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What Musical Theatre Can Teach Us About Business Strategy

Musical theatre actors are amazing strategists. The similarities between the types of strategic decisions by a single actor in a musical and someone running a large organization are striking. Those actors make strategic decisions every day and we can learn some very important lessons from them. Let me explain.

Deliberate and Detailed

This week, I had the pleasure of listening to an actor speak about preparing for a recent audition. It was truly amazing. Each of the three main elements of a business strategy were clearly articulated through the choices she described. She had a clear objective for the character. She thought through her advantage – things the casting team wanted that she might be able to bring to the role that someone else may not. She also thought about what others might bring that she might not, and she thought about how to leverage both. But what truly impressed me was her attention to detail in the scope of her strategy.

Even for an audition, acting is more about making choices than I ever imagined. As she spoke about her preparation, the level of detail and the number of clear, deliberate scope choices she had to make was mind-numbing. “Should I deliver this monologue forcefully or softly – even if the character is hardnosed?” “Should I hold this note back in this bar and sing it softly, or blow the audience’s hair back?” “What is my character feeling when she says this – one – word?” “Where would this character look? Where wouldn’t she look?”

Back to Business

Throughout my career, I have helped develop strategies for very small and very large businesses and organizations. I have evaluated business ideas and program pitches, and held a position where it was my job to help many businesses to articulate and improve their strategies. In my experience, the second most common cause of poor performance was not being deliberate about scope. (The first was not truly having a strategy, but that’s a topic for another article.)

Like this actor, businesses need to make deliberate choices about what they will – and will not – do. They need deliberate answers to questions like:

• Which components will we build? Which won’t we build?
• Which components will we buy?
• Where will we build it? Where will we buy it?
• Which customers will we serve?
• Which potential customers will we deliberately not serve?

It would surprise you how often teams have no answer to either of the last two items.

Which languages (human and programming) to support, which geographies… at times it may feel as if the list is infinite. Though, your choices must be deliberate. Failure to make deliberate choices is abdicating your strategy to “luck”. While my father used to joke that he’d “rather be lucky than good” at anything, as a strategy, that one does not have a great track record of success.

Be Deliberate

The next time you’re thinking through strategy put yourselves in the shoes of our actor. The casting team liked what they saw, and they’ve called you back so they can see more. The stakes are high and you’ve decided you’re “not throwing away your shot”! So “Rise up!”, and:

• Ensure your strategy has a clear objective
• Clearly articulate your own advantage and how you can leverage it
• Make clear, deliberate choices about what is in scope, and what is not
• “Listen to the data” as you deploy; things might not be as you thought they were
• Inspect and adapt; things change, and your strategy will need to evolve


About the Author – George Watt

A transformative leader, George has spearheaded initiatives that have enabled businesses and global enterprises to address complex technology problems, deliver new business benefits, and drive millions of dollars in savings and productivity gains.

He has delivered innovations of his own such as a knowledge base for a neural network-based predictive performance management solution, one of the earliest private clouds (2005), and a lightweight event management agent.

As VP of Strategy for a multi-billion-dollar technology company he was responsible for global scientific research, worldwide innovation initiatives, and the design and operation of an innovative accelerator program.

George is co-author of “The Innovative CIO” and “Lean Entrepreneurship”, and tweets as @GeorgeDWatt.

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George WattWhat Musical Theatre Can Teach Us About Business Strategy
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Why Innovation Competitions Backfire

Understanding the evolution of breakthrough ideas can be the key to a successful innovation program.

 

Why do innovation competitions — aimed at delivering breakthrough ideas and improving morale and engagement — so often have the opposite impact; sometimes even causing the most innovative employees to leave? Often the reasons are clear. Favoritism, poorly defined guidelines, and lack of universal access are common culprits, though it’s not always that obvious. I have seen innovation programs and competitions fail for a much more insidious reason.

Many, perhaps most, innovation competitions I have seen offer a one-time prize in the form of some sort of finite funding (e.g.: several thousand dollars in “one-time” budget) or time (e.g.: one month to work on the winning idea).

 

Here’s a dirty little secret about innovation: Successful, new ideas cost more as they evolve.

Work early in an idea’s life might simply involve talking to potential customers to determine they actually have the problem the idea solves, and whether they would pay for a solution to the problem. That work may only require one or two people for several weeks, or a few months. If the idea resonates, it will be time to build the product. That may, for example, mean bringing on a development team of five to ten people. That is a steep cost increase. Perhaps as much as 500% or more, plus any new equipment or resources that may be required. This type of increase will continue well into the life of the idea.

 

Sponsors of innovation initiatives often fail to ask this most important question:

What happens if they succeed?

As a result, the winner often has just enough time to prove the idea resonates with potential customers before they run out of funding and have to stop working on the project. That can be way more demoralizing than not having the contest. The innovator now has proof they have a good idea; and they have to abandon it. They get frustrated, some may leave, sometimes to pursue their idea elsewhere. Worse, some stay and begin to do just enough to keep their job, because that’s what is rewarded. There have even been cases where the innovator was laid off because they “weren’t contributing” to the mature organization’s objectives.

 

The impact can be very broad

Friends of the innovator, and others who learn of it, can also become frustrated and demoralized. Not only do they feel bad for their colleague, they have also just received a message that the organization does not value innovation. In some cases, the message is that innovators will be punished.

 

It’s not all bad news

Innovation competitions can be very energizing and can lead to amazing discoveries. There are a few, simple things that can be done to increase the probability your program will have the positive impact you want it to.

 

  1. Be clear about the objective of your competition. (Are you looking for a new product, new business model, specific technology domain, etc.?)
  1. Be clear and specific about the award.
    (A pitch to leadership? Funding? How much? How long? What happens when it’s gone?)
  2. Ask yourself, what happens if the winning idea gets traction with customers?
  3. Plan for increased investment in successful ideas.
  4. Be transparent and set expectations properly.

 

There are many others, though item five is the most critical. If your team’s expectations are set properly, your program is much more likely to have the positive impact you want it to. If you do not have second order funding, make that clear at the outset and ensure participants understand what that means. If you are concerned there may be no viable ideas in your area of interest, clearly state the evaluation team has the right to declare no winner.

If you are transparent and set expectations properly, your team is much less likely to interpret your contest as innovation pageantry. Or better still, plan for success – and if you don’t find it – fund another competition.


About the Author

George Watt

A transformative leader, George has spearheaded initiatives that have enabled businesses and global enterprises to address complex technology problems, deliver new business benefits, and drive millions of dollars in savings and productivity gains.

He has delivered innovations of his own such as a knowledge base for a neural network-based predictive performance management solution, one of the earliest private clouds (2005), and a lightweight event management agent.

As VP of Strategy for a multi-billion-dollar technology company he was responsible for global scientific research, worldwide innovation initiatives, and the design and operation of an innovative accelerator program.

George is co-author of “The Innovative CIO” and “Lean Entrepreneurship”, and tweets as @GeorgeDWatt.

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George WattWhy Innovation Competitions Backfire
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Determine the Problem

The first thing I focus on when deciding how to approach a client is what potential value I can bring to their area of responsibility. How can I help? I seek to understand the direction in which they wish to progress, what factors are important to them, what their objectives are, and where their potential problems lie. In today’s environment of complex enterprise systems, the first estimate of where a solution lies is likely well off the mark.  Thankfully, maturing methodologies and practices based on failures and iterative successes exist to help us find appropriate solutions. I often recall a Harvard Business Review article, “Are You Solving the Right Problems?“ by Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg. This article illustrates the different perspectives in which a problem ought to be viewed and analyzed.

Often when saddled with a huge program of work, there’s a tendency to fall back on the templates and checklists of prior projects. I’d hazard rote adherence to a checklist plan is fraught with risk. How do we know if we are on the right path?  How do we confirm hypotheses along the way? What is the risk of pausing to assess progress along the way and adjust the path if need be? What is the assumed risk of not doing so? Before diving into the vast array of possible solutions and choosing only one, I make a concerted effort to understand the problem at hand. When we define the problem first, we open ourselves up to multiple solutions, lessening the chance of tunnel vision on the wrong one.

The Solution Is not the Problem – Defining the Problem Is

A great place to start the conversation of defining the problem is with ideation and strategy. Enter Mr. George Watt and his Becker-Carroll practice. Author of the recently published book Lean Entrepreneurship, George’s practice brings decades of experience in adapting models and proven methodologies developed in the field to the client’s problem-space. The problem definition starts with the initial dialogue.  Becker-Carroll is here to assist you in this journey forward.

Defining any problem can be a handful for anyone. It’s important not to skip the initial discovery and defining process that all problem solving methodologies need in order to be successful. Conducting a thorough dialogue is necessary to fully map out any issue, and you use that map to lead you to the best solution.

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Michael BaranDetermine the Problem
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What Wilderness Navigation Taught Me About Lean Transformation

Lean approaches drive benefits far beyond their profit-driven, private-sector roots

I hear it often. “This lean and agile stuff is cool, but it’s not really applicable to me.” “We’re not a startup.” “We create programs, not products.” “We deliver government services.” “We’re a non-profit.”

I have seen lean and agile approaches drive value in all of those cases and elsewhere. Not convinced? Here is an example that is about as “elsewhere” as you can get.

A small difference makes for great distance

Lego Explorer Man

I used to teach navigation using magnetic compasses and paper maps. Once someone asked, “Being off by one degree isn’t such a big deal, is it?” It can be a very big deal, as the impact of even a small error expands over time. For example, if two people leave the same point on headings one degree apart and walk only the length of a soccer field (100 meters), they will be roughly 1.75 meters (~5 feet, 9 inches) apart when the reach the end. That’s not much, but it’s enough to put someone on the wrong side of an obstacle depending upon the terrain. And if our travelers continued at a leisurely pace (typically near 5 km/hour), the distance between them would increase by over 87 meters every hour they walked. They would be more than 2 kilometers apart after one day.

It doesn’t take long for that small error to create a large problem for one of our travelers. Now, suppose they made a second minor error and became two degrees off. What if they had to work their way around an obstacle like a steep mountain or swamp and were put off course? Unchecked, the impact of every error grows, and each new error can exacerbate the impact of the ones that came before it.

“Lean Navigation”

For centuries, navigators have used a lean/agile approach to mitigate these risks. Periodically, experienced navigators ask themselves questions like “Do I know where I am?”, “Am I still moving toward the objective?”, and “Should we still be headed there?” They check their bearings to validate the hypothesis that they are still on course. They use maps, charts, and landmarks to determine their location. They observe their surroundings and the weather to determine whether their original objective is still the right objective. Sometimes they adjust their course toward a better objective, or away from a dangerous one. The modern GPS’ infamous “recalculating” message is evidence that even today’s high-tech navigators still use this approach.

Experiment, Inspect, and Adapt

Whether you are building incremental technology, a new program idea, or the next disruptive breakthrough, a similar approach can increase your odds of success. Learning from our navigators:

  • Run small experiments to validate your hypotheses (e.g.: Our program will achieve our objectives)
  • Experiment frequently since conditions may change
  • Inspect and adapt based upon what you learn to ensure you create something people will want
  • “Listen to” your data

The last is, perhaps, the most important of these.

“Firm commitments, weakly held”

If their charts and data tell them they are not where they should be, navigators don’t ignore it or try to explain away the evidence. They may validate their data if it is unexpected, but they are willing to believe their hypothesis was flawed or that some event beyond their control has changed their circumstances. They are able to overcome their own bias. Unfortunately, I have seen innovative people succumb to their own bias, ignore their data and their advisors, and run out of funding or have their program cancelled.

Lean on!

I am not claiming Magellan read the Agile Manifesto. However, I do believe that, regardless of whether you are a start-up or a large government agency – profit-focused or altruistic – the great work of lean and agile pioneers like Taiichi Ohno, Kent Beck, and Martin Fowler may be much more helpful to you than may be initially obvious.


About the Author

George Watt

A transformative leader, George has spearheaded initiatives that have enabled businesses and global enterprises to address complex technology problems, deliver new business benefits, and drive millions of dollars in savings and productivity gains.

He has delivered innovations of his own such as a knowledge base for a neural network-based predictive performance management solution, one of the earliest private clouds (2005), and a lightweight event management agent.

As VP of Strategy for a multi-billion dollar technology company he was responsible for global scientific research, worldwide innovation initiatives, and the design and operation of an innovative accelerator program.

George is co-author of “The Innovative CIO” and “Lean Entrepreneurship”, and tweets as @GeorgeDWatt.

Photo Courtesy Andrew Martin at Pixabay

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George WattWhat Wilderness Navigation Taught Me About Lean Transformation