Jumping S-Curves and Inventing the Future, with Bill FISCHER and Ian STEWART (#16)

Jumping S-curves and Inventing the Future with Bill FISCHER and Ian STEWART
Jumping S-curves and Inventing the Future with Bill FISCHER and Ian STEWART

Jumping S-Curves and Inventing the Future,
w/ Bill FISCHER and Ian STEWART

How reliable will strategy be in the future? What if tactics were more important than strategy? Are firms obsolete? What about nation states? Can the future of companies be a model for the future of countries? How is the nature of competitive advantage changing? How are we redefining quality to meet the needs of consumers and the marketplace? In this episode, Ben Robinson is in conversation with Bill Fischer and Ian Stewart from the International Institute for Management Development — IMD. Bill is Professor of Innovation Management and Ian — who you may remember from a previous episode of this podcast — he co-founded WiReD and he is Executive in Residence at IMD. 

Innovation should describe the characteristics of the way we work. It should be about how we do things, rather than what we’ve done at any particular time, or who’s doing it. — Bill Fischer

Full podcast transcript:

 

[00:01:51.29] Ben: We are at IMD to interview Bill Fischer, and Ian Stewart is here to make sure I get the very best out of this podcast. So, it’s going to be a joint interview and more of a conversation than anything. Starting with teams — is team a noun or is a verb?

Bill: It’s a verb. Without a doubt! Incidentally, thank you for coming over here and thank you for inviting us to be part of this. This is great fun!

Ben: I always forget to say that. So yeah, thank you for coming on the podcast!

Bill: So, I think, when we talk about innovation, the idea is, no matter what part of innovation we’re talking about, to make it a verb, not a noun. A noun describes somebody else doing it, some of the other departments, and I think that it’s too important as a quality of life — organizational life, individual life — to be pigeonholed in somebody’s group. So, I think it’s a verb. Amy Edmondson at the Harvard Business School talks about teaming rather than teams, and I think that’s a good way to begin.

Ben: And the reason you think it’s a verb, rather than a noun, is because it can never be passive — the formation of a team, the building of the team, the management of the team.

Bill: No, I think that innovation should describe the characteristics of the way we work. It should be about how we do things, rather than what we’ve done at any particular time, or who’s doing it. I think we want everybody, ideally, to think of themselves as potentially involved in the innovation process, so it shouldn’t belong to any department or group or section or what have you. I think we ought to characterize a way of working that involves curiosity, autonomy and the ability to experiment.

[00:03:45.15] Ben: I imagine Ian had the same experience that I have. You know, sometimes you have teams that just gel and they perform amazingly well; other times, you think you put together a similar composition of skills and it just doesn’t gel. So, what is the key to team performance and the composition of team, in your experience?

Bill: So, I think teams are too casually regarded. My sense is that teams should be fit for purpose. And if you think about industry development — I know we’ll talk about industry and arenas later — if you think about industry development as an S curve, then in the middle of the S curve where you know what you’re doing, and you know how to do it, then I think teams ought to be run in one way — probably harmonious and people get together and they gel quickly and they know each other. But, when you’re trying to jump from one S curve to another, when you’re trying to invent the future, then I think teams have to be very different. And I often think that contentious teams, teams that are staffed with people who know a lot of stuff and who disagree with one another, it’s probably the better way to go.

Ben: Yeah. And you take aim at what you call “polite teams.”

Bill: Right. Polite teams get polite results. Yeah.

Ben: Yeah! It’s almost like the antithesis of polite teams — teams that are combative.

Bill: Yes, but not destructive. I mean, I think they have to be led differently. I often think of teams in the middle of an S curve being led by an orchestra conductor who stands there and everybody knows what they’re doing and his or her job is to keep the movement going in the right direction and the right speed. But crossing the S curve is more like a boxing referee: allowing contentious discussion — because I want to get every brain cell I can possibly get — allowing contentious challenge to take place without being corrosive or destructive.

[00:05:55.16] Ben: You cite the research that shows there’s an inverse correlation between the size of teams and their performance, which I think, intuitively, feels great. And also, it’s unbelievable how much research went into that report that you cited. But that, then, poses the question of, if you’re going to run a large organization, how do you avoid having large teams and thinking in terms of large teams?

Bill: Yeah, so, just to be clear, the research you were talking about was a piece of work done by three fellows from Northwestern University last year — it appeared in Nature, I think, or Science.

Ben: Nature I think.

Bill: And it’s an amazing piece of research! Wonderful data, large data sets — a really spectacular piece of work. But it’s about invention, not about innovation, and I think that’s important to clarify; it’s at the very front end of the change process. For me, the thing that was so interesting in their results was that at some team size over five, every person you bring in reduces monotonically the level of novelty and the expected outcome. That’s extraordinary! I mean, the more people, the more conservative we become. In fact, they have some interesting data that argues that it’s a functional way that larger teams work, and also, the expectations that larger teams are going to deliver different results, and so people are responding to the audience as well. What clearly comes out of that is that if you have your preference, if you’re able to do it, smaller teams are better than larger teams, and they have more autonomy as well. So, I think that rule #1 about thinking about teaming is, how small can I do this, and can it be, and how autonomous can we fashion this?

Ian: Interestingly, I found the same thing on boards, with the same parallel thoughts. The less change an organization is going through — whether it’s for-profit or non-profit — the more it can afford large boards, the more it’s involved in something which requires substantial change. I’m on the board of an NGO at the moment, which is seeing its funding sources around the world radically change as governments fund less, and private sector sources, foundations, family offices are funding more in this particular area, and they have zero experience in this space. So, trying to understand how to change the fundraising process, changing actually the management team to enable them to do it has been a struggle, and what I often find on these things is that the first thing that a good chairman does is break things down to smaller groups so that there’s only three to five people handling it. So, there was a small group of us that went out to hire the new CEO, there was another small group that had to restructure how funding works. It’s a very interesting process. I think it’s exactly the same on boards as it is in innovation teams within companies.

Bill: I’ve come away over the last couple of years thinking that end-to-end responsibility, smallness, and autonomy are really critically important characteristics for teaming. Contextually, when you want to do something big, if we want to run the day-to-day operations of an activity in a mature industry, then those rules may not apply at all.

[00:09:34.29] Ben: Yeah. So, we’re going to come back to talk about whether the structure of a firm is still as relevant as it was because the very notion of a firm is building these high-transaction costs. So, we’ll come back to that. But, if the future, if optimal performance is achieved through very small teams, does that mean that organizations just become a composite of lots and lots of small teams, then? And how easy is that to actually orchestrate?

Bill: So, I have a long-term relationship with Haier — the Chinese appliance company — and that’s the direction they’re going in. They’re going in that direction because their industry is on the verge of a major upheaval around hyper-connectivity in the kitchen, and they’ve never done this before. They’ve never produced content. They used to talk to their customer typically once every 15 years; now it’s five or 10 times a day. So, they need to be really different, and what they understand, I think, is that there’s so much opportunity to do different things, but they’ve never done this before. So, what they’re doing is they are subdividing into small groups that are autonomous, that are self-investing as well, which reduces the risk to the organization as a whole, and they’re allowing people to take chances. And I think the belief is, “We’re going to be in the right place at the right time not because we’re smarter, but because we’re taking more chances — and most of the chances aren’t going to turn out well, but a couple will, and then we’ll be uniquely positioned to move forward.”

[00:11:25.17] Ben: So, I just want to drop anchor on Haier, because I’ve been to Drucker Forum and you’ve brought them there in the past, and it’s a fascinating case study, but I think there’s several things I’m interested about, one of which is, how replicable is that in other examples of companies that are doing the same thing? But the first thing is, how do they manage consistency with that level of autonomy? Because we’re talking about home appliances, so these are not things that you would want to be breaking every day. How do they manage that?

Bill: These small teams are located on platforms that are overseen by people who are more internally focused than externally focused — so the small teams are completely externally focused. But then, that behavior in activity is mediated by the role of the platform, which is sort of a bridge between the external and the internal world and does the translation. So, that, to me is the way they go about consistency. And, on that platform, they have a number of stakeholders involved, so you’re all using the same connectivity systems, so that you’re not doing one thing. One of the interesting things about this is that all of a sudden, logistics becomes a much more important player in the conversations than they did in the past, and that is because you’re no longer buying separate pieces of home appliances, but you’re applying a suite of home appliances to talk to one another. You’re spending a lot more money, and when you walk in that kitchen as a customer, you want to push the button and everything works, which means it has got to be all delivered on time as well. So I mean, you’re seeing very different internal players participating, as well as somewhat bizarre external players.

Ian: In answering the first part of your question, Ben, I think depends on the size of the organization and the dynamism of the environment in which it works. If there’s a great deal of change going on, or a great deal of change necessary and/or there’s a level of disruption because of changes in the way either the context of the business is formed or the competitors in the environment, I think that level of change requires structures and systems that allow for it. If you’re dealing with something that is relatively static — and that’s less and less true these days; all of the indications are that the lifecycle of companies is dropping — but if you’re dealing in a sector which is relatively static, then you can afford to build a deep process, which fine-tunes, which eliminates, which molds down to a point where it’s as efficient as it can be to run one set of processes. Now, something like that — and I’m thinking of large Japanese companies, for example — doesn’t react to change terribly well, isn’t able to adjust, isn’t able to innovate. But, if you’re in an industry that doesn’t have that level of disruption yet, because they probably all will at some point, then I think it’s okay to have an order type of structure. But I think it’s very clear that the trends on company lifecycles, and industry lifecycles, and the level of change that’s taking place through the application of technology in all sorts of different levels in different companies, in all parts of the value chain, suggests that some level of management, of innovation plus reliance on core processes I think, is inevitable.

[00:14:43.13] Ben: Yeah, a tension between the exploitation tap and the exploration tap, which is, as you said, depending on where you are on the S curve, which one is taking precedence. Just going back to Haier, you talked about the rising importance of logistics and the platform that underpins it. I suppose another case study is Amazon, right? We have this idea of API first, so even the internal teams interface with other internal teams through APIs, which actually makes it possible then for those internal units to be exposed to external parties — a bit like AWS was. Is that how Haier is built? Which is, you can quickly change the interface from internal to external, the same way as if you wanted to plug out a Haier appliance, you could plug in another appliance because they have to be built on a platform that allows interoperability.

Bill: I think, actually, what happens is by creating autonomous work units to the extent that they are at least responsible for their own functions, everyone has a line of sight to the customer and as a result, they take what’s going on in the marketplace much more seriously than they might have — buried under levels of bureaucracy and really don’t see the customer at all.

[00:16:09.11] Ben: I think I’ve been to the Drucker Forum twice, maybe three times, and each year, you bring Haier back to speak. They’re great! It’s a phenomenal story, and it’s so innovative in its business model. But, the fact that you bring them back and you don’t bring other examples back is that because there aren’t that many examples, still? They’re still trailblazing?

Bill: There are a fair number of organizations that are experimenting with change, but I have not yet seen any organization that’s gone as far as Haier, for as long a period of time — this is about a 35-year continuous story, with 70,000 people. And yet, there are plenty of organizations that are really experimenting in different ways with autonomy, but not on that scale, not for that long, and I think not that comprehensively.

Ian: It’d be interesting to take a closer look at Alphabet and Amazon — they’ve not been going at it for anywhere near as long. That’s the impressive thing with Hire — the longevity of the process is really quite something. But clearly, Alphabet and Amazon, in their own ways, have approached the same problem in parallel ways, trying to work out how to be continually innovative, whilst maintaining the core business and trying to build a set of internal processes that keep it feeling and acting and operating as a single entity, a single corporation whilst creating these new services and businesses. I mean, it’s a fun area! It’s a really, really fun area! My favorite bit of business at the moment is this frontier between trying to run something and trying to build something because they’re not always the same thing.

Bill: And the boundaries between these organizations blur because, where’s your focus and where’s your allegiance and where’s the center of activity occurring? And that’s interesting. The other thing that I have always been fascinated by, at Haier, and it’s probably because I had gotten to know the chairman Zhang Ruimin so well, but he talks a lot about giving up control — not amassing control, but giving up control — because that’s the only way the organization can move responsibly fast enough; that’s interesting, to watch an organization trust its people to get on with their job.

[00:18:35.04] Ben: In terms of lessons learned, one of the fascinating things is, home appliances, this is quite a capital intensive business, and so, I can get how you can devolve down autonomy for decision-making because you want the individual units to be quite responsive to changing customer demands, but how do you devolve down capital allocation on that scale?

Bill: That’s a big problem! And it means, probably — and I’m watching some organizations try to deal with that — it means that the sizes of these organizations are arguably going to be much larger than the small groups that are interacting on the frontier of client-facing type. But it doesn’t mean you can’t do it, it doesn’t mean that a group of people can’t run a large-asset, intensive operation within a manufacturing framework or run the manufacturing framework itself. I mean, that can be done — it’s a different size, and it’s a different degree of involvement engagement.

Ian: I think it’s also a different approach to risk. If one’s trying to allocate capital in areas that are less well-known by the existing management team… I mean, I spend my time these days often going backwards and forwards between French organizations and American organizations or whether they’re Canadian or US, and there’s a very different approach to a decision about whether to invest in either a process or a new technology. The French companies — and forgive me for French listeners, if I’m generalizing to a point that is offensive — French companies tend to go more into the reports, and details, and they want to be absolutely certain if they possibly can before they make the decision. The American companies want to be sure or more or less triangulate that this is the direction, and then they’ll throw money and people at it and see what happens. And I think that that different approach, the ability to take on investments with higher risk and less certainty, I think is fundamental to very large organizations being able to allocate capital to their internal operation. So, I’ve spent time, obviously, as an investor, as a venture capitalist, and I think that some of those attitudes, some of those approaches to being comfortable with risk and trying to judge what are the levels of risk you’re willing to accept — is it more the team? Is it more the tech? Is it more the goal? Are the processes involved appropriate, given whatever the context is for what they’re trying to do? And then deciding, “Okay, $150 million goes on this” based on less information than some companies might be willing to accept. I think that’s essential for this type of change at this type of scale in large organizations trying to stay relevant.

[00:21:13.06] Ben: So is that what will determine the winners in the future? Which is, if we think about the changing nature of competitive advantage, is that ability to deploy capital better and faster or will they be disrupted by companies that are more modular and more networked?

Bill: So here we get into the difference between industries and arenas.

Ben: Yes.

Bill: As a preface, I would say, if you reflect on the way we think about strategic thinking, it’s based on industry analysis — Michael Porter’s five forces, and things like that. Industries are asset-defined. So, all automobile companies pretty much look alike and all banks pretty much look alike and they all have the same assets and the same talent, but there’s a couple of things going on now, I think, that are really changing that. One is that we’re no longer as interested in the asset-defined rivalries as we are in the outcomes, the customer experience. So, for 100 years, when we think about strategy, we’ve been thinking about the inputs. And now, we’re thinking more about the outputs. I think that’s a function of a business model innovation, and the ability of a whole generation of entrepreneurs who have decided that they don’t have to have those assets, they don’t have to have those engineers; they can go out and play in the customer experience game and access the assets and talent that they need some other way. And they’ll differentiate themselves on something within the business model that everybody’s been aware of, for a long time, but nobody else has taken on. And so, I think that the nature of the way we categorize firms is changing.

[00:23:08.29] Ben: And so, is the right way to categorize firms as aggregators, and platforms, and long-tail, then? Is that the way to think about it? So they’re either aggregating the work of other companies and their consumer-facing, or they’re sharing network effects across their platform where they’re not necessarily customer-facing, but they are sharing between all the different tenants of the platform, or are they the long-tail suppliers to the platform?

Bill: So, we start outside-in rather than inside-out, and we start with the customer experience, and then, we think about all of the different ways that we can affect that customer experience or change the customer experience. At the present time — and I don’t know if this is because it’s in the middle or at the beginning of this transition or it’ll always be this way — there are still some assets-specific providers who do everything and well-known brands who are participating in the arenas — as Rita McGrath calls it — that characterize the creation of customer experience, but there are also some aggregators and some modular assemblers. I guess those would be aggregators who are doing the same thing with a completely different balance sheet in terms of the way in which they go to market. While I’m saying this, I’m thinking that we’ve seen modularization around for a long time. It’s not new. The missing piece, I think, has been the business model, which has really tied it together. So, Alex Osterwalder who lives just a short distance from here, really deserves a lot of credit for reminding us, calling our attention on the fact that the business model is really an important way to think about innovation, and we lost sight of that somewhere along the line, I think.

Ben: Yeah, I think the business model is the most important thing to get right. We’ll come in a second to the discussion of strategy versus innovation, but I think business model trumps both because if you get the business model right, then it allows you to innovate at scale and it allows you to execute the strategy. So, I would argue, the business model is now more important than ever has been.

Ian: I think it also depends on where you are in the value chain for an industry — or an arena, for that matter — and where your skills and competitive advantage lie. Even in the car industry, where you have a whole bunch of people facing the customer on the B2C side, with variations on a number of different themes — with SUVs dominating these days — at the back end, you’ve still got a very limited number of suppliers of, for example, gearboxes, where a few companies really dominate. They do one thing really, really well, then they customize it to the different customers, but, essentially, there are very few companies supplying to a great many B2C-facing car companies and car brands. So, I think it depends a little bit on where you are and where you sit in the system.

Ian: I wanted to address another question you asked very early on about whether Haier and its development of platforms facilitates interoperability. I think there’s a big difference between the platforms that a company creates for itself, for its own innovation, and for its range of products and services. Bill mentioned if you start to buy from a company which has its own system — and of course, we know Apple in the space, not with washing machines, but yes, with consumer objects — it becomes very hard to leave after a while because the system works very well in amongst the different objects and tools and machines that they sell. The same will be true, I’m sure, at Haier, but I’m sure, as with Apple — I’d love to hear from Bill about this — Haier probably doesn’t make great efforts to ensure that their systems interoperate with other competitors in the Chinese marketplace, because that’s a source of competitive advantage. So we see certain benefits of network effect within ecosystems that we control. We don’t necessarily want other people’s devices to be able to interoperate because then we lose our control of the customer. So I think it’s interesting to see what’s happening, and I think there are efforts to create standards to allow IoT systems to interoperate — it’ll be very interesting from a competitive landscape point of view to see how that goes.

Bill: Yeah, I agree. I was trying to think about how that would work, and my sense is that, certainly, Haier does have its own system of connectivity and within the domestic Chinese market, that’s the one that is in use and I think has been probably the market leader. Outside of the Chinese system, the reality is that you have other organizations like Amazon, Google, and Apple who have a head start with their systems — particularly Amazon Echo and the like, because they’ve been around for a longer time. So, I think it would behoove Haier moving into the domestic North American market to make sure that their equipment works with the standards — how many of these devices do I want to talk to so that they’re a system? What I don’t know, and an interesting question is, would they have a special microenterprise that would take responsibility for that system, or would the existing microenterprise adapt to fit both systems? I don’t know how that works and I don’t know who would make that choice. I think the way the choice will be made is who moves the fastest within Haier?

[00:29:04.20] Ben: I’m really pleased that you raised this, so I think it’s worth delving into this a bit more. Isn’t that notion of switching costs — which is really what you’re talking about, which is, you make things proprietary so that it’s difficult for your suppliers, your customers to switch up — isn’t that a very Industrial Age concept that will gradually disappear? Because the nature of competitive advantage is changing. I mean, you’ve said everything has to be customer-first, ecosystem first, such that the most successful companies will be those that generate the highest level of network effects and those that externalize those network effects with their ecosystem, such that the idea of introducing heavy switching costs is almost the antithesis of how you increasingly create and sustain competitive advantage?

Bill: If I can just make a quick observation: I used to do a lot of work in the telecom industry, and I remember how major telecom companies would be afraid to become the dumb pipe. Nobody wanted to be the dumb pipe. I now hear automobile companies say that because in autonomous drive vehicles, if the audio connectivity is done through an existing system like Amazon or like Google or whoever, then who actually owns the customer? And if I have an Amazon Echo on in my home, and I then go out into my garage, do I really want to change systems? And how interoperable do I want to be? So, it’s not in Amazon’s interest to make it easier for anybody.

[00:30:46.05] Ben: But, in a way, isn’t that Canute-like to resist that? Because, almost necessarily, we’ll prefer some channels to other channels, and we won’t want to have different proprietary channels for our car, for our bank, so we’ll probably necessarily move to horizontal channels. Isn’t the trick to make yourself desirable even if you don’t interface directly to the customer — i.e. to be the car that people choose even though they might interface through Echo, the bank that people might choose even though they might interface through WhatsApp?

Ian: I think that’s the crux of a competitive question. If you think that there is going to be the potential for a horizontal network effect, integrated system across multiple brands, then you target that. But, if you think you’re going to add enough value — remember, it’s not about optimum value, it’s about enough value — to your customers to keep them loyal and keep them within your system as much as possible, then the rent you can charge for that, the amount of margin you can generate from that is going to be enough to sustain you for a great many years, even if ultimately you think you’re going to get knocked out, as you say, “Canute against the waves.” I’m not sure. I think this is a classic problem that every company in every industry faces at some point, open or shut, and I don’t think it’s a given that everything’s going to be open. I really don’t.

Bill: So, it’s an interesting exercise of legacy thinking: what’s legacy thinking and what isn’t? And it also calls into question the enduring power of brands. Is there enduring power of brands, or will brands fade, in what Charles Fine would call “fast clock speed industries” where there’s a lot of turnover? Brands that have prospered in slow-change industries would they also prosper in fast? Can you make them do that? And if you can’t, then how fast you move to get out of that constraint? I think those are really interesting questions. So, the way I see platforms working is, if I’m doing a proprietary system that allows my products to be connected, whether they’re home appliances or not, do I encourage another internal microenterprise to try to do ones with a broader set of connectivity — maybe common standards, among others — and see how the market reacts?

[00:33:24.04] Ben: But I think what’s interesting about Haier, is they’ve built an organizational business model, let’s call it that, that allows for very fast innovation. So, arguably, that’s a business model where they can keep up with changing customer expectations. But most companies can’t; I guess they need to insource innovation from other people. And so, I don’t know if Haier can innovate fast enough, particularly as it expands into a larger arena. But, isn’t that the question: How your need for the work of others depends on how fast your own market moves? And, to talk about something else that you mentioned, you think this is sort of the New Age of Edison. Are there slow-moving industries anymore? I mean, you could argue that electricity was a slow-moving industry, but that’s undergoing massive change, right? So, what is a slow moving-industry and can anybody afford not to adopt an ecosystem model?

Bill: So, I think there are industries that wish they were slow. But my sense is, if you say there are no slow-moving industries anymore — which I don’t think we’re there yet, but I think we’re in the not-too-distant future — and we’re moving into unknown areas of rivalry where we have broad arenas with many different types of approaches, I think that strategy no longer becomes reliable, dependable.

Ben: Not enough time!

Bill: And that strategy becomes the ex-post rationalization of successful or unsuccessful tactics.

Ian: As it sometimes already is.

Ben: Every successful entrepreneur post rationalizes the story of the firm and the fact that everything was pre-planned and not down to luck.

Ian: And every country writes its own history. You’d only have to compare the English, the British, and the Chinese histories of certain parts of Southeast Asia to see.

Bill: What if we managed as if tactics were more important than strategy? I think that, in a sense, we’re doing that.

Ian: I agree.

Bill: I think Haier certainly uses it. And I think that changes the way in which we approach things. To go back to teaming, if we take a look at the last hundred years of industrial history, most organizations, and most generations of managers have remained on the same S curve. And now, all of a sudden, we have this acceleration of change. For me, the most important piece of that is that the ruptures between S curves become a larger part of my managerial career — and in those ruptures, I have to act differently. So, if I move quickly from a world where strategy was worthwhile because I had a long expectation of harvesting that strategy, to a point where I have to continually move from one S curve to another, I think I need to act differently. And every one of those S curves is the unknown, it’s no longer the uncertain, right? Strategy is the province of the uncertain. We sort of know the way the game is played, we know who our customers are, we know who our rivals are, we know how to do this. But if I’m going into the unknown, if I’m going to brand new industries and brand new customer experiences, then all that decision-making becomes unreliable.

Ben: Yeah.

Ian: There’s not much point in having a three-year or five-year strategy plan if you have to adjust it every 18 or 12 months.

Bill: Right!

Ben: Or three months.

Bill: Yeah. I had dinner a couple of years ago with Tim Brown from IDEO, and he said one of the things that is changing in his business — which is the design business — is that they’re losing the middle of projects. So, they have beginnings and ends but there’s less and less time in the middle to do things because of customer pressure and time to market. That changes the way in which you do everything about a project.

[00:37:32.10] Ben: So, taking that same idea of losing the middle, is that now what’s happening to strategy, which is bifurcating between, on the one hand, setting the company vision and mission and trying to manage the company culture, to put in place the right business model — which is just stuff that doesn’t change very often — versus the polar opposite, which is, the rest of the strategy is introducing as few constraints as possible and allowing the company to be as innovative as possible?

Bill: Oh, yes! So, my view is that change is continuous and accelerating, but in corporate life, organizational life, is episodic and remains episodic — so they’re always going to be out of sync. The problem is, how do we speed up the nature of organizational life, so that it’s more in tune with the change in the outside world? And this is not unique. Another lesson from Haier is we have to resist linearity and sequentiality in the way in which we work.

Ian: This is a parenthesis, which takes us out to a different field, but I would argue the same is true for country governance as it is for corporate governance. I think a country like China, that still does five-year plans, struggles when things change very, very quickly in large ways.

[00:38:57.19] Ben: How repeatable a process can innovation be? I mean, you wrote a book called “Idea Hunter”.

Bill: It’s a great book!

Ben: It’s a great book and it cannot be simplified in a simple line, but this idea that there is a formula for continually coming up with good ideas, which by extension means that the same company or the same individual could continue to be innovative.

[00:39:46.25] Bill: Right! Design Thinking, Lean startup — things of this nature — are procedural, and I think what they are is procedural in a way that reduces the linearity in the innovation process. So, the old innovation funnel, right? The old innovation funnel was completely inside out — it was all about our numbers rather than the customer experience. It was completely inside out, was completely linear in the way in which the stage-gating processes worked. And, for me, the biggest cost was that learning took place at the end. And what I think we’re doing with Lean Startup and Design Thinking, and the variants thereof, is we’re trying to move to a slightly less linear process where we do more testing along the way, pretotyping, prototyping, and so, the learning is moved forward. We don’t have to wait until the end of the experiment. So, my sense is that, in the face of increased unknowns — which is the shorter S curves, more ruptures between — we are moving to a more experimental model of decision-making, and that experimental model involves much more testing, faster testing, and quicker learning — and then, the application of that, as we go along, but it’s still a process.

[00:41:08.00] Ben: Recently, we interviewed Marc Gruber, for the podcast, and his argument is that the toolset that you’re referring to — Design Thinking, Lean startup — is missing one tool, which is the where-to-play framework. Do you also agree that it’s really important, ex-ante, to decide where you’re going to play?

Bill: So I think prototyping is, can we do pretotyping? Does anyone care if we do it?

Ben: What’s that term?

Bill: Pretotype. It’s the minimal viable representation of the idea tested in a marketplace. So, it’s an attempt to try to see if anyone cares about this and, in a sense, that’s some insights into whether or not there’s a market for this, whether we should be playing in this space. And the beauty of pretotyping or prototyping is that it gives you better feedback because you’re talking about something tangible, rather than something abstract. So, my sense is that all of these things, moving from abstraction to tangibility — quick testing and all that — are attempts to reduce the impact of legacy, linearity, and sequentiality.

Ian: I have this worry sometimes, as we lose the middle, as we’re constantly working on customer value innovation, and we’re constantly trying to catch up with production to meet those new expectations of our customers, whether that lack of middle and lack of longevity of process reduces quality and reduces the longevity of the product and the service.

[00:42:55.20] Ben: There is a clear trend in place where customers don’t want mass-produced products; they want things that are more locally-sourced, higher quality. Almost like the end of the end-consumer brings with it the end of the mass-produced customers.

Bill: I don’t see any reason inherent in that process where quality should be reduced. It’s not as if we’re doing it in a half-baked fashion. We’re still trying to build the right quality but the interesting thing that comes out of this is that, what if the customer decides the quality is not an important issue in their purchase decision? What if, in fact, the quality that we’re producing is unnecessary?

Ian: The best example is in fashion. Fast-fashion over the last 15 years, people have been happy to have things that fall apart in three months because then they get something new because it costs them nothing.

Bill: Yes! Yes! Actually, I spoke with a firm that makes fast-fashion and whose largest market is in the city, in London, because they have wealthy, well-paid typically men who have no domestic skills, who buy a shirt once and throw it away, because it’s so affordable. So, I think that we have a definition of quality, a legacy definition of quality that needs to be re-examined. Listen, I’m not advocating bad quality.

Ben: Fast throwing away shirts after single-use.

Bill: What I am advocating is rethinking the nature of quality and what’s required. We see a movement away from long-term — particularly in North America — two-year MBA programs to shorter MBA programs. Is that a reduction in quality? We don’t think so. We think that we’re redefining the nature of this experience, in many ways. And you see a growing rise in certificate programs. I think that quality, like anything else, is constantly up for redefinition.

[00:45:17.15] Ben: I’m so pleased you brought up the topic of MBAs because, in a world where innovation matters more than strategy and where experimentation matters more than knowledge, is it worth people taking two years of their life to study in a classroom?

Bill: I don’t know what the right time period is, but I’m a great believer that knowing more is better than knowing less.

Ian: It makes sense to me.

Ben: Even if you continually write in your articles that the experimentation trumps knowledge?

Ian: Experimentation also leads to knowledge.

Ben: Touché!

Bill: Yes! So, last year, I took 95 MBAs to Shenzhen — a colleague and I did — and it was a great experience! We spent five days there. It was about learning, not knowing. So, I think more and more of education is about how do you engender the curiosity to seek things out? And then, how do you learn? What do you do to learn more? Because going back to the rapidity of change in the S curves, in the future, what you know will be less valuable than how you learn.

[00:46:35.22] Ben: And is that what you are increasingly teaching that — how to learn?

Bill: Yes, I think so. I think what we’re providing is frameworks and vocabularies that make it easier to learn and make it easier to share learning — scalable learning — but I think that more and more those frameworks have change at the center, rather than stability at the center.

[00:47:00.02] Ben: So, I’m looking around at your bookshelf here. We’re in Bill’s office, and as you can imagine, you would expect of a professor’s office to be full of books. I’m just trying to count how many of these books have the word “firm” in them. And my question to you is, is the firm still a relevant concept or is it obsolete? Because the firm was all about grouping people under one entity because transaction costs were high and because it was about systemizing production — so you needed to organize work into repeatable tasks, with formal hierarchies — and everything we’ve talked about so far suggests that every notion I just mentioned there, is obsolete. So, is the firm obsolete?

Bill: That’s a good question!

Ben: You’re going to have to throw many books if it is.

Bill: I think in the spirit of how we started this conversation, organizing is not obsolete. Teaming is not obsolete. The construct of a firm may, in fact, need to be re-examined. Earlier you talked about how we think about organizational size and how that’s changing, and I think that’s really true — and that’s probably true in the nature of the firm as well: the motivation for the firm, the corporate nature that tends to be associated instinctively with the firm. All of those things probably need to be rethought and redefined and re-examined, questioned, but I’m not sure that organizing itself is a bad idea.

[00:48:37.01] Ben: So, we’ve nearly got to the point where we delved into the Chinese question — we’ve constantly held ourselves back, but I think we’re ready now. But maybe let’s start through the prism of the idea of the nation state, which is, if the firm needs radical overhaul, does the nation state require the same?

Bill: Ian?

Ian: So, I guess, referring back to my earlier comment about the difficulty of having five-year plans in a world that changes every three to 12 months, I think the general answer is yes, to a degree. I think a lot of the things that still glue people together — culture, attitude, and history — remain and will remain important. I think what’s interesting, today, is that the nature of citizens’ relationship to their country is changing, and it depends on where they are. I’ve said in public before that I think that the relationship between capital cities of a lot of the world, certainly Western nations, but including places like Beijing and Tokyo, less so Jakarta, bear more resemblance to each other. These places bear more resemblance to each other often than they do to their own hinterlands, and I think, therefore, that the term nation state is interesting because I think there’s a difference between how large capital cities, large busy cities, whether they’re officially the capital or not, are very, very different to the countryside from whence they came. You only have to look at the Swiss referendums to see how different the voting is between cantons in the center of the country and the cantons that touch the outside world. But also, if you look at the voting for Brexit, if you look at the voting for many major cultural and/or country changes over the last 10 years — I think of the US, as well as the UK, but also Venezuela and Brazil, and elsewhere — we have a dichotomy taking place. We have a dichotomy appearing very strongly between big cities and the rest of the country. So, I think that’s one dynamics which requires change in governance with the countries concerned, but it’s also about the relations between countries across the board. I haven’t been for a long time a big fan of things like the United Nations, but the purpose of the original League of Nations made sense. I wonder now, within the context of the changes that are taking place inside countries, whether we need better relationships across countries.

[00:51:00.00] Ben: If Haier is the future of the firm — large autonomous independent units that are brought together through logistics and data — is that the future of countries? Because, in some ways, in Switzerland, the model for a modern country because that’s really what Switzerland seems to do quite well, which is this thin federal layer that kind of coordinates activities, and then a lot of power and responsibility and autonomy devolve down to communes — and if that’s the case, it would seem we’re moving in the opposite direction: states become more insular and I don’t know. That’s just as a thought. If the Haier corporate model is the model for nation states, how does that play out on a global scale?

Bill: You know, it’s hard for me to answer this question. When I was much younger, I thought that the nation state would fade and that multinational corporations would become — I mean that was 100 years ago — multinational corporations would become the real powers that move the world, but they failed. They failed because of inefficiency, they failed because of greed, they failed, because they did not take the interests of everyone into account.

Ian: I wonder if it’s changing with a move to stakeholder focus rather than shareholder but yes, I agree with you.

Bill: Great! And I certainly don’t see any change coming out of Silicon Valley with these new-age sorts of organizations. The biggest problem I think that we have, in so many countries, is the income disparity that exists and the inability for some people to have futures. So, what I do think is interesting in the example of Haier, is that, first of all, they trust the people — and I think Switzerland does that as well with the way in which the voting takes place on everything. So, there’s a great deal of trust in people to be effective participants in a political process, and there’s a very clear focus on what they want to achieve. And there’s been 35 years of consistent trust in the workforce and a belief in the talent of the people there. I think that over time, what that’s done is that has led to the ability of people to advance their own situations. People who normally would have been in a traditional organization, would have been on the margins of society because they lacked the educational credentials or because they lacked the connections. The ability to be autonomous and to start things on a small investment has allowed smart, hardworking people to succeed. So that’s a good outcome.

Ian: I’m generally a great believer in the notion that smaller is better for structures, not just in times of innovation, but also because of the nature of the way people treat each other in small structures versus big structures. I think smaller structures are healthier in interpersonal relationships, whether they’re in organizations or societies. I’m going to take a twist on your question, Ben. I am not sure that there is an optimum model visible yet for country governance because I think it’s context-related. In the same way, I think that the optimal model for company governance is also context-related partly speed, partly size, partly environment. I think I’m going to twist it and say that my faith, both looking at history and looking around me — but I’m slightly biased in this because as someone who starts companies, I believe in the power of the individual — I’m going to say that I think it depends a great deal on leadership. Just because one country has a leader that people are unhappy with, it doesn’t mean the structure of the country or the systems within it are wrong.

Ian: Similarly, I think because a country is successful, I think one has to look terribly closely at who’s driving the success currently, to understand whether it’s the individuals that are within that structure that are making something unwieldy work, or is it the structure itself, which is predisposed towards producing good leadership and therefore good results. I’m more a believer in good leadership, whether it’s corporate environments or in-country governance, than I am in the structures because I’ve seen bad structures work and I’ve seen good structures fail, both in corporates and in countries. So, I care a great deal about leadership. One of the reasons I spend so much time at the school, one of the reasons that I like coming back here and something I very much enjoyed about my time when I was here was, it’s about leadership, it’s about creating good, global, citizen leaders. I think that’s crucial. I think I wouldn’t put my faith in structures; I would put my faith in individuals.

Bill: I agree with that. I think that we need to look at the role of people to be able to play a leadership role, not only at the top of the organization but throughout the organization. And my sense is that when we work with organizations who aspire to be like Haier, one of the problems we run into almost always is that they’re unprepared to give autonomy to their people, and the people are unprepared to accept the autonomy if it’s given to them — and that’s largely because the perception is that leadership doesn’t take place throughout the organization. And I think what I’ve learned from Zhang Ruimin is he says, “We’re an organization of leaders.” These people are all running small businesses, some of which are not so small, many of which are quite successful, and that needs to be reinforced. And then, I go back to the IDEO example, and one of the things Dave Kelly used to say was his job as CEO, as the leader, was to reinforce the confidence of the people in the organization to make the right decisions.

Ian: But I think you’re also reinforcing my point about the fact that if you don’t have a leader like that, it’s not going to happen in the organization.

Bill: That’s right!

Ian: It is important for the leader to be aware that they need leadership at all levels of the organization.

Bill: So, if we go back to the broader innovation question, for me, I’m a big believer in top-down leadership. Not dictatorial, not oppressive, but if you don’t have strong top-down leaders, then you cannot allow bottom-up to occur because the leaders become intimidated or threatened by the suggestions. So, you need people at the top who are secure in their own confidence and who are enthusiasts for autonomy. And so, that’s going to determine how organization boundaries get set and how they operate.

[00:58:24.28] Ben: Is that how you would define the leadership in China?

Bill: Well, that’s a very different level of complexity. It’s a political leadership. I don’t think that’s the role of political leadership in any country that I know of.

Ben: But leadership at a country level is just as important, isn’t it?

Bill: Oh, yeah, I think so, too.

Ian: I think Bill’s referring to the systems underneath. The complexity of politics in any country is such that you can’t necessarily assume that everybody is united on a particular goal or vision because there are many visions and many goals — you have competing parties, you have competing people within parties, you have systems within the systems, you have autonomous bits that fight with each other. It’s not so easy.

Ben: This is what business people that become politicians always underestimate, isn’t it?

Bill: Yeah, right.

Ian: Absolutely! I think there are certain types of people who run businesses, who have the capacity for this openness and this ability to deal with complexity underneath them that might survive in that environment. But it was the reason why not to have generals running countries, too. If you’re used to a certain type of hierarchy and an assumption about how the orders would flow down and follow what was required by the top, then that doesn’t work in almost any political system that I’m aware of.

[00:59:47.15] Ben: Other than the fact that you both work at IMD, another thing that unites you both is that you lived for a long period in China and you witnessed the economic miracle that has taken place over the last 30–40 years. Is the economic miracle stalling? And if so, why?

Bill: So, I think there are some structural issues that everybody has known about for a long time — it starts with the demographics of the country. You have an aging population. I think that that’s not going to go away in the short run. I also think that you have an economy that was built originally — the modern economy — starting in 1979–1980, built with an export orientation. It’s harder to build a domestic market. It takes more time and the like, than anyone thought. It’s happening now, but it’s been a while. And the other thing is, if you build an export-oriented economy, you sort of hope that your customers are going to grow — and the rest of the world is not growing either. So, I think that there are important what I would call, structural and demographic reasons for the present slump.

Ian: To add to that, there’s also a natural cycle. They’ve gone through an extraordinary expansion with all the funding coming in from overseas and the growth in population and the extraordinary improvements internally to allow both. I’m not going to say the defeat of poverty, but there was a huge reduction in the number of people surviving on very little. So, I think the governance of the country is in a place that’s so large and so complex — it has been really quite extraordinary over many years — but we’re now at a cycle stage in their own cycle, where there are other things to be sorted out — a slightly less capital available, there are concerns overseas in terms of how the country is perceived. Internally, there are questions about the way the country is governed, the way that certain decisions are made, which partly happens when things slow down and there isn’t this sense that everybody can do fine and it doesn’t matter what the government’s doing, because we’re all going to be better off than we were before. I think all of these things lead to a natural slowdown. I don’t think it’s something I would worry about from a global perspective. There is the issue of the internal debt problem and the possibility that the non-performing loans in some of the larger regional banks are never actually going to be paid back because the developments have been made. But I think those are structural issues, which again, people are aware of, both in China and abroad.

Bill: And it is not the first time.

Ian: And it’s not the first time. And actually, if you look at history, their history is a lot better than, say, Argentina, so I’m not worried yet about China.

Bill: I first moved to China in 1980, I’ve been there every year since. If you look at China through that period of time, what has happened today would have been unimaginable in 1980. Absolutely unimaginable!

Ben: Quite extraordinary!

Bill: Right! And so, I think one of the great headlines of the late 20th century, early 21st century, but certainly late 20th century was the movement of China, the development of China into a modern nation state. And modern nation state, I don’t think it could have happened if it was just individual provinces working in an autonomous fashion. So, I think they needed that galvanizing force. Since the onset of the One-Child Family Policy in 1980, you could forecast that there was going to be a plateauing of growth in the economy, due to the reduction of people consuming and producing age. We’re there now. I have also learned never to underestimate what the Chinese people can do, and my sense is that China will come out of this fine, I think. I would not short China in any point.

[01:03:45.24] Ben: Do you think China is ready to overtake the US?

Bill: I don’t think that’s important. First of all, what numbers are we going to use? We could argue it forever. I think the fact is that China has modernized to a point where it’s a global, geopolitical, economic, technological power. And I think that’s the accomplishment.

[01:04:04.27] Ben: But in a way, the US — and you could argue whether this is a trend that will be sustained — right now is becoming more insular. It’s not rejected globalization, but is retreating from international organizations, they’re retreating from globalization. Does that mean that China steps in and becomes a global superpower? Because you said, it doesn’t matter. But if that mattered.

Bill: I think China is a global superpower.

Ben: Preeminent. Voilà!

Ian: Again, it depends on what preeminent means.

Bill: Yeah.

Ian: Hearts and minds versus economy and dollars, I think are very different things.

Ben: Yeah. China is much more interested in the latter, right? The Belt and Road Initiative is about creating markets for exports.

Ian: There’s also a sense of history in the Belt and Road Initiative. There are different things going on there. And again, I don’t think either of us is here, ready to speak for China, but what we can see is a concern at different levels of government for how the company is viewed — even though they pretend it’s not so important — how it builds its own systems internally, how it helps its own people, and logically, so given how recent and massive the changes have been, it’s obviously more concern with ensuring that things are fine within China than without. And so, I haven’t seen any politician attempting to create a global leader role, either as a politician or for the country, because there’s always been this sense that we worry about our problems, we don’t interfere with other people’s problems, we don’t want other people to interfere with our problems. I don’t think there is this wish to have this role of leading global adjudicator over other people’s issues. Yes, perhaps the US did play that role for a while, and yes, elements of US society wish to be less involved in other people’s issues for a while, but I think Bill’s right, I think it’s the wrong question. I think what’s interesting now is to try and work out what the new world looks like with a few large stakeholders, a few smaller stakeholders, and very different ways of measuring impact and influence in the world today, partly because of the difference between network effect and military effect and partly because it is about ideas and concepts as much as it is about the ability to control a seaway.

Bill: I think we’d all be better off if the US and China were in an amicable relationship. Everyone would benefit as a result of that. At the present time, fear is an insidious, corrosive power.

Ian: Often used by politicians.

Bill: Yeah. Often used by politicians and at the moment, at least, in North America, in the US, it’s on the rise. Actually, if you look at the US, the US has never really been a whole-hearted embracer of a global community except for the period between the First World War and recently, so it’s a return, I think, to some of the inherent conservatism of people in the center of the country who are not as cosmopolitan as they probably should be.

[01:07:32.08] Ben: And where does that leave Europe? So, if the Belt and Road Initiative is about creating a stronger economic alliance in Asia, in Africa, United States is a large domestic market and they’re happy to subsist with being themselves and they don’t have somebody difficult neighboring countries to deal with and they’ve got a large domestic market, where does that leave Europe? Where is Europe set in this two-polar world?

Bill: So, I’ve always been enthusiastic about Europe playing a larger role in the world than it is at present. I would like it to be more relevant. I think that it has historically been a source of values and reflection that the other two great powers have not been interested in. But I worry about Europe playing that role because I don’t know where Europe is any longer and I don’t know where it stands. It seems to be perpetually stuck between aspiring to be a great power and not being able to execute.

Ian: One of the strengths of Europe is exactly what causes that issue. It’s not one country, it’s not a superpower, it’s not a nation state, per se. I think it’s one of the charms and values of Europe. I think one of the things that’s great about this part of the world is the multitude of languages, approaches, cultures, and ways of thinking and doing things. I think that’s what creates the richness of Europe, and the richness of the experience of being here. Now, it does make it difficult to make a decision in one place, and it does make it difficult to have a European viewpoint. I’m not 100% sure the world needs it. I like the fact that every now and then you do get a European point of view because there are certain things that many of certainly the Western European states, sometimes less so the Central European states agree on. I think I quite like the variety of discussions that take place about any points that are in Europe. I like that diversity of opinion — I think it’s what is the charm of Europe. I also think that being smaller makes it easy to manage, if you think of the Haier model, this multitude of different approaches to problem-solving and different products that occur.

[01:09:58.16] Ben: Doesn’t that require a thin federal layer? Which is kind of developing as we speak.

Ian: We kind of have a thin federal layer. The question is how thin it gets? I think there are structural issues. There’s the obvious structural issue of having a united currency and a disunited fiscal system. So, I think there are lots of things about Europe that don’t make sense, in the way it’s structured. And also, there are different goals from different European leaders, and it changes when the leaders change, about what Europe should be. The vision from the 1950s was relatively loose. The vision from some, now, macro-leaders amongst them is the United States of Europe, and not everybody shares that view — some of the newer members, even less than some of the older members. So, I think there are structural issues that make it very unlikely that Europe becomes this single voice, single cultural place that some people would like, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I quite like the diversity.

[01:10:51.05 Ben: But the problem with Europe, I guess, is, in the absence of having these new Digital Age giant businesses, it’s a risk of becoming a tourist destination for Chinese people over time?

Ian: It is a tourist destination for Chinese people.

Ben: But that is being the only engine of growth.

Bill: Incidentally, I think that’s not a bad thing because I think that we all…

Ben: It’s not that is a bad thing, but it’s difficult to find nations that rely solely on tourism that are really prosperous.

Bill: I think one of the things we talked about needing to expose people in the center of America with what’s going on in the world around them. We also need to expose people in every country to what’s going on around them.

Ian: Yeah. Everybody should travel!

Bill: And I think that the fact that we have a lot of tourists coming from China today is a victory. It’s a huge achievement! You would never have thought of that when the reforms began, so it’s a sign of success. I think that Europe plays or could play an important role in moderating the excesses of the other superpowers, and I think that that would be a healthy outcome, in particular at the moment with what’s going on in the US. I think that there needs to be a broader view of how we work together.

[01:12:20.10] Ben: So, I’m going to attempt badly to summarize some of the things we’ve talked about. So, team size matters — smaller teams, in general, perform better than larger teams for many reasons under certain contexts. Definitely, the nature of competition is changing much more to arenas than industries; innovation is rising in importance vis-a-vis strategy, and innovation can be a repeatable process. Business models matter so much more than they did in the past. China is at a point where it’s slowing down, but, as you said, you can never underestimate it and it will necessarily start to exercise greater geopolitical influence. My last question to you, both, is that I think you could argue that we’re at a point in history, which is almost like pre-reformation. I mean, China is almost the equivalent of the discovery of the New World; as a symptom, you’ve got massive change in information flow with the internet and so on. I want you to be bullish for a second and say, what’s positive with the world change from this point on? Starting with you, Ian.

Ian: I’m generally very optimistic. I’m generally very positive. I said, on the previous podcast, that it’s not technologies that create problems; it’s the people who use them and the way they use them. I refuse to be a new Luddite and say that we live in a world where all of these things are scary. I wish Elon Musk wouldn’t keep saying that AI is going to harm us all. I think because of our ability to see more, know more, understand more, I’m totally in agreement with Bill that knowledge is helpful and that experimentation leads to more knowledge. We simply are better able and better equipped than we ever have been to understand complexity and come up with solutions for it. And so, even if individual leadership or geopolitical regional issues or changes in demographics create challenges for both countries and the world as a whole for the next 20 to 50 years, I am totally a believer that we now are better equipped than ever before to face those challenges and come up with solutions. I’m very excited to see what happens. My daughters are now at an age where they’re entering the sphere at 26 and 28 — one is in private equity and one is running her own company — and I love the way they talk and think about the world, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what that generation comes up with. So I am absolutely an optimist.

Bill: I think we’re on the eve of an age where there’s technological revolution, a series of technological revolutions that will change everything — change the way we live, change the way we interact. The level of change will be unprecedented, both because of connectivity and hypermobility and also the genomics revolution. All these things taking place at the same time, I think will provide the potential for huge landscape change. But, what I would hope is that our organizations are up to the challenge and that leadership is able to recognize the opportunities and move fast enough — and this is why the teaming issues that we talked about are so important. And I think that we have to provide opportunities for our entire population, not just the winners of the past economic era. And if we can do that, I think we’ll have unprecedented success. So, I’m bullish.

Ben: Ian, Bill — thank you very much for coming on the podcast!

Bill: Our pleasure! Thank you!

Ian: Thank you for having us!

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