Potbound.

It’s Spring. On the one hand I love it – the end of winter, renewal, growth everywhere. On the other hand, it can overwhelm me. Everything grows at once, and there is that sudden rush as we seek to bring our gardens under control. Despite the regularity of Spring, it still takes me by surprise. I had become used to Winter.

It strikes me that in reality, businesses are much the same – and that we can learn a lot from Gardeners.

Businesses have seasons. They sprout from an idea, grow, thrive and then wither.

Gardeners in tune with nature benefit. They do not try to ignore the seasons, they work with them. They variously take cuttings, grow seedlings, graft plants onto new rootstock. Create hybrids.

They fell, prune, and transplant.

They know how to look after the soil.

They know when to harvest, and when to plant.

So why is it in business, we don’t do the same? We often expect our idea to thrive as though it’s always Spring. We let the business grow, but in effect keep it in the same pot – a mixture of products, markets and locations, amplified by processes, protocols and the fertiliser of efficiency. – and the danger is, it becomes potbound.

As the business grows, so do the people in it – ideas, ambitions, confidence, networks. This growth needs room.

But far too many of us have let  let our businesses become potbound. People and ideas find nowhere to grow, so they wither whilst the main plant absorbs all the nourishment, until, inevitably, Autumn arrives.

I’ve often wondered why we are so resistant to letting businesses die back.

I guess there are lots of structural reasons – prime amongst which are that investors and bankers don’t like the idea of a pause in growth, even though that is necessary to gather the resources for the next stage of growth. As owners and employees we become dependent on the produce. We got used to perpetual credit and have become very poor at harvesting and storing so we can overwinter. We fell out of the idea of rhythms and cycles. Which is a mistake.

Generally speaking, we’re nowhere near as good at managing business cycles as gardeners are at managing the seasons.

In the industrial era, the main nutrients for our business was capital and fixed assets – machines and offices.They were easy to measure, difficult to move and could be kept in the asset register.They could be hothoused. They were difficult to transplant successfully – it was an expensive and risky process.

In the connection economy, the main nutrients for our businesses is talent – and that’s as mobile as dandelion seeds. It will take root anywhere conditions permit. It’s difficult to measure, and cannot be owned.

Traditional businesses are struggling in the connection economy. Everything they do is replicable. They are unwieldy, and have to resort to forcing growth through extracting every ounce of cash, even though the peak of their cycle has passed. They become hostages to the expectation of continual Spring.

Connection economy businesses on the other hand are flexible, and can find the space to grow because they are mobile. They experiment, hybridise and adapt. They can follow the seasons. There are lots of places in them for talent to grow, and talent has a choice.

After seven years of economic winter, Spring has arrived.

Time to cultivate your business.

If you want to know more about helping businesses thrive throughout the seasons, talk to us at the GrowHouse.

Productivity – it’s a mind game

It’s budget day in the UK, and there’s a lot of chatter about productivity – or more accurately, the relative lack of it in the UK. I suspect that, as with many large organisations, including governments, they’re looking in the wrong place.

In the industrial economy mindset, productivity is measured mechanically – outputs – mainly framed in money as a function of inputs – again, mainly measured in money – capital, labour costs etc.The pursuit of it has also taken a mechanical, process path. Quality, Process, Lean, Six Sigma. All very valuable, but finite tools.

In a connection economy, the prime driver of productivity is bandwidth – measured as the efficiency and lack of friction in the creation of value. If creativity is the process of turning ideas into value, then the determinants are allowing and enabling people to think creatively, and connect those ideas to places – people, businesses, universities – wherever – where they can thrive.

Most businesses are structured to strangle creativity at birth. Goals (particularly SMART ones) create the focus and pressure that stops creativity in its tracks.

We do not have ideas for money – we have ideas. Everything we know about idea generation, from Dan Pink’s work DRIVE, and the more detailed PUNISHED BY REWARDS (Alfie Kohn) tells us that applying extrinsic rewards to intrinsic motivation kills it.

Great sports coaches don’t teach players to kick a ball, or play a shot – they are working with people who know how to do that. Great coaches work with people to understand their game.

In business, most of our Learning, Development and coaching is focused on behaviour – how to kick the ball, and that’s an industrial era approach.

The answer to the productivity paradox is right in front of us. Helping those we work with to understand their game. It’s about inputs. We know how to process the hell out of inputs, we ‘re just very poor at enabling them.

If we want to increase productivity, we need to do more work, and more getting out of the way, on enabling their generation.

Curiosity

I find it interesting that in times of such rapid change, there is far more promotion of “solutions” than there is of questions.

Many, if not most, solutions are backward facing. Approaches that have solved a previous problem. for someone else, at a different point in time, in different circumstances.

Of course, they have value – but at best they take us to the middle of the pack. The ubiquitous “expertise” that makes almost every large organisation a clone of its large competitors.

Every business, every person, and every perspective within it is unique, capable of offering unique value to clients. Why would we homogenise it? It has the seeds of real success for those companies who have the confidence and the speed to leverage it.

There’s a great concept within psychology called “path dependence”. Quite simply, it’s about the way we create unconscious shortcuts to save time and effort. A little (no, a lot) like driving the same way to a client every time, It works, but the journey tells us little that is new, or that might stimulate an insight.

Of all the “solutions” that are posted, very few seem to address developing curiosity, or enhancing resourcefulness. These qualities – the foundation of differentiation – are more important today than at any time in the last couple of centuries. Today, anything that can be made can be made, can be created anywhere where price and service is cheapest (or increasingly, better)

Today, we need to connect people, to ideas, to people in order to create the new. Its valuable, even if it wont be long before it becomes another commodity “solution”

Sustainable success needs a search for great questions and new perspectives. Curiosity and resourcefulness. the delivery of new ideas that generate value.

Old answers are everywhere. Find people who will help you ask better, original, questions.

Every business needs a Jester

One of the key challenges we face is the “inattentional blindness” that is created by working under pressure.

One of the most effective ways of becoming (notionally) efficient is to allow our ability to label things full rein. We do most of it naturally and unconsciously, and has been the subject of much research and publications – my own favourites include Margaret Heffernan (Willful Blindness) Daniel Kahnman (all of his work, most recently “Thinking Fast and Slow”) Adam Morgan (A Beautiful Constraint) and Gerd Gigerenzer (Risk Savvy).

The point is this – unless we are attentive to this tendency, we end up stuck in a rut.

As we become successful, we focus on what works well, and that quickly becomes a preferred way of working, which morphs into “the way we do things around here” which very quickly becomes our culture. What started out being exciting and vibrant becomes set in the aspic of what worked in the past.

In the connection economy, where everything is linked, and inherently dynamic this is not only a dangerous thing to allow, it positively cuts us off from the next stage of growth.

There is an aspect of the creativity that drives today’s successful business that, to borrow from Adam Morgan’s book, requires us “to walk in stupid every morning” – in other words, to take nothing for granted, and to test the assumptions that we make – consciously and unconsciously.

The best protection against the rigidity that comes with habit is diversity – gender, race, culture, background. More than ever we need the equivalent of the “Jesters” in the courts of the Middle Ages – the only ones in the court who could speak (or act or parody) truth unto power. They were key to bringing those inconvenient truths out into the open.

We can access this in so many places, from Linkedin Groups to Professional Coaches.

It takes effort, and sometimes money, but the opportunity cost of inattentional blindness makes it a key investment.

In my own work with a wide range of businesses, there is often much attention paid to strategy, but much less to questioning the assumptions upon which those strategies are based. The difference that can be made by engaging with these assumptions is often huge, and drives breakthrough insights.

Every business needs a Jester.

Image Credit

Playing what isn’t there

Miles Davis created his unique sound by “playing what wasn’t there”. He had an approach that used notes as signposts, not as instructions.

In the industrial economy, we played the notes. A whole industry was developed creating business plans, business qualifications, and consulting offers based around this approach. It worked really well as long as the assumptions that they were based on – replicability, repeatability, and the mantra of volume, scale and market share held true.

But increasingly, it doesn’t any longer.

We have seen exemplars of failure from Kodak to Borders, and more recently the iconic Radio Shack. They were all playing the notes, but increasingly, no-one was listening.

As the orthodoxies of the industrial economy gives way to the constructive chaos of the connection economy we need different skills. Less orchestra, more Miles Davis. More curiosity, less compliance.

There are a number of trends emerging that will accelerate the rate of change:

1. What can be automated, will be. The rise and rise on intelligent algorithms replacing jobs, professions, departments, and even whole businesses. Anything that can be reduced to a process. Computers just don’t care how complex the process is, and smart people can write the algorithms.

2. The obvious foundation of any business in a connection economy is people – not as labour, but as creators. The balance of power is shifting away from organisations and towards individuals and groups. People are looking for organisations that help them create what they are driven to create, no longer just as “jobs”.

3. Medium sized businesses are likely to become the powerhouses. Big enough to matter, small enough to be flexible, and more likely to have people in them – owners and members – with real “agency”. A sense of place, purpose and ownership, and without the sea anchors of demanding shareholders with limited agendas.

4. Old labels – from “talent” to “innovation” and “sectors” are less and less useful. The nature of the changes taking place are too complex for them to be useful. Some of the major changes taking place are happening across entire industries, creating whole new concepts and linking people and ideas in whole new ways. Here are four of the top 12 (thanks to Roger James Hamilton)

– Digital currencies

– Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding

– Materialisation – 3D printing

– Virtual reality – gamified connection.

The combination of all these trends is creating a chaotic environment full of opportunity. with new rules:

– To paraphrase the conventional wisdom of politics – “It’s the people, stupid!” Connection and technology can realise peoples ideas, but it can’t create them. Although qualifications and experience still count, they are no longer the currency of success. Creativity and connection are.

– Business plans are still useful, but no guarantee of success. They are a reference point at a given moment in time, and no more. Awareness, adaption and improvisation on the move – the  characteristics of effectual thinking are key, as against the causal thinking that has dominated our business education and training for so long.

– Communities of purpose – groups of people with shared values in pursuit of common goals – is the new scale. Whether as small businesses, or small teams within corporates – they are where the leverage is. The job of the organisation is becoming one of supporting and getting out of the way.

So, in the middle of all this – the good, no, the great, news is that you as an individual have never been so important or so empowered if you choose to be.

It requires two things – pursuing something important, a job as a means to an end rather than an end in itself, and secondly, self belief and self development – constant learning. Genius is another one of those redundant labels – we all have aspects of genius within us, but it won’t show itself unless you give it the room.