Don’t listen to the Red Queen…
Last month I did something I have never done before. It was late. I was tired. I was so engrossed in planning the next day in my mind and walking back along the endless corridors in London Heathrow I stepped on to a travelator. You'd think that’s nothing to write home about, let alone to write a blog about, and you’d be right. Except I had absent-mindedly stepped on to a travelator which was moving in the opposite direction to me. I only noticed because it was taking quite a while to move past a poster offering me excellent investment opportunities in Nigeria. I smiled inwardly - this was fun, an unexpected input to my life, a mini adventure. As I was making little progress, I had two choices, slow down and get off, or speed up and beat the thing. I leant forward, pulled my wheelie to my right-hand side and sped up, leaving behind my now familiar poster.
Decades ago, as I studied for my MBA, I learnt about S curves and how as enterprises grew they had to go through crises and breakthroughs in order to find new and bigger opportunities. The assumption was that the enterprise could change itself faster than the world around it, and indeed would do so to achieve growth. The reason for the crisis I understood was that, for months or years before, the organisation would have settled into a nice successful pattern where more of the same guaranteed additional success, and so as a result all the processes, systems, leadership approaches and rewards would be locked in to deliver more of the same – but growth demanded that at least one of these be reset. The Interlocking S curves of the models we studied suggested that each of these factors be reset in turn. Each stage of this resetting was governed by a strategic drive, logically derived from SWOTs and PESTs and justified by a business case in which the cost of doing something different was a fraction of the returns of doing something different.
That was me on the travelator first changing my posture to gain a head start and then putting my wheelie on my stronger side… By making these changes, I moved from the familiar surroundings of my investment poster to new horizons (also describes as the next poster). The models of my MBA had hidden deep inside them an assumption which they didn’t need to make explicit. That assumption was that the pace of the travelator was fixed and I could move forwards faster than the travelator moved me backwards.
But what if as I sped up the travelator had increased its speed also? After my initial surge forwards, although I was making use of my new forward leaning posture and sidecar wheelie, the surroundings would again become familiar. In fact, if the travelator speed matched my own I would find, as the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland explained, that “...it takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place...” Under these conditions, the models of my MBA made no sense at all.
But I think that the travelator speed has continued to increase, and it increases exponentially. In our man-made business-sphere, the pace of change, connections and complexity far outstrip our ability to learn. Doing ‘more of the same’ means your enterprise will constantly be surprised by new challenges and a new environment.
What MBA model should we now turn to? If you don’t understand your environment how can you use your SWOT and PEST to develop your strategic drive? In a world where doing nothing different still meant change, your business case would have to not only include the benefits of doing something new but the dis-benefits of not doing anything, and judge the costs and investment against the value at stake – the difference between the two.
And just to remind you of the entire quote: "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"
So there's your challenge, figuring out how you can run twice as fast as you're capable of! In our world of change we don't need more resources, funding, or goals, we need ideas!
*I now have a TED Talk explaining this