Complexity is the defining business and leadership challenge of our time. But it has never felt more urgent than this moment, with the coronavirus upending life and business as we know it. For the next few weeks, we’ll be talking to leaders about what it takes to lead through the most complex and confounding problems, and about Brody Moments (from Jaws’ Police Chief Brody and his famous line “you’re going to need a bigger boat”) related to the coronavirus.
Today we talk with Stephen Shapiro, innovation speaker, advisor, and author of six books, including his latest, Invisible Solutions: 25 Lenses that Reframe and Help Solve Difficult Business Problems. In 2015 he was inducted into the Speaker Hall of Fame.
David and David: Can you give us an example and context on a specific Brody Moment from your past?
Stephen: When I was at Accenture, I got deeply involved in business process reengineering (BPR), and helped grow our practice to the largest in the world. I was the guy going around the world promoting BPR, advising, clients, and so on. One day, I was working at a client site on a fairly typical project where 10,000 people were going to lose their jobs. After work, I went back to my hotel and saw a news story about three executives who lost their jobs a year earlier as a result of a BPR project. One was living off his inheritance, one was mowing lawns for a living to feed his family, and a third had committed suicide. When I confirmed that the story was true, I walked off the project and took a leave of absence. I wouldn’t say I needed a bigger boat, but it was clear to me that I was in the wrong boat. I didn’t want to help companies shrink, I wanted to help them grow. That’s when I started focusing on innovation.
David and David: What do you think are some of the Brody Moments leaders are experiencing today, in the context of the pandemic?
Stephen: I think there are two different versions of Brody Moments: the first happens when someone realizes that their boat can’t match a big threat they’re facing; the other when they realize that their boat isn’t going to allow them to seize a big opportunity. Right now, people are dealing with the first kind; a shark is coming straight at them, and a bigger/different boat is their only option. That’s because they’re in the first phase of change - which I call reactive adoption - where they’re forced to knee-jerk react to a threat in order to survive. “We need to shift to digital,” “we need to run our meetings on Zoom,” and so on. Proactive innovation, which will come next, is where we start to question things and look at the opportunities. “Do we need to meet at all, whether virtually or otherwise?” “How do we take full advantage of the digital tools that we weren’t using before?” And so on.
That’s the usual pattern: Knee-jerk reaction, followed by thoughtful reflection that leads to true innovation. People will start realizing that things we used to do as a matter of routine -meetings, the event industry, business travel - haven’t lived up to their full potential. Soon they will start talking about how to fix them and finally do things right.
David and David: How should leaders be thinking about innovation during these times?
Stephen: Part of it comes down to how you define innovation. My definition isn’t about novelty or new thinking, but rather relevance. You’d better be innovating right now, or you’ll quickly become irrelevant. If you’re doing it right already, you don’t have to change your innovation process. But most companies haven’t been doing it well. This crisis has raised people’s awareness, which in turn has greatly diminished complacency driving the need to innovate better.
That said, during tough economic times, the word “innovation” goes on the back burner. While I didn’t expect a pandemic in 2020, I anticipated a recession and believed that would mean people would be trying to solve different and bigger problems. I wrote in my previous book, Best Practices are Stupid, that to get to good business solutions, you have to focus first on the questions you’re asking because most of our questions are built with a large number of assumptions we don’t see. To avoid solving the wrong problem, you have to reframe what you thought was the problem to find a better problem. Therefore, my latest book, Invisible Solutions, written for an anticipated recession, focuses on 25 lenses for reframing problems.
During these difficult times, with such a heightened focus on difficult problems, there is a huge opportunity to step back and look at how to find better solutions.
David and David: What do you see ahead with respect to a “new normal” after the crisis is over?
Stephen: With respect to that first phase of change I talked about - our reactionary adoption of new technologies and remote work, for example - I believe a lot of what we’re doing will stick. When the ATM machine was first launched by Citibank in 1977, nobody wanted to use it and many people feared the new technology. Within a year, New York suffered through The Blizzard of ‘78, and almost overnight, the usage of ATMs went through the roof and Citibank doubled their market share in New York.
Crises force us to try new things, and while the pendulum will likely swing back from remote work and meeting virtually, it won’t swing all the way back. When we get into the proactive innovation phase, we will continue using what works best virtually versus in-person, leveraging digital tools more, and creating additional opportunities. I don’t believe that these new tools and practices will preclude getting together face-to-face, but instead introduce additive ways that make our in-person time better.
In 1990, Michael Hammer wrote an HBR article entitled Reengineering Work: Don’t Automate, Obliterate, where he basically said don’t automate bad processes, because you’ll just make bad things happen faster. In a tip of my hat to Hammer, I recently wrote Rethinking Meetings and Conferences: Don’t Automate, Innovate, where I argue that what we’ve done with gatherings in the past shouldn’t be done in the future. We don’t want to make the mistake that Hammer talked about, and just create a virtual version of the live meeting, which was poorly designed to begin with. Now is the time to rethink the way we collaborate.
David and David: Any other advice you can offer? Parting words?
Stephen: If it weren’t for the extreme economic and health issues, we’d look back at this period and say it was one of the greatest times for innovation in history, both from a technological and psychological perspective. While the times are both exciting and scary, we’re now on the path to some great new meeting technologies, and we’re far more open to them than in the past. We can’t miss this opportunity to get far better at asking the right questions and finding better solutions.
Original article posted on Forbes on July 9, 2020
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