Viewpoint -- Give Yourself Some "Wiggle Room" to Drive Innovation and Change

In the end, business survival is about bringing innovation to market.

Recently I came across a quote by the legendary Chicago Sun-Times journalist Sydney Harris who observed, "Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we really want is for things to remain the same, but get better." Nothing like a little paradox to reboot the brain and inspire a new look at the same landscape.

We want things to stay the same -- only get better. Ain't that the truth? There's a lot of comfort in things remaining the same. We know what to expect, we can predict our reactions, nothing is going to catch us off-guard and cause us pain or make us look bad.

We gain a sense of security in things remaining the same, especially over a long period of time. It's like a baseball hitter who spends hours hitting off a pitching machine. The speed and location of the ball are predictable, so eventually no matter how fast the pitch comes in the hitter can whack it. He starts feeling good about himself. Then he gets into a game, where the pitcher is changing speeds and location, and suddenly those hard line drives turn into soft pop-ups and groundouts. Without the predictability of the machine, hitting becomes a much tougher job.

Change by definition upsets the status quo. Sometimes that's good. Sometimes it's not. If it makes things better then we love it. But because we only know the outcome after the change occurs, we hate the prospect of it, mostly because we're afraid of losing what we already have. That's human nature.

While I was in the process of wrapping my brain around this concept I was given a copy of a recent article by Geoffrey Moore from the Harvard Business Review. The article has proved very helpful in understanding the power of this paradox -- stay the same, only better.

The article, from the July/August 2007 issue, is titled: "To Succeed in the Long Term, Focus on the Middle Term."

The always-insightful Moore pointed out that there are three terms or time horizons we work in. Normally we deal in the short-term horizon and the long-term horizon. But according to Moore, there is also the overlooked, often borrowed-from and always-misunderstood middle--term horizon, which ironically is the only place where innovative ideas can gain traction.

Eureka! Paradox solved -- or at least given clarity.

Yes, of course we are very comfortable in the short-term, getting instant gratification for our immediate needs - be it food (hence the proliferation of quick-service restaurants), receiving a "thumbs-up" for doing a good job, making a quick sale, or achieving our quarterly quota, etc. Hitting a short-term objective is satisfying, although getting there can be difficult. Still, the shorter the term we're dealing with, fewer chances there are for the rules, the environment, or the assumptions we're working under to change. As Harris points out, we would prefer it, if it were a bit easier.

And yes, we are comfortable in long-term thinking about the future, designing new products and services, opening new geographic markets and starting new businesses, because we apparently enjoy a degree of accountability that is, shall we say, more fluid at the edges. The future is ripe with possibility, riches and romance; or as they say in baseball - all teams look good in spring training.

The other comfort with the long-term is that if changes do sneak up on us we will have time to react to them. Changes that face a long-term outcome aren't nearly as traumatic, giving us the opportunity to try different things and regain our equilibrium and return to a state of non-change before we reach the day of reckoning. Things may have changed in truth, but they don't feel like they did as much because we have time to assimilate the changes.

"Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we really want is for things to remain the same, but get better."

What Moore gets right in his essay and that the Harris quote misses, is that innovation is not actually a dilemma. A dilemma is a choice between two painful alternatives. Moore demonstrates that there is a third alternative, a middle horizon or a middle-term, that incorporates the best of the other two. He says that in order to implement change, we need to create a space in this middle horizon that is free from the pain and rewards of the short-term horizon and, also free from the open-ended "explore all options" thinking of the long-term horizon.

What's needed then, in order to implement innovation and alignment in the middle horizon, is a little wiggle room. I realize the term "wiggle room" isn't listed in the glossary of the latest MBA textbooks -- but it works for me. Wiggle room means there is flexibility in the business expectations of ROI and market share for new product and service innovations making the prospect of change a less fearsome one; but it also means there are needed restraints that sharpen the focus. There is less of a tendency to push off concerns about the consequences of your actions on "future you" when the future is not as far off. Flexibility with restraint is the ideal environment to nurture innovation.

One of the ways to create an innovative middle horizon is to build both flexibility and structure into an IT organization through the use of managed services. On the flexibility front, managed services give companies two critical advantages -- flexibility of capital resources, and flexibility of human resources.

Innovation by its nature requires a large investment in human resources in particular. In most cases it helps to have many minds brainstorming a variety of concepts from different points of view to nurture innovation. It also takes a fair amount of freedom from the restraints of day-to-day work in order to envision what does not already exist or is not already a part of the corporate culture. Yet it is difficult to achieve that free-thinking mindset when your best resources are bogged down in the day-to-day tasks involved in keeping the current business operating. Offloading the mundane tasks onto a managed services provider frees your experts to think in an innovative way. Reducing current cost and avoiding future costs also enables new products and services to attain more realistic maturity cycles.

Managed services address the structure part of the equation by making the "costs" of ideas real. In a typical organization the cost of the day-to-day running of IT tends to be loosely defined, coming out of a central budget that can be applied conveniently. When working with a managed services provider costs are much more tightly controlled, with greater accountability across the board. Knowing this level of detail helps place a practical focus onto innovation, assuring that it is being driven by the needs of the business, not just innovation for its own sake.

In the end, business survival is about bringing innovation to market. Managed services are an often-overlooked yet critical tool in a CIOs portfolio for creating that little bit of wiggle room in the mid-term horizon for new products and services to find their potential. They can help take some of the fear and pain out of change by redefining roles in order to encourage it. While the individuals may not learn to love change unequivocally, they may at least learn to embrace it as a necessary step on the road to success. And that's definitely movement in the right direction.

John Bostick is president and CEO of dbaDIRECT, which provides data infrastructure management services to Fortune 1000 and Private 500 firms including SC Johnson, Procter & Gamble, Timberland, Hanesbrands, Warner Brothers, Duke Energy and Old National Bank. He can be reached at [email protected].

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