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How to Establish Transformation DNA

You sit down with a cup of coffee. You resist the urge to check new emails or Slack messages. You want to spend a few minutes to plan out, in your mind, how you will keep the momentum going for your transformation agenda or your innovative product. After a lot of resistance, all the pieces have finally started to move in the right direction. Just a few more months of hands-on progress, and you will have reached an inflection point, so things will not regress back to how they used to be.

But the new year has come with new goals, new budgets and new distractions. Will everyone still be focused on your initiative? Will some stakeholders check out because they have something new to chase or they never truly believed in the mission anyway?

You begin to worry about how to sustain your agenda. You start to wonder how you should drive it differently this year.

Sounds familiar? Read on for a time-tested way to make sure your transformation and innovation agenda succeeds.

What makes transformation stick?

Transformation isn’t all about a wonderful brainwave or an iconic product. Most of the companies that are considered leaders in innovation (think Amazon, Google, even Tesla) and companies that are successfully transforming themselves (think Microsoft, New York Times even Walmart) are often not the first movers. They are often taking existing ideas and existing products and reassembling them in a more compelling, more meaningful way for the customer.

Why do they succeed where other large and experienced companies fail?

My belief is that the successful companies – or their specific divisions – embed transformation and agility in their DNA. Their cultures and internal processes are no longer designed solely to protect today’s franchise. Instead they are focused on moving steadily toward the franchise of tomorrow as well as moving away – quickly – from failed ideas and plateauing business models.

What does the transformation DNA look like? 

Three intertwining strands make up the transformation DNA in an organization. You need each of them in order to succeed.

  1. Strategic clarity. You can’t transform or innovate without a strong hypothesis about the direction of change in the economy or the society and a strong belief about how you, specifically, will capitalize on or drive that change. While it is important to be agile and course-correct your strategy as needed, aiming for the wrong strategic quadrant or trying to conquer multiple quadrants at once is often a recipe for failure.
  2. Precise, yet nimble, execution. Bold strategies, great ideas and soaring visions are worthless if they don’t survive in the day-to-day realities of your organization or industry. To that end, you need a well-thought-out plan to execute them. You also need a mechanism to sense when to fine-tune your plan based on changing realities.
  3. Critical mass. Out of three strands of the transformation DNA, this is the most elusive one. Many organizations are great at strategy, many are great at execution, but most fail to truly build the discipline needed for scaling. You need to set meaningful milestones and only scale your investments if you meet those milestones. This discipline ensures that ideas or strategies that do not pan out in the marketplace don’t become a bottomless pit and starve other more potent ideas.

See also: Culture Side of Digital Transformation  

How do we know we have sufficient strategic clarity?

Get your core cross-functional team together and collectively answer the following questions in an open-minded manner. If you identify any areas of weakness, brainstorm as a team how you can define that aspect of your strategy better.

  • Concise strategy: Can you articulate your strategy in a succinct way? With today’s fleeting attention spans, you will not win converts or allies for your endeavor if you can’t give them a quick but clear view of where you are going. This is not just a matter of playing with words and semantics. Is your strategy based on a strong hypothesis about the future and about your own strategic play?
  • Clarity of outcomes: Are you clear about what success will look like? Will you gain market share, cross a revenue threshold, leave certain competitors behind, save a material portion of costs or measurably improve customer experience? The intended outcome of your strategy needs to be clear, both as a measuring instrument and a rallying cry.
  • Clarity of approach: How will you realize your strategy? Will you build or buy or partner? Will you optimize what you have or invent something? Will you build a product or a platform? Often, there are many ways to reach a goal, and knowing which ones you will be following is crucial to ensure alignment and efficiency.
  • Clarity of priorities: No matter how well-planned your quest is, there will be moments of truth when you will have to choose one path over another or provide resources to one effort over another. Do you have a clear prioritization framework that will help you make those decisions?

How do we assess and strengthen our ability to execute?

Having a good strategy is a good start, but it’s just one of the ingredients. You also need to make sure your execution engine is in top gear. Look for these essential elements of nimble execution:

  • Alignment between execution and strategy: Have you assembled a team that has the resources and skill sets your strategy will require? Do they understand and internalize your strategy? The next step is to engage them in building the high-level contours of your execution plan. Does this plan truly reflect the defined strategy, or is it just a “copy/paste” aggregation of siloed functional plans?
  • Granular execution plans: As unsexy as it might be, defining granular execution plans based on the high-level blueprint is crucial. The biggest benefit of doing so is to identify dependencies that go across functional siloes. That is where a lot of transformational efforts fail, as two functions operate at different speeds or from different blueprints and fail to support each other at the right moment of dependency.
  • Frequent recalibration: Do you have a way to measure your progress against the execution plans? How frequently does the team review the progress and recalibrate? This does not necessarily mean a lot of bureaucracy and a lot of “progress reports.” If your teams use one shared, digital tracker, the progress can be visible to everyone in real time. Yes, you do have to have a conversation with the right folks if a recalibration is needed.
  • Decentralized decision rights: While I recommend shared or centralized tracking of progress, decision rights should be as decentralized as practically possible. This allows quick adjustments at the ground level and often preempts bigger problems. A similar approach can be found the Petraeus doctrine, which the army follows in modern, asymmetric wars. Go ahead and empower your teams to make decisions on their own – within guardrails, of course.

How does the concept of critical mass apply to our initiative?

“Thing big. Start small. Scale fast.” You may have heard one of the many variations of this powerful adage. Sometimes people say “Learn fast” or even “Fail fast.” The core idea here is to divide your journey into distinct phases that get you to the proverbial “next level” but only launch the next phase if you perform well in the earlier one. If you don’t get to critical mass, if your metrics fall short, you should go back to the drawing board and reconsider or reorient the initiative. Follow these steps to embed this thinking in your operating model:

  • Phases reflect step functions of value: Take a step back and think about the end game. What is the big prize? What is the value that you will deliver? Now, zoom in a little and think about the first “win” you can produce. Similarly, define one or two additional steps in value before you get to the big prize. Delivering these early wins will earn you street cred and buy-in. Without these, you are likely to fail or get sidetracked before you reach the big prize. Another common pitfall is that, in reality, phases are often lazily defined – just tied to quarters or based on something one function is already planning to do. To succeed, it is crucial to define the phases based on value increments.
  • Phases reflect step functions of effort: Each of the phases defined above often requires a different level of resources and effort. For example, your first phase may be a prototype for which you borrow a few resources and stitch together a barely functional solution. But if that works, you may need to bring in many more resources and collaborate across functions to build something robust enough to be sold to or used by real users. Finally, as you get to the scaling phases, you may need to invest even more resources, for example in usability, in security and, of course, in marketing and sales. Ideally, your phases should reflect step-function changes in resources and investment, as opposed to just continuing the status quo.
  • Structured review of phase results: Just defining the phases is not enough. Your team will need to define very clearly what success looks like for each phase. And as you come closer to the end of a phase, you should review with your board or steering committee, how the phase has performed vs. what you had expected. This review needs to be structured and methodical and should drive a clear go/no-go decision. Because each new phase represents a higher level of investment (and return), there should be an explicit decision before you plunge in. Without a doubt, this is the hardest part of the whole journey. Being able to step back from something you have invested in – financially and emotionally – is hard, but sometimes that is the right thing to do.
  • Feedback loop into strategy: Last but not least, these phase reviews should feed into the continuing strategy definition. Perhaps the competitive landscape has changed. Perhaps a new technology has disrupted your previous assumptions. Perhaps you were too enthusiastic in terms of what your in-house team could accomplish in the given time. The latest, more nuanced understanding of the ground reality should inform your strategy as you move forward.

See also: Core Transformation Is Not Negotiable  

Transformation and innovation initiatives can be very exciting and fulfilling. However, if they do not win in the marketplace, they can be shuttered after enjoying a year or two atop the hype wave. You can avoid that fate and ensure that your initiatives win by building the transformation DNA in your organization using the above approach. Good luck, and do share your experiences and thoughts.

3-Point Plan for an Innovation Portfolio

One lament I often hear when I advise large company executives on the need to “Think Big” is that their biggest innovation challenge is not thinking big—it is thinking too much. Purportedly great ideas come from the front lines where the organization interacts with products and customers. They come from technology or marketing wizards keeping a sharp eye on disruptive market trends. They come from executives and board members grappling with questions at the organization’s strategic horizon. The challenge is that organizations are overwhelmed with more ideas than they can sort out, much less pursue. Perhaps the best advice on how to deal with the challenge of too many ideas comes from Peter Drucker, who offered this general principle:

Innovation begins with the analysis of opportunities. The search has to be organized, and must be done on a regular, systematic basis.” Don’t subscribe to romantic theories of innovation that depend on “flashes of genius.”

Rather than relying on randomness or organizational influence to dictate which ideas find a receptive ear, here is a three-point plan for initiating a systematic process for uncovering, assessing and scaling the best ideas. 1. Inventory Opportunities Start by casting a wide net. For example, sponsor a series of innovation contests and workshops to educate, build alignment and uncover potentially good ideas. Hold scenario planning sessions with senior executives and board members to explore both incremental and disruptive future business scenarios. Questions to ask might include:

  • Can you augment your customer interfaces to reveal customer preferences and to customize the customer experience, as Amazon and Netflix do?
  • Are there opportunities to better utilize the big data being generated by your business processes, including customer, operational or performance data, for innovation?
  • How might you reimagine key business, customer, and competitive issues if you could start with a clean sheet of paper?
  • How do the six disruptive technologies affecting other information intensive companies apply to you?
  • What extreme competitive threats, i.e., doomsday scenarios, might new entrants wielding these disruptive technologies pose to your organization?

Opportunities should include both continuous and discontinuous innovations. Continuous innovations offer incremental or faster, better, cheaper-type optimizations, such as shedding costs, reducing cycle times and generating incremental revenue. Discontinuous innovations are those that rise to the level of game-changing potential. 2. Develop a Holistic View Using an Innovation Portfolio Next, assess each opportunity based on competitive impact and investment type using the portfolio analysis framework as shown in Figure 1. Figure 1 Figure 1: Portfolio Analysis Framework Competitive impact measures differentiation against what competitors might deploy by the time an idea is launched. Remember Wayne Gretzky (who famously said he skates to where the puck is going, not to where it is)! A key mistake is evaluating an idea against one’s current internal capabilities, as opposed to where the competition is going. This dimension forces an explicit calculation of an idea’s future potential competitive impact. Investments can be one of three types:

  • Stay in Business investments (SIB) are for basic infrastructure or non-discretionary government mandates. SIB investments should be assessed on how adequately they meet regulatory or technical requirements while minimizing risk and cost.
  • Return on Investment opportunities (ROI) are pursued for predictable, near-term financial returns. Standard measures, such as net present value (NPV), return on equity (ROE) or other well-understood metrics are applicable here.
  • Option-Creating Investments (OCI) are pursued to create business options that might yield killer-app-type opportunities in the future. OCI investments do not yield financial returns directly.  Instead, they build capabilities and learnings that can be translated into future ROI opportunities. Like financial options, OCIs should exhibit high risk and offer tremendously high returns.

After arraying opportunities in the framework, eliminate those that fall outside of acceptable boundaries. For example, companies should not pursue opportunities that, once completed, are already at a disadvantage against the competition. For the remaining opportunities, develop an initial sizing of investment levels and potential benefits according to each investment category. Filter as appropriate. For example, eliminate ROI opportunities that do not meet standard corporate hurdles rates. Eliminate OCI opportunities that do not exhibit extraordinary option value. Eliminate SIB ideas that do not adequately minimize cost and risk—be very skeptical of SIB opportunities aimed at providing ROI or OCI benefits. Such opportunities should be judged directly as those investments types.  Figure 2 illustrates how the analysis might look at the end of this stage. Figure 2 Figure 2: Portfolio Analysis Results 3. Balance the Innovation Portfolio In personal investment portfolios, it is important to not place all hopes in one or two investments. The same is true for corporate innovation portfolios. To ensure competitiveness in the near term and in the future, they should include a mix of incremental and disruptive innovations. The right balance and prioritization depends on a company’s investment capabilities and competitive circumstances. For example, as shown in Figure 3, a market leader might field a portfolio geared toward aggressive growth by enhancing its infrastructure, investing heavily in near-term profitable opportunities and developing a small number of killer app options for sustaining its competitive advantage.  (My experience is that the right number of such options is on the low end of the magic 7, plus or minus two. That is because the limiting factor is senior executive attention, which is very limited, not investment dollars. Market leaders have lots of money to waste, but no project with true killer app potential can succeed without significant senior executive attention.) Figure 3 Figure 3: A Market Leader’s Balanced Portfolio Other illustrative portfolio profiles are shown in Figure 4. Commodity businesses tend to minimize SIB and OCI investments. Companies that are retooling might emphasize infrastructure and near-term investments and make only minimal investments in future options. Underperforming companies tend to invest in programs that barely achieve competitive parity, or worse, and do little to prepare for the future in any of the three investment categories. Figure 4 Figure 4: Illustrative Portfolio Profiles

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By adopting appropriate financial and competitive metrics and measures for each type of investment, companies avoid planning theatrics where guesses are disguised as rigorous forecasts. This can happen, for example, when infrastructure and other SIB investments are required to demonstrate explicit returns on investment. Or, it can happen when advocates of OCI efforts are required to calculate net present value of very uncertain long-term initiatives. Such forecasts can, of course, be made by  savvy proponents. But the analyses are better testaments to rhetorical and spreadsheet skills than certainties about the future. At the end of this three-step process, companies should have a prioritized and staged investment plan that represents a coordinated enterprise innovation strategy and follows the think big, start small and learn fast innovation road map. Achieving an adequate understanding of the entire landscape of possibilities facilitates and encourages thinking big. Continuing management of the innovation portfolio provides clear criteria for evaluating other big ideas as they come up. It also demands the discipline of starting small and learning fast in the pursuit of disruptive innovations that will shape the company’s future strategic prospects.

8 Make-or-Break Rules for Innovation

In my last posting, I laid out three reasons for why large companies should out-innovate start-ups to capture the disruptive opportunities that are being enabled by a perfect storm of technological innovations. In this post, I offer eight rules for how they can do so.

Based on research on thousands of innovation efforts—both successes and failures—that went into The New Killer Apps: How Large Companies Can Out-Innovate Start-Ups, corporate innovators should apply these rules to help their companies get out of their own way and leverage their assets. By doing so, they can take better advantage of innovation opportunities than start-ups can. The eight rules fall under three general categories that distinguish winners from losers: Thinking Big, Starting Small and Learning Fast.

Successful innovators “think big” by considering the full range of possible futures. They facilitate innovation by daring to pursue “killer apps”—new products and services that might rewrite the rules of a category.

By contrast, failed innovators tend to “think small.” They assume that change will be a slight variant of the present and just look for incrementally faster, better or cheaper innovations.

Here are three rules designed to help you think big:

Rule 1. Context is worth 80 IQ points. As you start to “think big,” you must understand the information-technology environment in which you are operating. Six technological innovations—combining mobile devices, social media, cameras, sensors, the cloud and what we call emergent knowledge—are reshaping both what is possible and the competitive landscape in every information-intensive industry.

Mary Meeker, the noted business analyst, argues that these technologies are putting more than $36 trillion in market value up for “reimagination.” ($36 trillion is the total market value of the 10 industries most vulnerable to change over the next few years.) You must understand all the traditional forces inside your industry and come to grips with these six technological megatrends, both individually and in combination.

Rule 2Embrace your doomsday scenario. Thinking big is not just about bold aspirations; it also requires understanding the starkest threats facing your organization.

One reason to look for doomsday scenarios is that it helps spot vulnerabilities and spark improvements even if doomsday never comes. Another reason is that it helps to build alignment. Getting beyond vague views and developing detailed, shared views of existential threats and how quickly they might arrive can help management teams develop consensus on timing and move forward in unison. But people tend to avoid thinking about truly worst-case scenarios, so this rule is designed to make sure that they do so.

Rule 3. Start with a clean sheet of paper. A markets change, large companies’ strategic assets too often become liabilities. Success brings with it priorities to juggle, budgets to protect, bonuses to maximize, resources to defend, loyalties to reward, egos to stroke. People have all sorts of incentives in big organizations to slow or halt innovation, and many manage to do so.

That’s why it is important to periodically start with a clean sheet of paper and think about key trends and looming inventions, then envision how everything could come together to transform the business—without worrying about what people, capabilities and other assets have to be added or subtracted to become that perfect version of the business.

Start Small

Successful companies “start small”after thinking big. Rather than jumping on the bandwagon for one potentially big idea, they break the idea down into smaller pieces for testing and take the time to make sure that key stakeholders are working in unison.

By contrast, companies that fail in the face of a disruptive technology tend to swing from complacency to panic. Initially, they not only don’t see the opportunities; they can’t accept that they’re in danger. When they finally see the disruption, they panic. They make a last-chance, massive bet on a single idea—only to have it not pan out. Here are three rules that ensure you are starting small:

Rule 4. First, let’s kill all the finance guys. To start small, make sure you don’t settle on financial projections too soon; they can’t be accurate, and they hamstring innovation. By definition, disruptive innovations deal with future scenarios that are hard to read and where the right strategy is not clear; the right strategy has to emerge over time.

This rule, then, is a reminder to take a more iterative approach to understanding the finances of new businesses. A culture has to be established, beginning at the very top of the organization, that says newborns get to crawl and walk and maybe even start preschool before their talents are evaluated.

Rule 5. Get everyone on the same page. While the tendency is to leap into action as soon as a possible killer app is identified, it is crucial to take the time to step back, assess where the organization is and identify possible impediments to change. One challenge is to understand who wins and who loses if the envisioned innovations succeed. If an innovation has to kill the core business to succeed, it won’t be possible to get everyone to embrace it. Those in the existing business will always try to kill rather than be killed. In some cases, you can delay an uprising by being discreet. In other cases, where those not on the same page can’t cripple you, you can be overt and simply pit a new business against the existing one (while protecting the new efforts sufficiently).

Another challenge is to understand the cultural implications of the desired innovation. Many executives believe they can change a culture to suit a strategy, rather than try to make the strategy fit the culture. That route is possible but usually takes longer than most are willing to admit. Sometimes it is better to work with what you’ve got. The key is to understand that there is no silver bullet to managing change. Instead, you must form a cleared-eye view of the particular circumstances that must be addressed and manage accordingly. Remember Nelson Mandela’s admonition, “Lead from the front but don’t leave your base behind.”

Rule 6Build a basket of killer options. Once you are ready to start building killer apps, make sure to invest only small amounts and test a number of possibilities. At the early stages, any fledgling killer app is more likely to fizzle than sizzle. Do not waste a lot of money plunging toward The Answer. What you really want is a finely nuanced understanding of The Question. Do this by employing the discipline associated with financial options. Rather than investing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to build out a full-fledged business, invest in iterative experiments that can be expanded as they prove out, or be set aside if they don’t.

It is important to limit the number of options to a handful. Innovations of transformative potential require CEO attention—which is limited—to make sure the efforts are protected from the organizational antibodies; to make sure they do not take on a life of their own; and, to shepherd them to scale if their potential proves viable. (In most organizations, only the CEO can play this role.) Our experience is that the right number is around three “killer options” and no more than five.

Learn Fast

In addition to thinking big and starting small, successful innovators “learn fast.”They take a scientific approach to innovation. They figure out how to gather comprehensive data and quickly analyze both what’s working and what isn’t. They have the institutional discipline to set aside or alter projects based on that analysis. By contrast, companies that fail have neither the time nor the inclination to learn. They fall into the “it’s all about implementation” trap and end up expertly implementing a failed strategy. Here are two rules to make sure you are learning fast.

Rule 7. A demo is worth a thousand pages of a business plan. Too often, early success or optimism about a big idea quickly transforms it into a conventional business development program: a long march where the only acceptable outcome is to get a product to market. As a result, people do all the analysis they can, however imprecise, and the result becomes The Plan. Some of this is due to habit—planning is what big companies do, and business initiatives can’t typically proceed without detailed business plans and reams of confirming spreadsheets.

Our research revealed the need for less planning and more testing. Rather than prematurely building out the new business, keep prototyping to explore key questions, such as whether the technology will work, whether the product concept will meet customer needs and whether customers will prefer it over the competitive alternatives.

Rule 8. Remember the Devil’s Advocate. Setting up the right process for demos, prototypes and scaling is crucial but only half the battle. The other half is making sure you ask the tough questions during the process and remain open to hearing uncomfortable answers. Devil’s advocates are individuals or groups whose role is to stress test critical assumptions, key forecastsand other make-or-break aspects of a potential killer app. The goal is not to interject an abject naysayer into the decision-making process but rather to drive at the answer that best serves the long-term success of the organization. Nor is the goal to relegate the task of critical thinking to the devil’s advocate. Instead, the devil’s advocate process serves as a safety net, and, because everyone knows that tough questions are forthcoming, they’ll be more likely to confront them.

Done right, a devil’s advocate frames the most important questions that need to be answered before moving to the next stage of commitment. The advocate also guides the process along, making sure that the right amount of uncertainty is reduced at each step and that the possibility of a graceful exit is always preserved.

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Following these eight rules won’t guarantee killer-app-level innovation. Business is a contact sport. Some companies win. Some companies lose. That won’t change.

What following these rules will do, however, is help you overcome the biggest barriers to innovation and turn size into an advantage. You’ll do a far better job of sensing what’s really going on in your market and of putting yourself at the forefront of the powerful trends that are transforming our economy.