Bridging Present Capabilities and Future Success with @MichaelTushman Organizational Ambidexterity


Name the Elephants


Kristin von Donop,  Principal
Follow Kristin on twitter

Recently I attended a holiday party where the only people I knew were the hosts. It wasn’t long before I was engaged in a casual conversation with the woman sitting next to me.  She was 18 years younger than I. After some polite exchanges, the younger woman asked a few of us: “to what extent is the obstructionist political climate in Washington DC due to racism?

I thought, “Now this party is getting interesting!”

Several of us shared our points of view and they were all different. She raised a courageous question, we stated our positions, and then the topic shifted. This scenario happens a lot at work: people share opinions, but nothing changes.  The competency of courageous conversations is important, especially once you’ve established a compelling purpose, which I discussed in my last post.

In this blog, the focus is on those necessary courageous conversations. We can increase velocity, operate differently, and build the capacity to adapt in the future if we address the elephant in the room more effectively.

Name the Elephant PhotoName the Elephant PhotoName the Elephant PhotoName the Elephant PhotoName the Elephant Photo

One of our clients made a bold move to pursue a disruptive strategy and it completely changed their go-to-market approach. The senior management and the board knew people would have to adapt to new ways of working in order to be successful. They got everyone involved over a series of four workshops to address the changes. They addressed all the right levers.

Then six months later, the EVP spoke to me about the lack of progress:

“For half of the organization, it’s as if the clock rolled back a year and nothing changed.  We all agree on the vision but, there are senior managers who aren’t willing to evaluate their work in the context of our strategic outcomes.  How can we get the sacred cows on the table?”

The EVP acknowledged that, as senior managers, they all must do two things at once.  They must manage the current stakeholder demands and at the same time lay the foundation for the future. They must be pragmatic and move toward the new vision.

This awareness is important, but not sufficient for progress. If not addressed, misalignment could strengthen inertia.

Courage is an antidote to inertia. 

It takes courage to focus people’s attention on difficult issues and to maintain the tension long enough to instill new practices. It takes courage because the risks are real. When you challenge the status quo, it increases the likelihood of conflict and stress. Across all cultures, it is difficult to talk about tough issues; but if you don’t tackle the tough issues, people will revert to their habits and that creates inertia. People believe the change is real if the tough issues are out in the open and being addressed.

Courage does not equal bravado. The lone ranger approach increases risk.  If you ride into the meeting on your horse with your flag waving in the wind, and immediately name the elephant in the room, you might feel relief, but it is no guarantee that others in the room will, or that there will be progress.

If you want sustainable results:

a)      Identify the most important issues that you believe need to be addressed

b)     Find out if other people agree and whether they will publicly support your raising the issue

c)      Raise the issue in a way that allows the group to take responsibility.  A guiding principle for this step is to “name, don’t blame”.

I find that the chart below is helpful.  It is the Gradients of Agreement, a tool to identify where people disagree, and focus on what is needed to increase buy-in for a decision.   Use it to surface the level of support that can remain hidden when using majority vote.

Instead of voting yes or no for a decision, people choose a number that reflects their level of support for the idea.








I do not support the proposal

I won’t block it, but I don’t want to be involved in the actions

I want to register a dissenting opinion, but will support it.

I have some reservation but will go along.

I can live with it.

I support it.

I strongly support the proposal.

After everyone has voted, focus on the concerns held by people who voted on the low end of the scale and identify what they need in order to increase their ranking by one.

Adjust the decision and vote again.  Work towards ensuring everyone’s concerns are heard, understood, and the group will commit to standing by the decision once it is made.

What have you experienced that either helped or hindered courageous conversations?

Get with the Program

ChangeLogic01092013-1748 - Copy
Elspeth Chasser, Principal

So, last night I learned to code.

Well, actually I completed an hour-long incredibly well designed interactive module created by the  wonderful Khan Academy.  It had been something I’d been fascinated about because so much of our work is with technology teams who are often the fulcrum of change in our clients, large, mature companies whose markets are being disrupted.  And so often our client leaders say “why can’t we be more like Google?” and their engineers tell us that one big reason is that most of the code was written when their parents were wearing bell bottoms.  So, last night I thought I could finally answer – what is this code stuff?

About 10 minutes in, the internal voices started getting noisy: “how the ** can I work out what number to put in that parameter?” and “I’m no good at numbers” and, of course, the most wonderful “I’m too old to learn this”.  Ah those well known voices – the content can be different but the theme is always the same.  And no, I’m not psychotic and I’m not even insecure but I can still convince myself not to do something because of those little demons.

So why was I able to keep the demons at bay last night?

Well first, I’d made a commitment to myself, and had talked to people I respect about it.  Now that I had said it out loud, I didn’t want to look like an “all talk, no action” sort of person.  (You see, the voices were competing!)

Second, an hour seemed a bearable amount of time within which to feel insecure.  I had a cup of tea and a packet of milk chocolate digestive biscuits to take the edge off.

And third, the course is just incredibly well-designed and presented: clear explanations in small chunks by laid back presenters with lots of opportunities to practice.  Little pop up characters battled with my voices by telling me what a great job I was doing.  And badges! Badges!  I’m now the proud owner of 5 and am strongly considering updating my resume just to include them.

So I completed the course, coded my card (the goal was to code an online Christmas card), tweeted about it, and felt an enormous satisfaction– and all on the birthday of Grace Hopper, pioneer of coding in the 1900s, who I’d never even heard of.

Today someone (@kikodoran) tweeted me his congratulations (as did others –many clearly feel a community connection to @khanacademy) saying off-handedly, perhaps, that his daughter does her actual learning through Khan Academy. School  is for socializing.  This statement has kept coming back to me all day. Isn’t it amazing?  But perhaps not surprising.  Khan Academy, and those like it, have been designed around what we now know about how kids (humans) learn.  Traditional schools are having to adjust a system that was basically designed to create fodder for the industrial revolution.

Khan Academy is disruption for the education sector.  It’s re-writing the rules about what is possible and at the same time, challenging you and I, to re-write our own rules about what we believe to be possible – or, similarly expressed,…possible(200, 200, 90, 90);.

So, come on then, my non-techie friends, if you lead or work with people who code, it really pays to understand more about what these engineers do. Enough of being a digital wannabe,   get with the program.  Let’s be digital can-be’s.  Let’s take the Khan Academy coding hour challenge!

Bruce Harreld Q&A

Last week, Bruce Harreld and the Harvard Business Review conducted a webinar on How to Drive Risk Out of Your Growth Initiatives, based on his article in the July-August issue.  Here are the key points:

1) Failing to provide the appropriate oversight
2) Not putting the best and most experienced people in charge
3) Assembling the wrong team, and “staffing up” prematurely
4) Taking the wrong approach to performance assessment
5) Not knowing how to fund and govern a start-up
6) Failing to leverage the organization’s core capabilities

Afterwards, participants were given the opportunity to ask questions. We’ve summarized a few of our favorites below.  If you have more questions, feel free to post them in the comments box, and we’ll give you our best answers.

Q1) If you’re going to take most senior people to run the new business initiative, who’s going to perform the day-to-day work?
A1)  We’re not talking about taking all senior leaders off of the core business, just one.  Don’t underestimate the magnitude and challenges of risks–you really want to dedicate significant  time, if not all of the time, shepherding and pulling the senior management team into the process.  Then, you’ve gotten the process started.  If you don’t have anyone you can pull out of the day-to-day, there will be problems. Maybe now is not the right time to start. Wait until you have more momentum in the core. Then find the one person who can lead the new business.

Q2) Are you suggesting getting started without knowing which processes are right?
A2) Yes.  You don’t know what processes you need in the beginning.  If you put the experiment through the core process, it kills creativity.  The existing process is built for the core; what do new growth initiatives need? Eventually, you’ll standardize and scale, but only when it’s been proven and you know what you’re doing.  Get some experience, step back after you’ve built a few, ask “what did we learn”, gather insight about what the process should be, then think about  how to institute a system.

Q3) Do projects at different stages need different governance?
A2) They all need senior- level care, but you’re not using the same metrics at each stage. Lay out the steps a typical start-up goes through. If you don’t have clarity of strategy, you can’t build a product. A year in, after prototyping, you can start figuring out where power points are for scalability, how to handle financials, and what types of metrics you’ll use.  Each stage will be different.  I had review cycles—3-4 hours for each new start-up a month. The topics of discussion were different depending on the stage of the new initiative.

Q4) Funding: funding fights are tough. Should there be a pool for investment, or should other lines of business come up with the money?
A4) You need a pool of money so the senior person who manages growth can invest.  The money comes from existing businesses. Be sure not to advertise how much is in that pool, though, because then, everyone will want a piece of that x amount of money.  And, the pool is much smaller than you realize.  If it’s large, you’ve prematurely scaled.  The real issue is off-cycle funding. Without CFO support, you’d have to wait till the end-of-year budget cycle to get the issue on table. Then, it would be too late to go to market. So, you need to figure out a different funding cycle for these projects.

Q5) What if Senior Management is risk-averse and people aren’t into your project? Will stealth innovation work?
No.  If innovation is lip service at your company, you might want to think about finding a better place to be.

When Leadership Alignment Becomes a Commitment


Kristin von Donop, Associate Principal
Follow Kristin on twitter

There is a consistent theme in our work with the senior leadership teams from financial services, media, entertainment, philanthropy, and information technology companies: they need stronger alignment between business units.  The reasons vary, either for more speed, more innovation, or to collaborate to create market differentiation.  These leaders ask us:

  • How can we increase velocity in the alignment between divisions, regions, and functions?
  • How can we instill new ways of operating that are scalable?
  • How can we ensure we will adapt in the future?

My next few posts will address four topics that are key to addressing the questions above: focusing on the ideal state, getting the elephants on the table, sharing responsibility, and influencing across the matrix.  This post will focus on the defining the ideal state.

Many of the senior teams we work with want their managers to be nimble, work together, and move resources quickly to capture opportunities.  Unfortunately, many great ideas end up dying because of bottlenecks.  These blockages are prevalent, especially when leaders can’t figure out how to get horizontal and vertical engagement.

Earlier this year, we worked with a technology company that grew from multiple mergers.  I asked several people in this organization, “Whom do you work for?” Out of the x number of people I asked, y responded with the name of their legacy company, not the new combined organization.  These responses gave me a key insight: the company has an overarching strategy, but no real alignment.  There was no shared aspiration.

The senior team knew they needed to revitalize the organization and that people were their main source of competitive advantage, but  they struggled with how to get everyone on the same page and aligned to customer demand.  The path forward was unclear.  The only certainty was that the status quo was insufficient.

Getting it Right

A few years ago, the CEO of a successful global IT company convened the top 100 leaders in Florida for their annual strategic meeting.  This was shortly after our friend Mike was selected to run a segment that had high growth potential.  When it was his time to address the group, he started by sharing that he called his mom as soon after he was appointed to his new job. Her immediate response was “Are you nuts? Nobody in that role has been successful!”

He described telling her it would be different this time around because of the people who will be involved.  Then, turning to the audience, he called out Mark, who was in the audience, and said “with Mark’s commitment, we can win in this space” and then he pointed to Maureen, adding “Maureen has the horsepower in her team to get this right”, and on he went until he named ten different executives in the room.  These were the people whose alignment was essential.  They were the leaders of the key products, the regional leaders, and in corporate functions.

Mike then described the impact they could accomplish if they worked together.  He didn’t talk about the revenue, margin or other key metrics.  Instead he described success from the perspective of the customer’s customer.

First, Focus on “Why?”

Mike’s predecessors had small wins but were not able to instill a new set of repeatable practices.  If the quarterly results for any one unit were not up to par, they’d cut the investments for that segment. They’d debateendlessly..  In some cases, they’d escalateissues to the SVPs.

Mark took a different approach and unleashed the power of the ideal state.  His market segment was different than the company’s traditional customer base.  To capture this market, he needed to instill different approaches: more marketing investment, greater reliance on business partners, aand new product development processes to build a portfolio at a different price point.

That meeting in Florida was just the beginning.  Over the next year, Mike made sure conversations about the possibility were an integral part of the alignment work. He rallied his peers to sustain the investments in spite of their skepticism about achieving success in three or four quarters.

Second, Own the “Why?”

Mike’s next step was to create an extended leadership team that had the skills needed from across the organization.  Some of the people he invited were ones named at the meeting in Florida; others were the technical experts in their business units.

Being on the team didn’t create the alignment.  He led a series of focused conversations that addressed the question:

What is the unique value of this leadership team?

The discussions about this question galvanized these busy executives by focusing specifically on the team’s contribution.  It oriented them to what matters most for the customers and for long-term success. The purpose of this newly– formed senior team was compelling and consequential. They also explored the implications of the ideal state for each individual. 

Real change requires grounding people in a shared aspiration. It provides clarity and activates our achievement drive for success.  Relying on threats or danger when you need to catalyze sustained change across many groups isn’t going to cut it.

Leaders need to focus people’s attention on the most important issues without resorting to fear. Unleash the power of the ideal state to create alignment.  Describe what is important to you.  Then inquire what is important to others.  Find the intersections to develop a shared ideal.

As you activate people to do something differently, keep possibility and optimism in the front of your mind. Address what is important and describe why.  Be curious about why it is important to them. During the hard work of change, keep the aspiration alive by reminding yourself and others about the consequential nature of the work.

In the next blog, we will explore ways to strengthen and sustain alignment with a focus on putting the “elephants on the table” – surfacing the tough issues that get in the way of progress.

8 Tips for CTOs to Create a Successful Requirements Process


Elspeth Chasser, Principal
Follow @ElspethCL

CTO Digerati Wannabes, I love you but AND … the Requirements Process, c’mon!

Try this out. Grab a random person standing near you. Smile politely so they don’t become alarmed. Go on. Now, give them a piece of paper and pen and this instruction: “make an accurate drawing of a house based on my verbal description”. Now go ahead and describe your house. Ok. Stop. Pens down. Look at what they’ve done.

Is it anything like your house? Nope.

This rant blog is about the Requirements Process, the crucial set of activities that encompass:

1. Understanding a customer need

2. Translating that need into instructions for development engineers

3. Testing to see if the product works and meets the need

If you’re a CTO Digital Wannabe, i.e. a leader of a technology department in an established firm that is developing more digital products, it’s likely that your Requirements Process is a bit of a mess. It’s also likely that if you don’t fix it, even though you’re not responsible for half of it, you will continue to have failed projects, and you will never gain the business credibility you deserve. Albert Einstein said it best: “Crap in, crap out”.

Actually he didn’t say that, but he totally could have.

So, why is it so very, very difficult?

Part of the reason is often an ill-defined Requirements method with as many different templates as you have teams, but lest you think this can be fixed by a shiny new process, let’s go deeper.

Fundamental Attribution Error, or "Everyone Else is an Idiot"

Fundamental Attribution Error, or “Everyone Else is an Idiot”

There’s a pesky phenomenon called the Fundamental Attribution Error. We code our behaviors as rational, yet we blame others’ on their faulty personalities. We all do it. How does it show up in the Requirements Process? You get a set of requirements; you do your darnedest to develop them, but the line-of-business leader is not happy. Repeat this often enough and both sides start to infer (ungenerous) things about one another’s intelligence. A wall goes up between them (the business) and us (IT). It’s “silo mentality” and it gets in the way of the kind of collaboration you need to make a Requirements Process work. But lest you think that this can be fixed by a bit of team building, let’s go deeper.

The Requirements Process is a manifestation of one of the trickiest of human activities (and, no, it’s not stopping to sing “it’s a small world after all” once you’ve started, although, god knows that is hard): sense-making, my friends–getting what’s in your head into theirs. In other words, it’s trying to get someone else to draw a picture of your house. It is *hard*. In this case, we have to get the description of what the customer wants into the heads of the product managers, and then into the heads of the development teams and then the QA/ Release guys. Do you understand how difficult that is?

We all have heuristics (mental short cuts) to solve problems. That’s great because those shortcuts save us a lot of time, particularly if our goal is to escape a sudden threat (say a hungry tiger). But they also get in the way of understanding because bias (including the good ol’ Fundamental Attribution Error) pops into our heuristics; we jump to conclusions without fully understanding. For instance, when you’re talking, rather than really trying to understand you, I’m thinking “yup, gotcha, understood… god those [fill in the blank with a role] types do go on a bit, don’t they … his left eye looks a bit funny … what’s for dinner … ‘It’s a small world after all’… damn”.

And if this game of “Telephone” wasn’t difficult enough, we do it on conference calls and record the output with that tool well-known for capturing the richness of the human experience: Excel.


Implement one consistent Requirements Process

  • Launch one consistent, simple process across your portfolio with one set of templates:
  • Ensure it can scale to the size/ complexity of the development but don’t allow exceptions
  • Have a clear “go live” date where you symbolically “turn off” the old practices

Clarify decision rights

Use your cross portfolio Governance meetings to deal with issues in partnership with the business (see CTO Digital Wannabes, get control of your pipeline)

Use storytelling & visualization techniques to immerse all teams in the customer’s “job to be done” and then in the product development

A picture tells a thousand words. Tell a story, draw pictures, spend a day at a customer sight, just observing. Once you’re in development, regularly share wireframes/ screen shots with the business, QA teams and hopefully your customers. Remember, they won’t really know what they want until they see it.

Make sure you have application, business model, experience and functional requirements

I know it sounds obvious, but only yesterday I was talking with a team that hadn’t built billing functionality “because the business didn’t include it in the Requirements”. It’s a tragic case of “common sense lobotomy”. Your new process has to include at least these four requirements types and a big picture “how is this actually going to work?”; no one can answer that better than an actual customer.

Hire Project Managers who are hounds, not bureaucrats

For this to work, you must have really proactive Project Managers. Detail-orientation is “right to play”. Much more important is their ability to hold people’s feet to the fire. And don’t get me started on running good meetings. That might have to be another blog – but how about at least capturing and communicating decisions?!

Name the elephants in the cubicles

The Fundamental Attribution Error is natural, but it gets diluted when we connect to each other as human beings. You might need to start by “naming the elephants in the room”; being honest about the frustrations. Better yet, get the teams to do this. Then, agree new trust-building working practices. One wonderful CIO I know will now only accept escalations that are created jointly between the Business and Development teams.

Honor the nerd!

Even if you have outsourced a lot of the coding work (see a later blog), make it a core capability. How about implementing something like Github so that engineers from different teams collaborate on building, re-using, and managing code? How about coding competitions anyone can work on?

Use the Requirements Process to implement your Technology Strategy

You have to balance responding to the Requirements of the Product Managers (e.g. our customers use PC technology) with the Requirements of your Technology Strategy (we need to also build for Tablets because Gartner says “at this rate, tablet shipments could surpass PC shipments in less than a year”. So, use your cross portfolio Governance meetings to ensure that the final Requirements list gets the balance right. (see CTO Digital Wannabes, get control of your pipeline)

Bless you. Future rants blog posts will include:

Agile vs Waterfall, blah, blah, shoot me now!

Talk to me like I’m 6 years old…is Service Oriented Architecture a bit like Lego?

How’s that outsourcing working for ya’, huh?

The “Tyranny of Success”

We’ve all seen Nokia and Blackberry fall victim to the ‘Tyranny of Success’, the well-researched syndrome that causes market leaders to miss fundamental shifts in their markets. But, are we already seeing the same pattern unfold with their nemesis, Apple, and its duopoly partner Samsung?


Some of the key lead indicators for the ‘Tyranny of Success’ are:


Could Apple be the next to suffer from the Tyranny of Success?


  • Focusing on technology gadgets rather than solving real customer issues – remember Polaroid’s wearable printer, it made sense to them as a way to make sure digital cameras still generated sale of film. Are Siri and Samsung’s new eye movement activation symbols of the same obsession with what technology can do at the expense of what is useful? Reuters reported that Samsung shares dropped nearly 5 percent, or around $10 billion, in just two trading sessions after it launched its latest Galaxy S smartphone late on last week.
  • Seeking success by repeating past glories – Just think how long it took the US car industry to seriously respond to small, well-made Japanese cars. Or, when Gilette finally had to admit that putting yet another blade on the razor didn’t equal innovation. Are we watching the same story with the iWatch? How many iGadgets can the world absorb?
  • Getting disrupted by low-end competitors – Clay Christiansen’s classic research on how the Steel industry ignored ‘mini-mills’ or mainframe computers ignored PCs. How seriously is Apple taking Kindle Fire when it launches the iPad mini at twice the price and with half the functionality?
  • Losing a sense of proportion – so many great companies end their days in the death throes of litigation, trying to get the rules changed. Is that to be Apple’s fate? “Apple …has been spending a great deal of time in the courtroom, pointing fingers at Samsung (and similar, smaller others) of stealing designs for its phones, tablets and operating systems.” (IBTimes)