September 7, 2016 | by Steve Lawrence

Stop Putting Out Fires and Ignite Your Business

“If you are interested in growth, you have to be interested in innovation.”

You know he’s right.

“Ninety-eight percent of your day is spent putting out fires.” This from Luke Williams, professor of innovation at the NYU Stern School of Business, speaking at the MSCI Specialty Metals Conference earlier this year. The biggest challenge for business leaders today, is turning away from this day-to-day and quarter to quarter crisis management and learning how to “force innovation to happen.”

“If you are interested in growth, you have to be interested in innovation,” Williams said. “It is getting exponentially harder to see what the business future, near and long term, is going to look like. After all, how can you balance risks and opportunities when your business fundamentals may change overnight?”

Williams observed that every business today is a technology business. And that is true of what he called “more slow moving sectors” like metals distribution and some manufacturing. Therefore, “the things that made this industry successful over the last 10 years, will not work over the next 10.” Incremental change will not get us where we need to go to prosper in this new business dynamic, he said. Think about the impact of Big Data on your shop floor, to sales operations, or the innovative new materials for an increasing number of construction, vehicle and other applications. “The speed of change is unprecedented,” Williams said. “We are all experts by now at sustaining leadership, but what we need is disruptive leadership, the ability to guide your organization toward building a portfolio of disruptive strategic options.

“There is far too much emphasis today on getting better at predictions, instead of getting better at provocations. But you do not have to be Steve Jobs to be able to provoke new ways for your company to look at things.

“Your goal has to be to get more innovative capital together than your competitors,” Williams declared. “I mean new ideas, developing options for your future. And the biggest barrier to that kind of innovation is incrementalism, trying to innovate around existing assets and models.”

Genuine, truly useful innovative planning, he said, “can be terrifying. It’s like sticking your hand into an engine that is running to change the fan belt.”

And to do that means “looking very carefully and closely at all the clichés that you use to run your business. The product clichés concerning what you produce. The interaction clichés that determine how your customers experience your goods and services. The pricing clichés that govern how you are compensated for those goods and services. You know what these clichés are called?” he asked. “They are called best practices. And the only way to get past incremental thinking is to challenge every one of them.”

“That recurring ‘we’ve always done it this way,’ mantra has a tremendous hold on your thinking,” Williams said. “But you have to realize that the two drivers of growth now are productivity and innovation, and each require a kind of new thinking that may be entirely unfamiliar.”

The best way to tap into reinvention, and transformative, disruptive thinking, said Williams, is to create the right environment. He urged organization leaders to create a strategic planning group specifically charged with “figuring out a way to kill your business and then plot the response. You need a group that is capable on a regular basis of taking your business model apart.” 

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