Innovation versus “The Way We’ve Always Done It”

For the last few months, I have been writing about the value of preserving your core competencies. If you’re GE or Kodak or Microsoft, or even if you are you (!), your core competency is the heart and soul of your business.

Where you are going and what you are building will happen on the bedrock of who you are to the public and your customers. At core, Kodak will always be about preserving images. GE will always be about great engineering and manufacturing industrial and commercial machines. Microsoft is about processing and storing information.

By connecting to the reason you are in business, you can make good decisions about where to place your focus now and in the future. If you want to drift too far from your core mission, consider starting a new business. But just because you stick to your knitting, as it were, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t embrace change. In fact, staying in business is all about the art of embracing life-sustaining change.

The Art of Embracing Change

Change for the sake of change is just so much wasted motion. Healthy change is very different. Healthy change is innovation and the life blood of your organization. It is knowing when the environment or external conditions require your response to stay vibrant. Healthy change can also come from inside your organization. The best kind of internal healthy change comes from developing new products, services and processes that set a new standard requiring others in your industry and the external environment to respond to you.

Living organisms are always changing. With rapid advances in technology and global 24/7 interconnectivity, nothing stays the same for more than a New York minute. To remain competitive, your organization will respond to this change, and perhaps even initiate some of it. That doesn’t mean that the core elements that define your organization don’t deserve the respect they have earned. Consistency is a good thing, especially in the midst of change.

Preserving Core Competencies is not Stagnation

Let me repeat that. Preserving your company’s core competencies is not about stagnation. It is healthy to preserve what works and how your customers know you. Play to your strengths.

Stagnation is different. Stagnation is that enemy of innovation: “This is the way we’ve always done it.” If something is the way you’ve always done it, it’s time to look at your products, services and processes and rethink it. When you rethink it, you may find you have already optimized the way it can be done. For now.

Due to the rapid changes in technology, and changes in education and (get this) people, the way you have always done things is probably not the best way to do things now. Real healthy change is about keeping things alive. Like a shark, if your organization stops moving, it’s dead.

BYOD, IoT and Embracing Change

I have been kicking around the tension between preserving core competencies and embracing innovation for a few months. An article from from CIO Insight last week gave me the clarity to organize my thought on this issue. In How the IoT and BYOD Increase Business Agility , author D.P. Morrissey discusses the vulnerabilities, inevitability and impact of both the Internet of Things and Bring Your Own Device on companies. Quoting a survey by Tata Consultancy Services, the article says:

“The topic has become the focus of passionate examination and spirited debate at the top-most level of a growing number of major companies around the world … The early IoT leaders are more likely to digitally reimagine their businesses and produce substantial value for customers, not just value for themselves.”

Like a Shark

Yes, the value of your business’s core competencies cannot be overstated. They cannot be lost. However, as long as your company plans to operate in the 21st Century – and perhaps beyond – it must keep moving.

Morrissey encapsulates the essence of this tension when he says, “There is little forgiveness for the slow in business. Just as evolution rewards the strong, businesses that embrace agility and IoT practices will be rewarded by leading markets and financial categories.”


Preserving Core Competencies: At GE, Everything Old is New Again

A few weeks ago, this blog looked at Kodak’s counterintuitive entry at the Consumer Electronics Show, featuring its return to the Super8 movie camera. Film, really? Yes. Kodak represents a perfect case for retaining your core competencies because you just never know when film will make a comeback.

Today, an article in strategy+business makes a similar point as it traces GE’s headquarters move to tech hub Boston from its former home at 30Rock in Manhattan. GE had planted its headquarters in Manhattan due to its acquisition of NBC Universal and the growth of its financial division, GE Capital.

The strategy+business article  makes the point that GE’s pivot to Boston is responding to two things:

  1. a change in focus and
  2. a change in the workforce.

The new technology workforce it wants to attract are centered in hubs like Boston, and the young engineers and researchers want to live an Uber-friendly urban lifestyle. The article summarizes this point in its last two sentences where it describes a GE advertisement:

Owen, a young, skinny, apartment-dwelling software professional, tell[s] his surprised friends and family that he is going to work for GE; instead of working on apps, he’ll be working on trains and planes and engines. You can be sure that Owen would much rather take the T to work in an open-plan office at the Boston Seaport than fight traffic to get to an isolated campus off the Merritt Parkway.

But the more salient point for our purpose here is that GE’s change in focus is a return to its core competency as a pioneer in engineering and research. The writer, s+b executive editor Daniel Gross, discusses touring plants in Schenectady featuring 3D printing, in South Carolina building turbine engines and in North Carolina building jet engines.

GE’s new focus is just a return to its primary purpose, harkening back to a time when it built the large turbines that drove hydroelectric plants and helped put the first man in orbit building rockets at Cape Canaveral. I just wrote a book for a former GE executive Elmer D. Gates who sadly passed away in December, only three weeks after his book signing. In his book, U-Turn Leadership  , he describes his 30-year career leading GE divisions as a manager with an engineering background and being part of those efforts that built modern industry.

GE’s move to a tech hub to attract talent from the research universities in Boston is really a return to its core competency. GE is coming home to engineering from its foray into the entertainment and financial industries. The article in strategy+business is just another reminder to retain your core competencies. Especially if you want to blaze trails into the future by continuing to engineer solutions that catapult human beings into space.

An organization is not, like an animal, an end in itself, and successful by the mere act of perpetuating the species. An organization is an organ of society and fulfills itself by the contribution it makes to the outside environment.– Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive


What is your company’s most valuable contribution to society and how might you perpetuate it?

Talking Leadership Training to Entrepreneurs

This blog post came out of a conversation today with business coach Hal Alpiar of BusinessWorks.US.  We were discussing the differences between coaching corporate leaders and startup entrepreneurs. I will be joining Hal in BusinessWorks.US to offer co-coaching that brings together our different backgrounds to help clients envision and realize startup success through many facets of business.


Many small businesses and startups today are run by former corporate managers. These entrepreneurs bring with them skills and attitudes from big business. This migration is occurring because the business world itself is scaling down from massive lumbering organizations and scaling up to small agile enterprises. Opportunities are in the world of small, nimble businesses.

In the entrepreneurial world of startups, all parts of the business process are accelerated and much easier to execute than they were even 10 years ago. The Internet of Everything makes starting and running a business streamlined. Even big, gawky manufacturing, production and logistics have a cleaner line directly to the customer.

Most business processes translate well into the new agile and transparent business environment. However, agile and transparent are not the same thing as quick and easy. A small, agile successful business still requires the same strong business principles and leadership skills of the long path. The people skills and rational decision making behind steering a business don’t lend themselves to short cuts.

Entrepreneurs especially may be susceptible to looking for the streamlined path to leadership and corporate governance. They are focused on their baby. They love the product or service they are developing. They seek sales, not markets. When you are the midst of working in overdrive, obsessed with your creation and trying to make your first few sales, is the most difficult time to step back and look at the longer road.

From Corporate Management to Small Business Leadership

That focus on product development and sales is exactly what baby needs to be nurtured into a viable business.  To organize and sustain that business, though, means strengthening entrepreneurial leadership skills. A little support and hand-holding especially through the first year can help make a smooth transition from corporate management to small business leadership.

Here are some of the issues an entrepreneur faces:

  • When to hire someone and what to look for
  • How to manage a small, possibly virtual, workforce
  • Understanding the difference between cash flow and revenue, and how a shortage of one of those will sink you
  • Why staying close to your customers will help you define your markets
  • Sales, marketing, public relations and corporate communications – what’s necessary and what’s optional when you’re starting out
  • How to maintain a semblance of a personal and/or family life while obsessing over your baby

What are some other issues you can think of that make entrepreneurial leadership training and coaching different than corporate executive coaching?

How to Get Massive Learner Engagement by Tapping into the Wisdom of the Crowd

wisdom of the crowd

I am putting the finishing touches on a book called U-Turn Leadership for a retired CEO about how he saved failing organizations. The book is designed both as a standalone read and as the foundation for a course on leadership. Last night, he called to tell me something very important about designing the first class.

This very important point is based on a principle I strongly believe in: the wisdom of the crowd. Simply, we are all experts in something. Great learning draws it out.

The First Lesson

Designing the first class lays the foundation for everything that follows. You:

  • set the tone for your interactions,
  • establish the rules for success and
  • describe the knowledge the students need to acquire to achieve mastery.

Now, expand that definition: Use that first interaction to get learners to feed you what they know. In the spirit of flipping the educational experience, let your class do the teaching.

If you want to get someone engaged in learning what you want to teach them, ask them about themselves. Show an interest in what they already know. Get their perspective. Understand their points of reference. Get them talking and thinking about what they know about the subject.

When your learners are teaching each other, they are involved in the class in a way that moves them from passive receptors to members of an active feedback loop. Putting them in the teacher’s seat in the beginning allows you to tap into all the knowledge in the room for a vibrant experience for everyone.

Wisdom of the Crowd

I have long believed that just about everything I am about to teach is already known collectively by the class. So before diving in and droning on, I present the material as questions. They find out how smart their classmates are, build respect for themselves and for each other before you enter the topic.

You also find where the gaps are, with whom, and how to adjust perceptions to make your material accessible to the learners.

In one case, I teach soft skills training to experienced service providers.  I introduce the class and tell them that they already know or instinctively do much of what we are going to talk about. In the case of this particular class, I am teaching wisdom to Solomon. So we use the classroom material to talk about cases and issues they encounter and I facilitate as they advise each other using the framework of the class material to guide discussions.

In a word, the method is Socratic. So, it’s nothing new. And just like in the classes themselves, I expect I am telling you things here that you already do and know.

Great classes remind you what you know and expand on it. Adult learning is all about making those connections. If you want great engagement, start by make your students the teachers. Tap into the wisdom of the crowd.

Applying the WOTC Formula

How will this play out in the first U-Turn Leadership class we are writing? We’ll ask the class to define leadership.  Yes, we have a formal framework that we call the 5 Absolute Attributes. But that first class is a discussion about the participants’ experiences with leadership.

The U-Turn Leadership book and seminar series is based on university classes that were full to brimming after word got out about them. The classes involved real-life examples and the exchanges in class solved problems. When you draw on the wisdom of your students, you have moved from the theoretical to what is real for them. When the learning is real and applicable, the students care.

Try this simple Wisdom-of-the-Crowd (WOTC) Formula when designing training, then watch the rest of your classes flow out of what you’ve shared with each other.

The WOTC Formula:

  • Ask: Draw on the learner’s knowledge.
  • Connect: Have the class teach each other to build a web of learning relationships.
  • Encourage: Show them how smart they are.
  • Structure: Give them a framework in which to do their thinking so their discussions and learning are aimed toward a goal.

By tapping into the wisdom of the crowd, your learners are enriched by each other. Appreciate their knowledge and create massive engagement.

How do you tap into the knowledge in your classroom? Share your strategies for learner engagement in the comment section below.