Monday, September 29, 2014

Recommended Readings for Creative Leaders for Fall 2014

Thus far in 2014, we have seen at least two additions to the short bookshelf of essential readings for creative leaders: Pixar CEO Ed Catmull’s account (with Amy Wallace) of building and sustaining a successful creative culture, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration; and Harvard Business School Professor Linda A. Hill’s masterful guide to leading successful innovation across organizations, Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation (written with Greg Brandeau, Kent Lineback, and Emily Truelove). Other recent highlights included Connected by Design: Seven Principles for Business Transformation through Functional Integration, the outstanding work about new ways to create value through brand ecosystems, by Barry Wacksman and Chris Stutzman of the legendary creative agency, R/GA; Stanford professors Robert I. Sutton and Huggy Rao’s major study of how to build up businesses successfully, Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less; and Arianna Huffington’s manifesto for re-defining well-being, work and success, revisionist study of talent and creativity, ThriveThe Third Metric and Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-being, Wisdom, and Wonder.

The fall book season is now upon us and promises further new and relevant titles. These will include analyses of marketing, China, and Google, a handful of titles on innovation, ranging from practical implementation guides to a longer history, and, perhaps most far-reaching, reflections on the changes wrought by digital technologies to individuals and society. All contain insights valuable to the work and lives of creative leaders.

1) Ulrich Boser, The Leap: The Science of Trust and Why It Matters (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/New Harvest, September 16)
Traveling from rural Rwanda to corporate America, and from paying taxes to using technology, Boser argues that individuals are hard-wired for trust and trustworthiness and that emphasizing and restoring trust can benefit us as humans as well as our institutions and communities.

2) Richard Branson, The Virgin Way: Everything I Know About Leadership (Penguin/Portfolio, September 9)
The iconic CEO and entrepreneur, already author of a best-selling autobiography and books on business, here describes his key leadership principles like good listening, keeping things simple, remaining iconoclastic, motivating people, and having fun along the way.

3) Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us (Norton, September 29)
Carr, the consistently trenchant analyst of technological change who wrote The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, here offers a thoughtful and sometimes disturbing account, grounded in science and poetry alike, of the ways that our increasing reliance on technology is affecting our happiness and re-shaping our humanity.

4) Lawrence A. Cunningham, Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values (Columbia Business School Publishing, October 21)
An extraordinary portrait of the fifty direct subsidiaries of Berkshire Hathaway, investment guru Warren Buffett’s $300 billion conglomerate, told through the companies’ distinct stories and the vital values like integrity, autonomy, entrepreneurship and a sense of permanence that they, and Buffett, share.

5) Tom Doctoroff, Twitter Is Not a Strategy: Remastering the Art of Brand Marketing (Palgrave MacMillan, November 11)
The Asia CEO of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, Doctoroff uses characteristic wit and decades of experience to take on the twin hypes of digital media and the China market and to offer insightful principles for successful customer engagement and integrated brand marketing.

6) Stewart D. Friedman, Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life (Harvard Business Review Press, October 7)
Wharton professor Friedman, building on his excellent study, Total Leadership, uses examples ranging from Sheryl Sandberg to Bruce Springsteen to move from familiar calls to balance competing work and life commitments toward taking steps, instead, to integrate our passions and values across the domains of work, home, community, and the private self.

7) Nathan Furr and Jeff Dyer, The Innovator’s Method: Bringing the Lean Startup into Your Organization (Harvard Business Review Press, September 9)
How can business leaders better manage the uncertainty intrinsic to prototyping and experimentation? Picking up from Dyer’s bestselling guide to generating ideas, The Innovator’s DNA (written with Hal Gregersen and Clay Christensen), this new volume focuses on proven techniques that allow start-ups and established firms to commercialize ideas successfully.

8) Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (Simon & Schuster, October 7)
Isaacson, the biographer of Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein, and most recently, Steve Jobs, has penned a sweeping history of digital technologies, the computer and internet, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, with Lord Byron’s daughter, and tracing the innovative thinking, creative leadership and energetic collaboration to the present day.  

9) Langdon Morris, Moses Ma and Po Chi Wu, Agile Innovation: The Revolutionary Approach to Accelerate Success, Inspire Engagement, and Ignite Creativity Hardcover (Wiley, September 22)
Two leading innovation thinkers and consultants (Morris and Ma) and an engineering professor (Wu) have written an excellent (and overdue) guide to how agile techniques, like process acceleration, risk management, and fuller team engagement, have fostered successful innovation for leading businesses and can be put into practice elsewhere.

10) Alexander Osterwalder, Yves Pigneur, Gregory Bernarda, Alan Smith, Value Proposition Design: How to Create Products and Services Customers Want (Wiley, October 20)
Using the same engaging visual approach as their groundbreaking Business Model Generation, which pioneered the business model canvas, Osterwalder et al focus on the most important of the canvas’ building blocks, the value proposition, and enable readers to work through seven key principles for better designing what matters to customers. 

11) Shaun Rein, The End of Copycat China: The Rise of Creativity, Innovation and Individualism in China (Wiley, October 20)
A leading consultant and commentator on the Chinese society and economy, and the author of The End of Cheap China, Rein analyzes current large-scale shifts in China from investment toward consumption, and from copying to innovation, that require a strategic re-thinking by investors and creative leaders doing (or wanting to do) business there.

12) Paul Roberts, The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification (Bloomsbury, September 2)
A troubling, cross-disciplinary account of how individual pursuits of consumption, pleasure, and immediate rewards, advanced by new technologies and compromised ethics, have evolved in a new and pervasive ‘culture of narcissism’ — that journalist Roberts nevertheless closes on a hopeful note of how we can pull back and change.

13) Jonathan Rosenberg and Eric Schmidt, How Google Works (Grand Central/Business Plus, September 23).
Google’s former SVP of Products and ex-CEO reveal how the global tech company has grown by doing things differently, like hiring multitalented ‘smart creatives’ and leading with the recognition that ‘consensus requires dissension,’ in order to continually create new products and serve consumers in a fast-changing environment.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Dave Trott and the Challenge of Creative Thinking (While Still Learning)

Dave Trott is a British advertising legend.  He’s written two books and keeps a lively and provocative blog.  He also regularly speaks to industry audiences, including a talk to EMBA participants at the Berlin School of Creative Leadership I was privileged to hear.  I am a regular reader and admirer of his work.

Trott’s writings tend to be anecdotal and provocative.  He doesn’t offer recommendation lists or how-to guides for doing better creative work or building creative organizations, preferring to share observations, stories and occasional advice on generating original work in an increasingly fraught brand marketing landscape.  A recurrent priority is celebrating the creative muse while also defending it against the ever-growing onslaught of business demands, formulaic processes, and formal education.

His August 12 blogpost on ‘How “Learnings” Prevents Thinking’ captured this priority nicely.  As the title conveys, the post discusses how learning can impede and constrain creative thinking.  In particular, Trott discusses learning a ‘terminology’, that is, a set of terms that serve as agreed-upon ‘metaphors’ or shorthand for different activities.  The problem with such learning for him is that once learned, the meaning of the terms can become ‘impenetrable’ and ‘accepted as fact’.  Learnings here lead to the adoption of terms and meanings that ‘no one ever questions’.  The result is that the questioning so fundamental to original thinking is foreclosed.

As an educator, I found myself both agreeing with Trott’s pragmatic argument but also being professionally unsettled by it.  After all, I’ve spent years striving to impart or, at least, enable creatives and other leaders to achieve learning in the belief that it will improve them and their creative work.   Pausing over the blogpost, and returning to his two books, Creative Mischief (2011) and Predatory Thinking: A Masterclass in Out-Thinking the Competition (2013), I asked myself whether the education or training or ‘formal’ inputs I provide were possibly hindering the thinking of my creatives and executives.

Trott’s provocation is hardly the first of its kind, of course.  Others have rightly questioned the influence, often negative, of educational processes and systems on creativity and imagination.  Perhaps most familiarly, and cogently, Sir Ken Robinson has called for reforms in education and training to unleash and encourage rather than repress and inhibit imagination and creative thinking. 

While Robinson’s primary focus has been on the schooling of children, his broader insights have great relevance to adults and, particularly, their organizations, like the corporation.  The systems, specializations, and processes that shape and define businesses and many other organizations appear to constrain original thinking and creativity in ways similar to rote learning and memorization in schools.  Longstanding has been the perceived discrepancy between the imperatives of business efficiency, productivity, and the bottom line and the possibilities of more open-ended innovation, risk-taking, and creative thinking.

Recently, however, more and more businesses have begun to recognize that some systems or processes can be necessary and even contribute positively to creative thinking and original outputs.  Adaptable and human-centered approaches, like agile or design thinking, for example, seem to support both organizational and individual needs for sustained performance and growth.  Such processes form less a discordant constraint than a productive tension enabling people to reflect and question as a basis of their own creative work and contribution to a larger, collective endeavor. 

In the words of Trott’s post, the processes allow individuals precisely to question the terminology they use together.  It is worth observing that many of the terms he mentions are trendy and deserve not only to be questioned but potentially cast aside entirely for overuse.  The list is (sadly) long: ‘Brand audit, cluster groups, segmentation, penetration, CRM, SEO, CSR, ROI, KPI, UGC, integrated, transactional, native-advertising, value-added, differentials, core-competency, ideation, hygiene-factors, demographics, psychographics, profile-testing, deliverables, storytelling, narrow-casting, acquisition, content, data-capture, rate card, deep-dive’.

In my own work with creatives and other leaders, a core belief is indeed to question the basic terms of business whose deeper and more complex meanings are discussed too infrequently in individual settings, situations, and contexts.  Among these are talent, business model, strategy, culture, technology, operations, and finance.  Particularly at a time when being successful creatively often means having the capabilities to generate creative business solutions for clients and customers, such fundamental terms should not only be engaged but interrogated as a source of potential advantage.

So perhaps, as an educator, I stand closer to Dave Trott than I had initially imagined upon reading his post.  Rather than simply assigning or parroting fixed meanings, the ‘learning’ we should strive for is open-ended, adaptive, and committed to the ongoing interrogation of ‘terminology’ and the possibilities of any situation.  That process also seems a promising one to encourage more consistently unconstrained creative thinking in business and beyond.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Other Cross-Cultural Leadership

The following is adapted from remarks given at the August graduation of the 2014 Executive MBA class of the Berlin School of Creative Leadership. 

One of the great assets of any global academic or training program is the national, regional, social or economic diversity of its participants.  In its still relatively young EMBA program alone, the Berlin School of Creative Leadership has enrolled participants from over 50 countries.  At the most basic level, that diversity helps individuals to expand their individual networks and to join (or deepen their place in) a global community of creative professionals.  Another positive outcome is the enrichment of the learning of individuals from different markets around the world through the sharing of experiences, insights and challenges.  More specific to the creative communication industries, which are undergoing extraordinary transformation, diversity among participants enables greater access to specific tools and strategies for navigating changing technologies, customer and client relationships, and business models. 

Facilitating the exchange of experiences and fostering the professional relationships among participants is a key responsibility of executive programs.  Ordinarily, this includes teaching major approaches to ‘cross-cultural leadership’ as part of the EMBA curriculum.  The research, tools and models for understanding conventional national and cultural differences remain vitally important to the success of creative leaders.  Many of these are more widely familiar:
  • High- and low-context communications, anthropologist Edward T. Hall’s classical approach to understanding how much or little implicit knowledge is required in different cultures to communicate information effectively.
  • Key dimensions to cultural interactions, identified through longstanding research by Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede, and including Individualism/Collectivism, Feminine/Masculine, Power Distance, Uncertainty Avoidance, Indulgence/Restraint, and Long Term/ Short Term Orientation. (Fons Trompenaar’s succeeding model of national culture has seven related dimensions as well as five orientations for the ways in which people dal with each other.)
  • Richard D. Lewis, the founder of the Berlitz language schools in East Asia, Finland and Portugal, whose model focuses, in simple terms, on whether those in given countries or regions pursue individual tasks using linear or sequential logic, focus on relationships and pursue multiple tasks simultaneously, or follow strategies that seek solidarity and harmony.
  • Perhaps most ambitiously, the GLOBE project conceived by Wharton professor Robert J. House (and building on Hofstede’s model), offers both an inventory of nine cultural competencies and six specific leadership competencies that vary across ten societal clusters.  These include charismatic vs value-based, team orientation, and participative leadership.

Taken together, these approaches convey the complexity and richness of communication, interaction, and, especially, leadership in a world still demanding of profound sensitivity in thought and action to social, cultural and national differences – that is, to an early twenty-first century world that is anything but flat. 

Yet another aspect of diversity among creative professionals is not so often addressed: the diversity of roles and professions among those who increasingly are drawn together to collaborate.  In the traditional creative industries, for example, everyone does not have the word ‘creative’ in their title.  Amir Kassei, the Global Chief Creative Officer of DDB, the advertising agency, uses the helpful label ‘creatively minded’ to include those without other formal validation but who still contribute to creative activities.  Australian researchers Peter Higgs and Stuart Cunningham advanced the idea of a ‘creative trident’ several years ago, breaking out employment in creative versus support activities in creative industries as well as creative occupations in other industries.  In their recently published collection, Creative Work Beyond the Creative Industries (Edward Elgar 2014), Greg Hearn, Ruth Bridgestock, Ben Goldsmith, and Jess Rodgers argue for greater attention to the third group of workers employed in creative occupations or contributing creative services outside the traditional creative industries.

In a world where cross-functional and interdisciplinary teams are not only increasingly the norm but looked to as a source, in their very diversity of perspectives and experiences, of original thinking and innovative work, the challenge for leaders is to recognize and yoke together such differences successfully.  Just as leaders need to mindful, attentive and sensitive to the different communication and leadership expectations and norms existing across geographic borders, in other words, so they should be attuned to the attitudes, perspectives, and expectations about working together brought by different kinds of creative professionals and practitioners.  Just as Brazilians are sensitive and adapt to different ways of working together with those in Singapore, to take on example, writers need to be sensitive and adapt to the different ways of working productively with programmers.

Effectively combining differing technical expertise, aesthetic preferences, and mental models has long been at the heart of creative business.  The tension – for some, a paradox – between the chaos of creativity and the order of business or management has not only been a challenge to be overcome but a source of the ‘creative friction’ (to use Michael Eisner’s words) needed to generate fresh ideas.  A ready historical example, drawn from the ‘creative revolution’ of the 1960s in the advertising industry (as well as others), involved surmounting the ‘great wall’ between creatives and suits without losing entirely the productive opposition it represented.

A similar struggle with the tensions arising from teaming those with different professional or aesthetic languages, perspectives and expertise has also long existed among creatives themselves.  As eager as were the first adopters of Bill Bernbach’s revolutionary coupling of art and copy, finding success in work together wasn’t easy or straightforward.  The very first team of art director and copywriter, the legendary Bob Gage and Phyllis Robinson, whom Bernbach took with him from Grey Advertising when DDB was founded, were enthusiastic about the new model but often struggled with its implementation.  As committed as the two were, their interactions, which were meant to be shaped by constructive conflict, were often bruising.  But they ended up producing exceptional and, often, timeless work.

To extend that example to the present, many are calling for an expansion or other re-constitution of the core teams in advertising.  For some, it should be ‘art, copy and code.’  For nearly all, there is a reckoning that some version of an interdisciplinary, cross-functional or hybrid team adds value through its combination of multiple points of view, beliefs, and experiences.  Copywriting, design, digital, and production, even planning and strategy are among the familiar roles typically mixed and combined in hopes of generating the best creative outcomes.

Looking beyond marketing services or brand communications, the value of recognizing different skills, experiences, and mental models appears in even sharper relief.  Contemporary design and architecture firms, for example, regularly integrate a wide range of experts to help shape their work.  At IDEO, cultural anthropologists observe human behavior, kinesiologists study bodily movement, mechanical engineers contribute to the exploration of how physical solutions might be crafted.  Foster & Partners, one of the world’s most renowned architecture firms, likewise employs a full array of professions, including acoustics specialists, aerospace engineers, mechanical engineers, and visual or plastic artists.  

Of course, there is a crucial balance to be struck here – and also a risk to be acknowledged and averted.  Even as we identify individuals as belonging to certain groups or professional cultures in order to be more sensitive to their needs and wants and well-being, we take the risk of viewing them one-dimensionally, simplistically.  The writers do this and the digital guys do that.  Even with the best of intentions, we may reinforce or fetishize categories of professional work or culture out of proportion.  As with national or regional cultures or sub-cultures, we may stereotype unfairly.  Individuals are not simply one thing or, despite a professional skillset or mindset or pedigree, alike in many ways.

Put differently, it is not only a matter of recognizing and coordinating different skills or knowledge or perspectives in developing creative solutions to business challenges.  Rather, the deeper task and responsibility of leadership is to understand that individuals with apparently different professional skills or technical expertise have often developed through very different experiences.  Their conceptions of what teamwork is, what successful outcomes or IP rights should be, how creativity relates to business, indeed their beliefs about and attitudes toward authority and the free market and are all also potentially distinctive.  Ultimately, the mental models and what management scholar Tarun Khanna calls the ‘contextual intelligence’ of those approaching creative work from different professional perspectives warrants closer and sustained engagement by leaders.

That is the basis of the other cross-cultural leadership.  The cultures and sub-cultures – that is, the shared attitudes, preferences, beliefs, and values but also common actions – of different kinds of creative workers deserve more attention.  The more leaders recognize and remain mindful of those differences, and of the multiple creative contexts brought to bear by their increasingly varied creative talent, the better they will be able to guide and enable the rich diversity of teams and organizations toward accomplishing shared goals together.

The challenges faced by leaders of creative teams and organizations only continue to increase as markets grow more complex, traditional relationships are transformed, and the skills of workers become more varied.  Everyone brings distinct tools, skills and knowledge, often from across disciplines and functions, which need to be integrated in working together on a task or project.  But perhaps even more importantly, everyone also brings different expectations, mental models, and solving problems together.

Among the guiding tenets of effective creative leadership today are ongoing self-reflection and self-understanding and the central importance of forging a vision and purpose around which creative teams and businesses can rally and work.  Increasingly, as leaders bring together disciplines, functions and technologies to generate better and better creative solutions for clients and customers, those leaders also need to be more attentive and adaptive not merely to the skills brought by diverse creative workers but their different beliefs, intelligences, and ways of working.


Such attentiveness and adaptability has the makings of a new alliance or social contract between creative talent with different attitudes, experiences, and expectations.  It also presents an immense opportunity for creative leaders willing to understand and engage more fully the many distinct creative cultures represented in their teams and organizations. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

'The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age,' by Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha, Chris Yeh (Harvard Business Review Press, 2014)

The implied social contract that has long existed between larger companies and their workers is evolving.  Often described (by company leaders, at least) as like that of ‘families’, the relationship between individual employees and firms has typically been defined in terms of short-term performance and behavioral targets and the rewards or sanctions that can result.  In many places, this relationship has become increasingly one-sided, with mounting obligations of service and performance for individual employees but few corresponding obligations besides financial compensation to the employee by the firm. 

Recognizing that lack of reciprocity and mutual benefit in the relationship between employees and firms, many leaders are increasingly developing innovative workplace policies and practices.  Some of these involve radical restructuring of corporations themselves, as Tony Hsieh has pursued at Zappo’s by shifting authority from hierarchy to ‘holacracy’, a fractal and democratic governance system focused on a specific purpose (like customer service).  Others have similarly rethought the central activity of organizational decision-making, like at Dark Horse, the Berlin-based design firm, where ‘sociocracy’, or so-called circular organizing among equals, relies on consent rather than autocrat governance.  More generally, as Richard Sheridan captures in Joy, Inc. (Portfolio 2013), his inspiring account of Menlo Innovations, the imperative for many leaders today is to instill more flexibility and agility in their management of talent as a way to foster a happier and (hence) more productive workplace.

As these examples suggest, many current and prominent attempts are at newer and smaller businesses, where experimentation and thoroughgoing change are perceived to be easier to implement.  In The Alliance, the new book written by LinkedIn Chairman and co-founder Reid Hoffman, Ben Cosnacha and Chris Yeh, the guiding argument is that talent development and management need to be reconsidered and recast across businesses of all sizes and ages and in all industries and sectors.  The familiar macro-level drivers of such reworking include sweeping changes in the economy, blurring of industry boundaries, and transformations of talent markets.  Yet what is more compelling in the call of Hoffman and his co-authors is their practical and hands-on approach to engaging and empowering employees in order to enable mutual value creation benefitting both individual talents and the firm.

At the heart of the book is the idea of a ‘tour of duty’ for individual employees.  Hoffman recounts using this approach at LinkedIn to get beyond conventional talk about loyalty or commitment and instead to agree upon specific terms with employees for deals lasting two to four years.  The LinkedIn tours replaced open-ended arrangements that might have included fixed-term contracts but did not acknowledge the rhythms of growth and development experienced by both employee and company.  These more traditional arrangements also tended to leave vague or unspoken the expectations of both sides about the future and, especially, the possibility of continuing association.  Crucially, tours of duty recognize that after a given tour, individual employees often better serve themselves and the company by going elsewhere.  Rather than being a source of insecurity or instability, the transparent and shared understanding of what individual and firm can expect from each other, and for how long, powerfully engenders trust and encourages greater productivity and well-being.

No one model or approach fits all talent situations or organizations, of course, and one of the strengths of the book is that the ‘tour of duty’ model is both itself flexible and one of several options for shoring up and enhancing relationships between individual employees and businesses.  Recognizing that ‘stars’ are different from other employees or that age and industry variations may warrant different treatment, for example, may be intuitively obvious but are also often difficult steps for leaders to implement when dealing with real people.  Both in the main text and in several concretely helpful appendices, which offer sample statements of alliance as well as exercises on how to ensure alignment of individual and organizational expectations and goals, Hoffman and his co-authors illuminate the practical steps that leaders can take to design, launch and sustain successful talent management alliances.

What finally distinguishes The Alliance, however, is its attention to the broader contexts of the networked age indicated in the subtitle.  However provocative and practically useful to individual leaders and employees in dealing with each other more openly and reciprocally, the book recognizes how far-reaching is the potential of optimizing internal company as well as external networks for growth.  Put differently, while the alliance between individual talent and company may be a productive breakthrough for both, even more consequential are the individual and industry networks that today enable unprecedented connections between people, ideas and opportunities.  These connections provide the basis for individuals and companies to invest in each other and develop mutually defined and beneficial relationships.  Thanks to the excellent work of Hoffman, Casnocha and Yeh, we now have a clear, insightful and practically-oriented guide to building new and network-supported alliances with talent that have the potential to transform our leadership, our employees, and our businesses.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Building New Strategies with Lessons of the Past

At last month’s Cannes Lions festival, I had the privilege of participating in a session with advertising legend Chuck Porter on “building new strategies for creative excellence.”  The session was organized by the Berlin School of Creative Leadership around the contrast between strategic insights drawn from the successful creative work of his agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, and more orthodox strategic approaches associated with Harvard Business School Professor Michael E. Porter (no relation).  In preparation, my Berlin School colleague, Professor Paul Verdin, and I had drafted a White Paper on the topic.

The session and paper yielded several conclusions about new priorities for building strategy for creative excellence.  For example, while acknowledging the greater need for flexibility and speed in decision-making today, we identified the persisting importance of making adaptive commitments to brand values and strategic priorities.  Likewise, we identified other crucial principles: serving communities of participation, building trust through storytelling, and finally recognizing accumulative value creation rather than pursuing competitive advantage for strategic success.  Overall, we proposed a fundamental shift from the traditional, largely adversarial orientation focused on competitors to an emphasis on value creation through the engagement of customers.

In doing so, the White Paper picked up on several currents of thought about the evolution of strategy.  Customer-centricity, involving better understanding and engagement of customers as well as enhancing capabilities for serving customers, is one such stream.  Another is the transformation of traditional value chain and scale economies by digital technologies and an information economy whose creation, distribution, and transaction costs have an entirely different structure.  Perhaps best-known, to use the title of Rita Gunther McGrath’s 2013 book, is “the end of competitive advantage.”  Rather than achieving a long-term, stable and sustainable market position in a well-defined industry, following Michael Porter, the new world of strategy is marked by developing a portfolio of transient advantages able to capture shifting “connections between customers and solutions.”

At same time as the Cannes festival, another debate around innovation and disruption began roiling.  Jill Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard (in the Faculty of Arts and Science, not Business School), published a withering piece on the contemporary “gospel of innovation” in The New Yorker.  “The Disruption Machine” took on the prevailing model of disruptive innovation associated with Clayton Christensen, another Harvard Business School faculty member.  His theory contends that while an incumbent firm seeks to maintain its market advantage through sustaining, or incremental, technological innovations, it is often overtaken by new entrants whose disruptive innovations, typically offered at lower-cost and with lower-performing technologies, end up remaking the market and leading to the failure of the incumbent firm.  Lepore alleged the theory, which she extracted primarily from Christensen’s groundbreaking 1997 The Innovator’s Dilemma, mistakenly explained the emergence of new technologies and the dynamics of firms.  In doing so, she also personalized the critique by questioning the integrity of his research and his claims about the theory’s ability to predict market failures.  In a Bloomberg BusinessWeek interview, Christensen responded briefly and quizzically both about the personal nature of the attack and the lack of actual difference in their questioning of innovation.

Much commentary and side-taking has ensued.   Many pieces noted how “disruption,” in particular, had become an overused shorthand for innovation-driven (some would say, -fixated) entrepreneurs and businesses.  On Vox.com, for instance, Timothy B. Lee’s post was tellingly titled, “Disruption is a dumb buzzword.  It’s also an important concept.”  Kevin Roose similarly wrote on nymag.com that, for actual disruption to work best,‘disruption’ has got to go.”   Some comments took on the larger state of innovation in both business and management studies.  In the Financial Times, Andrew Hill thus made the case for a more measured use of the theory of disruption, citing its relevance to analyzing corporate failures like Kodak and Blackberry. 

While Christensen has understandably been at the heart of many of these discussions, Michael Porter’s place has also been important.  On Forbes.com, Stephen Denning wrote that Lepore had been “the assistant to the assistant of Porter” and he then cast her attack in terms of the conflicting views of Porter and Christensen.  Specifically, this meant distinguishing the strategic goals of maximizing shareholder value and creating and maintaining customers.  The recent imbroglio around disruption is a “symptom,” in Denning’s word, of a more far-reaching debate around core assumptions of contemporary management and business.

In fact, among the most important lessons of the Lepore-Christensen exchange seem precisely the value of reflecting on and wrestling with one’s own guiding principles and assumptions in business leadership.  That lesson was also a basis of the Porter vs. Porter White Paper and Cannes session.  Such questioning can include:

1. Language
Too often, as with “disruption,” we use or overuse language without fuller explanation or understanding.  Sometimes context is lacking.  For those in creative and marketing communications, for instance, Jean-Marie Dru, now the Chairman of the TBWA Worldwide advertising agency, developed the distinct concept and specific creative methodology of “disruption” at the same time as Christensen in the mid-1990s.  More generally, as I wrote in a recent post, we don’t take adequate care in our everyday usage of key words like innovation and creativity to ensure clear and effective communication of their meaning in given situations.

2.  Assumptions and Contexts
If the language around disruption or innovation would benefit from greater care and precision of usage, the assumptions underpinning that language can likewise have greater impact when more fully understood.  This is not to suggest, of course, that any discussion of innovation should revert to exploring the finer points of Christensen’s (or Porter’s) research.  It is, however, to posit the value of stepping back and assessing the larger ideas behind, or wider implications of, specific potential decisions, actions or strategies.  Some of the best commentaries on Lepore and Christensen, like John Hagel’s, are illuminating exactly because they analyze seemingly familiar ideas more acutely and pose bigger questions.

3. Beyond Prediction
One of Lepore’s major critiques in “The Disruption Machine” is how poorly Christensen’s model predicts business success or failure due to disruptive innovation.  Similarly, in the Cannes session, Chuck Porter observed how our White Paper about his agency’s creative work amounted to “backfilling” explanations for earlier strategic and creative work that may not be practically useful going forward.  Any prediction or forecasting for an increasingly uncertain future is obviously challenging.  Yet predicting the future is not the only standard or purpose for analyzing and modeling the past.  Even more, as Lepore herself allows (in quoting a recent New York Times report on innovation), “disruption is a predictable pattern across many industries” – patterns being a matter of deeper understanding and far different from concrete predictions about future performance at specific firms.

4. Models and Theories – and Learning
The distinction is essential.  As an educator who uses historical cases and models, my priority is often to connect particular examples to wider patterns.  However, the purpose in doing so is not the connections themselves but to help build individuals’ capacities for effective analysis and action.  Those capacities are enabled by learning multiple examples and experiences, models and patterns, and developing the discernment and agility to use them, as appropriate, to make sense of different situations and contexts.  Models and theories, like that of disruptive innovation, are always only potential means for conducting analyses.  Rather than ends in themselves, we should look to them to help us improve our thinking, sharpen frames of reference, and ultimately serve as aids to better understanding, decisions, and problem-solving.