What it Takes to Convert New Ideas into Action
Most of us “play it by ear” when it comes to the execution of a new concept. Our focus is on acquiring ideas or information—planning, reading, discussing, hearing or analyzing them. When it comes to execution, we rely on the same old tools we always used and settle for ad hoc activities and initiatives.
Yet one cannot achieve systems-wide change by “understanding” the concept or generating detailed plans. This is
especially true with the execution of the complex challenges we are grappling with today—customer centricity, innovation, reinvention, market positioning. What these require are fundamental changes in the way an organization thinks, behaves, does things and conducts business.
This means that we need to understand how to convert a new vision/direction into a different type of organization with a different DNA rather than new products and strategies.
It is the execution of change rather than the ideas where the rubber meets the road. Yet there are no tools or systems
approaches for “executing” innovation.
Hurdles to execution
´´Execution of change vs. implementation of plans. In the first place, execution is not the same as implementation. Per Dictionary.com, to implement is “to put into effect according to, or by means of, a definite plan or procedure.” To execute means to perform or accomplish something, as an assigned task; to carry out. In other words, execution involves carrying an idea to action and getting results but allows more leeway in how you get there than simply following instructions. The big challenges organizations are grappling with today involve execution in the sense of conversions of abstract concepts into action rather than the implementation of a specific plan. Associations, like other mature businesses, still use linear tools such as planning and “implementation” rather than conversion, re-configuration, re-orientation and culture change.
´Separation between planning and execution: In the book, Agents of Change: Crossing the Post-Industrial Divide leadership guru, Michael Maccoby, and three colleagues who studied 4 cases of transformative change in 4 different organizations, talk about the common assumption that there should be separation between thought and action, rooted in 19th
“The classical view, carried into modern sociology by Max Weber is that scientists should be detached and
objective, above the battle.”
They conclude that this view is a fundamental flaw in the conventional strategic planning practices. It is impossible to go directly from thought to action, they say, “mainly because the objects of the analysis—human beings—also act.”
´´Product and efficiency orientation: Organizations of all types fail when they misjudge their customers and their needs. The problem is that conventional, top-down organizations are not set up for the level of customer focus, understanding, flexibility and response needed to meet the changing needs and expectations of today’s customers. They are set up for production, sales and efficiency rather than constant learning and innovation. Their actions are driven by tasks and deadlines vs. customer problems and the pursuit of constant innovation. Cultures and practices driven by risk avoidance and fear of failure vs. continuous experimentation and adaptation. Such mental habits, assumptions and practices are in dissonance with today’s markets and block growth and innovation, yet are embedded in the DNA of most of our organizations—business and non-profit alike. This means that the foundational piece for executing innovation is
changing the way the organization thinks and behaves.
Strategies and tools for converting change concepts into action
´ Rethink your approach and tools: Two of the most effective approaches to the execution of innovation are Design Thinking and the Lean Start Up methodology.
´ Rethink your planning processes: In the book, Beyond the Idea: How to Execute Innovation in Any Organization the
authors argue that conventional organizations are built for performance vs. innovation and that the “planning process of a performance engine is not right for an innovation engine.” They outline a strategy for converting new ideas into
action. (See also their slide share summary).
´ Integrate idea and action: learn by doing: Don’t rush to the finish line. Opt for on-going development, instead. In Design Thinking there are no hard boundaries between the design process and the finish line. Product development is “iterative”– prototypes are developed in several stages, with each stage of customer feedback resulting in improvements that, in turn elicit more feedback and more improvements. In a way, no product or idea is ever “finished” in that conversations with customers, adaptation and reconfiguration are constant.
´ Use prototype development. Instead of the linear, conventional tools of planning, data gathering, best practices and lengthy deliberations, learn to take ideas to market rapidly and inexpensively through structured processes of prototyping and testing that involve continued for customer feedback. In all these new, human-centered approaches, there is a bias toward action over theory and planning. Instead of waiting for the perfect product before you launch, you test a concept through inexpensive prototypes.
´ Focus on people rather than data. In Design Thinking, the focus on the user experience rather than data. The assumption of is that data-driven information is misleading and inadequate as you primary tool for building. The only
information that counts is a customer-member’s reaction to his/her actual experience of a product, idea or service. Prototyping is a quick and inexpensive way you can make your early idea usable, so you can go back to your users and
get their feedback.
´ Become comfortable with ambiguity. Discomfort with the “grey” area, leads to risk aversion, hierarchical organizations, lack of innovation etc. The goal in design thinking is not to create the perfect plan and eliminate all risk before launching, but to quickly set up a learning process by allowing potential users to experience and react to imperfect versions of a product or idea. You mitigate risk, not by endless planning and data analysis, but by getting closer to potential users and engaging them and your colleagues in a process of learning and co-development. In Design Thinking, there is a culture of experimentation and trial and error and really understanding the pain points of the human beings involved in this process are really the critical dimensions. Generating ideas and data is only a small part of the change process. A great deal of effort has to go into re-thinking how you convert ideas into action and embed them into your organization’s DNA. And this is by far the hardest type of change that requires deliberate action, discipline and a long-term perspective.