Packaging Up Innovation & Radical Management

In May, I was honored to be part of Steve Denning's workshop on his Radical Management principles for redefining 21stCentury management.  Recognition that we need to find a new way to ‘manage' work is gaining ground. We tend to think of 21st Century ‘new management' companies as those in ‘cool' industries: Internet, tech, alternative energy, social media, etc. These companies shun command-and-control!  However, there are some "old" "boring" companies that are surprising 21stCentury.

So, think packaging. You know, those brown boxes that your amazon books come in? Those displays at the end of store aisles that get you to buy more snacks? It's a commodity business, ruled by big huge vertically integrated behemoths with entrenched hierarchies held sacred.  Kind of boring huh?  You bet...not!

In the middle of Wisconsin (not Silicon Valley) is a 163 yr. old, private family business that reinvented itself, pulled a few classic "Blue Oceans" and looks more like a 21st Century newbie than a 19th Century oldie: Menasha Packaging Corporation (MPC).   MPC views their transformation as a journey, not a destination.  Their success is due to their most important asset - people.  And it's not just words, its action based on their values.  MPC has organized itself not as a traditional hierarchy, but as a network to enable and foster their culture.

A small headquarters organization is focused on removing obstacles and leveraging synergies while maintaining a strong entrepreneurial culture in each business.  Instead of centralizing the usual functions and capabilities, MPC relies on standardization, when applicable, to drive efficiency without bureaucracy.  Additionally, if one business has expertise another business needs or could use, it's shared in a center of excellence construct across heterogeneous businesses within MPC instead of being duplicated.  This allows each business to use its resources more innovativelyeffectively and efficiently...a rather unique approach for an ‘old' company.

In one business, an employee created an engaging way to identify and monitor safety issues.  To her, this was just a normal thing to do - see a problem, create a solution.  Soon it spread through the plant and shifts, becoming named "Safety Snags".  Eventually, this became an internally branded initiative throughout MPC.

MPCs culture of customer co-creation is based on listening to customers, quickly creating prototypes set in realistic environments, getting feedback and iterating the experimentation/prototyping until its right. This is also done across MPC businesses to find the right solution.

My initial perception when I started working with MPC, of an old manufacturing company, was quickly changed, and continues to be.  It is not just the new, young, hip companies that are reinventing management and seeing the results.  So what does this say? That it is really possible to create and sustain innovation in established companies.  Perhaps, it starts by innovating management itself.

Your Greatest Asset? ROF: Return on Failure

Innovation and failure go hand in hand.  So, what is failure? When things don’t go according to plan or expectations, ending up with unexpected and/or undesired outcomes.  The key is ‘undesired’ – because if they were desired and not planned or expected, that would be great!  But, as we will see, failure is a terrific way to learn.  Maybe we could measure learning as Return on Failure: ROF.  And many of these learnings are intangible, but as the 21st Century is proving, it’s the intangibles that matter.

We’ve heard the phrase “fail often, fail cheap, fail fast” or “it’s ok to make mistakes, just make different ones.” So, can we do a better job of learning from failure?  We’re not built to do this easily, either by learning from others’ failures or our own.  There are many ways to learn from failure, so what I’m suggesting is just one way.

One way we could start learning from failure is through a simple 3-step process (bear in mind, simple ≠ easy!):

  1. Identification of the Failure(s)
  2. Analysis of the Failure(s)
  3. Iterative Experimenting & Prototyping based on the learnings from the failures

So, and check my ‘math’, ROF = Failure Identification + Failure Analysis applied over (and over…) Iterative Experimenting & Prototyping.  That’s the framework (for now).

Failure Identification is proactively identifying what went wrong, what failed.  Systems and processes can help capture this information for sharing with those who need to know now and in the future.  Feedback loops with employees, customers, and suppliers are also important (and who else?).  Most companies are complex entities which make getting and sharing information difficult.  Also, most cultures don’t tolerate failure too well so we learn to play the blame game.  And of course, there are a lot of other reasons we’ll get into in further posts.

Failure Analysis is not playing the blame game but discovering the Why.  When a plane crashes, the NTSB goes over every inch of the site.  They don’t blame; they use a formal, objective process to discuss, analyze and learn.  Try a model like this.  Be objective, don’t personalize or blame (not as easy as it sounds).  Organizations also succumb to confirmational bias; we become inured, not realizing we’ve fallen into that trap.  The “blame game” makes doing the necessary forensic work challenging because it can be hard to trust our colleagues.

Iterative Experimenting & Prototyping involves creating a well designed experiment so we can limit and test the variable (ideas) and prototype.  Test where we think we could fail, try what does and doesn’t work.  The more we experiment, the more we learn, the greater the chances of success.  Do small, inexpensive experiments and prototypes (they don’t have to be grand).  Do virtual and thought experiments.  There are many ways to experiment and prototype today that are not expensive or lengthy so try it.  Why don’t we? How many organizations are structured for experimentation? Not many (remember the scientific method? Bet not).  And culturally, we don’t incent, reward, recognize our people to experiment – we incent being right, not trying to be right!

What do you think? Does this make sense? Are you trying to learn from failure in your organization?  What have you learned that you’ve been able to apply?

Don't use Best Practices, Just Practice!

One of the central tenets of 20th century business was "best practices." Let’s dissect this veritable oxymoron:

  • Best: highest quality, standing (at a point in time, place and context)
  • Practice: a habit or custom (noun) or to do repeatedly to acquire proficiency

Admittedly, and importantly, there are things to learn from others successes and failures. But one of the big mistakes companies make isadopting “best practices” instead of adapting them (to their own culture).

Companies will succeed in the 21st century by out [best] practicing their competition to exceed their customers’ and employees’ needs - by turning practice into a verb instead of a noun.

Those who develop a core competency in experimenting, prototyping, learning, applying, iterating – from success AND failure, will be the ones who provide the most meaningful, valuable offerings to customers and employees.

That’s what I call practicing! And that’s not an oxymoron.

What can you start being the best at practicing tomorrow?