The bright side of big ugly corporate failures is the potential for learning powerful personal and professional lessons. In this article on GM’s Biggest Strategic Blunder, the author highlights two mistakes that GM made:
- First, GM had too many mouths to feed, all lining up and saying “my turn.” It was Oldsmobile’s turn for a new model, and even though the Oldsmobile brand was in trouble GM could not then bite the bullet and do away with the brand.
- Second, there was a preoccupation on short-term profits and a lack of strategic vision and scenario planning, a problem not at all unique to GM.
How does these lessons translate for us?
Well first, I would deliver the advice in reverse. The first problem is a pre-occupation with short-term profits which resulted in not being able to say “no” to all the mouths to feed.
For me, the temptation to satisfy short-term goals shows up in a variety of ways. It could be a desire for instant gratification (let’s buy that cool consumer electronic product to revolutionize our business) or a desire to make money now (let’s take on a project, any project). We shouldn’t underestimate the power of thinking short-term. We get results right away. We feel like we’re doing something productive. Even our bodies reward us with an adrenaline hit. The consequences: impulse buying, taking on too many projects, or failing to be disciplined.
If we want to play the bigger game and be the strategic general of your life, then it requires the audacity to prioritize the future over the present. The Wright Brothers spent ten years working on designing their plane. Joseph Campbell read books for years during the Great Depression. The Beatles practiced in dimly-lit clubs in Hamburg for years before they became famous. They built their knowledge, skills, and capacity to reach a bigger vision. Are you prepared to do the same?
Working, cooking, eating, cleaning, organizing, sleeping… it’s amazing how little time there is for truly reflective and creative work. Getting a handle at how you spend your time and then redesigning your schedule can give you that added boost.
Consider, when is your best thinking time? When do you most need a physical break? What kinds of tinkering activities can be done anytime in those short fifteen minutes between events?
It’s surprising how much of a difference it makes when you match your energy level to the type of activity. I find mornings and the wee hours of the night great for thinking and reading, whereas the afternoons are better for meeting with people. And in between, I’ll play a few chords on the guitar that I’ve only recently picked up. Eventually, the activities will find a energizing synergy.
If you had to redesign your schedule, how would you do it?
When is the time right to simply burn your gas tank to take massive action on an idea that’s important to you?
Sometimes you’re on top of the ski hill or at the bottom of the hike and all sorts of voices scream at you that it’s too scary or too tedious or too challenging. But then a switch flips and you decide to go all out. After that, there is no time to think. You take Seth Godin’s advice to Sprint!.
In combat training, it’s crucial to learn how to flip that switch, commit to an attack with 100% intent, then flip that switch off. Without the 100% commitment the attack often fails. There are times in life when you cannot get any further in your exploration of an idea or planning of a project unless you make a deep commitment to a particular action for a sustained amount of time. Only then can you learn enough to take the next step.
You can talk about an innovative idea, but until you build a prototype it remains forever an idea.
Fast Company published a wonderful article about David Kelley, the founder of IDEO. Clearly he sees creativity as a discipline that can be learned and improved upon. From the article:
It is a radical notion, in its way: the idea that creativity can be summoned at will, with a process not unlike the scientific method. That contradicts what most people — including the 50 students sitting mesmerized before him — have always thought. “That to be creative, an angel of the Lord appears and tells you what to do,” Kelley says, laughing.
This misconception is much like how the average person sees every elite athlete as literally superhuman. Michael Jordan does seem to fly like a bird and Wayne Gretsky is the Great One. What we may label as magic, however, is just a simple of way saying “we don’t understand how they got to be that way”.
In the same way, creativity is seen as magic when in actuality there are processes, character traits, and effort behind the magic. This is a relatively new and exciting field of study that requires more work, but fortunately people like Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and Howard Gruber have innovated in our ability to innovate.
Who else do you know has taken our understanding of creativity even further?
Here was a question posted on the Harvard Business Blog:
“I have never thought of myself as innovative. I figure the folks in marketing and R&D can take care of our innovation needs while I spend my work life just doing my job. But recently I read that we all have the capacity to be innovative, even conservative people like me. Should I focus on being an innovator?”
Being an innovator, in my opinion, does not have much to do with personality. Csikszentmihalyi, who studied creativity in a variety of people, found that you can be a happy extrovert like Raphael or a conservative introvert like Michelangelo. Or on the business side, one might think of Toyota who, according to Jeffrey Liker (The Toyota Way), is a very conservative company that makes decisions slowly, but implements quickly.
The key is more in the discipline of innovation or creativity. Although it is hard to create something new, the skills required to do so are discoverable!
Unfortunately, learning how to engage with non-routine challenges is not taught in schools or universities. More often people have had sought those kinds of projects in extracurricular activities that lie beyond the conventional curriculum.
On the personal side, one can begin the innovator’s journey by creating a wider and deeper space for creativity. For a playful exploration of this territory, take a look at How BIG is your Creative Space? and How DEEP is your Creative Space?.