Hewlett-Packard has been a company of continuous change since its inception in 1935 as it produced electronic test equipment. Over the next century, it grew into a behemoth in the technology industry revolutionizing the personal computer and routinely achieving over $100 billion in annual revenues and achieving the status of one of the most innovative companies in America. During the mid-2000s and after a few large-scale mergers that diminished the organization, Meg Whitman was brought on to lead the company turnaround.
The turnaround began with a reduction in workforce that continued throughout her leadership. Later the company was split into two where Hewlett Packard Enterprise would focus on software and services while the newly formed HP Inc. would focus on products. Following the separation, the workforce reductions continued to shift the skillsets to the needs of the future and as an easier way to remove people off of the employee books. During that time, there was a constant threat that anyone could be in the next round of layoffs which inspired mediocracy, risk adversity, and hyper safe decision making. While it was once an organization of rapid technology and hyper-growth, it had been reduced to a neutered leadership team that focused solely on squeezing the pennies of outdated and dying product lines.
The overarching goal of facilitating group creativity is the expression of ideas. If a person isn’t going to voice their insights, there is no point in their participation. The goal of the leader is to create an environment where every single person feels safe in expressing their ideas. This behavior is highly intuitive yet fails to happen in most settings. Even if the creative environment or workshop is designed to elicit safety, the participant’s will still bring their history and insecurities to the event. By simply having their peers and boss in the innovation environment, the perception of judgment can severely limit idea-expression (Watson, 2018).
Being secure in speaking one’s mind is one half of the picture where the ability to take risks without fear of retribution is the other half. Risks lead to disruptive innovation which in turn leads to the desired hockey stick growth. Severe judgment and punishment for a failed initiative limits risk and eliminates the possibility of significant growth. From a leadership position, it is difficult to not get angry or frustrated with a failed project, but those emotions are tempered if it is thought of as an experiment. Experiments are meant to fail, they are designed to learn from. If the organization is consistently running experiments instead of projects, they are consistently learning and building upon their capabilities.
Safety leads to group participation which leads to increased idea generation. The greater the number of ideas leads to a higher quality of ideas (Baker & Freeland, 1972). Leadership’s goal, therefore, is to get as many ideas as possible and to leverages the insights of the entire team. The secondary effect is that this approach then reduces long-term risk by gaining the participation of the entire team and enabling multiple perspectives.
Risk adversity is associated with safety in risk limiting organizations that enable an inherent fear of what if something goes wrong. The natural tendency of an organization is to provide parameters and to establish a level of control to ensure that the mission is adhered to which inevitably leads to incremental innovation. Incremental innovation and continuous improvement are key organization competencies and will sustain a company temporarily. Disruptive innovation though will inherently change an organization from the status quo giving the company a second life and a greater chance at long term sustainability. Outside of anomalies, risk-averse companies that have strong control and fear-based models will never achieve disruptive innovation and it is just a matter of time before their doors close.
Organizations are always a gamble, some will succeed but all will fail eventually and while risk enablement can lead to disappointments it can also bring big payoffs. Important to note is that not all risks pay off, there needs to be a tolerance of failures to ensure that boundaries are being pushed. The experimental model to continuous try and learn to build upon those insights helps take those failed initiatives and builds off of them for the next iteration. Proctor and Gamble’s innovation goals aim for a 45% to 50% successful return on investment rate under the belief that if they were achieving a 100% success rate that they wouldn’t be pushing the envelope far enough and were just achieving incremental innovation (Lafley, 2008).
Recent research on late bloomers has found that early specialization in a given field has limited the long-term growth of individuals. This early success leads to high expectations and a reluctance to take risks in fear of failing in future endeavors. The research also found that an anomaly of dark horses of individuals that came out of nowhere to achieve success later in life. This speculated that the individuals progress through life before recognizing that they weren’t living a full life and decide to make a change which merged their skill level with their passion. Mozart is a prime example of a late bloomer where he worked tirelessly as an organist to make ends meet before taking the risk to embark on setting up his own shop and achieving worldly success (Rose, 2018).
Patience for Failure
General George S. Patton was born 1885 in San Gabriel, California and spent his childhood as an avid outdoorsman. During his teens, his childhood dream was recognized as he was admitted to West Point. Even though he struggled significantly with academics and had to repeat his freshman year for failing mathematics, he made up for it with his love and ability to excel in military drill (Wallace, 2017). Following graduation, Patton was General John Perishing’s aide during the Mexican-American War and subsequent Punitive Expedition of Pancho Villa. Quickly becoming a pioneer in armored tanks, he was able to command armor units in World War One fighting in the first major tank battle at Cambrai, France. His overarching claim to fame was his inclination for bold and swift actions during World War II driving the Nazis out of North Africa, the retaking of Sicily, and advancing his 3rd Army across Europe liberating over 81,000 square miles to help bring the end to the war (Patton, 1978).
General Omar N. Bradley was born in 1893 in Clark, Missouri. His father was a teacher and developed in him an early love of reading. Following school, he found himself making 17-cents per hour working as a boilermaker before he received an appointment to West Point where he was a solid student and classmate of Dwight Eisenhower. Early in his military career his orders kept him on the periphery of the Mexican-American War and World War I and didn’t see combat until World War Two. Starting as Patton’s Deputy Commander during Operation Northern Torch where they conquered Northern Africa he proved himself as a highly respected commander and was later chosen to command the 1st Army during the invasion of Normandy (Bradley, 1984). Bradley was viewed as the stabilizing leader of the Allied invasion and for political reasons, he was used to reign in the overly aggressive nature of Patton. Following the war, he was promoted to General of the Army and the last 5-star General the United States has had (Petterchak, 2014).
It was a common practice to debate the merits of the top Generals of World War Two and it was a commonly held belief that General Bradley was a patient leader with his subordinate Generals while General Patton was known as a tough and explosive personality that stressed a high standard for excellence from his subordinate Generals. Patton proved to be a paradox to the Allied leadership for his quick and aggressive wartime actions that led to multiple victories while he was also known for his public relation blunders of slapping PTSD affected Soldiers and publicly chiding their Soviet Union allies. Bradley was known as the G.I.’s General who was calm, collected, and patient. He was averse to quick, risky advances and deliberate in his actions but made limited mistakes. This may have been correlated with Bradley relieving numerous Generals from command during World War Two while Patton only relieved one General stating that he didn’t want his division commanders to lose their confidence (D’Este, 1996). Patton was known for being gruff and direct, but he was also a large proponent of empowering his people to risk, to be bold, and to learn from mistakes without being afraid.
Bradley, O. N. (1984). A General’s Life: An Autobiography. New York: Touchstone.
D’Este, C. (1996). Patton, A Genius For War. New York: Harper Collins.
Lafley, A. (2008). P&G’s Innovation Culture. Strategy+Business, 1-16.
Patton, G. S. (1978). War As I Knew It. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Compan.
Petterchak, J. A. (2014). The Soldier’s General: Omar Bradley and the United States Military in Peace and War. New York: Legendary Press.
Rose, T. a. (2018). Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment. New York: HarperOne.
Wallace, B. G. (2017). Patton and His Third Army. New York: Shiloh Publications.
Watson, M. (2018). Common Strategies and Practices Among Facilitators of Innovative Thinking in Organizations. Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest.
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