Back in 1975, an engineer at Kodak invented the world’s first digital camera.
When this engineer, Steve Sasson, went to his management to present his new idea, the response he received was “that’s cute”.
While that response ultimately led to the demise of Kodak, we shouldn’t be surprised with the reaction by the company’s management team.
After all, Kodak was in the business of photographic film, where they owned 90 percent of that market. Who had time to consider something as “trivial” as a new product, particularly a digital product?
At 3M, William McKnight, a former CEO of that company, once directed one of his employees to stop working on a project, noting that it wasn’t worth the investment of his time.
Luckily for 3M, the employee continued to work on his invention of masking tape which as we all know became one of 3M’s central products.
In Adaptive Space, author Michael Arena explains how most organizations tend to focus on short-term performance. As a result, when new ideas surface, many leaders act as roadblocks.
Because most formal leaders are responsible for optimizing resources, and meeting daily, weekly or quarterly results, they routinely avoid anything that adds risk or variation.
As it turns out, risk and variation often bring the disruption necessary to succeed and survive.
Succeeding and surviving in today’s environment requires that organizations become agile, where new ideas are brokered and encouraged.
This encouragement needs to transcend all levels of an organization. At HP, for example, David Packard presented one of the company’s R&D managers with an award for “extraordinary contempt and defiance”, after this manager continued to pursue a project he was told to abandon.
The willingness to accept “constructive dissent” can transform organizations from being stodgy to being agile.
If you are interested in taking a deeper dive into what it takes to build this capability in your organization, I highly recommend Arena’s Adaptive Space. It is one of the best books I’ve read on the subject of organizational agility. Michael Arena, Chief Talent Officer of General Motors Corporation, identifies five simple and powerful actions for making innovation and adaptability a part of any organization’s DNA.