I realize the apparent implication of the subject line – that you have to choose between customer or innovation makes little sense – in fact, they are inextricably intertwined. All innovation needs to be driven for the customers and preferably with the customers. In fact, I have often held the belief that most innovation happens at the edges of the system. (where your system and the customer system intersect).
That said, imagine that you have just taken over a team or division or company and you realize that there is a grounds up rebuilding of culture you need to do. Across most industries, most companies and most teams, it is safe to say customer focus and growth thru innovation are going to be two of a few underpinnings on which you are likely to rebuild your organization.
If you have tried culture changes in any large situations, you also know the danger of pushing too many levers at the same time. Culture change is less about words, powerpoints and dashboards – and more about sustained example setting, public reward and penalty system and above all driving clarity on why change. Such efforts require both focus and perseverance.
Where would you put your relatively larger focus on – make the organization customer focused and enable innovation to happen thru that or put larger focus on accentuating growth thru innovation and use the customer as the litmus test thru the process?
I first faced this problem thirteen years back when I had to rebuild up a whole technology organization which had to fight the inertia of the existing players (who had been successful for some period of time). While it is dangerous to draw generalizations, I have tilted towards focusing on building the customer oriented culture first. And innovation was an inevitable result (needed work and processes to channelize it though). I will probably do the same again.
On May 9nd, 2009, I ran my career best till date 5K (25 minutes 17 seconds) for Run For your Life – a race dedicated to YoungLife (helping our kids grow). This was organized by Greater Johns Creek. Shaved off 15 seconds from my previous best. First two miles were good at 7 min 40 seconds each. The last mile killed me. Details at http://sites.younglife.org/sites/JohnsCreek/default.aspx
Over the years, if there is one thing I have changed a lot on, it probably is this – how close I choose to become with my direct reports on the personal front. If you know me, you probably know that I am one of those gregarious persons who loves to talk and have been accused of fairly capable of listening to the interests of the other party. My personal Rolodex of about 10,000 people that I carry with me (about 2,000 of them get birthday wishes from me – handwritten emails – none of the automated ecards etc) is a reasonably good testimony to how quickly I can make friends.
For most of the early part of my career, I built great personal relationships with my direct reports. Our families would be close and we would share a lot of social events together. I have seen that model work for a lot of people too. In fact, I have observed how one of the CEOs that I admire a lot takes time over the weekend often to golf or hunt or what have you with his direct reports and sometimes with people deeper in the organization. I have no doubt in my mind that this has resulted in not only a great rapport but also a deep commitment from the people. In fact, most people that I know who still report to the CEO have the greatest loyalty.
However, for me, I had a change of heart probably sometime 7 or 8 years back. While it was great to know that we were a committed team, I started getting severe doubts on inherent human weakness of letting liking or not liking shrouding professional judgment of a person. I take great pride in my ability to differentiate these two. But I started reminding myself that I would be fooling myself if I thought I was above being human. I also started thinking hard about whether this style of leadership might give rise to too much of “conformance”. As a side story, I had an almost instinctive reaction to this from that time – anybody who has worked with me for the last 7-8 years will agree on one thing – I impulsively take the opposing view – regardless of what the arguer’s view is. (It has stood me in good stead – but that is a story of another day).
I remember having read a book around that time – cannot recollect the name – about true leaders looking for “performance, not conformance”.
And that is when I started the process of slowly weaning myself away from getting too close to my new direct reports on a personal front. It is very difficult for me to tell you – without running a control experiment whether I am better off or not. But I can tell you that I feel very comfortable that I have stonewalled some amount of the human fallacies. Of course, on the personal front, I missed getting to know some really great human beings closely. And as the 10,000 Rolodex entries shows you, personal relationships far outlive professional relationships.
Have you ever faced this conundrum? If so, what did you do? And why?
On May 2nd, 2009, I ran my career best 5K (25 minutes 32 seconds) for Run For Life – a race to end Lou Gehrig’s disease. So far, the best tagline I had seen for charity was “Give a little, care a lot”. I found another great one today – dedicated towards people who have been affected by Lou Gehrig’s disease – “Celebrate a Life, Imagine a Cure”. Awesome!!! I also saw couple of runners wearing the funniest T-shirt saying “A Drinking Club with a Running Problem”. Funny!!!! It was a great experience. Details at http://www.cureforals.com/
On Apr 25, 2009, I ran the Jay Cullen Memorial 5K with my Ironman friend Roger Whitney. It was my career best 26 minutes and 18 seconds run. (6th out of 25 in age group and 58th out of 162 overall). Results at www.jaycullen5K.com.
On Apr 18, 2009, I ran the Water for the World run to raise funds for clean drinking water for all people in the world. Contaminated water is a leading cause of deaths in developing countries. Last year, this cause provided clean water to 20,000 people. This year’s goal is 40,000 people. Check out http://www.waterfortheworldrun.com/ (58 min 15 secs)
I had read this some time back – found it very funny…
The European Commission has just announced an agreement whereby English will be the official language of the European Union rather than German, which was the other possibility. As part of the negotiations, the British Government conceded that English spelling had some room for improvement and has accepted a 5- year phase-in plan that would become known as ‘Euro-English’ .
In the first year, ‘s’ will replace the soft ‘c’. Sertainly, this will make the sivil servants jump with joy. The hard ‘c’ will be dropped in favour of ‘k’. This should klear up konfusion, and keyboards kan have one less letter. There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the sekond year when the troublesome ‘ph’ will be replaced with ‘f’. This will make words like fotograf 20% shorter.
In the 3rd year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be expekted to reach the stage where! more komplikated changes are possible. Governments will enkourage the removal of double letters which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling. Also, al wil agre that the horibl mes of the silent ‘e’ in the languag is disgrasful and it should go away.
By the 4th yer people wil be reseptiv to steps such as replasing ‘th’ with ‘z’ and ‘w’ with ‘v’.
During ze fifz yer, ze unesesary ‘o’ kan be dropd from vords kontaining ‘ou’ and after ziz fifz yer, ve vil hav a reil sensi bl riten styl. Zer vil be no mor trubl or difikultis and evrivun vil find it ezi tu understand ech oza. Ze drem of a united urop vil finali kum tru.
Und efter ze fifz yer, ve vil al be speking German like zey vunted in ze forst plas.
Some of the Motorola ads in India and China are very funny. I am still looking for one that has the ten-headed Ravana in it. I will post it once I find it. In the meantime, I found another Motorola ad – quite funny. I love the catchy tune too!!
This evening I got this email from an old colleague of mine who lost his job. The reason he wrote the email was to tell his old friends that he was able to get a great job – even in these tough times – and he is having a great time – professionally and personally.
That was a great story. Something most of us can relate to. We don’t like to get outside our zone of comfort. And yet, when we get kicked out of it, we often find that we can do even better in the new circumstances.
We build our zones of comfort and like staying there because that is where we can drive most value – or so we perceive. We believe we are an expert and have experience in that area. But above all, we hate change. There is nothing like getting “settled down” that makes us feel that we “know what we are doing”. (BTW, as an aside, we all believe that we personally love change – it is just that everybody else in the world hates changes).
I am sure you can think of a few cases in your life when you got pushed out of that zone – suddenly and definitely not following your calendar. And most of the time you look back and say – Wow, that was the best thing ever happened to me. I learnt lot more. I now understand lot more. No doubt, when the change happened we felt very uncomfortable, to say the least.
Of course, we do not want the environment to create the changes for us always. The trick is how do we incrementally but surely, keep pushing ourselves outside our zone of comfort? So as not to let us settle down. So as to make sure we are learning continuously and adapting to the environment. So as to keep our reflexes and judgment as sharp as ever.
I suspect it is tougher than it sounds. But I guess the best leaders make a practice of pushing themselves beyond their current “boxes” – so to speak.