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Freedom to Focus

May 18, 2011

On a recent long flight home, I had a little bit of time to catch up on my reading. Two articles caught my attention, and despite their divergent topics, I was struck with the sense that their insights were somehow related.

In the first piece (sorry, subscription required), New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell explored our understandings of innovation, particularly in the technological realm. He observed that the organizational cultures best suited to developing innovations are often very different from those required to adapt or advance them. The sorts of cultures required to do the latter often find it just as difficult to exploit their improvements as the former find it to advance innovations from ideas to prototypes.

Ostensibly, Gladwell sought to explain the pattern of innovation by tracing the evolution of the humble personal computer mouse. In doing so, he drew an unusual analogy between the Stanford lab that developed the original idea, the Xerox PARC research and development center that refined and applied it to a desktop computing platform, and the Apple Corporation, which successful brought the device to market, and the ways in which the Soviet Union, the United States and Israel developed, refined, and applied sophisticated electronic technologies to war-fighting. This was less a story about the power of ideas or the people who promote them than the sorts of environments that form, attract, employ and deploy expertise for comparative advantage.

Gladwell argued persuasively that hierarchical, highly bureacratic organizations may do a good job of developing new ideas, but they often have great difficulty determining which ones to back. Decentralized, entrepreneurially-oriented organizations do a much better job of adapting ideas, but sometimes become so obsessed with what they think their business is about that they miss important opportunities right under their noses to achieve higher levels of success. As it happens, you need a really sophisticated hybrid of these two types to make innovations pay off, but even that does not guarantee organizational advancement as opposed to the advancement of the innovation itself. It’s worth noting too that even such a limited definition of success often requires a pretty hostile, high-stakes environment that demands time-critical decision-making to motivate an adequate sense of purpose and urgency.

While I was still digesting these insights, I read Marc Ambinder‘s National Journal cover story on the Navy SEAL Team that executed the mission on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbotabad. I was struck by the similarities between Gladwell’s observations and the way our leaders positioned this mission in the nation’s military-intelligence complex.

Clearly, the success of the SEALs was a product of many factors, not the least of which was an incredible amount of preparation and raw courage. At the same time, the circumstances that made these investments pay-off seem to reflect hard-learned lessons about the importance of developing strong but nimble networks among intelligence, law enforcement, and military specialists. Just as no single SEAL can claim credit for the mission’s success, neither can any one agency or discipline. This was clearly a team effort.

The dynamics that created the necessary and sufficient conditions for success seem to be the same as those Apple applied to their development and deployment of the Macintosh personal computer, which was the first mass produced machine to feature a graphical user interface and a mouse. Breaking down silos between disciplines and not just authorizing people to communicate and collaborate but actually creating an imperative for them to do so, provides people with freedom of motion without sacrificing their focus on critical outcomes.

Those operating within the homeland security mission sphere often confront a hostile bureaucratic operating environment. Despite these conditions, homeland security practitioners still manage to develop some pretty entrepreneurial ideas beyond the purely conceptual phase. While these efforts may generate long term success of the mission as currently conceived, one important lesson from the demise of bin Laden is the tradeoff we face if our efforts to achieve long-term success (win the war) come at the expense of the operational flexibility required to rack up high-value wins (success in individual battles). Leaving enough room for skilled and committed operatives to collaborate requires leaders to create the imperative for individuals to put aside organizational differences when high risk decisions can generate high rewards.

P.S.: Also on the value of collaboration — my favorite post-bin Laden joke comes via Cpl Willie Apiata, VC of the New Zealand Special Air Service on Twitter: “RT @_socialize bin Laden’s death reminds us all that working from home is not a long-term option.”

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 18, 2011 8:41 am

    A cross-posting of this article on HLSwatch received a very interesting comment from Bill Cumming, which inspired me to clarify my observations a bit further:

    Bill, reading your comments made me realize that I had perhaps done a disservice to Mr. Gladwell’s thesis. To be fair, I don’t think he cited collaboration once as a characteristic of organizational innovation or effectiveness. But I did read that into his remarks.

    It might have been more accurate that Gladwell’s observation related more to the role of synthesis than collaboration. And, in fact, the sorts of things he found bureaucratic and entrepreneurial organizations most effective at doing was innovating through analysis.

    Synthesis on the other hand requires an organization not only to see what needs to be done but also resourceful enough to see good ideas wherever they may be found, not just in the organization’s primary domain of expertise. To this end, Gladwell made the observation that quality is a direct byproduct of quantity. One success may require many, many failures.

    Failure is not something bureaucrats or entrepreneurs like to think very much about. When they detect failure, they often respond to it in much more hostile ways than hybrid organizations that are very mission-driven and open to opportunities. As I observed, these organizations tend to be more collaborative as well.

    You are quite right to tout the pioneering accomplishments and contributions of Mary Parker Follett to leadership and management theory. Her work serves as yet another example of the importance of an outside perspective and a willingness to look for solutions wherever they may be found. Moreover, he life story points to the importance of persistence, which, of course, is required if one is to turn quantity into quality.

    At the risk of undermining my own arguments, I think it is also fair to note that Gladwell was making a point that innovators can exist in any organizational type. But the successful development and deployment of innovation may well depend on all three types of organizations. Bureaucracies tend to be very good at specialization, which often leads to insights others might miss because of background noise. Entreprenuerial organizations are good at building opportunities on ideas, but tend to become too focused to make use of novel ideas at the edge of their domains. Hybrid, mission-driven organizations are generally not very good idea generators, but they do an excellent job of applying others’ ideas in novel ways that lead to more innovation by still other people.

    Bureaucratic organizations are tend to be input-focused. Entrepreneurs are more output-focused. Hybrid, mission-driven organizations are outcome focused, which tends to make them process and product agnostic. All of these organizational types depends on a sense of purpose, but the differences in the sense, direction, and intensity of their purposes has big effects on the way people operate within them, and their relationships to their environments.

    The lesson: It’s a big, beautiful world, and trying to make everyone think, act, and do as we do is the surest and shortest path to stagnation, if not outright failure.

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