plenary 1: innovation & organizational change—a.k.a., release the McCracken! (part 1)

The title is a little pop-cultural reference, of course, to Clash of the Titans (the 1980s version) and I bet our speaker would enjoy it—though I am sure he’s heard it a thousand times before. In addition to being the author of the 2010 Chief Culture Officer, Grant McCracken is author of Transformations (IUP, 2008) and Flock and Flow (IUP, 2006), among other u press offerings, and was our plenary 1 speaker—he did not disappoint!

McCracken launched from the podium to launch the 2011 meeting; he jumped down from the dais to stalk up and down the length of the hall, tearing through enough material for two talks, diving into the heart of strategic innovation, reviewing business literature on the subject and new b-school approaches, and tipping at least one sacred cow.

I’m going to treat the two sub-talks separately, in part to capture the fallout from the second half in a lead lined box, but mostly to hold the first half on its own merits for a moment. Somewhere, I will mention that the sum total effect was brilliant; it improved the takeaways from the meeting for everyone in attendance, and therefore the selection of McCracken for the plenary 1 slot—for this particular conference—was inspired.

In the first half of his talk, McCracken noted that we are in an exceptionally tough spot (a theme that ran throughout the meeting), that recent business literature/management advice was of little to no help, and that we’d have to think for ourselves to get out of it (another theme that ran throughout). On the upside, according to McCracken, we are uniquely well suited to tackling this problem head on, given our backgrounds and collective skill sets, provided that we work together and listen to others.

McCracken quoted Peter Schwartz noting that “The organization [as construct] is in a state of perpetual change.” This dynamism has led some analysts and commentators, such as Andy Grove, to endorse a view that “Strategy is dead;” all we can do is damage control, react to things as they come along and hope for the best.

McCracken said that this is ridiculous (on top of helpless and irresponsible) and that really what’s happening is that the nature of change is changing. With so many variables in play, strategy falls to amorphous influence—a dynamic system—rather than, as it did in days of yore, to simple cause and effect thinking.

The game is the same, just less linear and less vertical; it calls for more lateral thinking to win today. This need for “pattern recognizers/shape seers,” in turn, calls for new approaches to management to find, develop, and guide them:

The "A" in MBA today => ∆A

Indeed business schools are shifting to include aspects of more MFA-like studies and exercises in their curricula to “free up” the minds of business school number crunchers, precisely to improve their “pattern recognition” abilities and make them better lateral thinkers. Daniel Pink's book A Whole New Mind explicates motives for the trend.

The good news according to McCracken: We, as liberal arts majors (editors, designers, and publishers) already have the base skills in abundance, e.g., our ability to spot a project worth pursuing, to craft and nurture it to a fine publication. Therefore, we are uniquely well suited to succeed in our current situation: all we need to do is trust our “pattern recognition software,” see where and when it is asserting itself (with new ideas) and then guard against the new ideas being overruled by force of habit or traditional approaches: the hobgoblins of innovation.

I.e., rather than rightly identifying a new idea as “unfit” (not fitting the mold of what we do) and per force treating it as a different kind of “unfit” (not worthy of further investigation), we will have to see our way beyond the unfitness to take another look at what’s behind the new idea that might lead to something that will help.

McCracken called this, perhaps regrettably for our haute-literate/learned crowd, the “Wait, …what? moment” (WWM). The WWM is when someone says something to you that’s so bizarre, you are tempted to ask yourself if they really know what they’re talking about (or to whom they are speaking) and walk away, but instead you say: “Wait [a minute], what [are you trying to say]?”

In the WWM, “Why are you, (a relatively intelligent person), asking me (a clearly intelligent person) to consider something that is patently ridiculous and not worth my time?” becomes “What aren’t you successfully communicating to me?” or “What am I missing?” or better yet “You are clearly animated and convinced that you are on to something; I have no idea what it is, and maybe you don’t entirely yet either, but together we may be able make a mountain of money out of this mole hill you’ve found yourself on; let’s set aside some time to talk about it.”

He ran through a number of revolutionary ideas (and would later throw out a volatile sketch for one of his own, but we’ll get to that) and listed several noted/notorious lateral thinkers. He showed us that there was little commonality in the thinkers, on the surface, and perhaps less in their ideas, other than that they were often both rejected by others, at first, and later proved to be wildly profitable and pregnant with new possibilities for their industry.

He closed, this section, by noting that the real keys to successful innovation and organizational change are twain (lowercase t, though the other Twain doesn’t hurt): 1) pattern recognition and 2) successfully navigating the WWM.

The takeaway from Grant McCracken (part 1):

Just as opportunity often lies in adversity; innovation often lurks in absurdity—or rendered for takers of the GRE:

Adversity : Opportunity :: Absurdity : Innovation

Those who thus see wrong things around them rightly (or who surround themselves with those who do) will vault forward in the current competitive landscape.