We live in a constantly accelerating state of rapid change. It is essentially a continuum of innovation and relentless disruption. Within one generation, the average lifespan of a company has decreased from over 60 years to under 20, while the average product lifecycle length has reduced by 75%.
Retailers have lived through the effect of Amazon’s rise. Traditional advertising and TV/media has been decimated by the rise of Google, Facebook, and others. Tesla introduced a completely new direction for the auto industry. Every firm is dealing with new digital technologies and transformations including data, AI, cloud services, blockchain, and more. And before even accounting for the effects of the pandemic, global workforces and geopolitical pressures have disrupted supply chains. Everyone is affected and all the time.
This environment causes us all to continually feel pressure to adapt and create as professionals and in the firms where we work, which is essentially to innovate. Every company is losing its competitive edge faster while the time to make new products is constantly shortened. It is effectively an on-going existential crisis.
To Survive and Thrive – Firms Need the Capacity to Adapt
Let’s examine who has survived and thrived. In case after case, some firms have the forward-leaning culture and skills which has allowed them to experiment and push the boundaries. Why was Tesla, a firm with no past history in auto, able to develop advanced features like self-driving before everyone else? The same is true for Apple, Netflix, and so many more progressive firms who leapfrogged past their competitors. Most firms have technical expertise, but not every firm has the forward-leaning culture to “say yes” to the experiment coupled with the technical horsepower needed to execute.
As we know from Darwin, “It is not the strongest that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one most adaptable to change.”
The Capacity for Innovation Needs to be Developed
Innovation capability does not happen by itself. While it can be lost by not paying attention, it cannot be acquired by accident. Innovation capability requires:
- forward-leaning culture that continually takes small experiments and re-invests in them when they start to succeed,
- a framework or process which includes story, design, agile execution, technology, and entrepreneurial behaviors (e.g. Innovation Engineering or Engineering Leadership),
- an ability to learn during real projects in real initiatives – not just to learn on the side by listening to lectures,
- a realization that every firm, from news, retail, construction and others, are actually now all becoming technology companies,
- an ability to develop technical skills and innovation behavior skills together,
- and business and technical leaders who are invested in positive change in their organizations.
Culture also Matters: A Forward Leaning Culture Cannot be a “Culture of No”
A healthy forward-leaning culture also requires the right balance of people pre-disposed to say, “yes, let’s try it to see if we get better results” vs. those that say “no, let’s not break anything” or “we have never done that before.” Both are actually useful. The first group acts like the accelerator of a vehicle which is needed to progress forward and the second group acts like the brakes which stop the vehicle from driving into a collision. Assuming the leadership acts like the steering wheel, the people in the organization need to be able to brake as well as accelerate. The important organizational question is whether the brakes are on too often or not enough. Sometimes, the problem is not having enough people in the “Yes” mindset, and too many with the “No” mindset.
The Current State of Developing Innovation Capability
The current state of innovation training is broken. For firms that have strong culture and capabilities, they require new methods and common language to maintain it. For firms who need to develop innovation and technology leadership skills, they must develop it thoughtfully. The current state of options are broken in two ways:
- There are older models of leadership training which is focused on accreditation and academic training. In this case, employees learn without context of the actual work, either by focusing on a narrow skill or by using high level case studies on leadership and strategy. In either case, these models unfortunately offer theory without in-situation practice or behaviors for leaning forward.
- The second failure mode is “Innovation theater.” It is the process of going through the motions of innovation, which looks like forward leaning innovation at the surface, complete with black turtleneck shirts, but otherwise there is no real impact on the mainstream of any organization. If managed incorrectly, these initiatives simply devolve into fun projects and nice showcase parties.
It is Time to Work on the Next Generation of Technical and Behavioral Capacity Building
Technical leadership, technical staff, and other executives are already in need of new methods of capability building. Furthermore, the current state-of-the-art technology firms are the most disruptive to date. They will require an even more ambitious approach to fill the gaps.
We are also noticing several technical professions with massive skill shortfalls including computer science, cybersecurity, data science and artificial intelligence / machine learning. If not corrected, this will likely lead to hiring of employees with a superficial understanding and without the necessary grounding or forward leaning behaviors.
It is time for an upgrade from the old model. I believe that in this next model, 50% of the training time should be in-situation instead of the 80/20 theory/practice models that have been used in the past. This training can include building real-life projects, MVPs, designs, or technologies. The remaining 50% should likely be a small number of highly focused frameworks that cover key points in the technology S-curve for engineering and leadership. Additional improvements will likely include shorter training times and the mixing of more types of people and perspectives. We have even been considering the idea that top tech students, in the roles of project staff, may be able to cross-pollinate skills and perspectives with current leaders in future versions of technical training. If you are working in this area of technical capacity building and would like to share new ideas or collaborate, please feel free to contact me.
A Final Point: In Organizations, the Rubber Meets the Road at the Project Level
Organizations will continue to see the pressure to adapt at the higher levels in the form of new strategies and changing competitive landscapes. On the ground, we see it in the pressure to develop products, services, and features. But the rubber meets the road in the middle. The difference comes down to the experimental projects and pivotal initiatives that organizations should constantly be conducting. When skill development is not tied directly to strategic objectives, it may be nice to have, but it cannot be an effective way to develop people or products.