When the pain doesn't hurt enough.

Last week at work was much like any other week this year. Only it was different. A couple of client workshops on branding and innovation, a few business meetings with both existing and new clients. Sales calls. The usual stuff. Yet, this week I reached some sort of pinnacle of frustration. And the reason dawned upon me.

Every week we hear about companies laying off people, about how the CEO must turn-around the business, and how we need to re-think everything. It is self-evident that things must change, and that companies must innovate in order to surive and thrive. Yet the business atmosphere is anything but forward-looking and innovative. The mindsets, decisions and actions remain extremely cautious. In fact, many companies seem completely paralysed. In many organisations that I encounter the common thing to do about this is — nothing.

When it comes to innovation, you always have to deal with a kind of “innovator’s paradox”. On one hand, you must administer and manage your current business — exploiting your current knowledge, assets and capabilities. This means obessing about efficiency and saving costs. And on the other hand, you must seek new knowledge and explore new value creation opportunities. This means allocating resources with a long-term profit in mind, yet taking on the cost today. (Credits: Organisational theorist James March)

What is interesting to me is how very few companies choose to invest in exploration in a time where exploitation offers only a handful of poor options.

I mean, how hard must it hurt before you realise you must think much bigger, bolder and differently about your business. Apparently, for many, it still does not hurt enough.

What I am really talking about here are the general attitudes and mindsets of top management. What I encounter over and over again is the following; a bright marketing director, innovation manager, commercial director, or the like, talks about how difficult it is to get top management (or just the CEO) to realise what they need to be doing. These potential game-changers feel frustrated and ill-equipped to step and and rescue the business. This is a very unhealthy development.

So what must we do about it?

I believe the problem requires that we apply exploration and innovation to management itself. I mean, how is it possible that management teams and boards are so distant from the actual business, the customers and the forces that shape industry? Why do middle-managers and front-end people have to get desperately frustrated towards their employers, even to the point that their consulting partners become a kind of go-to business psychologist?

The frustration that people feel about their companies’ staleness is becoming a talent repellent.

And secondly, we need to cultivate a generation of mavericks, bold people with original thinking and grit to step up. What the world needs right now are people have the guts to put everything on the line and do something that makes a difference. Well, easier said than done, right? So what should you do?

The best place to start is by figuring out your life’s passion. Unless your company’s vision and culture makes your heart sing, what are you really risking? Your job? Monthly pay? Yes. These hurt. But what will hurt even more is knowing that you never followed your heart, that you just played along and lived a life of quiet desperation.

The sense of freedom, power and energy that comes from being true to your passion will save you. Just have faith. Unless you are willing to step up and face the music, you better go work some place else. You owe it to your company and you owe it to yourself. Do it. The world needs you.

Tobias DahlbergComment