In a time of global uncertainty, at the threshold of what is commonly considered the (in)famous middle age, I have decided to leave a well-respected job at a Fortune 500 firm (which included a six figure salary), to jump on the start-up bandwagon, deep diving into unexplored waters.
Just a few months into this journey and we are experiencing all of the ups and downs of a new business. It’s a heck of a ride, on the fastest, scariest and most exciting roller-coaster I have ever known. From the adrenalin rush of a pitch meeting to the long hours spent obsessively refining a slide deck; swinging through the low of a failed proposal, to the adolescent heights of finally wet signing a contract. If it weren’t for Lisa (my business partner), I would probably have smashed my head on the wall already. She is the chairperson of our firm and rightly so, as I have never met someone so inspirational yet pragmatic. She always pushes the envelope to the next level and challenges me to question, to learn, to evolve and to explore way out of my comfort zone, to look at what I do from perspectives I have never even considered.
A few days ago, leaving a meeting with a new client, we found ourselves quite stunned and excited. We realized that the collaboration was kickstarted right there, over a handshake at the end of the meeting. Contract, confidentiality and scope agreement to be defined in the next weeks, but immediate support was agreed. Wow! I don’t know better, but in my book this is something rather exceptional for a two month old consulting company.
It was clear to both of us that our idiosyncratic mix of an agile, innovation-oriented approach and extensive corporate experience was the key to gaining the confidence and trust of client sponsors and ultimately winning engagements.
We started our partnership because we believe it is a pivotal moment in time. Today, the most agile corporations are capitalising upon ubiquitous, cheap and powerful technologies, made available by companies grown almost overnight, to grow faster, better and cheaper, blowing incumbent market leaders out of the water. We witnessed this during our previous life as corporate minions. After many years of cost reduction and extensive outsourcing, traditional corporations are struggling against the convergence, and mutual reinforcement, of the four major interdependent trends: social interaction, mobility, cloud, and pervasive information
Today, there’s no more room for politics. Extreme Darwinism is driving the least adaptable of the species out of the game, making room for new players to dominate (Evan I. Schwartz, Digital Darwinism, Broadway Books, 1999).
Corporate America, nay the corporate world, is looking for a change, yet what they see out there is bleak and scary. Traditional organizations struggle to offer customers the same ease of interaction and rapid turnaround on the tools we all use day-in-day-out in our private lives; consumers now expect the same smooth experience and rapid response everywhere, be it managing social presence or entertainment platforms, or dealing with education, insurance, telecoms, banks or public administration.
Enterprises are caught in a paradox: they have all the culture, processes and governance to optimize, scale and reduce costs, but they also need innovation and they need it fast. “Innovation” and “fast” in the same sentence; two things large corporations are not so good at. In fact, it’s almost impossible to both optimize and innovate well at the same time as the mindsets demanded to master these two objectives collide on so many fronts.
These days, we seem to talk about innovation as if it is all new, but really it’s not. This subject has been well studied (cfr Duncan, R. The ambidextrous organization: Designing dual structures for innovation. Killman, R. H., L. R. Pondy, and D. Sleven 1976 The Management of Organization. New York: North Holland. March, J. G. Exploration and exploitation in organizational learning. Organization Science ) and efficiently applied by the most successful enterprises ever since the 70’s and before. Enter what is commonly described as “Organizational Ambidexterity”. By balancing what March called “exploration” and “exploitation”, organisations can achieve the ability to be lean, creative and agile (exploration) at the same time as relying on more traditional and validated methods of running the business (exploitation).
The trade-offs between the marginal progresses and the organizational frictions induced by mastering the two sides of this coin were historically considered too difficult to be affordable. It’s only in the past decade that research work focused on leadership development (cfr Smith & Tushman Smith, W. K., & Tushman, M. L. (2005). Managing strategic contradictions: A top management model for managing innovation streams. Organization Science) as the key to manage this dual type of governance. As there’s the need of a new kind of management style there’s also a need for a dramatic leap in the style and attitude of the strategic management consultants to whom enterprises turn to support this development.
Engaging with clients facing such a dilemma requires a fine tuning of the balance between the dynamics, limits and opportunities of the organization, and the roaring groove of the innovation world. Strategies with the exploration phase at the bullseye, face the risk of pursuing ideas that might not be proven useful once operationalized; whilst accent on the exploitation of off-the-shelf tools and practices, heightens the risk of missing unique opportunities hidden in culture and values, as key differentiators from competitors (core value dilution).
Schrödinger’s cat is a thought experiment, sometimes described as a paradox, devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935. It illustrates what he saw as the ambiguity of the Copenhagen interpretation and the strange nature of quantum superpositions. The scenario presents an object that can be either “on” or “off”; this state being tied to an earlier random event. With the Schrödinger’s paradox, this object is a cat in a box where the opening mechanism has a 50-50 chance of killing the cat. So the cat is both dead and alive until the box is opened; the observer looks into the box and the wave function collapses into one state or the other (Schrödinger equation).
The Schrödinger’s consultant paradox presents a management consultant that may be both traditional and innovative, this state being tied to the nature of the counterpart. In the experiment the consultant oscillates between the slow-moving, politically sensitive, inflexible corporation and the multivariate fast growing ever changing foam of the innovation continuum.
The standard instantiation of this paradox finds the large consulting firm (pick any) mobilizing a team of a dozen or more consultants, full time. Half of them are capable of dealing with the traditional elements of the enterprise (having likely spent much time in similar endeavours) and will drive the engagement and deliverables, while the other half have the skills required to deal with innovation (often technologists emerging directly from university) and do the groundwork.
What happens here, is that the client off-loads the risk (and the opportunities) of this friction to the consulting company, yet the communication and interface malfunction remains, and was not mitigated since the consulting firm manages “up” rather than “down” (the client is the boss, no matter what).
As a result, the standard interpretation (you never get fired for buying -enter a big name here-) produces a multi-year transformation roadmap (which looks familiarly comfortable to the stakeholders) following a gap analysis and strategic planning of several months (driving a nice little revenue for the consulting firm). A few years down the line the planned project will deliver, something, most likely cited a success, and the enterprise and consultants seem to ignore the fact that during that time competitors grew faster, clients flocked away and margins reduced significantly (not a good look for the investors).
The Quantic Consultant instantiation depicts a different response. No more than a few Schrödinger’s consultants are needed. Their corporate-savvy approach enables them to effectively grapple with the limitations of the enterprise, whilst the innovative segments of their DNA allow them to be respected interlocutors of the agile, fast-moving startup cosmos. Together with the leadership team an innovation factory is fostered inside the company, new products and features are rapidly tested and – if worth it – frequently deployed to customers, leveraging the more traditional operational spaces. Innovative ideas are accepted from both internal and external sources, staff are constantly trained. Instead of being a threat, change and failure are seen as opportunities to learn and to evolve quickly.
The Schrödinger’s consultant mixes and matches the best of the two universes allowing an incremental, cost-effective and risk-reduced approach, where the clash of cultures is actively managed and conflicts approached from an alternative, unbounded and independent perspective. At the same time, the chain reaction that will sustain innovation in the long run is initiated, and leadership empowered to become the actual catalyst, allowing the enterprise to reap the benefits of a growing and happy client base, satisfied employees and putting competitors on the back foot, reacting rather than leading the game.
Are you ready to jump start the [R]evolution your organisation needs to thrive? Feel free to drop us a line – we would be thrilled to support you on this journey.
Until then, I’ll go back into my box, as any happy and respected superpositioned cat would do.