Five More Thinkers That I Admire

dna structure

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about five thinkers that I admire, and today I’d like to highlight five more that have influenced how I’m thinking recently.

Valeria Maltoni

I’ve admired Valeria’s work on her blog Conversation Agent for a number of years now. Today, I was fortunate enough to meet her in person.  Our discussion was wide-ranging, and we touched on a number of interesting ideas.

Valeria one of the best thinkers around on the topic of how firms actually work.  She is starting to place more focus on the importance of executing ideas, which is an area that is often an innovation problem.

As you would expect from the name Conversation Agent, she thinks a lot about how discussion drives business, and idea that I also looked at in  talk is the technology of leadership.  In doing this, she is putting an increasing focus on listening to form genuine connections with people.  In a post on the importance of making real-life connections, she says:

Do you have enough diversity and autonomy in your life? How well do you listen to others? Are you open to multiple cultures outside your own?

All good reasons to stop seeking (fake) links, and start making connections.

Valeria is a strategist, and an outstanding one at that.  If you’re not familiar with her work, you should check it out. Here is one of her short talks:

Terri Griffith

In one of my exec ed courses earlier this year, one idea really seemed to stick with the people in the class.  It came from Terri Griffith and her excellent book The Plugged-In Manager.  In the class we were discussing how to make their firm more innovative.  They asked what tools they should be using.  In response, I outlined Terri’s argument that it is insufficient to think only about tools – you must instead consider technology, people and proceses, and how these three systems interact.

This is how she describes the objectives of the book:

Too often discussions of management practice focus exclusively on managing people and organizational issues. Rarely, however, do they incorporate a discussion about technology or address all three dimensions in a balanced way. When they do, the result is game changing. In our hypercompetitive environment, those managers who are outstanding at being plugged into their people, technology, and organizational processes simultaneously excel at coming up with effective business solutions.

The Plugged-In Manager makes the case that being plugged-in—the ability to see choices across each of an organization’s dimensions of people, technology, and organizational processes and then to mix them together into new and powerful organizational strategies, structures, and practices—may be the most important capability a manager can develop to succeed in the 21st century.

I think that this is absolutely correct – and my class did too.  This framework showed up in a couple of their final reports.

Terri is at the leading edge of management thinking and research, and I love her work.

Henry Mintzberg

Another person at this leading edge is Henry Mintzberg.  I’ve been reading a lot of his work recently.  He is one of the leading proponents of the idea that the most important form of strategy for organisations is emergent strategy – the routines and approaches that occur as we respond to our changing environments.

Mintzberg’s description of management is the one that really rings true with my experience as both a manager and one who studies them.  This is from his book Managing:

Most of the work that can be programmed in an organization need not concern its managers directly; specialists can do it. That leaves the managers with much of the messy stuff—the intractable problems, the complicated connections. This is what makes the practice of managing so fundamentally “soft,” and why labels such as experience, intuition, judgment, and wisdom are so commonly needed to describe it. Put together a good deal of craft with the right touch of art alongside some use of science, and you end up with a job that is above all a practice. There is no “one best way” to manage; it depends on the situation.

I don’t want you to leave this book knowing. I want you to leave it, as I do, imagining, reflecting, questioning. Managers are only as good as their ability to work things out thoughtfully in their own way. To repeat, this is a job of paradoxes, dilemmas, and mysteries that cannot be resolved. The only guaranteed result of any formula for managing is failure (including, of course, this one).

When you think of managing in this way, the Valeria’s point about the importance of conversation becomes more critical.  So does Terri’s discussion of the interactions between technologies, people and processes.

Mintzberg’s work is well worth checking out.

Rosalind Franklin

This is the scan that led researchers to the discovery of the structure of DNA:

dna structure

Since everyone knows that Watson and Crick discovered DNA, then this scan must be theirs, right?  Wrong.

This scan was done by Rosalind Franklin.  I was reminded of her story while reading Nonsense on Stilts by Massimo Pigliucci, where he credits the discovery of DNA’s structure to “Watson, Crick and Franklin.”  This attribution is rarely made, but it’s actually correct.

Franklin was a brilliant scientist (see this biography for more information) until her career was cut unnaturally short by cancer.  Her DNA research was creative, while her approach to science was determined.  We could use more like her.

Rita Gunther McGrath

The lifespan of the average competitive advantage continues to shrink.  This means that traditional approaches to strategy are becoming decreasingly useful.  This is an issue where Rita McGrath is doing important work.

She has already demonstrated the importance of making staged investments in innovation, rather than big bets.  Here is how she frames it:

 In highly uncertain environments, it’s nearly impossible to predict with any accuracy which innovations are likely to succeed and which are not. It makes sense, therefore, to test out a number of different approaches on a small scale, proceeding forward only when you’ve validated enough assumptions to move ahead with confidence. The logic of real options supports this approach: essentially encouraging companies to take out a couple of different projects aimed at a promising market or technology, without huge risks. “Big bet” ventures in our experience seldom work out.

As Paul Hobcraft pointed out to me recently, she is expanding on this issue in her forthcoming book The End of Competitive Advantage.  Here is how she introduces the key ideas in the book:

Strategy is stuck.  If you dropped into a boardroom discussion or an executive team meeting, chances are you’d hear a lot of strategic thinking based on ideas and frameworks designed in, and for, a different era.  the biggies – such as Michael Porter’s five forces analysis, BCG’s growth-share matrix for analyzing corporate portfolios, and Hamel and Prahalad’s core competence of the firm – are all tremendously important ideas.  Many strategies today are still informed by them.  But virtually all strategy frameworks and tools in use today are based on a single dominant idea: that the purpose of strategy is to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage.  This idea is strategy’s most fundamental concept.  It’s every company’s holy grail.  And it’s no longer relevant for more and more companies.

In this book, I take on the idea of sustainable competitive advantage and argue that executives need to stop basing their strategies on it.  In its place, I offer a perspective on strategy that is based on the idea of transient competitive advantage: that to win in volatile and uncertain environments, executives need to learn how to exploit short-lived opportunities with speed and decisiveness.  I argue that the deeply ingrained structures and systems that executives rely on to extract maximum value from a competitive advantage are liabilities – outdated and even dangerous – in a fastmoving competitive environment.

This is important work.  I’m looking forward to the book.

These are five thinkers that have influenced me recently.  Who is influencing you?


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Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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