In the fall of 2016, we announced the formation of NTT i3’s first Executive Advisory Board. In this fourth of a five part series (Voices of Innovation), I talked with board member Stuart Evans, the Director of the Emirates/CMU i-Lab in Silicon Valley. As a professor, investor, and technology executive with decades of practical experience, he always bring unique questions to the table about the way that NTT i3 needs to think about and evolve its culture.  He reminds me to reflect on the importance of the resiliency and adaptability necessary for today’s enterprise companies and innovation centers.

Nina:

There are several reasons that NTT i3 is based in Silicon Valley.  One of those is to learn important lessons about startup and technology culture and processes that can then be applied in the enterprise. In your work at CMU, you teach the importance of super-flexibility and real-time adaptation in startups.  What do those capabilities mean for the enterprise?

Stuart:

Real-time adaptation is the key challenge for which businesses (startups and enterprise alike) must prepare. Situations change kaleidoscopically and the only way to adapt quickly is through becoming extremely flexible as an organization.

Flexibility sounds simple, but it is actually very complex to do things differently. I define super-flexibility as thriving in a fluid reality with the capacity to rapidly change course and reinvent oneself while withstanding a lot of turbulence. It is the adaptive DNA. A business needs to be a bit of both a chameleon (adaptability and agility) and a starfish (robustness and resilience).

There is a delicate balancing act between deciding what to keep to stay the course – and – thinking about the swift and sudden changes needed to capitalize on new realities.  A super-flexible company must critically be able to withstand while also transforming.

Nina:

I see what you mean about organizations needing to embrace both resilience and agility.  At first glance, many might think this is just relevant for startups.  But if you look at the number of unpredictable technological, economic, social, cultural, and even geo-political forces that press on enterprise companies every day and cause them to deviate from a planned path – it is equally clear that they too must embrace these traits.

Are there some key words of advice or principles that you can give to the enterprise and its knowledge workers who need not only to survive, but actually thrive, by becoming super-flexible in this fluid and dynamic settings?

Stuart:

You are so right Nina.  This is equally, if not more, important for established enterprises attempting this digital transition. I see five inter-locking principle that are the building blocks for becoming super-flexible. Briefly, they are:

  1. Strategizing by maneuvering – Having a portfolio of initiatives, instead of a single best approach, and being able to switch gears among them in real-time.
  1. Executing by experimenting – Using a scientific approach to getting things done; recalibrating as new realities unfold.
  1. Organizing with a distributed architecture – Architecting the enterprise as a living organism with a distributed brain, and not a mechanical object with a single node of control.
  1. Leading by aligning – Deploying peer-to-peer leadership practices for knowledge workers around dynamic realities.
  1. Innovating by recycling – Cross-pollinating, active scanning, and learning from failure and from others.

Nina:

I love how you extend the common Silicon Valley maxim of “moving fast and learning from failure” to include the opportunity to “recycle” and “cross-pollinate” know-how inside the enterprise and even into the broader business eco-system. You once shared with me that most startups have 12 “near death” experiences before they succeed.  It’s the ability to harness their adaptive DNA that gets them through this.  We need to embrace that way of thinking and doing in the enterprise.

Stuart:

Yes. Companies large and small need to remember that the key imperative is to continuously innovate, switch gears to adapt, and re-invent. Some great examples of long-standing companies for the enterprise to study are Electronic Arts, Adobe, and Apple.

Nina:

While global enterprise companies can learn so much from startups, they do have their own set of unique challenges that can arise from the geographic spread and potentially conflicting goals of multiple operating companies.  I probably spend close to half of my time on the road meeting with executives at other NTT operating companies to better understand how we can work better together.  How do we address the challenge of unifying teams from diverse parts of large global companies?

Stuart:

Unifying teams across divisions and operating companies and breaking down silos is one of the biggest challenges facing enterprise companies today. Geographic dispersion adds another layer of complexity to this. There are big cultural questions around how to work with someone you don’t know. But technology is now a big help.

Some of my most interesting insights have come from working with ‘bi-coastal’ students in our Integrated Innovation Institute at CMU – where we have campuses in NASA Ames Research Park, Silicon Valley, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We have had to find ways in both the physical and digital worlds to create neutral workspaces and a sense of shared experiences.  It is, of course, optimal – to be in a physical co-location where for a period of time everyone is in the same space.  But that is not always possible. Our connected classrooms utilize technology that will help us emulate physical co-location and engagement – augmented reality, 180-degree cameras, and special microphones. The dimension of multiple geographies also adds to the complexity of 24/7 operations for global companies. Success here is hard, but depends on the clarity of handoff points, use of common language and terms, and dare I say this – the soft skill of good manners.

Nina:

It’s about how culture, human behavior, and technology need to come together to deliver the right environmental mix for innovation to take hold.  That’s a big challenge, but one I am very excited about for our work in this coming year. I am certainly going to think about embracing my inner chameleon and starfish.

 

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