about accepting its unseeableness and groping ahead anyway. Innovation derives from the willingness to explore… . Innovation is the call of adventure, the call of the unknown.”
If you fancy yourself a leader, read the above again before continuing. If these opening words don’t intrigue you, skip the balance of this column as it will be of no value to you. Go back to managing.
I watch some local businesses and many clients struggle with the future. Their problem is not that times are bad but rather that times are good. Good times create a comfort zone, which in business, is the most dangerous place to be. The comfort zone nurtures complacency.
Leading significant change at any time is challenging; during good times, change is more of a challenge. Machiavelli summed this up: “There is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful to success than to step up as a leader in the introduction of change. For he who innovates will have for his enemies all those well off under the existing order of things and only lukewarm supporters in those better off under the new.”
History acknowledges the greatest agents of change, but only those whose visionary pursuits were successful.
At the end of the 1400s this guy stood in front of the Queen (in her role as a venture capitalist) and said something like, “I have this vision. You see I really believe the world is round. I believe if you’ll give me the resources to outfit some ships…”
Nearly 500 years later, May 25, 1961, John F. Kennedy said, “I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”
These were big, bold, bodacious dreams. These were dice rolls made by extraordinary leaders. The day these visionaries spoke, their ideal goal exceeded the science of the day. No sane person would have given their OK on these projects. Of even more significance, no one demanded a due diligence study before the project could start.
Few business people would ever attempt to mirror a world class explorer or a president. They are, however, publicly confident in their leadership skills and the future of their company. In private if you talk to these leaders or if you carefully view their organizations from the inside, you see very little happening that is new. Many may even tell you about the difficulty or risk involved in change.
But what if we use Dauten’s ideas on innovation – “Let’s do it anyway.”
I’m guessing (and I really don’t know) that Sam Walton in his five and dime in Arkansas and Tom Monaghan in his pizza place in Michigan probably did just do it anyway. Their results were Walmart and Dominos.
I bet Walton said, what if I buy goods in greater volume, pass the savings to my customers and treat them in a friendly fashion? I bet I can do better than the other guys or gals in this business. I bet Monaghan said, what if I delivered pizzas to people’s’ houses or let them pick up pizzas here on the way home from work? I bet they’d like that.
My guess is that these guys struggled with their ideas for a few days or weeks or months, and then pulled the trigger on their concepts. They made their vision concrete. In Dauten’s terms they went into the “experimentary” mode, not the due diligence mode.
Leadership is about action. Not foolish impulse, but well-thought-out action.
The Manes Theory on managing change (creating the new for tomorrow) is a simple, workable four-step process:
- Have a vision (something different / new);
- Commit to the vision (this separates leaders from managers);
- Develop an action plan;
- Implement, monitor, and adjust the plan.
If the vision is sound, you’ll know it. Does it make your heart beat fast or at least make you smile? Test the idea in your head and your heart. If it is sound, you’ll feel it. Then, commit to it. “I don’t know, but I’ll do it anyway,” as Dauten says.
Once committed, create a plan of action. Cut your vision into bite size pieces. After the discussions, dialogue, and debate are completed, write the plan. Just do it! Go experimentary!
My experience is that many leaders have visions or realize that they must do something new. After all, the latest business books, or the last seminar leader, talked about change and the need for innovation. Business leaders are at the front end of change. They’ll innovate, but just to be prudent or on the safe side, they’ll conduct a due diligence, have legal look at this and maybe run this by the compliance officer.
Thus, the vision dies.
Working a new idea through the due diligence process is a sure way to wring the life out of an opportunity. It’s paralysis by analysis.
Due diligence is the process that allows everyone involved to protect themselves from possible subsequent criticism, also known as CYA.
Expect others to provide all the reasons why the new idea won’t work. If they don’t support the change and cite the reasons it might fail, they are safe. If it fails, they told you so.
Even if the leader forces the change or innovation, a safety net has been built into the process. Failings can be blamed on others: “They should have stopped us.”
Personally, I believe that the reason many companies hire the most prestigious consulting firms to work on new ventures is not to assure success, but rather to make failure safer: “It’s not our fault. We did all we could do. As a matter of fact, we even had (insert prestigious name) Consultants complete our due diligence.”
Dauten encourages us to be experimentary. I agree.
I believe everyone must have innovation built into their job description, have the authority to try the new and be held accountable for doing so or not doing so. The system should measure risks before venturing out, but it should evaluate these risks with an eye for success and adventure, not be structured to defend failure.
Remember the slogan from AIG: The greatest risk is not taking one.
MICHAEL G. MANES is the owner of Manes and Associates, a New Iberia-based consulting business focusing on planning, sales and operations, and change. He has over 47 years of insurance industry experience, including serving as an instructor of Risk and Insurance at Louisiana State University. Manes can be reached at www.squareoneconsulting.com or 337-577-3885.