The risk of ‘catastrophic success’ in a hyper connected world

A Slate writer, Farhad Manjoo, recently created quite a challenge for a young American garment manufacturer, American Giant.  He wrote an article that waxed poetic about the quality and design of their product – so much so that the company was overwhelmed with orders. His readers flocked to the site and orders quickly spiked.  American Giant produces all of its apparel in the United States, creating a high quality, mid-range price line, and they are worth checking out, but expect to wait if you want a hoodie – current backorders are at least weeks if not longer. This is a case study on “catastrophic success” – where sudden demand outstrips supply so significantly it challenges the entire business model.

American’s in particular expect instant gratification – . We live in a world where a game in the app store can go from one of millions to The One overnight, and the biggest challenges to scale are servers and pipes. But the realities of manufacturing a real, tangible, physical object like a garment remain what they are – cotton must be processed, dyes must be applied and set, cloth created, pieces cut and sewn.  Reconciling production challenges with the reality of trends, spikes, and the speed with which things ‘go viral’ and then fade away is a challenge for any company looking to manage a pipeline.

Traditional business projections typically follow either a steady growth, a spike and level, or a cyclical chart. Sometimes they can plan for an anomaly – for example Roots, the Canadian manufacturer who designed clothing for the Olympics could get ahead of that spike because it was predictable. Viral hits are something new for manufacturers, especially those that don’t come from a planned campaign or something like a major sporting event. Companies want to balance investment in infrastructure with long range revenue projections, so building production capability to meet the possibility of a sudden viral hit is tough for a company that has long lead times for commodities like cotton.

American Giant seems to be taking it in stride, and according to Manjoo has restructured to address the sudden viral hit and a revised ongoing business plan. Check out this follow up article for insight regarding how it all played out. It is both a great success story and an interesting case study for any internet based manufacturing company that can’t move at the speed of the internet.

Are you a liger…. or maybe a leadager?

Ligers are a hybrid male lion and female tiger mix.  They are very rare, occurring only in captivity, and are generally bigger and stronger than their purebred counterparts. They have attributes of both breeds, and are generally very healthy, demonstrating none of the speculated risks of cross-breeding species.

Every now and then I meet someone who reminds me of a liger, because he or she is a hybrid leader and manager. They don’t get caught up in which one they ‘really’ are – they embrace both roles and bring them together seamlessly.  If someone calls them a manager, they say ‘yep, I deliver’, and if someone calls them a leader they say ‘I’m fortunate that people choose to follow my lead’.

These are people who gets things done and therefore lead, and who lead and therefore gets things done.


What’s the hardest part of your day?

If you are a manager, you might feel like the hardest thing you do every day is try to convince people to do their jobs the way you want them done.  How often do you stop to consider why you want things done in a certain way and if it really makes sense?

Do that often enough, and it might become the hardest part of your day….. and convincing people to do it might become incredibly easy.

A Framework for the Future of Work

When I think about the Future of Work, I consider the environmental, economic, organizational, and individual impacts.  The framework below provides a broad set of considerations for these areas as you think about where you want to take your organization and what it means to ‘work’ in your world.  Try asking yourself some questions about these areas and see what happens then!

Framework for the Future

What’s GenX’s Winnebego?

When we think about the future of work, we think about how things are changing.  New generations entering, older generations exiting, new types of work becoming the norm, with older patterns and habits dying off – some going easily and others fighting to stay relevant.

When I think about what’s changing, I think in terms of environmental, economic, organizational, and individual changes that drive industries, markets, and the workforce. In the 60s, the American desire to get on the road and explore, coupled with inexpensive materials and fuel, gave birth to entire new industries, including the Recreational Vehicle, KOA parks, and chain restaurants. Baby Boomers gave us the Winnebego and its related support industries, and now, as I look into the future, I wonder what will happen as mid-life GenXers start to  exert generational influence and character while also navigating between the needs of longer living (and working) Baby Boomers and Millennials whose expectations of work and reward are so different from traditional definitions.

Perhaps we already have our Winnebego, and it is the iPad and all of its related industries that didn’t exist a scant 10 years ago. App Stores, wireless speakers, camera phones, video chat, text platforms, social media – these are all feeding a generational desire to connect in ways that were pure fantasy not so long ago.  I’m typing this post on a tablet, in my kitchen, without a cord in sight, while listening to a streaming radio program and texting with my nephew and finishing up some work for tomorrow.  Perhaps that is our Winnebego – the portability and integration of home life, recreation, work, and play. Or maybe we haven’t figured it out yet, we’ll have to see.

Nimble elephants aren’t just for the circus

Once a company moves out of start up mode and into major operations, it is easy to become cemented into ways of doing things, ways of thinking, and ways of reacting that slow down even the coolest, fastest, most innovative companies. Many entrepreneurs take intentional steps to try to prevent it, but the inertia is tough to fight.

Growing but staying nimble is a constant balancing act for companies because being nimble means taking risks, and growth means you have more to lose. It requires having a culture that can absorb and respond quickly from a common core foundation, which is easy to say….. tough to do.

Adam Bryant’s new book Quick and Nimble is reflected in a New York Times article today, and highlights some of the key ways leaders and managers try to maintain that balance through strong cultural commitments.  He shares some of the lessons learned in his research of companies grappling with this kind of challenge – check it out for a good read.

One is the loneliest number when it comes to knowledge

When I’m working with companies on understanding and improving their approach to content management and knowledge sharing (formerly known as “knowledge management”), it always strikes me how some people want to get down to “just one” solution.  Just one repository, just one social platform, just one process, having Just One seems like a neat and tidy solution.

Here’s a problem that comes with the Just One direction (and not just that it comes with a boy band attached…..) – the governance and oversight required to sustain it is often extensive. So all you really do is move the complexity to the governance work, generally it fails to meet local needs, and eventually people will do their own thing anyway in order to survive.

It is, in my opinion, better to design a solid information architecture and infrastructure within which both general and specialized repositories and networks can co-exist. Solid guidelines give people the ability to create what works for them and the local culture of their teams / functions / work processes. At the same time, guidelines give everyone the boundaries within which they can be most successful.  If you have that in place, it actually doesn’t matter how many repositories or social spaces you have, because they are all following similar guidelines and a common architecture, but they are building what they need for their local needs and wants.

I equate it to driving down the highway – we all know the basic rules of the road – speed limits, how to use on and off ramps, staying in lanes, etc. As the saying goes, in the law, there is freedom. Generally people follow the same flow, but in very different ways – people use a car, a truck, or a motorcycle depending on their needs and resources, and the way they drive depends on the training they’ve received and their personalities, but for the most part it works pretty well considering all of the variables in play.

Failure makes visible our naked condition

Just read a great article from the New York Times on failure by Costica Bradatan – In Praise of Failure.  Check it out for his three reasons failure is important to human existence:

  1. Failure allows us to see our existence in its naked condition
  2. Our capacity to fail is essential to what we are
  3. We are designed to fail

Bradatan points out that “To experience failure is to start seeing the cracks in the fabric of being, and that’s precisely the moment when, properly digested, failure turns out to be a blessing in disguise. For it is this lurking, constant threat that should make us aware of the extraordinariness of our being: the miracle that we exist at all when there is no reason that we should. Knowing that gives us some dignity.”

Somehow we have become a population that shies away from failure – we talk about ‘failing forward’, or how we don’t have to ‘fail’, we can instead ‘learn’. We get aggressive about failure ‘tackling it head on’, ‘turning it around’, ‘refusing to fail’, or being ‘too big to fail’. We are afraid of what we are, as Bradatan reminds us, biologically designed to fail in the end.

Philosophically it is fascinating to consider – what happens when we seriously interrogate our popular aversion to failure? What to we give up, what do we gain?

4 Great Expressions of Consultantize

Consultants love to speak in a particular language that results in some pretty fun combinations.  Here are some of my favorite (and somewhat non-sensical) expressions- I utter them myself on a regular basis….  They have meaning and purpose in our language, but it is worth taking a  moment every now and then to examine what they are doing for us.

1. Strategic Planning – was there ever a greater mismatch of words? Strategy is something that moves, something that grows, it ebbs and flows, it adjust every day to the world dynamics.  Plans are static, they are put in place with the intention of working against them.  Don’t get me wrong, I believe in strategy and I believe in planning – as I’ve written about before, I’m a fan of Eisenhower’s quote on planning and the importance of the process.  I just think the terms should be “strategic discussion” and “action planning”.  Combining them doesn’t accomplish much in my mind.

2. Change Management – in a similar vein, to me, change is something that happens in a messy, non-linear way, and managing it is a tall order that implies structure and predictability. I’m PROSCI certified, I’ve planned, executed, and rescued many a change effort, but none of them have ever gone according to the management plan. CM is being slowly shifted to “Change Leadership” – it will be interesting to see how that takes hold. The concept seems to be about leading others through change, but what I often see is that leaders are unwilling to change themselves – they just focus on “leading others” because it is easier than doing the hard work of changing their own commitments.

3. Enterprise Transformation – in my mind, enterprises don’t transform, people do. I’ve written a lot about my issue with the term “transformation“, but really, unless you buy into the anthropomorphism of companies, enterprises don’t transform. Individuals and groups within the enterprise have to make a decision to believe different things, to act differently, and to make different decisions day to day about how they orient towards work.

4. Knowledge Worker (closely followed by Knowledge Management) – as an organizational scholar, I see knowledge as socially constructed through interactions with others. So to me, the idea of an individual “knowledge worker” makes no sense – all workers apply a unique set of experiences, skills, and know-how to their jobs. It has become a hallowed term in consulting and in industry in the many years since Peter Drucker first coined it, and it was a revolutionary thought at the time, but here in 2013, it seems like it might be appropriate to rexamine our assumptions about what knowledge is, and how the idea of “knowledge workers” is useful.

If you read this blog, you know I have a problem with “best practice” as well, but it just isn’t quite an oxymoron.  It is more just that it isn’t useful to me.

So that’s my quick list. What happens if we really look at our language and what we really mean when we use these expressions.