Wednesday, April 27, 2011

"Little Bets" Innovation

I just heard author Peter Sims talk on a business news show about his new book "Little Bets." Little bets, he explains, are a low-risk way to explore and develop new ideas. He maintains that most successful people and businesses in vastly different fields use this basic method of making lots of little bets, rather than bet-your-company, big bets. What caught my attention about this interview was that he was describing one of the common factors my research has uncovered in 100 year old companies. To quote from my presentation at the Forbes Business Leadership Forum earlier this month: "These companies ARE innovative, but they do so in a very interesting way: through constant, small experimentation."

These "old" companies are very aware of their changing external environment and are constantly on the outlook for adaptations they may need to make. These companies are tolerant of (and often encourage) activities "on the margin" - experimentation within the boundaries of the firm's cohesive sense of mission and purpose. When large scale innovation and change are needed, they plan and implement it very carefully based on what they have learned from the "little bets."

Sims says in these "uncertain and rapidly changing times .... little bets must become a way to see what's around the corner, or we risk stagnating." Companies that have survived over 100 years have discovered this is the way to survive throughout the times.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Doesn't Leadership Matter?

The most frequent question I receive regarding the common practices of companies that have survived over 100 years is "Why don't you have good leadership as one of the factors?" The simple answer is because it didn't show up in the studies. These companies have survived because of their strategy, culture and practices that transcend individual leaders. Though most of them revere their founder and have stories about leaders who navigated the organization through a crisis of some sort, no common leadership traits emerged. Obviously leadership matters and these companies thrive under good leadership. But they also survive under poor leadership. What they can't appear to overcome, however, is a leader who tries to steer the company away from its strengths rather than building on them: when old companies fail, the leaders have not been following the practices that enabled them to survive for the past 100 years. What a shame.

Monday, April 18, 2011

What You Know vs. What You Do

I am happy to report that my presentation on 100-year-old companies was met with great interest at the recent Forbes Business Leadership Forum/IBM Impact Conference. I was also very pleased to find many examples I could use for the key "survival" practices of old companies from the talks of other speakers at the conference, even though their topics were completely different. IBM started with a slide show titled "100 Years of Innovation in 100 Seconds;" the CIO of Caterpillar talked about the 83 year partnership they have had with IBM; "culture eats strategy for lunch" so you'd better have a good one; Forbes publisher Rich Karlgaard listed "real purpose" (a moral foundation - not financial) as one of the things that are needed for a company to survive in the new economy. One speaker began his talk by asking how many people in the audience believe that regular exercise is good for your health. Of course, most of us raised our hands. Then he asked how many of us regularly exercise. Far fewer hands were raised. His point: knowing what needs to be done is the first step, but doing is necessary and may require changing old habits. The life expectancy of people living in the United States increased by 80% in the 20th century by knowing what factors increase longevity and by acting on them. Now that we have identified some common factors in companies that have "lived" for over 100 years, perhaps in the 21st century we can increase the life expectancy of companies. But it will take changing some old habits.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

"My" Old Companies

In preparing my presentation for the IBM Impact/Forbes Business Forum, I've been looking for examples of 100-year-old companies and started with the companies I know best: those I have worked for. Can't believe I didn't realize until now that all the organizations I have worked for in my adult life are over 100 years old. Some of these companies you have heard about: General Electric (1878) and Herman Miller, Inc. (1905), but the small local bank at which I worked throughout high school (The Bank of Birnamwood, now Banner Banks) is also proud of its history beginning in 1900 and not closing during the 'great depression' or after the head teller was killed in a bank robbery. My current employer, little Hope College in Holland, Michigan traces its history to 1851. Perhaps my interest in old companies is rooted in my own positive personal experience with these outstanding institutions.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

IBM Impact/Forbes Business Leadership Forum

One week from today I will be presenting results of my research on 100-year-old companies at the Forbes Business Leadership Forum within the IBM Impact conference in Las Vegas. Cindy Cheng from IBM discovered my blog as she was researching IBM's 100th anniversary and invited me to speak at the conference next week. I am very excited to share this information with many of today's business leaders.