Working Notes of a Practising Neo-Generalist (#2) — On return on investment (yours and mine)

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“If anyone can refute me — show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective — I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.” — Marcus Aurelius in Meditations, Book 6:21 (translated by Gregory Hays, The Modern Library, New York)

On return on investment (yours and mine)

How do you determine the ‘return on investment’ of a neo-generalist? This question is being raised by Richard Martin and Kenneth Mikkelsen in their recently published book, The Neo-Generalist. It also happens to be a question that has been haunting me ever since I stepped off the corporate career ladder in 2006. Like so many neo-generalists, also my work draws heavily on observations and flashes of insight. On raising ‘obvious’ questions, and other seemingly small things that often have a huge, sometimes even profound impact. Though their return on investment can be visible for all to see, the return on investment for the neo-generalist is not so obvious as one might expect.

But first, let me take you back some 10 years.

In 2007, I founded byStorm, a strategy consultancy, and, four years later, co-founded Bring in the elephants, a team of innovation leaders and design thinkers who helped established companies to innovate with greater impact. But after seven years it felt like a dead end street. To be honest, I was bored. Our assignments hardly ever gave me an opportunity to use my accumulated knowledge and experience, let alone expand it. Looking back, I must have been on autopilot most of the time.

But it wasn’t just that. It turned out that my interpretation of innovation and change, and of what was needed from companies and their leadership teams to deal with these challenges, often didn’t correspond with theirs. To them, ‘change’ meant doing what was needed to keep it as it is, while ‘innovation’ was merely a way to make things slightly ‘faster, better, cheaper.’ Most was just ‘innovation theatre.’ This wasn’t at all why I had left my cushy executive job. I hadn’t left to make things slightly better or a wee bit different. I never had, and certainly wasn’t going to now. ‘All’ I wanted was to create meaning and purpose. To craft beautiful businesses, and build ‘things’ and companies that mattered — that are ‘meaningfully different,’ as Youngme Moon called it in her book Different.

But there was another reason. I increasingly felt uncomfortable with being a consultant. Until 2007, I had always been able to transform organizations from within, even though I have never been a real insider. Yes, I was fully committed to the ‘job to be done,’ but never lost myself in a full commitment for any organization. I was, what David Brooks calls, working at the edge of inside. But as a consultant, I was seen as an outsider, hired to bring a ‘fresh perspective.’ It felt, in the words of David Brooks, like “throwing bombs and dreaming of far-off transformational revolution.”

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So, bored, ‘business as usual,’ and being an outsider, unable to make a real difference. Although being bored is not necessarily a bad thing, I was bored for all the wrong reasons. But what really annoyed me were the ‘business as usual’ results and my outsider role. That’s not what I do, and certainly not who I am. My ‘return on investment’ was too low. Too low for me, personally, but also too low for the companies and teams I worked with. We could have achieved much ‘greater things,’ if only…

At the beginning of 2015, I decided to call it a day. I took time off to reflect on past activities and conjure up future ones. I have been reading more than ever, particularly about how we think and form our opinions, and why most of us find it difficult to change their stance. I have come to the conclusion that we don’t fail at innovation and change because of the processes we follow. We fail because we are not able or willing to change how we think. As long as we are not prepared to challenge our beliefs and assumptions, or address our collective blind spots, nothing new or different will ever happen. We will only end up with more of the same.

We also fail because we don’t understand complexity. According to a recent survey by Innosight, half of S&P 500 companies are expected to be replaced over the next 10 years. Leaders have to confront what might be called tensions, balances, or, even in extreme circumstances, paradoxes. They must optimize today, and discover tomorrow. To do this, they need to live in two worlds at once — one characterized by ‘either/or’ thinking, the other by an ambiguous ‘both/and.’ One traditional, linear and comfortably familiar; the other paradoxical, complex and alien to most of today’s business leaders.

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Let’s return to the question that triggered me to write this post in the first place — how do you determine a neo-generalist’s ‘return on investment’? Both yours and mine.

Mine first. I need to be able to explore the unknown, follow my curiosity, unlearn, learn. I need to work across domains and corporate silo’s — shifting between roles, bringing together diverse people and ideas. And, of course, I need to work at the edge of inside — neither in nor out. In short, everything most companies dread — an ‘interfering busy body,’ or, at best, a rebel with a cause.

Yours, well… A recent assignment made clear to me, again, that, as soon as the ‘C whatever O’ starts asking how my involvement will contribute to this years financial results, that’s when I need jump ship, quickly. I don’t do ‘this year’s results.’ Of course, I can always improve some innovation processes to increase their immediate impact, but these changes will only lead to ‘faster, better, cheaper’ — a slightly better version of ‘today.’

A former colleague once wrote that “working with Mark was a pleasure [in all honesty, this isn’t always the case] since he is capable to think differently and also to come with unique solutions. Solutions which are sometimes not yet ready for an organization, but definitely useful in future.” For a while, I hesitated to add his endorsement to my LinkedIn profile. Who, in his or her right mind, would hire a consultant that comes up with solutions that have no impact on today’s business or bottom line? But I came to realize that, by not putting this endorsement up, I would renounce a fundamental ‘skill,’ my ability to look around the corner — to know today what tomorrow’s business needs.

Just as my own return on investment is qualitative, so is my client’s. I can’t put a additional turnover figure on making people think differently, or on enabling them to see the world form previously unknown perspectives. It’s the same with innovation. Requiring financial forecasts before a venture has had an opportunity to scale in the real world, only works for incremental improvements.

So, instead of talking about ‘return on investment,’ we should talk about the ‘risk of non-investment.’ What might happen if you don’t invest in tomorrow today? What if you don’t get to grips with complexity? What if, despite all your endeavors, everything stays exactly as it is? It can’t be too difficult to put a price to this.

There’s a 50-50 change your company isn’t going to last another 10 years, even if you’re not a S&P 500 company. It is, more or less, a choice between the blue pill or the red pill. What’s next? Continue talking about returns on investment? There already is a very strong case for hiring neo-generalists. So, maybe we should shift our attention, and start discussing the risk of the status quo — of keeping things as they are.

At the end of the day, it’s your choice. It’s also your risk. And although I love to take a risk, I’m certainly not a gambler.

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