Many think big. Few change our worldview. Great thinkers reveal great insight. They find the hook.
I’m inspired by the breathtaking insights culled by great observers of complex organizations and organisms. Adam Smith on the foundations of free markets, Albert Einstein redefining physics in the dream of a night train, Ernst Gombrich crafting a majestic yet tiny history of the world in a matter of weeks.¹
And of course we now have a film that allows us to fully appreciate the genius of a young Stephen Hawking, who reimagined the whole shebang while fighting through the first torturous stages of debilitating disease. Heroes walk among us. Sometimes they roll.
Historians and anthropologists of the 20th century continued to crack codes: Alfred Chandler, Daniel Boorstin, Joel Mokyr, and Jared Diamond led us to view history, discovery and human organization with new clarity. Their 21st century contemporaries Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Johnson, and maybe most startlingly, Yuval Harari help us to realize that our past still harbors as many surprises as our future.
They are memorable, and they are valuable, because they offer the gift of surprising insight – a new way of understanding the world.
This is the necessary “hook” of any meaningful work. This is the payoff. I can make no sense of such an undertaking without that aspiration.
My writing partner Dave Hersh and I are researching a related quandary under the working title The Da Vinci Co. Our challenge: identify the unique combination of characteristics that winning organizations will demonstrate over the next quarter century. Our effort launches in full and visible earnest next week, with video interviews of a number of corporate heroes in Chicago. Just the beginning.
We will bury ourselves in data, and try to parse opinion for fact. We will consciously ignore our own working assumptions, which blind us with bias. And as the data rains down like green bits of code in The Matrix, we will scan for patterns. We will test hypotheses. And we will look less for the pieces that fit the puzzle than the nagging few that do not. Therein lies the hook.
I submit the compelling example of Larry Keeley, founder of Doblin Group, advisor to the corporate cognoscenti, Professor at Chicago’s Institute of Design and Northwestern University. In this video, Larry opines on the battle for innovation in the rapidly adaptive ground war in Afghanistan and Iraq (and subsequently Syria as the dominos continue to tumble). Keeley’s objective assessment clearly scores the Taliban as the winning innovators. These lessons were not lost on the US military. Nor on ISIS.
I spent the night thinking about our daunting responsibility to discover our “hook”. Consider a few examples:
1. What are the conditions for rapid innovation?
Someone other than Keeley might drone on about the machinations of IEDs in the sands of war. But Larry cuts within minutes to the hook. His punchline: disadvantage and extreme adversity produce better, faster, bigger leaps in innovation.
2. Why do big companies inevitably fail?
In his trenchant biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson noted that late in his too-short life Jobs was troubled by the fall from grace of so many magnificent companies – IBM and Xerox among others in his industry.
Maybe worrying for the future of his own legacy, Jobs observed that tech titans fail, ironically, once their products achieve market prominence. At that point, the mechanism to exact profits comes by scaling sales on the current product, not by focusing on the next product. Of course that proves a short game, opening the door to crafty competitors and ends in tears. He may too narrowly focus on his own tech sector², but he offers a compelling alternate take on Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma.
His insight cuts through to the nub. Spare, clean, obvious – like Malcolm Gladwell’s findings. The hook hides in plain sight.
3. Why do humans destroy their own ecosystem?
Yuval Harari gives us a crash course in the rise of Sapiens (wise) among fellow Homos (human). Within pages, he reveals that for nearly all of 200 million years genus Homo³ had the big brain and stone tools to rise from the middle of the food chain, just another but weaker monkey, to the unchallenged pinnacle as alpha predator. The various breeds of Homos (Erectus, Habilis, Ergaster, Sapiens, Neanderthalensis…) barely registered even against their fellow great apes, who could tear through a frail human tribe like butta’.
Humans only made that leap very recently, in the last 250 thousand years. Why? The author proposes that domesticating fire gave humans (maybe all species, certainly Sapiens and Neanderthals) dominion over nature and a literal atomic power. Man becomes Zeus when he starts hurling lightning bolts.
Maybe more importantly, Harari argues that from sharks to lions, no predator has risen from the middle to the top in an evolutionary nanosecond. All evolved over millions of years in concert with their prey. Lions leap farther, gazelles leap higher – a cyclical arms race like Keeley’s improvised explosive devices. By contrast, wherever modern man shows up on in geographic history, megafauna perish, like shipwreck survivors eating all the tortoises without bothering to worry about tomorrow’s soup.
I fell asleep last night on his speculation that our rise would have been infeasible without the development of advanced articulation in human hands. I awoke from a nightmare of raccoons, their insane little hands evolving into fire stalking super predators and taking over the planet. Which I think is pretty much Bradley Cooper’s character in guardians of the galaxy.
Mayhaps I digress. The point is, our research efforts pursue a rational investigation of a big question, just like each of the examples above. But the success and value of our investigation depends on finding our hook; we must crack the missing insight. Dig for the unexpected. For the patterns just below the surface.
It may look something like this…
“Winning companies of the future are not today’s VC-funded big bets on tiny tech startups, nor a return to ascendance of the global industrial monoliths, but rather the distributed networks of self-vested, independent, interchangeable experts just emerging now in the gig economy – who band together by project and reassemble in new combinations and configurations for the next purposeful mission.”
“Winning companies of the future cannot be predicted by their prior success or high-growth trajectory. Google, it turns out, is as fragile as Yahoo, Facebook as inherently weak as Myspace, Amazon as vulnerable as Woolworths. The winners will be known by …”
…or something completely different.
In any case, the data will rain.
Be on the lookout!
¹A short version may actually be harder to write than a voluminous history. Samuel Clemens apologized after writing a long letter, saying “I didn’t have time to write a short one.” The length of too many of my posts attest to this struggle. You can be the judge on how far down the page this footnote appears.
²It seems Jobs may have been remarking on his own fall from grace when he was ousted from Apple in favor of his own former Pepsi “sugar water salesman” John Sculley.
³We were not alone. Homo genus included at least six simultaneous and in some cases formidable competing species of humans, including one dwarf race of meter-tall hobbits, Homo Floresiensis, stranded on an island neighboring today’s Java. We belong to the sole surviving Sapiens, though some of us (particularly if you recognize the Homo Willynelsonsis gent below from a family reunion) carry a smattering of Neanderthal DNA, thanks to some primordial Tinder hookups. Who knows what other mysteries lie beneath.
Thank you, Roger. Quite refreshing!
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You may well be right about finding the few pieces that don’t fit, and I have a preliminary hunch that that will end up being your hook. Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions says that it is the initially ignored data and observations that don’t fit a dominant paradigm of the day that often end up offering insight into a new paradigm that then shifts scientific understanding and practice. Well, that was not very articulate but it’s the general idea of a paradigm shift
He also said that change is usually the result of the efforts of the young and the outsider, people who have no attachment to the status quo. I follow that thinking with Invasive Species and I think it’s an important general point. Ordinarily, the established players within an ecosystem will actually resist change because it’s not in their interests. Cooperation is a hugely under-appreciated and under-studied phenomenon in the natural world but it’s clear, when you look into it, that market ecosystems like natural ones consist of huge numbers of players all cooperating in one way of another, and changes to one part of the ecosystem usually have knock on effects elsewhere. So you look at any system and you’ll see a tendency towards equilibrium (the lowest possible level of energy expended across that system). Shocks to that system come from the outside – either from new entrants who are not already part of the energy web and therefore have no investment in it , or from the bigger systems of which the system is a part or to which it is connected, like weather (all systems are parts of systems bigger than themselves). Because of the tendency of the system to avoid expending energy,there is nearly always a stickiness or ratchetyness that creates a lag between cause and effect (also noted by Kuhn, and by Martin Krieger in his peculiar but excellent book Marginalism and Discontinuity). This is why companies are often so slow to respond to innovation or, indeed, to generate it.
So, winning companies will likely have the characteristics of not being like everyone else at that moment in time, and of course what that means will change as those companies change the dominant paradigm of the moment.
But then there is another important consideration, which is to define what you mean by “winning”. I have created a “success matrix” based on the theory of niche construction which suggests there are 4 primary “stances” towards success or winning. I think there may be a 5th, which is about imitation, one of the most important survival strategies in the natural world, but I’m not entirely sure about that. Anyway, The four stances are a) TRANSFORM, b) ADAPT, c) INVADE, d) EXTEND (I’ve tried to attach the matrix but for some reason the paste function won’t work). a and c are proactive stances towards one’s place in the market, b and d are reactive. a and b relate to your current market/industry, c and d to a new one.
One other note which is that I don’t entirely agree with Steve Jobs about the shift from Product to Sales, or at least I don’t think that’s the deep reason for corporate failure. What I do think is that there is a shift of focus from product to company. To try to be snappy, companies exist to make a product but then make the product to exist. It’s a phenomenon that I am always amazed by; once an organization comes to life, it fights for survival. I think it’s why so many companies can’t kill projects, because the teams fight for survival. At any rate, companies develop a dependency on something they themselves created. It’s weird but there it is.
Finally, we still view organizations as things. They are not things, they are beings (or becomings, to use trendy talk) and as such they are processes. My guess is that at some stage in the future companies will start to organize around process rather than structure, and at that point they will be able to exploit a mature product, grow a younger one, and explore/conceive of new ones at the same time with the right kinds of people for each stage (e.g. inventor, innovator, improver). Process Organization Studies are cool and completely marginal, but there’s a group that meets every summer on a Greek island to discuss such things and eventually it will become mainstream. Organizational winners will be all flow, all process, all the time.
Oh, and part of the “it depends” nature of things is that winning will also depend on the level and rate of change in the system itself. We might talk about r and K selection theory. We’re in an r-strategist world at the moment but that may not always be the case. For sure winning characteristics will differ depending on those macro conditions.
OK, I don’t know if that’s helpful but I think these kinds of things are important but not widely thought about in business contexts.
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