Business musings

Articles and thoughts about leadership

01
Oct
Posted by Debbie Stocker, stored in: Innovation  Leadership  
Allan MurungiIntroducing guest writer, Allan Murungi

Today, we’re thrilled to introduce a new guest writer to our blog, Allan Murungi. As someone who is studying for an MBA at Warwick Business School, we met Allan at a WBS case study event earlier this year and were instantly impressed with his passion and enthusiasm. In his own words, Allan is an Innovation and Creativity enthusiast, IT Professional, Warwick MBA student, avid book reader and (recently) keen (road bike) cyclist.

The story of IBM’s resurgence during the period 1994 to 1998 is a story of innovation and creativity from the bottom up, started and championed by David Grossman. Grossman’s vision and tenacity resulted in IBM transforming itself from a company that was in decline into an Internet Services firm that rode the wave of e-commerce opportunities to the tune of $20 billion by the end of 1998.

And yet this begs the questions: Who was David Grossman? How did he manage to lead this innovation effort at IBM? And can this innovation and creativity process be replicated?

In organisations, innovation and creativity have traditionally been considered the domains of Chief Executives and other members of the C-suite. The best example of this is perhaps John Chen, formerly of Sybase Inc., who is now leading the turnaround at BlackBerry. As recently as June of this year, BlackBerry has, under his leadership, reported a positive net income of $23 million, up from an $84 million loss during the same period last year.

Innovation and creativity are also generally considered the domain of Research and Development. For instance, the vaunted R&D division of Apple gave us the iPod and iPhone, while Pfizer, the US pharmaceuticals giant, has maintained its dominance through such R&D as developed Viagra.

Where does David Grossman fit in all of this?

During the Winter Olympics of 1994, David Grossman, then described as a midlevel programmer at IBM, sat at home watching the Olympics on TV. As the official technology partner of the Olympics, IBM was responsible for collecting and displaying all the results. This gave the firm the exclusive privilege of displaying the IBM logo at the bottom of the screen, together with an interleaving of IBM ads at regular intervals.

However, upon surfing the Internet, Grossman discovered that Sun Microsystems had set up a rogue Olympics streaming site, complete with the Sun logo and marketing. As such, if someone only had access to this online stream, they would be given the impression that Sun Microsystems was the Winter Olympics’ official sponsor!

Grossman promptly reported this to his superiors, which resulted in IBM’s legal team sending Sun Microsystems a cease-and-desist letter. But Grossman didn’t stop there. He saw the opportunity that the Internet presented and set out to get IBM on board.

First, he set up a demonstration for senior executives in which he showed them exactly what the Web was and the vast potential it held for IBM. This piqued their interest and got their support. Grossman then became the right-hand man to John Patrick, who was present at Grossman’s first demonstration and worked in corporate strategy. Together, they worked on projects to convert IBM’s disparate divisions to the potential of the Web and to design IBM’s first homepage. Grossman and a handful of IBM’s best Web engineers rescued the website that broadcast the chess match between world champion, Gary Kasparov, and IBM Supercomputer, Deep Blue. By the time the Summer Olympics came around in 1996, IBM had built the first ever Olympics website, which also happened to be the world’s largest website at the time. And by 1998, IBM had a huge web presence!

So what does this mean for innovation in your organisation?

Grossman was just a frontline employee. He certainly didn’t have responsibility for innovation and creativity in IBM and he wasn’t part of the strategic planning team. And yet his contribution is credited with enabling IBM to successfully harness the power of the Internet at a critical time, in turn ensuring that the company maximised its potential.

The question then is: Was IBM lucky to have the tenacious and passionate David Grossman on its team?
And the answer is: Absolutely!

Would IBM have got on board with the potential of the internet without him? Maybe/Eventually/Possibly.

Our questions to you then are:

  • What is your innovation and creativity strategy?
  • What are you doing to support and engage your frontline employees in innovation for your company?
  • Are there systems in place to capture the generation of ideas, select the best ones and try them out?
And for those of you who like the research…

The complete story of IBM’s turnaround can be read at Harvard Business Review:
Waking up IBM: how a gang of unlikely rebels transformed Big Blue

06
Dec
Posted by Debbie Stocker, stored in: Finance  Innovation  Leadership  Our News  

Are you determined to grow your business? GrowthAccelerator can help you get to the heart of the barriers that are holding your business back, enabling you to identify the critical steps you need to take to achieve your next phase of growth—rapidly and sustainably.

GrowthAccelerator logo

What is GrowthAccelerator?

Launched in May 2012 by Business Secretary Vince Cable, GrowthAccelerator is a partnership between some of the UK’s leading, private sector growth specialists and government, which has already fast-tracked over 10,000 businesses (of which 12% are in the West Midlands).

Supported by coaching, workshops and masterclasses, the service provides a framework to help you:

  • Build a successful growth strategy
  • Discover new routes to funding and investment
  • Unlock your capacity for innovation
  • Harness the power of your people

Whether it’s insight into what’s holding you back and developing a plan for the future, helping you build a case for investment and finding new sources of finance, turning your most innovative ideas into profit, or providing training and masterclasses to develop confident leadership and management, GrowthAccelerator is focused on a single goal: the growth of your business.

How does GrowthAccelerator work?

To begin, GrowthAccelerator will help you review your business’s current position and define a bespoke growth plan specific to its needs. This plan will outline the challenges your business faces and how GrowthAccelerator can offer support, be it through coaching, workshops or masterclasses.

In addition to support from a Growth Manager and Growth Coach, GrowthAccelerator gives you exclusive access of up to £2,000 match-funding per senior manager for your senior management team to hone their leadership and management skills.

You will also become part of the GrowthAccelerator high-growth community, giving you opportunity to meet and network with other liked-minded businesses and growth experts who have already experienced or are experiencing the successes you’ve achieved and the challenges you are facing.

How are we involved?

Matt is a registered and approved Growth Coach for GrowthAccelerator. As a Growth Coach, his role is to work with companies on a one-to-one basis providing relevant and individual support. He will act as an advocate and a catalyst for change. The help you’ll receive with GrowthAccelerator is bespoke and we work with you in a way that is tailored specifically to meet your objectives.

Under the GrowthAccelerator service, we are also able to provide match-funded training for your leadership and senior management team.

Who is GrowthAccelerator for?

Just as we love to work with dynamic and growing companies, GrowthAccelerator is for businesses with ambition, determination and potential. A few other criteria also apply: to be eligible, you must be able to answer yes to all questions below…

  • Is your business registered in the UK?
  • Is your company based in England?
  • Does your business have fewer than 250 employees?
  • Does your business have a turnover of less than £40m?

How much does GrowthAccelerator cost?

Your contribution will depend on the size of your business. With Government making a major contribution towards the cost, you pay only a fixed fee.

A table showing the fees for GrowthAccelerator: 1-4 employees, £600; 5-49 employees, £1,500; 50-249 employees, £3,000; for all size of business an additional £700 VAT is also applicable.

 

 

 

*VAT is based on 20% of the nominal value of the service, at £3,500, so all businesses pay the same amount of VAT.

Should you wish to then also access leadership and management training, match-funding of up to £2,000 per senior manager is exclusively available to your company.

Find out more

If you would like to find out more, why not give us a call on 02476 100 193 or contact us for further information?

To learn more about GrowthAccelerator, you can also visit www.growthaccelerator.com

27
Nov
Posted by Debbie Stocker, stored in: Leadership  Psychology  

Picture in your mind a large, American manufacturing company. Here is their story…

[A group of experienced] managers sit in [a] meeting. Out on the plant floor, production on the new line stopped more than an hour ago. R&D and production are waiting for the managers to get a decision on that small mistake hidden somewhere in the specifications. In the office, a secretary is typing an overdue proposal for new business. In her hurry, she mistypes “Mr.” instead of “Ms.” The company will lose the job. Also lost will be more than 40 hours of preparation time.

With the managers tied up in their meeting, their overworked associates are bouncing a prospective customer around on the telephone. Asked by the third person to “please hold,” he is thumbing through his telephone directory looking for the name of a competitor. The company’s top sales producer, furious over the lack of prompt support from the back office, has declared a Mental Health Day. He’s working on his putting at the golf course. He can afford it. The company cannot.

None of these small acts—or hundreds of others like them—will appear on next month’s statement of financial results. They will not appear in the budget or in the managers’ performance appraisals. Yet together they form an invisible sieve, draining profit dollar by dollar.

Happily, hundreds of other equally small acts are accumulating profits. A sales representative drove 135 miles this morning to deliver a replacement part to a customer. Sometime next year, the customer will place an extra order. In the back office, three secretaries are meeting informally to balance their work so they can meet their deadlines. This cooperation gets three customer inquiries handled a day early and convinces the senior secretary to turn down another job. Replacing her would have cost $6,000 above budget in temp and recruitment costs.

Harry in maintenance has just uncovered a potential problem with machine number 3. He’s installing a $38 part that will avoid a $12,000 replacement plus three weeks of downtime this summer. Chris is training recruits on safety procedures. Accidents that won’t happen will lower next year’s insurance costs. Mary’s careful review of accounts receivable uncovers an invoicing error that will mean $950 in extra revenue.

Like their negative counterparts, none of these acts—or hundreds of others like them—will appear on next month’s statement. They will not surface in the budget or in the managers’ performance appraisals. Yet together they form an invisible bank account, collecting profit dollar by dollar.

I love the above quote. Taken from Playing for keeps by Frederick Harmon, it masterfully tells the story of the humanity that is foundational to every organisation around the globe. Whether big or small, for-profit or not-for-profit, multinational or local, startup or mature, every organisation is—in reality—the sum of its people and their individual acts.

Although we understand this perspective intuitively, all too often our organisations take on a life of their own. Brands have identities and personalities. Businesses become corporate entities. Organisations have moral and ethical responsibilities. Firms experience growth, maturity, rebirth and death—some are even seeking the key to eternal youth! Companies anticipate, adapt and recover. And organisations have views, attitudes, outlooks and opinions.

Photograph of a brown and white springer spaniel wearing a red collar and sitting in the garden on grey flagstones

As an owner of a springer spaniel and two cats, I’m familiar with the tendency to anthropomorphise our pets—Matt and I do it on a regular basis! Jess is happy, grumpy, jealous, naughty, worried, friendly, and she very definitely loves us!—can you see she’s smiling in the picture?!

In the same way—whether we work for them, consume their products or services, or simply have an opinion on them—we all emphatically anthropomorphise our organisations.

I have no problem with anthropomorphism as a pet owner and I believe it is an important and useful device in business. However, an awareness of our tendency toward it is vital.

Day in, day out, we read our organisations by the collective characteristics we endow them with. Our organisation is innovative, forward-thinking, ambitious and visionary. Or maybe it is stuffy, oppressive, backward and uncaring. What we actually mean by this is that as a group of people we have created a culture, brand, department or company that could be described as having these collective attributes.

Although it is necessary and important to form collective representations of our organisations, we must remain aware that these representations do not exist as concrete realities but are instead symbolic identities. Even within stakeholders of a single organisation, differing opinions will be found: some perceive Tesco as providing great value for money, others see it as an uncaring, corporate behemoth.

And even beyond our own perceptions, we can easily fall into the trap of treating other symbols, abstractions and representations as substantive. Balance sheets and key performance indicators, for example. “Surely those are more objective?” I hear you ask. Harmon would argue they are not:

All management meetings begin with the numbers. The numbers are the single best indicator of how the business is doing. The numbers are so real. So real, it’s hard to remember they are abstractions, macro reflections of the quality of thousands of individual acts.

When well-executed acts significantly exceed poorly executed acts, the numbers “look good.” When poor exceeds good, they “look bad.” Look is the right word. The numbers are always images of reality, never reality itself.

Such images and the organisational entities we relate to are in fact the result of a multitude of individual and collective decisions, cognitions, communications and actions. As Joe Leech (User Experience Director of cxpartnersobserves, “Data dehumanises”.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not for one second saying that the use of representations is wrong—in fact, I’m a strong advocate of key performance indicators, metrics, brand identities and the like—but we do need to look beyond these.

At the end of the day, the foundation of any organisation is us. People. Humans. Individuals and groups. In the words of Harmon, “The small individual act is the basic cell of all performance. Everything we call management ends there.”

We need to remember this as we interact with our companies. Frequently, Matt and I emphasise the importance of considering the bigger picture; in this instance, I’m asking you to instead zoom in from the macro to consider the individual.

In an organisation that is struggling with a negative culture, what are the differences within that culture? Who stands out at as a light in the darkness? Why is their attitude and behaviour different? Is the negativity truly organisational or are there subtle differences between departments, teams and individuals? What can you learn from these differing responses?

Take sales figures as another example. Over the last few years, it has been easy to blame any financial downturn upon the recession, but are there subtle differences if you dig beneath the numbers on your spreadsheets? Is one customer segment more loyal than another? Does a single customer bring you more referrals than any other? Why? What are the differences and what can you learn from them?

Such a perspective is vital at all levels within an organisation but, for leaders, it is of particular importance. In the words of Harmon, “In any serious analysis, managers manage neither results nor numbers. They manage the quality of individual acts.”

Leaders in particular need to be able to identify the subtle differences within a collective and capitalise upon them. What is it that your leading sales representative does differently that he or she could teach others? Are efficiencies and inefficiencies the result of processes and technology or are there unnoticed individual acts that contribute to overall effectiveness? Is team performance reflective of ability or, in reality, does one team display more effective communication patterns than another? For any leader and the techniques that they use, “their power to generate constructive change lies in their capacity to direct or redirect individual small acts.”

So, next time you’re pouring over a spreadsheet, analysing your target market or in the midst of a leadership meeting, take a moment to step into the detail—to consider the individual and their unique acts. You might just discover something surprising. You will certainly add value to your management. And you will definitely unlock the true source of your organisational capabilities.

And for those of you who like the research…

Harmon, F.G. (1996). Playing for keeps. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.