Category Archives: Strategic

The political process of getting innovation done

Innovation is often about politics. Together with my excellent colleague Ragnvald Sannes I run a course called Strategic Business Development and Innovation (it is done in Norwegian, but if you are interested, we would be glad to export the concept, in English), where we take groups of students through an innovation process (with their own, very real, projects) over two semesters. The course is done in cooperation with Accenture’s Technology Lab in Sophia Antipolis and is one of the most enjoyable things I do as a teacher.

Anyway. This note is to discuss something which came up in a web conference today – the political side of doing innovation. Many of the students we have come from public organizations, from the health care industry, or from educational or research-based institutions. In all of them (well, actually, in all organizations, but more so in those where profit is not the yardstick that trumps everything) politics are important, to the point where a project’s success depends on it. Since a number of our students also are engineers and/or IT people, with a very straightforward and rationalistic view of how things should be done (if the solution is better than the current one, well, then why don’t we adopt it?), I need to explain the nature of political processes in organizations.

I am not an expert in that particular field, but I have been involved in a few projects where politics have been important – and have found the work of March, Cohen and Olsen very useful – not just as theory, but also as a very practical checklist. These three professors are famous for the Garbage Can Model, explained in the classic article Cohen, M. D., J. G. March and J. P. Olsen (1972). “A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice.” Administrative Science Quarterly 17(1). This article (which can be found here) is cited more than 6000 times and makes a lot of sense to me, but the it is not easy to understand (and that is not just because the specification of the model is in Fortran source code.) It posits that politically oriented organizations (they studied universities in particular, which for most purposes are anarchies) makes decisions by constructing “garbage cans” (one for each decision) and that the garbage can is a meeting point for choices, problems, solutions, and decision makers (participants), heavily dependent on energy. Decisions seek decision makers, solutions seek problems, and vice versa. Getting things done in such an environment means constructing these garbage cans and filling them with the right combination of problems, solutions, choices and participants.

This sounds rather theoretical, and is. Fortunately, March and Olsen wrote an (in my opinion) excellent book (Cohen, M. D. and J. G. March (1986). Leadership and Ambiguity: The American College President. Boston, MA, Harvard Business School Press.) a few years later, with less theory and more application. Based on interviews with a number of university presidents as well as their garbage can model, they discuss the nature of getting things done in a university environment, where there is ambiguity of purpose, power, experience and success. They finish with a list of eight basic tactics for getting things done – probably at the instigation of Harvard Business School Press, which primarily caters to business people and want applicability, not just description.

I have found this list tremendously useful when trying to get decisions made – and have observed others doing this both very well and very badly. Here it is, with their points in boldface and my (probably imperfect, it is a few years since I read this) interpretation appended:

  1. Spend time. Getting things done will take time – you need to talk to people, create language, make people see your point. If you are not willing to spend that time, you might make some decisions, but people will not follow them. Decision making is social, so decision makers in these environments need to be. The winners in political organizations are often those with the most time – which is why many universities are dominated by the administration rather than the faculty, who have other calls for their time and do not come in to the office every day. (See this cartoon for an excellent description).
  2. Persist. One of the most frustrating things (I have seen this when businessmen come in to lead political organizations, several times) in a political setting is the decisions seldom seem to really be taken – there might be a decision, but every time it comes up, it get revisited. In other words, a decision made can always be raised again – so never give up, you can always get the organization to reconsider, either the same decision directly or the same decision dressed up in new language.
  3. Exchange status for substance. As someone said at some point, it is amazing what you can get done if you are prepared to forgo recognition for it. There are many leaders who want to look good and make decisions, but don’t have the knowledge or energy to do so. Make decisions easy for them – you can get a lot done if you make decision-makers look good in the process.
  4. Facilitate opposition participation. Rather than trying to overpower the opposition, find ways for them to participate in the new way of doing things. This is one of the reason why processes and fields frequently get renamed – to allow groups to continue doing what they are doing or want to do, but in new contexts.
  5. Overload the system (to change decision making style). Decision-making time expands to fill the entire time available (alternatively, a normal meeting is over when everything is said, an academic meeting is over when everything has been said by everyone.) By giving the system lots of decisions to make (i.e., many ), this style changes – and you can get your decision through because nobody has enough time or energy to give it the full treatment.
  6. Provide garbage cans. Provide arenas for discussion as distractions, to consume energy from decision-makers.
  7. Manage unobtrusively. You can get things changed by changing small things, and in succession. I have seen examples where you get a strategic goal set up that everyone can agree to but few define (“make us a more knowledge-based organization”), get resources allocated to it, and then propose lots of projects under this heading – which now is about fulfillment of a strategy (albeit redefined) rather than an entirely new strategic direction.
  8. Interpret history. Volunteer to write meeting minutes, and distribute them late enough that most participants have forgotten the details. History, traditionally, is written by the winners (except, perhaps, for the Spanish Civil War,) but you can make it the other way around – that you become the winner by writing history.

(After writing most of this I found this blog post by David Maister which summarizes this much better than me, in the context of professional service firms): Understanding politics is very much about recognizing these tactics and using them. It may seem Machiavellian, but then Machiavelli was one of the first political theorists and knew what he was talking about.

And now I feel a need to see the next episode of House of Cards on Netflix. Garbage cans in action…

The solution to American unemployment…

(Flash thought as I am listening to Erik Brynjolfsson and Andy McAfee talk about Race Against the Machine at the MIT Center for Digital Business research conference – an excellent event, by the way.)

The core issue identified in Race Against the Machine is that technology improves faster than humans. Consequently, a rising number of people get automated out of a job. Previously, that has not been a long-term problem, because new industries have sprung up to hire. Now, however, the new industries hire very few people (haven’t checked the facts, but someone said that Facebook, Google, Twitter and Amazon collectively have about 100,000 employees, which is the job growth needed per month to keep up with population growth in the US workforce.)

So – we need to find new areas where we can hire lots of people, to do jobs that, at least as of now cannot be automated.

Here is my tongue-in-cheek solution:

1. The US has a rising (or, perhaps, expanding) obesity problem.

2. Obesity is expensive, since obese people disproportionately consume health care.

3. Take all the unemployed, sort them into a) thin and b) thick.

4. Hire group a) to be personal coaches to group b).

5. Pay for it with the savings in health costs.

Great, job done. Now for some real work…

(On a serious note, first-line health care is probably an area that could consume a lot of workers. On the other hand, it will also experience many job losses – health care is vastly inefficient in the US now, primarily because it is so cumbersome to administrate and pay for.)

Update 5/24: I was wrong – personalized weight loss coaching is now available as an app.

The dangerously bloodless war

War is not what it used to be. Both the implicit trends and explicit strategy has gone from large-army movements – the invasion of Iraq may be the last large-scale invasion we will see for quite a while – to smaller-unit conflict management and “surgical” actions, such as the raid on Osama bin Laden. This is partially a result of technological evolution (advanced weapons demand much training, making conscripted soldiers, who become civilians just as they have learned how to operate them), partially a change in warfare – more and more conflicts are asymmetric, with urban or rural guerillas facing a traditional military force, hiding among the civilians and forcing the regular army to either be ruthless or to win hearts and minds.

In both cases, war is expensive for the decision-makers. Today’s young men do not have four brothers and face a career of back-breaking work on the family farm or in a factory or mine – prospects that might make a military career, however the peril, look interesting. With less than two children per woman being the average in European countries, parents (and to a certain extent society, through education) have way to much invested in each individual to squander them on unnecessary and unimportant actions.

This might change: New weapons such as remote-controlled and even automatic drones with pilots sitting halfway around the world, out of harms way, means that the price for war (both in money and lives, of soldiers as well as innocent bystanders) has been significantly reduced. So far, this form of remote warfare has been an American forte, but the weapons are becoming available for smaller countries, first in NATO, then in other countries. I predict that Norway, for one, will scale back its very expensive and politically complicated purchase of advanced, manned F-35 fighters and instead see if more of their needs can be met with the cheaper drones – a disruptive innovation in more than one sense.

This evolution is slightly worrying, for a number of reasons: First, the lower cost of war may make military solutions more tempting to politicians – bloodless or not. Second (and in the longer term more scary) automated weapons can, like all automatic systems, malfunction in unpredictable ways and you can even envision them turning against you, as has happened with anti-aircraft missiles. You really don’t want rogue drones with malicious intent out there, whether it is inserted by hackers or come about through unintended systems interactions. Third, the low price and standard components of the weapon systems may mean that they, in time, will be available not just to large nations, but also to the guerillas and terrorists they were invented to confront. Imagine a home-made drone with cheap technology as the new Kalashnikov – solid, simple and able to make up in numbers what it lacks in sophistication.

I don’t know if remote weapons need a solid infrastructure of communications technology, in particular networks (satellites, cellphone networks, wi-fi) or if they can be controlled with direct radio transmission. There is quite a lot of data that needs to go across, in close to real time – but given the falling cost and increasing range of of digital wireless communication, it is not too hard to imagine that these weapons could be cheap, perhaps even built from standard parts by insurgents themselves, both for spying and for weapons delivery.

Small and cheap has a tendency to carry the day, and enemies learn from each other. Let’s just hope that Steven Pinker is right – and avoid thinking too much on the suppressive possibilities of autonomous weapon systems.

A case of teaching case teaching

I am rather passionate about case teaching. Not only does it provide a much richer learning experience for the student, especially within fields that involved in analyzing complex human situations, but it much more interesting for me as a teacher to do case discussions t hat it is to lecture. Not that I don’t enjoy lecturing – do it all the time – but after a while you start to feel like a DVD player on repeat, wondering how much the students get out of listening to you in person rather than seeing a video. In the give-and-take of the case classroom, you learn new things all the time, and so do the students. For example, by about the 15th time I taught a short case about outsourcing, a student came up with a solution neither I nor anyone else had thought about until then. And just a few weeks ago, in China, a mathematically inclined student surprised me with a new solution to a rather long-winded example I use to demonstrate certain aspects of telecommunications competition.

I share that passion with my friend and colleague Bill Schiano, and together we have worked for years on how to do case teaching in situations where you do not have the rich infrastructure, streamlined processes and shared culture of the Harvard Business School – including, in a modest way, trying to influence our colleagues to adopt the method, our students to accept it, and the administration and management of our respective schools to create the infrastructure and processes necessary for it.

In a few weeks (March 16-17, to be precise) we will get an opportunity to further spread the good word, by teaching the course The Art and Craft of Participant-Centered Learning, at the Harvard Business School. We will teach it together with Professor Jim Heskett, a true master of case teaching. The course is over two days – and as of today (March 2) there are still a few places available, details to be found here. (Note that the course is only open to teachers at degree-granting institutions.)

I am quite looking forward to the experience. I have taught classes on case teaching before, but not in this environment and to such an eclectic group (about 50 teachers from many universities and countries.) It feels like giving something back to the institution that taught me, but also as a rather enjoyable challenge, and quite an honor.

It is a sad fact in academia today that good teaching is under-rewarded, at least officially. I think this is a stage we are going through – and that good teaching, specifically discussion facilitation, will be much more important as the competitive climate between business schools hardens (as it will). Lectures and factual information can be delivered over the Internet, in the form of videos, animations, or voice-assisted slide shows. As information can be distributed more and more cost-free, the local lecturer stands in danger of being disrupted – rather than listen to some random teacher on a subject, why not see a video of the best in the field.

The complex interaction of the discussion class room can, as of yet, not be done remotely – at least not with the quality and intensity a co-located discussion warrants. Local institutions of learning, to maintain their competitive place and current pricing, will have to master discussion facilitation and participant-centered learning. Students will demand it, not just in business, but in an increasing number of fields – medicine and social services, public leadership and administration, military, political science, to a certain extent engineering and natural sciences. The case method may be the most explicit of form of participant-centered learning, with its tailored cases and specially built classrooms – but I firmly believe this method will spread out as a way for teachers – even the more average of us – to add value in a unique and enjoyable way way.