I have recently been reading a lot about entrepreneurship; the advantages of organisations who adopt a more entrepreneurial approach are well discussed, but the core elements of what to consider to achieve this status, less-so.
So where do you start? I feel that the following three published articles is a pretty good place…
The Problem – Innovation is Hard!(?)
I recently read this great article by Anne Marie-Knott
“Is R&D Getting Harder, or Are Companies Just Getting Worse at It?”
I was fascinated by her analysis and conclusion:
“…where this leaves us, it appears the decline in companies’ (and the economies) ability to drive growth from R&D stems from the fact that companies have gotten worse at innovation, rather than because innovation has gotten harder. This is great news, because the problem of companies getting worse is fixable, whereas the problem of innovation getting harder isn’t.”
So the challenge to companies is to innovate? If so, what to fix and how to fix it are probably questions high on the agenda…?
Or is it a case that the desire to conduct R&D is just passing organisations by without a second glance?
Anne Marie-Knott’s suggests “…my research shows the returns to companies’ R&D spending have declined 65% over the past three decades” even though “…innovation today is a key driver of organic growth for all companies, regardless of sector or geography”.
Hence the question, have companies gotten worse at R&D? Or is it R&D has gotten harder for companies to do?
As we know from her conclusion above, Anne Marie-Knott feels that it is the easier to manage of the two problems; it is easier to push R&D up the scale of priority than to solve an industry-wide problem such as R&D is simply more difficult to do than it used to be.
All this is extremely interesting; however, the bit that caught my attention was that companies might just be innovating in different ways. Anne Marie-Knott floats the idea that when it becomes difficult to innovate in an industry a company will “…have to diversify to avoid diminishing opportunities in their own industry”; she goes on to quote examples where this has taken place, such as Landline phone to mobile phone and typewriter to PC. In each of these two cases, the opportunity for additional total revenue increased significantly over their current markets opportunity.
If, as Anne Marie-Knott suggests “companies respond by creating new industries with greater technological opportunity” when innovation isn’t possible in their current market; how might they go about accomplishing it?
One obvious option, which would make logical sense, is to appoint a more creative and innovative organisational leader (and management team) to explore new products, services and markets where the company’s strengths can be leveraged to aid company growth.
If we accept that an entrepreneurial leader is required to facilitate such change, how might you go about selecting one with the required skill set?
Finding the Right Man/Woman for the Job! – Entrepreneurial Leadership
This leads nicely to Timothy Butler’s article, ‘Hiring an Entrepreneurial Leader’
Timothy Butler introduces his article with “Entrepreneurs have become the new heroes of the business world, highlighting the star status of such entrepreneurial leaders as Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs” as the justification of this statement.
But I think these types of characters might be few and far between?
Timothy Butler states that “Companies of all shapes and sizes aspire to be seen as highly innovative, nimble, and agile—all qualities traditionally ascribed to entrepreneurs.” So, if we were looking to recreate an organisation to be innovative then it would indeed seem that we require an entrepreneurial leader; but how to find one and avoid a pretender?
Timothy Butler looked at entrepreneurs and what makes them tick, looking to drill down from extravagant statements to criteria that can be explored in interviews or workshops.
He found, “…that entrepreneurs had three distinguishing characteristics: the ability to thrive in uncertainty, a passionate desire to author and own projects, and unique skill at persuasion.”
In his article he looks to explore four stereotypes and concludes:
Firstly, Entrepreneurs are unusually creative; his finding suggests: Entrepreneurs are curious seekers of adventure, learning, and opportunity.
Second, Entrepreneurs enjoy and seek risk; his finding suggests: Entrepreneurs are more comfortable with risk.
Third, Entrepreneurs are more personally ambitious than other leaders; his finding suggests that: Entrepreneurs are driven by a need to own products, projects, and initiatives.
Fourth, Entrepreneurs are natural salespeople; his finding suggests this one is correct.
Timothy Butler suggests that when you know what you are looking for you can ask appropriate questions in interviews that will draw out an appropriate response.
Indeed, he does not feel that the actual answer is important in many instances, but the way it is considered and delivered is.
He comments “…questions will help you identify candidates who will thrive in uncertainty. But don’t look for the best answers; look for the extent to which the candidate champions the value of exploration, learning, new approaches, and willingness to take on risk to achieve an important outcome.”
An example of his questions includes:
Q) Which is more valuable: instinct or wisdom? Why?
Q) Which is more valuable: imagination or analysis? Why?
Q) A space explorer is looking for people to colonise Mars. Have a conversation between the part of you that would say yes to this mission and the part that would say no.
In conclusion, Timothy Butler states”…Exceptional leaders have much in common, and most can adapt to the demands of whatever organisational challenges they face. Leaders who are truly entrepreneurial, however, excel when a situation demands complete ownership of a venture or problem, become more motivated as uncertainty increases, and have a remarkable ability to persuade others to follow their course of action.
This profile can be problematic in complex organisations where established business units need to work intensely together, across boundaries, and leaders need to share both information and power on a daily basis. But if your organisation needs someone to turn innovative ideas into full-blown, standalone enterprises—or invent and bring to life completely new models—it may be time to hire an entrepreneurial leader. And by following the advice in this article, you can make sure you actually find what you’re looking for.”
So we have a company wanting to innovate and have recruited an entrepreneurial leader to lead the organisation…what’s next?
The Right Environment to Excel! – The Culture?
A great little article ‘DeepMind’s social agenda plays to its AI strengths’ was published in the FT by Madhumita Murgia.
He wrote this article to discuss the recent win of AlphaGo, who beat the reigning human world champion at Go, an incredibly hard challenge due to the number of possible moves”…“more than the number of atoms in the universe.” This was something that predictions suggested would not happen for at least another decade.
Now, as interesting as this is, the piece caught my attention as it focused on a company called DeepMind “…arguably the most formidable community of world-leading academics specialising in machine intelligence anywhere in the world.”
This organisational culture has been a magnet for some of the world’s brightest minds. Demis Hassabis, co-founder and chief executive. “We’ve hired 250 of the world’s best scientists, so obviously they’re here to let their creativity run riot, and we try and create an environment that’s perfect for that.” But what is there purpose? Well beating the go champion was a by-product, they are here for much bigger things “…to use…knowledge…for large-scale social impact””.
The article explains the culture, every eight weeks, scientists present what they have achieved to team leaders, including Hassabis and Shane Legg, head of research, who decide how to allocate resources to the dozens of projects. “It’s sort of a bubbling cauldron of ideas, and exploration, and testing things out, and finding out what seems to be working and why — or why not,” Legg says.
From here “projects that are progressing rapidly are allocated more manpower and time, while others may be closed down, all in a matter of weeks.”
“At any point in time, the company also has two or three special forces-style units called
“strike teams” that are formed temporarily to achieve a particular goal…Once it started showing promise in the first six months, we put a large team of 15 people with specialised skills on it, to push that to the end,” this approach “…allows us to pick exactly the right specialists to make the perfect complementary team without being beholden to traditional reporting lines. So, they’re like on secondment to that project, and then they go back to their original teams.”
Another by-product of this culture is that “unlike any place I’ve [Botvinick] has ever experienced before, all conversations are enhanced rather than undermined by differences in background.”
Sounds compelling, but how is this achieved in a world of hierarchy and report deadlines?
Hassabis says “Our research team today is insulated from any short-term pushes or pulls, whether it is internally at Google or externally. We want to have a big impact on the world, but our research has to be protected.”
For those of us who have been exposed to such progressive cultures, we can acknowledge that they are truly engaging and aspirational places to work; where specialists are allowed to explore and not man managed to within an inch of their life…
So there’s your starter for 10,
1) We need more innovation and as Anne Marie-Knott attests ‘the barriers to this are of our own making’
2) You know how to identify who you need to head the job, by asking clever questions provided by that clever bloke Timothy Butler
3) And Demis Hassabis has a great cultural model to allow innovation to thrive!
Go forth and explore!
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