Distillations in this newsletter: What Douglas Engelbart has to tell us about strategy; Linda Hill on managing innovation within strategy; Adam Grant’s Acts of Leadership.
A monthly concoction of insight, learning and things you might have missed for anyone who works on strategy, works with strategy or just loves strategy.
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This month …
- What Douglas Engelbart has to tell us about strategy.
- Snippets on strategy you may have missed: Linda Hill on managing innovation within strategy; Adam Grant’s Acts of Leadership.
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What Douglas Engelbart has to tell us about strategy
Who? You’ve never heard of him? Well, I’m not surprised. But let me tell you why I think you ought to know about him.
I’m writing this as a bit of an experiment. I’ve long been an enthusiastic fan of ‘standing on the shoulders of giants‘ – I believe we will all be much better strategic thinkers and will provide a much better service to our organisations (if you work in-house) or clients (if you are a consultant) if we have a deep understanding of the strategic thinking of others. I, for example, try to read and think deeply about the work of Bruce Henderson, Michael Porter, Henry Mintzberg, Gary Hamel, Roger Martin, Rita Gunther McGrath, Donald Sull, Richard Rumelt and Linda Hill, to mention just a few of my favourites. In my view, however, standing on the shoulders of giants goes much deeper than this. There are a lot more people with valuable things to say about strategy who are not actually ‘strategists’. For example, Tim Brown’s ideas on design thinking; Amy Edmondson’s ideas on psychological safety in the workplace; Rittel and Webber’s thinking on complexity; Alistair Cockburn’s ideas on agile methodologies … and Douglas Engelbart’s ideas on augmenting human intelligence. So, this experiment is to see whether I can distill Engelbart’s lessons on strategy so we can all stand on his shoulders in our professional work in the future.
Born in Portland, Oregon in 1925, Engelbart is best known for his invention of many component parts that would eventually lead to modern computers – bit-mapped screens, the computer mouse (he patented it in 1970) and hypertext.
It is, however, Engelbart’s conceptual work that has particular value for strategic thinking, especially his paper, written in 1962 called Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework (html version or pdf of the original). In this paper, he outlined three key concepts:
- Collective IQ. It is well established that groups of people can achieve much more than all of the individual members of the group working on their own. This is the basis of the division of labour which has underpinned the development of towns, cities and states throughout human history. Applying this to knowledge-work, Engelbart suggests that a group of individuals can exhibit greater intelligence than any one member of that group. Again, this is a well-established concept, which Francis Galton first described in 1907. Whilst at a farming exhibition, Galton was intrigued by a guess-the-weight competition, in which participants paid 6 pence to estimate the weight of an ox, with the guesses closest to the actual weight winning prizes. Once the prizes were decided, Galton statistically analysed all the competition entries and discovered that the median estimate was within 1% of the actual weight. As James Surowieki, in his book Wisdom of Crowds concludes, “under the right circumstances, groups are remarkable intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.”
Engelbart goes on to suggest that boosting collective IQ is a key way of enhancing organisational effectiveness. This is a much broader idea than using the wisdom of crowds to estimate the weight of an ox. Engelbart’s idea has more in common with Jared Diamond than with Frances Galton. Diamond’s award-winning book Guns, Germs and Steel explains how, over the past few thousand years, technological progress increased the more people met and exchanged ideas. This happened as trade routes developed and cities increased their population density, and it happened much faster when the people involved faced similar life-challenges. Thus, progress was much greater when ideas flowed East or West, across Eurasia, where the climate remained roughly similar and people faced similar challenges in coping with their natural environment. By contrast, technological progress was much slower up and down the Americas and Africa where ideas had to traverse North or South and had to prove useful to people living in very different climates.
So, Engelbart argued that augmenting human intelligence, by which he meant the collective intelligence of organisations, was one of the big challenges of his day. For modern-day strategists this remains a fascinating provocation – is the primary aim of most strategies simply to make organisations smarter? Smarter at understanding customers? Smarter at launching new products? Smarter at positioning ourselves in marketplace? Smarter at using resources efficiently? Almost certainly ‘yes’. How then, does Engelbart suggest we go about augmenting the intelligence or our organisations?
- His second idea is improving how we improve. Engelbart suggested there are three types of work we undertake in organisations. We do ‘business-as-usual’; the routine day-to-day activity that keeps the organisational wheels turning. Then we improve how we do this business-as-usual. This could be routine efficiency gains derived from fine-tuning our ways of working, all the way through to more radical improvements based on the introduction of new technology or re-designing our ways of working. Finally, we improve how we improve by reflecting specifically on how to tackle our improvements to business-as-usual. How do we decide what needs to be improved? How do we decide what magnitude of improvement we want to bring about? Where do we look for potential improvement methods? Do we just look for one way to make the necessary improvements or do we try to find several alternatives and pick the best? Do we just go ahead and implement improvements, or do we try to prototype and test on a small scale to check the improvement is worthwhile? This all sounds very strategic yet, I’d have to say, I have never taken this precise approach with a client. I’ve done strategic gap analyses by the dozen. Across the full suite of organisational key performance indicators (KPIs) where are we now and where would we like to get to? How big are the gaps, how important are the gaps and how difficult is it likely to be to bridge these gaps. It is out of this sort of analysis that the seed of a new strategy is often sown. But Engelbart’s focus on improving how we improve is different. How is it that we, as an organisation, go about improving how we operate and how can we study and analyse that process of improvement so we do it better and better? This takes strategy to a whole new level. How do we improve the ways by which we improve? Is it by better use of data? Is it more rigorous governance? Is it by moving to more powerful technologies or is it by adopting the technology we have more effectively? Engelbart’s idea is strategy by meta-improvement.
- Which brings us to his third idea – bootstrapping. A bootstrap is the loop or handle at the back of an ankle length boot to help you pull it on to your foot. The expression ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ alludes to the impossible task of lifting yourself off the ground by pulling on your bootstraps, but actually refers to any self-starting initiative that succeeds without any external help. Engelbart’s use of the term bootstrapping was all about equipping teams and individuals across the organisation with the tools they need to improve how they worked (and improve how they improved) without the need for any other form of support (e.g. resources or managerial input). Examples include ready access to prototyping and testing tools to enable teams to experiment with new ways of working, or access to best-in-class customer data combined with the ability to interrogate and model that data to discover where the best innovation opportunities lie.
So, what do we, as strategists, gain from standing on Engelbart’s shoulders? My main insight is that I’m going to start looking for strategic actions that deliver compound benefits. One way is to look for strategic actions that enable teams across the organisation to bootstrap their own innovations in their own areas of responsibility. Any one action by leadership that enables bootstrapping by front-line teams is likely to pay-back again and again over time. This becomes a compound benefit from strategy. Helping people to improve how they improve is another way. Simply improving ways of working is likely to be quite team-specific: the marketing team will improve how they reach and engage with customers; the sales team will improve how they close deals; the engineering team will improve how they unit-test their code. Improving how we improve, on the other hand, is likely to be a lot more transferrable. If, for example, we improve how we capture, clean, process and present data, it is quite likely that the marketing, sales and engineering teams will all be able to improve their ways of working as a result. In much more general terms, strategic actions that raise the collective IQ across the organisation are also likely to deliver compound benefits. For me, this is a great sense-check for any strategy that is just beginning to take shape. I’m going to be asking anyone who will listen how they think their embryonic strategy will raise collective IQ and how, potentially, it could be raised even higher or across a greater proportion of the whole organisation.
Snippets on strategy you may have missed
Linda Hill on managing innovation within strategy
Linda Hill specialises in the management of innovation within organisations and her insights provide great food-for-thought on how to manage innovation as part of strategy. Her book with Brandeau, Truelove and Lineback, called Collective Genius is very good, but I was particularly taken with an hour-long YouTube video of Hill, recorded at Microsoft Research. In it, she presented a model (Fig 1) for harnessing creativity in pursuit of innovation (starting 10 mins 30 secs into the video).
Fig. 1: Capabilities for creating an environment of innovation (Image by Hill et al from https://www.paradoxstrategies.com/collective-genius/)
Here’s how she described it: Innovation must be both new and useful. If you want to get the ‘new’ you need to unleash the ideas of the individual; but if you want to get to the ‘useful’ you need to harness these ideas in a way that solves a group-owned problem. So, how do you get that unleashing and that harnessing to happen? This is what she and her colleagues found in all organisations that were consistently innovative, regardless of what type of organisation they were and which sector they were in:
- creative abrasion – the ability to generate a marketplace of diverse ideas through discourse and debate;
- creative agility – the ability to test and refine ideas through quick pursuit, reflection and adjustment;
- creative resolution – the ability to make integrative decisions.
Creative abrasion is all about how you engage in debate and discourse to produce a marketplace of ideas. You can’t get this without diversity of thinking and conflict. Creative abrasion amplifies difference and must involve heated debate.
Creative agility is how you refine that portfolio of ideas. Creative agility involves design thinking – you act your way to an answer, you don’t plan your way to an answer. Run experiments, not pilots. When a pilot doesn’t work it is a failure. If an experiment doesn’t work, it is a learning.
Creative resolution. Most innovations are a combination of old ideas or applications of old ideas reconfigured to solve new problems. This needs decision making to be configured to both-and thinking as opposed to either-or thinking. People in highly innovative organisations are not willing to go-along to get-along. They will not compromise their thinking and will not let one group dominate the decision-making – not senior leaders and not experts.
Adam Grant’s Acts of Leadership
My client work over the past few months has mostly been focused on strategy adoption and a key part of that has been enabling clients to engage in meaningful and impactful adoption conversations across their organisation. It was this context that made Adam Grant’s Acts of Leadership seem so powerful. This is what he said:
- “The true leader in a group is rarely the person who talks the most. It’s usually the person who listens best.
- Listening is more than hearing what’s said. It’s noticing and surfacing what isn’t said.
- Inviting dissenting views and amplifying quiet voices are acts of leadership.”
Goal Atlas gives you structured processes and tools to ensure strategy is adopted and impactful across your organisation. Get in touch if you think we might be able to help.
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