Innovation in Moments That Matter


As part of my commitment to being a safe private pilot, I fly with an instructor every 180 days to make sure my instrument skills and reaction to emergency procedures are sharp and up to standard.  By carefully working through scenarios that are rarely encountered, I am building “muscle memory” that, in the midst of a difficult situation, will allow me to quickly sort things out and get a flight back on track.

I fly much simpler propeller driven aircraft, but my choice of instructor for these flights is a long-time associate with an ATP license who has thousands of hours flying business jets that cruise well above the airlines.  I appreciate the confident guidance of someone who flies higher and faster (and in more inhospitable environments than I do), because he is able to offer guidance and instruction based on experiences that include things most pilots will never encounter.

No matter what your level of training and experience, there are moments when you have time to do the right thing only once – and dithering will kill you.   I specifically recall his telling of an event where they had just leveled off above the southern United States at Flight Level 400 (12,192 m) with a client on board when a door seal blew.  At that altitude, you have only seconds of useful consciousness (yes, that’s really an aviation term) to get the plane on the ground safely.  You have to make the right decision in a split second, with virtually every light on the panel turning red, the warning horns blaring and frozen dust blowing around the cockpit. With all that distraction, it takes a good deal of clarity to reorient, get an oxygen mask on and perform your duties.  The first duty being to get the aircraft down to 8,000 feet to allow normal respiration if the emergency oxygen system falters.

There is an old adage that says a superior pilot uses his superior judgement to avoid situations to display his superior skills, and I know my instructor well enough to know that every precaution was taken – and yet there they were.

There is an analogy to this that occurs in business, as well.  Well run firms that have put good solid management teams in place can be “flying at cruise altitude” when something goes south (either in the organization or in the market) and suddenly demand plunges and extraordinary actions need to be taken.  The first duty of the management team is to assess the change and take action to get the firm in a place of stability for customers and stakeholders.  To do this, they must always get their personal bearings quickly, then guide the organization to a safe altitude.

It’s in the next step that many firms set a trajectory of either restoration or slow decline.  

Decline sets in when those actions that put the firm back on a stable track (e.g, cutting costs, cutting headcount and pulling back on expenses) become a pattern.  It is not at all uncommon for an operations-oriented executive to take the lead at this point and set up a strict cost-based system that creates both scarcity and passive, let’s-wait-for-the-market-to-rebound thinking.  Fear sets in to the organization and initiative fades.  Examples of this abound: think of the U.S-based automakers run by financially-oriented exec’s in the 2000’s.

Firms that successfully go through turbulent times take the actions necessary to restore profitability quickly, then bring innovation work online to restore growth.  When working with firms, we start with the risk portfolio and see what the estimated economic value of their portfolio is and how best it can be activated using Growth Zone principles.

I have had the privilege and opportunity to be the player/coach in a number of situations over the course of my career that have provided strong benchmarks for the individual and organizational coaching that I do now.

My observation is, much like the door seal issue I reference above, executives have time to do the right thing, but delaying, second-guessing or putting off decisions has very real and costly consequences to the leader personally, as well as the division and the company – both in the short term and in the long run. Think of firms like HP & General Motors, for example, who had core profit engines that funded the firm while innovation slowly atrophied.  Pause for a moment and consider the human cost of not getting the firms restored to a growth path sooner.

You and your team must be absolutely convinced that your firm’s best days are in front of it and not in the rearview mirror.

Firms that have these kind of external pressures have no choice but to morph into new versions of themselves.  Recognizing that things will never be the same, it is always best to lead to a new future.  Building a picture of this new future with clarity and specificity is a key event in the recovery – your firm must be able to see it, taste it and feel it.

This shift is difficult to accomplish without some very hard work to understand how the business model has shifted.  In my work, we build detailed views of where we have come from, and precisely where we are moving to, using both inside and outside viewpoints.  I call this the from-to-toward approach, and it builds tremendous clarity for leadership teams recovering from a major event.  It is important to be sure to take this all the way down to runway level, with crisp analysis and locked-in decision making.

Application Questions:

  1. When things are going well, are you making regular investments in your people and your firm to create a core agility?  What kind of tools and training have you put in place for people to rapidly adapt to changing conditions?  Do you have “stretch” programs that take people outside their normal comfort zones?  Do you regularly bring in an outside viewpoint to make sure you are not miscalibrated?
  2. When an upset occurs, will you pull out a checklist and respond with a clear voice, based on principles you have already put in place?  Do you know who your growth leaders are, and do they have a voice in architecting the response to the event?  Do you have strong systems in place that allow robust interaction and truth telling without unproductive conflict and friction?
  3. After the firm is back on a growth path, what actions have you taken to look forward and into adjacent pathways for your firm?  Have you invested in a real strategic LRP which has taken you both into your blind spots and the industry’s blind spots?  Do you have a culture that regularly tees up high-value growth projects that might threaten existing business units?

In addition to my speaking and consulting work, I do reserve time to work with C-level leaders and subject matter experts through private, executive coaching relationships.  If you’d like to learn more about how I can help you guide your organization to clarity, action and growth, please email me to schedule a 20-minute introductory session.

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