Post-it officeI picked up a copy of Business Week earlier in the week, attracted by the cover story : “3M’s Innovation Crisis – How Six Sigma almost smothered its idea culture”.

It provides an interesting commentary on the leadership styles of CEOs, McNerny and Buckley at 3M, and their respective attempts to introduce (or sheep-dip?) and then refocus Six Sigma to avoid that particular cuckoo pushing all the golden eggs out of the nest…

Some choice quotes:

“Perhaps one of the mistakes that we made as a company – it’s one of the dangers of six sigma – is that when you value sameness more than you value creativity, I think you potentially undermine the heart and soul of a company like 3M.”

Whilst I allowed myself a private smirk at the critical stance of the article, it got me reflecting on whether some of the tools of knowledge management, inappropriately applied, could equally easily undermine the heart and soul of a company. Too intense focus on continuous improvement and good practice sharing, at the expense of boundary-scanning, making connections and opening up resources, relationships and organisational boundaries…

Jeneanne Rae follows up the main story in Business Week with a short article on how Ambidextrous Companies can “have it both ways” and simultaneously handle incremental change and bold initiatives. She references O’Reilly and Tushman’s HBR article on the Ambidextrous Organisation – I must read this, as some of the organisations I know (and have worked in) struggle to have the left hand know what the right hand is doing, let alone successfully harmonise their activities!

Jeneanne finishes with three strategies for managing incremental and disruptive innovative initiatives simultaneously:

  • Separate the efforts. Don’t expect people running mature businesses to behave the same as those in charge of startups. Each type has its own incentives, organizations, and talent needs.
  • Appoint an ambidextrous senior manager to oversee both efforts. A general manager with responsibility for both traditional and new businesses will foster efficiency by sharing such resources as HR, marketing, and finance, and by promoting integration of the initiatives when the time is right.
  • Support both teams appropriately. Don’t shortchange one over the other. It kills me to see so much investment in reengineering, training, and employee time being poured into Six Sigma initiatives in the name of cost savings when innovation gets starved for critical research requirements like white-space analysis, ethnographic research, or prototyping. It’s as if leadership believes companies can shrink their way to greatness.

That final quote is one to savour – and will be going into my favourite quotes list…

“It’s as if leadership believes companies can shrink their way to greatness.”