de-fuzzing the hairbal

The guy had it all: the apple watch, chucks, suntan, polo shirt and dynamic posture. He was oozing agility and creativity – the agile action-man! In his keynote, he shared the approach that he and his team took to create innovative breakthroughs in a tech-dominated corporate. The approach seemed similar to his image: agile, action-oriented, and cool.

The reason for choosing this approach, he said, was obvious: “with the existing structures [within the firm], radical breakthrough innovation is simply not possible!” He went on to describe his organization as old-fashioned, tech-minded, and silo thinking. Most of the audience nodded in acknowledgment; obviously they were sharing the same issue. The way out was presented in the form of a new mindset and new culture, one that would foster agility and open-mindedness. Clearly this mindset had to be newly installed in a separate organization since the ‘mother ship’ was infected with ‘industrial thinking’. He illustrated the mother organization as a fuzzy hairball (see G. McKenzie). A hairball, so persistent and full of dirt and dust that – just like a black hole would suck-in energy – it would suck-in in agility and new thinking. A hairball with such complex structures that communication and collaboration get lost in fuzziness, subsequently killing all initiatives for cross-disciplinary working and trans-organizational thinking. Again the audience nodded in agreement; obviously, they were experiencing the fuzzy hairball themselves.

So the way out could only be to leave the fuzziness behind and create a satellite that would orbit the hairball in a safe distance, in order not to be sucked-in. Factually, far enough not to be connected at all. Occasional visits would transfer the breakthrough ideas back home to the mother ship, infusing new thinking and allowing the management to tell the ‘hairy’ ones how it’s done. The action-man specifically emphasized that last aspect, which he seemed to enjoy.

Nowadays it’s common practice to create a satellite outside the core-organization: incubators, labs, think tanks, and start-ups are all created to escape the fuzzy hairball. Every self-respecting large firm runs one or more of these in the attempt to not miss out on core business competencies: agility, design thinking, and creativity are essential to sustain a business, but very difficult to develop within a hairball full of fuzziness.

But a lab or an incubator is similar to a high-end racing bike: it’s an agile and potent tool that can effectively bring you to places where you’ve never been. But only if you are fit enough to ride it properly! Many attempts to escape the hairball are similar to the attempts of people you can meet at the cycling club: it’s easy to get a brand new bike, but it takes years of practice, training, and strong will to become fit enough to fully enjoy it. Many would give up after the first long ride… and sell off the bike. Likewise, if you want to enjoy the competencies of agility, creativity, and design thinking, you equally need to practice for years, train and develop a strong will. It’s not enough to just launch a satellite (bike), you need to de-fuzz (train) the hairball and develop a strong will.

Actually, labs and incubators are great tools to un-fuzz an organization! But only if they are set-up as a training exercise; if they are situated within the hairball and thus remind the hairy ones to train hard and develop a strong will. They can act as a comb to align the hairball towards a shared vision. By conveying what innovation can do to build sustainability, they can develop the will to actually get there. To build strong will you need to be close to the people – and not in orbit. You also have to be patient, since the de-fuzzing doesn’t come overnight: it takes years to improve the fitness level of an organization.

So when you consider building a place for disruption, agility, and new thinking, do it within your hairball and not in a satellite. But foremost, be prepared to train and invest the time needed to develop fitness. Unless you want to start up a completely new business: then you just take along a couple of action men and leave behind the fuzzy hairball – if you are fit enough for the ride!

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