The Fantastic Four in Business
By Jeffrey Phillips
No, this is not a list of superheroes. It is a comprehensive list of the kinds of people and perspectives needed to run any business. Instead of Mr. Fantastic, Torch, Thing and the Invisible Woman, what an organization needs are:
Not only do organizations need these four skills and perspectives, they need them in the correct proportion in order to succeed, regardless of strategy.
Thanks to Lean, Six Sigma, outsourcing, right sizing and all the other corporate strategies of the 1990s to now, organizations have teams of people who wake up every day with nothing more on their minds than to optimize existing products, processes, business lines or the organization. There are two generations of managers and executives that believe that optimization of the existing processes and products is sufficient and experimentation and innovation is risky and dangerous. Thanks, Jack Welch!
Optimizers are absolutely essential, regardless of business strategy. If the strategy is to stick to the guns and ignore the urge to innovate then optimizers are needed to continue to cut costs and improve efficiencies. If the strategy is to begin innovating then optimizers are needed to run the existing business processes efficiently and effectively to create cash for innovation efforts. In short, optimizers are needed; however, it is difficult to innovate if the innovation team consists solely of optimizers.
When building an innovation team individuals will face several problems with optimizers. First, there are far more of them than needed. Second, optimizers usually seek to improve existing products and services, rather than “dream up” new products and services. Third, several optimizers stick to the “rules” and have a difficult time diverging and then converging. These factors mean that optimizers, while important, often do not contribute significantly to an innovation effort.
Turns out there are more similarities to the fantastic four, than previously imagined. The reigning corporate hero, the firefighter, is celebrated whose superhero parallel is the Torch. Firefighters are the people who come to work every day to solve problems that probably could have been avoided or predicted, but the firm preferred to react to challenges rather than proactively avoid them.
In most corporations, nothing excuses a manager from an important meeting or deadline except a major firefighting exercise and it seems like there are more fires to fight than ever. As the pace of change increases and firms are constantly reacting to market conditions (regulatory changes and other disruptions) people who were comfortable optimizers must now strap on their fire fighting gear. While it is important to react quickly to shifting conditions and problems, firefighters do not help individuals innovate because they are so busy fighting fires. Many firefighters are actually demonstrating a preference — they prefer to react rather than plan and act proactively — so in many cases fighting fire is a choice. In the current environment, fighting fire is more highly valued than creating a new and uncertain product, therefore, there are many reasons to become a firefighter.
Firefighters often are not strong innovators, since they rush to solve problems rather than anticipate them and propose solutions to avoid them. Firefighters often do not have the patience, the foresight and the ability to work in ambiguous settings that innovation demands. While valuable to the firm, firefighters can be a significant distraction to an innovation effort.
Unfortunately, the fantastic four did not include a Nostradamus-like character, so this is where the superhero model ends. Every business needs people who can look beyond the day-to-day activities and pressures of the business to understand what is likely to happen and how the firm can take advantage of new opportunities or fend off emerging threats. These people spot trends, develop scenarios and sort out possible futures. Through this work they set the stage for new products and services and business model developments. In a firm focused on cost cutting and efficiency, forecasters typically are not valued because they do not seem to add much near-term value. In firms that are focused on reacting and fighting fire, forecasters seem like casual bystanders when everyone else is rushing off to the fire.
Forecasters are necessary for innovation, but are not often tolerated in reactive firms. A firm can innovate without forecasters, but the products and services it creates will typically be incremental products and services barely distinguishable from competitors, since there is little appreciation for understanding the future market environment, needs and opportunities.
Forecasters represent a shift from reactive innovation to proactive and disruptive innovation. Unfortunately, many firms do not have people with these skills internally and often are not certain if their predictions should be trusted even if they do exist within the firm. The standard approach is to outsource forecasting to analyst firms, futurists and consulting firms. Outsourcing these skills is not necessarily wrong, but the forecasting and analysis work is done haphazardly as problems or challenges arise (rather than as a consistent effort over time). These efforts result in “snapshots” of the future rather than a real glimpse of possible futures.
Creators should be the real “rock stars” of the firm. The people with the passion and foresight to see the opportunity for a new product or service and the determination to create it. There is actually a name for these people. They are called entrepreneurs. That title, however, suggests that they must exist outside of larger organizations. Otherwise they would be called “intrapreneurs.” Intrapreneurs, like the fantastic four, cold fusion and balanced federal budgets are more hypothetical than real.
Firms cannot be successful innovating without creators because only creators have the passion to overcome all of the cultural resistance and bureaucratic challenges that will be presented as they attempt to innovate internally. Their personality, perspective and vision drive them to succeed. A successful business can be run without creators, but it will be overtaken or disrupted in time by another creator due to lack of innovation.
Fortunately, it is easy to spot creators in business. They are the people who are constantly irritating the rest of the organization suggesting interesting new products and services and who sometimes manage to get those ideas funded and resourced. Rather than treat those folks as irritants, recognize them for what they are, the engine of the firms innovation efforts.
Creators represent a special opportunity and challenge. Many creators do not work well within the rigid structures of a corporate environment, but they drive innovation like no one else. Their skills and passions become even more important as firms seek to increase innovation. Their numbers in organizations, however, are fairly limited.
Achieving the Right Balance
Regardless of a firm’s strategy, all four roles are important. The strategies dictate how many of these types of individuals exist in an organization and their social standing. Typically, there are more optimizers and firefighters in most organizations because those skills have been the focus of management teams in the last decade. As the competitive environment shifts and innovation becomes more important, the organization needs to shift the proportion of people in each one from optimizers and firefighters to forecasters and creators. A firm with an innovation focus needs forecasters and creators and cannot sustain innovation over any period of time without people with those skills.
Firms may need to recruit individuals with these skills from outside the organization since the perspectives and skills required for these roles is different from the optimizers and firefighters on the staff. Additionally, training managers and executives in the optimizer toolset have been taught that firefighting is the way to advance. Organizations may need to rethink its compensation, recruiting, training and evaluation schemes to emphasize new knowledge and skills.
It may be tempting to place a person who is an effective firefighter or optimizer into a forecaster or creator role. Do not do it. Everything about the roles of forecaster and creator will be an abhorrence to an optimizer or firefighter. It may be possible to find volunteers who are willing to try to shift into those roles, but individuals cannot assign people into those roles. In a firm heavily weighted toward optimizers and firefighters, the need may be to recruit forecasters and creators or perhaps simply outsource those roles.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published at ovoinnovation.com.
About the Author:
Jeffrey Phillips is a vice president with OVO and responsible for marketing and for leading innovation projects with OVO’s clients. Mr. Phillips has extensive experience working in the innovation space, with a wide range of Fortune 500 firms. He has published articles for Harvard Management Update, DigitAll Magazine, Pure Insight and blogs about innovation at Innovate on Purpose. Contact Jeffrey Phillips at jphillips (at) ovoinnovation.com.