more than ever, management is a balancing act – the juggling of
contradictions to try to get the best of attractive but opposing
alternatives. Order is a temporary illusion, strategy a moving target.
Leaders cannot impose authority on a world of constant motion; they can
only hope to steer some of that action toward productive ends.” –
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Harvard Business School professor, consultant, and
leading organizations are knowledge creating companies that thrive on
continuous innovation. It’s a big competitive edge. New products and
services can be “knocked off” or copied. But it’s much harder for
competitors to duplicate a management system and corporate culture that
produces a continuous stream of successful product and service
improvements, innovations, adaptations, and extensions.
continuous innovation stream comes from controlled chaos. It’s a tricky
process that that has four main stages. The first two stages are
dependent on people or leadership skills. Stages three and four lean
heavily on disciplined management systems and processes.
1. Exploration –
a broad, open search for strategic partnerships, unresolved problems,
latent or unmet needs, new markets and customer segments that
potentially fit the organization’s Context and Focus (vision, values,
and purpose) as well as core competencies.
2. Experimentation –
pilots, clumsy tries, and “mucking around” to test the potential
opportunity for viability and to learn what would be needed to make it
3. Development – major resources are
now committed to fully developing or refining the few new products,
services, or businesses that are clearly ready to be capitalized on.
4. Integration – the new product, service, or business enters the organization’s mainstream.
course, these four innovation stages aren’t always so neat and orderly.
They run in parallel, overlap each other, and sometimes clash. For
example, stage two often involves field and development people. That
means that stage three work may already be proceeding while the project
is still in stage two. In smaller or centralized companies, the close
involvement of field people in stages two and three mean that many of
them are already trained by the time the company is in stage four.
organization’s emphasis on the unstable, chaotic first two leadership
stages or the last two stable and more controllable management stages
tends to pulse. At some point, there may be many exploration and
experimentation activities underway. That entrepreneurial environment is
both exciting and unstable. Too much can be dangerous to the health of
ongoing business and the people who are trying to hold core operating
As all those experiments and pilots become
developed, the organization may go through a “settling down” period.
That can be comforting, but dangerously stable. Spend too much time here
and the company won’t have enough exploring and experimenting going on
to ensure future innovations. The challenge is to find a rough balance
between exploring and experimenting while developing and integrating –
and keeping the core business operating everyday. That’s the unsolvable
paradox of controlled chaos. It’s about as easy as changing the tires on
a moving car.
The first two innovation stages are broad and
fairly inclusive. The wider a company’s scope of focus and people, the
higher their chances of “lucking out” on significant breakthroughs that
will soar. But without some limits and controls, an organization can
lose its way exploring every interesting path and side road.
where a strong and clear Context and Focus (vision, values, and
purpose) is very helpful. It will help everyone more easily assess
whether a potential opportunity should be pursued further or dropped
now. Strong vision, values, and purpose will also “magnetize” and draw
“lucky” opportunities, relationships, or people to the team or
The cost and determination to never turn back rises steeply in stages three and four.
That underscores the importance of intense learning from high levels of exploration and experimentation.