“Have you ever seen ‘The Prophet?’” my dentist asked me.
“No,” I said, “What’s it all about?”
“Well, it’s great for small business folks. This guy, Marcus Lemonis — he’s a gizillionaire or something — he goes into these small businesses that are failing and tells them what they’re doing wrong. He usually finds the same type of stuff every time — common sense stuff that you just can’t believe these people are doing or not doing. I realized I was doing some of those things after watching the show.”
“Yeah. It’s amazing how sometimes it can take an outside set of eyes to come in and tell you what you’re doing wrong. After they show you, you say, ‘Oh yeah — of course!’” I said.
“How are things going with you?” he asked.
“Good,” I said. “We got a little slow around the Christmas holidays and it gave me time, and a need, to look at everything we’re doing and make sure it’s the best it can be. It’s funny, because we had some things that really weren’t designed in the best way, but I never noticed because everything was humming along.”
“The mother of invention… ” he joked.
“I guess those sayings come about for a reason,” I laughed.
“It’s a shame that there has to pain before we revisit things,” he said.
“I agree,” I said, “but maybe that’s just inevitable. Maybe when things are booming, all your energy is taken up with just filling orders, so to speak, and it’s only natural that when things get slow you have the time and the need to figure out why. That’s when the innovation happens — it’s called fixing what’s broken,” I laughed.
As I left his office, I started thinking more and more about innovation, and why I’ve never been comfortable with the word. I think it’s because being innovative always sounded to me like what you’re supposed to be doing, and therefore, focusing on it as some kind of other animal didn’t make sense. I even came up with a little joke:
Question: What’s a chief innovation officer?
Answer: A chief operating officer who’s doing his job.
I think being innovative — or fixing what’s wrong — isn’t brain surgery, even if you’re trying to fix something about that particular process. But it does take a few key steps:
- You must know there is a problem — does something itch or hurt? Suboptimal processes that don’t reach this level almost always go under the radar and remain unfixed. That’s ok, as long as they get attention when they appear on the radar.
- Is there an executive will to fix it? Does someone in power have a real will to fix the problem and a plan to make it happen, not the Howard Schultz-type initiative?
- Before action, does the plan get vetted? Have you developed a culture where folks feel empowered to offer their ideas, and do you solicit them before moving forward?
- Is a solution chosen and turned into action? The leader or executive sponsor must be willing to make a decision, put their leadership capitol on the line and move things forward. Are they willing to fail?
- Is the improvement driven home to conclusion? Does anything actually happen long-term, without reverting back to the previous broken process?
Given all these things, you can be innovative, adaptive or whatever term you wish to apply to the idea of being able to change your practices to meet changing market dynamics. We know for a fact that the world changes, and the only way to ensure failure is to be sclerotic. The key, I’m convinced, is to be thoughtful, experimentative, desirous of success but fearless of short-term failure.
And one other thing to remember — speed counts, both in terms of identifying and addressing problems. Seeing the wall is one thing, but have you started turning the wheel in time? If not, you don’t need a prophet to tell you what’s going to happen.