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Growth Strategies

The Tyranny of Today

By Matt Edison

Today is the most powerful barrier to innovation known to mankind. Clayton Christensen, in his book, "The Innovator’s Dilemma," includes the story of a world class computer disk drive manufacturer whose CEO accurately predicted the future but couldn’t change his company in time to ride the next wave. The disk drive industry seemed to operate with an iron clad rule of creative destruction. One company would come out with a lower cost and lower performance disk drive, but in a smaller format.  The smaller format and lower price would enable a new application, laptops for example, which would then decimate the incumbent’s higher performance, higher cost, larger format disk drive business. To combat this inevitable problem, the CEO of an incumbent format company had his engineers develop the next generation lower cost, lower performance, smaller format disk drive well in advance of the coming maelstrom. But no matter what he did he was unable to have his company lead the next wave of sales for that smaller device. His problem was today.

No knowledge worker, the ones that can change a company, starts his day in front of a machine that dictates his work. He generally starts right in with a look at his To Do list, checks his voice mail, listens to the hallway banter, reviews his email back log, then goes with his gut and pick what he thinks is most important. This is all well and good for a company that is doing what it’s always done. The problem comes when it’s time for something new, when it’s time to innovate. These knowledge workers become the greatest impediment to change because they take their cues about what to work on from the noise that comes from today’s customers, today’s processes, and today’s technologies. And today makes a lot of noise.

They are at least two ways to combat the problem of today. One is to set up a new facility several miles away, task it with making a new technology work for a new customer base and tell those employees to only call the CEO. It’s what one CEO did who successfully broke the iron clad rule of the disk drive industry. But the majority of companies can’t do that, it’s too risky and too expensive. What can work is to recognize that today requires management but tomorrow requires leadership.  Management is needed to monitor the performance of systems on a periodic basis looking for trends to be corrected. Leadership is required when the task is hard to define, changes constantly, and is bucking the forces that keep today running so smoothly. 

Management can be accomplished at 30,000 feet because existing systems have usually been set up to distill company performance to a "dashboard" view, to use the common vernacular. Leadership, when applied to innovation, both to its creation and especially to its implementation, must be done at a detailed level. Innovation success requires making sure progress is genuinely being made by looking at it firsthand where it’s happening. It requires talking with the people doing the actual work, not just their managers, to make sure the thinking and reasoning makes sense. It requires ensuring that the right plan is in place and people are thinking things through. It requires communicating priorities again and again to the point of absurdity. The pursuit of successful innovation requires a leader to get personally involved with the details, otherwise innovation will succumb to the tyranny of today.

Matt Edison works as the Reactive Silicones Business Manager for Gelest, a specialty chemical manufacturer. Since 1989, Matt has also worked for DuPont, General Chemical, and Inolex Chemical where his jobs included Plant Manager and Engineering Manager, among others. In his current role, Matt leads business development projects, manages the company’s silicone technology group, and improves the company’s business systems. These duties combine his special interest in aligning resources to realize customer opportunities. Matt lives in Woodbury, New Jersey with his wife Ellen and their four children. He can be reached at [email protected].

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