I launched a podcast somewhat by accident. I was looking for a fun and fast way to give something back, to expand my network and to accelerate my learning. Podcasting seemed the most innovative way to share my insights from 20 years in the corporate world, and at the same time get to know some remarkable people.
I have learned a great deal from my guests, as well as from my business career so far. I want so share with you some of these lessons, including my mistakes. These include things I did, errors of commission, as well as things I failed to do, errors of omission. These 10 lessons will I hope serve to help you accelerate your innovation agendas.
A few months ago, I interviewed Whitney Johnson. She wrote the book Disrupt Yourself which I review here, and which describes just how important it is to understand where you are personally, and organisationally, on the S-curve of disruption, as a key input into decision-making. For Whitney, the individual is the prime agent of change, and her approach and supporting tools are invaluable for those of us willing to proactively manage our careers and our businesses in the context of the waves of disruption reshaping the world of work and business. The learning one derives from this process, combined with increased self-awareness, is a good starting point for the innovation journey. It can require some unlearning as well, as one is forced to confront the realities of disruption on long-held assumptions that are no longer valid.
David Allen’s book Getting Things Done is possibly the most influential book I have read in terms of managing my time and energy, and its benefits are not limited to the workplace. Implementing his methodology enabled me to survive and thrive in a large corporate role early in my career, giving me space and time to think, plan and reflect.
The need to create space prior to embarking on a creative or innovative activity cannot be overstated, and many of my guests make this point in their own way. Indeed, this is the central premise of Lisa Bodell’s new book Why Simple Wins.
Equally important is the need to constantly ask oneself the question “what’s the next action?”, a core habit David teaches, which is designed to maintain momentum and keeps us moving forward, on our projects, irrespective of what they are.
A third tenet of David’s approach is context: which map do you need to be looking at in order to make the right decisions. Working in the business on a detailed customer challenge requires a different map from working on the business, building capabilities for the next 10 years.
In this context, I must admit to major mistake I made in my most recent corporate role: the new organisational structure that supported an integrated strategy was in my eyes overly complex, to such an extent that I started referring to it as Noah’s Ark Management: two of everything. Two VP’s of this function, two Heads of this Region. You get the idea. My comments were somewhat unwelcome, and I was in hindsight looking at the wrong map.
As mentioned in the introduction, not all errors are errors of commission: we can also make errors of omission, a mistake of not doing something you should have done. Robert Wolcott, Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Kellogg School of Management, regularly advises his students to build relationships with people in their organisation long before you need them. The benefits over the long term are obvious, and this is a skill that goes a long way to explain the careers of many people I have worked with.
My error of omission was a failure to continue to do this because, ironically enough, I was too busy focusing on my business. Within a short period of a matter of months, my three biggest supporters at the top of my company, specifically the Chairman, the COO and a third Executive Committee member, had all retired or departed: I had omitted to build bridges with their peers, resulting in limited support in the C-suite for my work and capabilities. For those of you looking to future-proof your careers and secure longer-term sponsorship for your innovation agenda, Rob’s advice is priceless.
I was really pleased to host Kevin Kelly, described by Tim Ferriss as the Most Interesting Man in the World, to talk about his latest book The Inevitable (highly recommended, by the way). We covered a broad range of topics in the interview, and one area I found particularly relevant for those of us innovating in industrial organisations is to recognise what changes are going on in the world beyond the four walls of our companies. I sometimes say that the bigger your organisation, the smaller your world. This is especially true if you have spent much of your working life in the same industry, or perhaps even the same company. As a leader, it is important to help your team understand what changes are occurring in other industries, markets, or functional areas that might have an impact on your area over time. Helping people to unlearn, to recognise that the capabilities that led up to personal or organisational success are not necessarily relevant in the emerging future is a core leadership task, and one for which many of us are unprepared.
A related skill is highlighted by Dorie Clark, marketing strategist, author, and advisor to Unicorns and established industrials alike. Dorie highlights the value of being able to reframe a problem, to look at it in a very different way, in order to surface fresh opportunities or solutions. For example, start by trying to understand a customer’s business in its entirety, rather than through the traditional lens of the products and services you might offer them. In Syngenta, we did this as follows: rather than focusing on the agricultural inputs that a farmer needs, we reframed the unit of analysis to include what happens before the farm (ie financing, labor etc), on the farm (crop inputs, growing the crop), and after the farm (ie how farmers take their crop to the market). Looking at the problem of growing our business with farmers through this new lens enabled us to uncover new commercial opportunities, one of which is on track to generate $100m of sales and which I have written about here. The start point of this journey was for the sales person to unlearn how to initiate a customer conversation, a reminder that so often implementation fails to survive first contact with front line of your organisation.
Many businesses are protected by “moats”: The term was coined and popularized by Warren Buffett, and refers to management’s ability to maintain competitive advantages over its competitors so as to protect long-term profits and market share from competing firms. My conversation here with the Professor Larry Cunningham, the official biographer of Warren Buffett’s business, Berkshire Hathaway, went into lots of detail about how the CEO’s of Berkshire’s 40+ operating companies go about strengthening their moats.
Despite the talk of disruption from new technologies, for those working in mature long product life cycle companies in regulated industries, the number 1 job of the leader is to protect the moat. This might include putting more “sharks and crocodiles into the moat”, making it deeper and broader to fend off attacks from competition and new entrants, or other defensive strategies and tactics. While many company moats are shrinking today as a result of changes in regulation, consumer demand, competition, and technology, as Larry described in our conversation, they remain huge drivers of value for many established industrials across industries and geographies.
I was fortunate enough to be responsible for defending the moat surrounding the largest fungicide in the world, Azoxystrobin, as its patent started to expire at the start of the decade. Our moat-building strategies doubled the size of the business to in excess of $1.5bn in revenues, maintained margins in the post-patent environment, and formed the foundation for the launch of the next generation of fungicide technologies.
Thinking about moats is not easy, because the of the increasingly VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world we live in. In project execution mode, I can easily fall into the trap of losing sight of the moat, which can be dangerous, as the next lesson shows.
Protecting the moat is only half of the story. Much of the value we created for Syngenta’s fungicide business came from the new technology developed by the world class innovation engine led by Trish Malarkay, Head of Research and Development (you can read the interview here). As Charles Darwin wrote over 150 years ago, “it is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.” The Innovation Ecosystem was founded with this in mind: to make available the resources, insights and tools required to help you and your organisation become more innovative and entrepreneurial. It is worthwhile reminding ourselves from time to time of the long term consequences of a failure to innovate.
Much has been written about the impact that Millennials are having, and will continue to have, on the world of work. As a member of Generation X, I am suspicious about stereotyping, but cannot ignore the significance of the fact that by 2020, 50% of the world’s workforce will be made up of millennials. So I was excited to have Gerard Adams, branded by the US media as the Voice of the Millennials, on the show to describe his journey as well as his thoughts on innovation and intrapreneurship.
Surprisingly, he echoed Larry Cunningham’s observations of Warren Buffett’s management style: both emphasise the strong link between autonomy and performance. This is yet another lesson that I found myself frequently having to relearn, as well as having to unlearn some of the more traditional elements of managing performance in a large company.
One of my guests I first met over 30 years ago: I invited Rob Swan to talk to the St Andrews University Expedition Society, of which I was President, about the journey he was planning titled “In the footsteps of Robert Scott, polar explorer”. My conversation with Rob here emphasised a number of elements of leadership that he has distilled from many years operating in extreme polar environments, including the need for authenticity and congruence with personal values. Millennials, many of whom “bring their dreams to work” according to Gerard Adams, are unlikely to trust a leader based solely on their status: they are looking for leaders who do what they say, who walk the talk.
Failure is a topic that is hard for many executives to discuss. While people intellectually understand that you can’t innovate without failure, and that trial and error underpins innovation, it is a rare organisation that confronts this reality head on, in an objective and unemotional way. Tata’s Dare to Try initiative I discussed here with Amantha Imber is unique and refreshing.
As a corporate leader I sometimes shocked my team by suggesting that if they didn’t want to quit at least once a month, they were not trying hard enough. I tell my children the same thing: if they are not falling over on the pistes as they learn to ski, they are not trying hard enough.
As I continue on my personal journey from Executive to Entrepreneur, scarcely does a day go by without having to remind myself that failures are to be expected, and indeed needed, for growth to occur. The key question to ask is, what learning can I extract from failure? And how can I avoid having to relearn the same lessons over and over again?
In a subsequent post I will talk about some of my successes, and how I used a unique set of tools to generate these successes. One of these businesses prompted The Financial Times to describe Syngenta as “the Apple of Agribusiness”, see here. In the meantime, please feel free to comment on this post in the section below, as well as share it across your networks as you see fit.
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