As a speaker and coach on creativity to organizations worldwide, I sometimes find myself adopting the persona of a corporate bat. Bats, as you know, enjoy sleeping upside down during the daytime, giving them a creative, out-of-the-box outlook on life.
Corporate bats are highly attuned to paradox – the co-existence of opposites in business. They understand the truth in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous statement that an intelligent mind can hold two apparently contradictory views at the same time.
It takes courage to think differently. But if organizations are using the same language and concepts, they are probably also acting in a similar way. In my consulting experience I observe that most organizations are trying to differentiate – in exactly the same way as their competitors! I fantasize that at the world’s major airports there is a retail outlet tucked in between Tie Rack and Sock Shop called the Company Mission Statement Shop. Here a harassed CEO can pop into between flights and buy off-the-shelf items such as To Be The Best, To Be Number 1, or To Be The Preferred Supplier.
Ditto value statements. There are only about eight company values: make sure you throw in Trust, Teamwork, Innovation, Customer Focus, Future orientation, and one or two others and you can bake your look-alike, tastes-the-same corporate cake. Recognize this? Let’s apply the upside-down, inside-out thinking to some commonly held views in business, and see how it helps us to fly beneath the corporate radar of fashionable dogma and rigid thinking.
Cliché no. 1: "People are an organization’s greatest resource."
Bat’s view: Organizations are people’s greatest resource.
Let’s get this clear once and for all: organizations are a manmade fiction, invented in order to achieve what individuals cannot do alone. If, as Peter Drucker wrote long ago, companies can become places that allow ordinary people to achieve extraordinary things, we have to turn our mindset inside out and start truly valuing the individual’s higher needs.
This shift in thinking means the individual must take more responsibility for using the organization’s capabilities for learning, exchange and the development of new skills and attitudes. In one-to-one coaching I encourage people to treat their organization as a university. Not the kind where you sit around drinking and playing music, but one where you are hungry for new knowledge, exciting assignments and life-enriching experiences. It may sound harsh, but Jack Welch had it just about right when he said,
The best long-term career prospect I can offer people in GE is challenging work that will enhance their value in the job market when the company no longer needs them.
The upside-down bat in me calls this commonsense. That is why I have in my speaking contract a condition that allows me to leave the room if my client says, without proof, that “people are our greatest resource or asset”.
Cliché no. 2: "Implement ideas faster!"
Bat’s view: Go slower!
In nearly every business I swoop into, people say, “We have great ideas – we just don’t implement them. And we’re too slow!” The last view suggests that maybe these ideas weren’t so great and inspiring in the first place, or they would have found their way to fruition earlier.
In what has been called the Nano-second age – 24/7/365 and all that – it seems heretical to ‘go slow’. But great ideas, like a fine wine, take time, or at least their own natural rhythm, to mature. This is one of the tenets of the rapidly developing ‘slow’ movement (some paradox there!), which encourages us to eat, drink, think and be. Not necessarily in a sluggish manner, but in a way that finds the right or most natural speed for any activity.
Try reading journalist Carol Honoré’s manifesto for the movement, Slow. As we used to say, but seem no longer to believe, “Don’t just do something, sit there!” Many leading innovators have had their ahas and eurekas doing very little, albeit following periods of intense brain work. From Archimedes in the bath, to Einstein on a Zurich tram. Why not your own NPD or R&D team?
Cliché no. 3: “Listen to customers.”
Bat’s view: Ignore them!
Most great breakthroughs in products and services did not come from listening to customers. Henry Ford tersely remarked that if he’d asked his customers for what they wanted, they’d have demanded a faster horse!
Millions of customers were not reflecting in the early 80s how their life would be more complete with a tiny cassette player with earphones. They were buying the bigger and bigger sound-boxes that the electronics industry was pumping out until the Sony Walkman came along.
The trick is to think ‘both/and’: both listen naively and obsessively to what customers are telling you, and then act on this information and explore the latent or potential needs of customers – ones they don’t know they have yet but when the product is presented to them they wonder how they got on without it. From the Post-It note to the PC, Air Miles to Superglue. Imagine what tomorrow’s customers will want – even if they don’t yet know it! Forget ‘Closer to the Customer” and try instead “Stay Away”.
Cliché no. 4: "There’s a war for talent."
Bat’s view: An armistice for underperformers!
Apart from un-useful military connotations, the concept of a ‘war’ implies that talent is limited and that you have to buy into – financially and psychologically – the star system of hiring big hitters from elsewhere if you want to excel.
However, a recent study of top US broking firms found that paying the highest fees for stars who had been successful elsewhere rarely paid off. It took too long for them to settle into a new culture and perhaps the hunger that initially drove them was no longer there.
The upside-down view is to invest more heavily in growing talent from inside the organization. Don’t believe me? Look at the fanatical focus on leadership development in GE, causing a recent Business Week article to suggest that GE’s ‘best product’ is great leaders. How about an armistice for the so-called under-achievers in your own business? They may not be performing just because you haven’t put sufficient time, energy, attention and resources into their development. The bat would like to see a High Flier executive programme for Low Fliers!
Cliché no. 5: "We need to develop people to become more professional."
Bat’s view: Long live the amateur!
I’m tired of being served by jaded ‘professionals’ who can give me 101 reasons why my request is not possible. But I’m touched by inspired amateurs who, if they don’t know the answer, will find someone who does. Remember that ‘amateur’ comes from the Latin root to love: passionate people who love what they do and convey that feeling to you, the customer.
In fact, loving what you do is the first step in being able to communicate this passion to others. For those who would rather be on a beach, than in their job, the bat advocates the following strategies.
Firstly, find the most enthusiastic people in your field and do not spend time with the nay-sayers.
Secondly, try acting ‘as if’. It’s amazing how acting ‘as if’ this is the best day you have ever had seeps into your consciousness and becomes a reality.
Finally, have fun: organizations have become very dull places and an outsider who is in contact with a business or your department will immediately ‘smell’ whether people enjoy being there or are having a Dilbert day!
Cliché no. 6: "We need to be more focused."
Bat’s view: Try un-focusing!
The problem with focus groups - whether inside or outside the organization - is that they’ll give you today’s (or yesterday’s) gripes and needs rather than tomorrow’s wants. U.S.-based creative design group Ideo specialises in un-focus groups: when getting feedback on, say, a footwear product, they might bring together a walker, a child and a foot fetishist. And on a recent internally-designed creative forum on new ideas in broadcasting, BBC executives were confronted with nose-pierced teenagers who never watched TV, but put together their own smorgasbord of worldwide viewing on their PCs.
As new ideas come from tangential sources, what strangers, mavericks or players from other industries can you bring together to give feedback on your own executive development programme?
Cliché no. 7: "Experience is essential."
Bat’s view: One month in a job and you go blind!
This reversal of everyday thinking was given to me by a client, and it’s always stuck with me as a way of expressing how we – including consultants – quickly acquire ‘rutted’ thinking and a narrowing of possibilities. That’s why there’s such a market for books and articles on re-thinking, re-imagining and re-inventing.
The antidote is to develop beginner’s mind, the freshness of perception you have when you approach a job, task, or team for the first time. This is exactly how Sir Richard Branson approached the airline industry, having no expertise in it except as a dissatisfied consumer. So Virgin Atlantic made a habit of trying to recruit people who did not have a background in the airline industry – except the pilots!! Also, they have hired for attitude first, skills second, the logic being that you can acquire the latter, but changing the former is an uphill struggle.
Naturally, the reality is that we need to realise both the truth inherent in the clichés, and the co-existing truth in its opposite. I call this stereo rather than mono, complementary as opposed to exclusive thinking. As soon as we find ourselves accepting the dogma of our profession, we lose the right to be perceived as thought leaders and become stereotyped, predictable and replaceable, the very characteristics HR professionals abhor in others.
Where are you when you get your great ideas? “In the shower” “In bed.” “Walking the dog.” “Sitting by a lake.” These are the kind of answer I get to this question. So, hang around more, move outside of your functional ‘box’ and join the bats. You know it makes sense.
Originally published: 19 Jun 2006