How outliers are shaping the future of business transformation
‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ is the mantra of business leaders judged by the quarter instead of the long-term interests of the business. But those interested in the bigger picture know that nothing stands still. Businesses, like people or even society, need to embrace change in order to survive and thrive.
However, it’s often easier said than done. It takes a special type of person to break the mold. True business transformation needs not only the innovative instincts of the revolutionary but the courage and support of those around them with the power to help take the transition from theory to practice.
History isn’t short on examples of great revolutionaries who have seen things differently from those around them and tried to shape the world to their own vision. But the likes of Nikola Tesla, Clive Sinclair and John DeLorean show us that, in business, innovative vision alone is sometimes not enough. Revolutionary change without responsibility or sufficient checks and balances can be dramatically destructive. The simple lesson being that change needs to be carefully managed.
Revolutionary change can be destructive. The simple lesson is that it needs to be carefully managed.
The secret for success seems to be finding a way to help responsible revolutionaries thrive. Often this means a complete change of environment. After their initial success in 1903 the Wright brothers were largely ignored. It was only when they uprooted to France in 1908 that they found the recognition their achievements deserved, which in turn allowed them to return home and make their considerable fortune. The challenge for many business leaders is how to achieve such a change of environment, to unleash the promise of the mavericks and outliers, without losing the connection to the core.
Making the most of your mavericks
One of the most famous examples of managing this type of business transformation successfully is the ‘Green Team’ behind the extraordinary development of Java. Back in the ’90s after a game of hockey, 25-year-old programmer Patrick Naughton told Scott McNealy, the founder and CEO of Sun Microsystems, that he had had enough and was leaving to work with Steve Jobs.
Rather than wishing him good riddance, McNealy had the vision to ask, “Before you go, write up what you think Sun is doing wrong. Don’t just lay out the problem. Give me a solution. Tell me what you could do if you were God.”
This led to the formation of the Green Team. A design team separated physically from Sun’s offices and most importantly from the company’s internal systems and normal business practices. The Green Team went on to create Java, which Oracle has described as the world’s most popular programming language. McNealy’s genius was in finding a way to make the most of his outliers rather than losing them to the competition.
What are the secrets to nurturing business innovators?
We wanted to know more about the secrets to nurturing business innovators. So we asked a digital marketing leader at a tech company who regularly faces this challenge. “Having worked with many growth-minded leaders during my professional career, I have noticed that the one trait that is crucial for nurturing innovation is patience,” they told us.
“By definition, innovation requires an acceptance of unique ways of thinking alongside risk-taking. I believe that failure is often a necessary step in innovation. If innovation is the goal, then traditional methods of evaluating results cannot be used to assess the success of projects.
Digital marketing leader
If innovation is the goal, then traditional methods of evaluating results cannot be used to assess the success of projects.
“Empathetic leaders understand the value of patience. They adjust their expectations and timelines accordingly. While traditional management styles that employ more defined outcomes can be used to increase efficiency and profits in the short-term, innovation has the potential to exponentially boost growth in the long-term. By balancing both of these approaches, leaders can assure longevity.”
This speaks to the heart of the matter in that the management of long-term transformational business innovation through outliers is often at odds with short-term efficiency practices and targets.
Our tech leader continues: “I rotate between a short-term and long-term mentality on a daily basis. For example, when running promotional campaigns aimed at increasing revenue in a certain period of time, my goals are strictly defined. I make certain that my team has a clear understanding of what success looks like for the project and that all key performance indicators are stated. These campaigns are essential to our day-to-day tasks and remain similar no matter the situation. In the short-term, these campaigns are crucial to driving sales and increasing profits.
“However, when we are working on projects that have the ability to drastically alter our business operations, I communicate with my team very differently. These projects span from validating new program offerings to testing completely new marketing channels. Success isn’t based on whether we make money but on gaining an understanding of whether we should explore these areas further.
“While I expect all my promotional campaigns to be effective, I don’t have the same expectations for growth projects. Failure is bound to happen. It’s through failure that we learn where success lies. As a leader, I have learned to be more patient when working on innovative projects because I recognize that the long-term reward can be much greater.”
But seeing things differently in business isn’t just about people. Tools and technology have been at the heart of constant evolutions in how we work, connect and collaborate. From the wheel to the knife, from the telephone to AI, from email to the metaverse, it’s an ongoing journey.
For example, many still see virtual reality as something of a futuristic fantasy, suitable for gamers but not practical business. Yet at The Economist’s Enterprise Metaverse Summit in London in July, there was a panel discussion that asked “Are we all metaverse companies now? And what companies will win in this environment?”
Such a discussion might have been unthinkable a few years ago, and yet one panellist described how the impact of VR on training and learning was first felt half a decade ago. The focus today was more around how, for example, a major auto manufacturer was using VR to reduce design time from months to weeks.
Whether people or technology, it seems the outliers who see things differently can add exceptional value that easily outweighs the short-term business challenges.
The responsible revolutionaries will always find a way. If you want them to do it in your business, the keys to making it happen are patience and creating the right business environment.
Having the right people and the right tools are necessary requirements for achieving transformational business innovation. Find out how Meta for Work can support your business needs through our VR learning and training solutions .