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Super-flexibility Interview Part I – What is Super-flexibility?

super1Interview with Homa Bahrami and Stuart Evans

“‘Super-flexibility’ is the capacity to transform by adapting to new realities, underpinned by the ability to withstand turbulence by creating stable anchors.”

In Super-Flexibility for Knowledge Enterprises: A Toolkit for Dynamic Adaptation (Springer, 2010), authors and educators, Homa Bahrami and Stuart Evans provide a “toolkit” to help organizations and teams become “super-flexible” in a dynamic world. They define “super-flexibility” as the capacity to transform by adapting to new realities, underpinned by the ability to withstand turbulence by creating stable anchors. Based on 25 years of field research, advisory work, and professional experience in Silicon Valley, Bahrami and Evans present a cross-functional general management toolkit for strategizing, organizing, leading, and ultimately re-inventing knowledge enterprises.  Part I of this interview will focus on the big picture, or the theory behind, and the conceptual foundations of, super-flexibility.  Part II of the interview, published in the following issue, will focus on the how, or the execution part of the equation and aims to answer how companies or teams can become super-flexible.

1. What does “Super-flexibility” mean and why did you coin the phrase?
Our goal in writing the book, and teaching the concepts in our executive seminars and graduate programs, is to give knowledge workers and business leaders a diagnostic toolkit for succeeding in a dynamic world.  In essence, super-flexibility is the capacity to change course, transform, evolve, and reinvent—like a chameleon changing its color.  At the same time, super-flexibility is not just about transformation and reinvention; it is also about the capacity to withstand turbulence, to bounce back, and to stay the course, like a camel surviving in desert conditions.  In practice, it means engaging in a delicate balancing act: deciding what to keep and how to stay the course on the one hand, and deciding where to make swift and sudden changes in order to address new realities, on the other hand.

Our doctoral field research was conducted in European multinationals.  When we came to Silicon Valley in the early 1980s, the contrast was startling.  Because this place is all about dealing with dynamic reality, we became interested in how entrepreneurial companies dealt with technological innovation and market uncertainty. We realized that Silicon Valley was, and is, an ideal research lab for studying adaptation. Young companies are not impacted by active inertia and can experiment with new recipes.  We coined the term “super-flexibility” to describe what we have observed during the last 25 years in Silicon Valley.

2. How does “Super-flexibility” differ from other terms like flexibility, agility, versatility, etc.?
“Flexibility” is a polymorphous concept. It has different meanings depending on the context, and has been the focus of research in several disciplines.  For example, the term “ambidexterity” is used in strategic management to describe how an entity can be innovative yet leverage its core business. “Agility” is used interchangeably with flexibility in supply chain management and software engineering. In child psychology and ecology, the term “resilience” describes the process of bouncing back after sustaining damage.  In biology, scientists refer to “plasticity” to describe how a phenotype adapts to its unique environment.  The term “super-flexibility” aggregates the different terms with a family resemblance into one overarching concept, and integrates these varied nuances.

3. In your book, you talk about how a company or organization becomes super-flexible through a super-flexible ecosystem, strategy, execution, organization, and leadership.  Can you talk more about these?
We discuss how a super-flexible ecosystem innovates through a process of “flexible recycling”.  It can recycle talent, ideas, projects and most important of all, “failures” and reconfigure these in novel ways, with added ingredients. Recycling is also about cross-pollination, scanning actively, and learning from others. Yet, many business leaders are myopic and don’t have peripheral vision; they see the world through the lens of their own established businesses.  Henry Ford got the idea of the assembly line by visiting slaughter houses.  He saw how carcasses went through their own “assembly lines” and applied the principle to the auto industry. In our book, we discuss how recycling and cross-pollination catalyze the process of innovation in Silicon Valley.

“Developing super-flexible strategies involves switching between a portfolio of initiatives. Business leaders have to “maneuver” their strategic trajectory, like changing gears in a car.”

Instead of thinking about strategy as a single “best” approach, we argue that developing super-flexible strategies involves switching between a portfolio of initiatives. Business leaders have to “maneuver” their strategic trajectory, like changing gears in a car.  In our book, we describe four types of maneuvers: pre-emptive, protective, exploitive, and corrective.

Super-flexible execution is about deploying a scientific approach to getting things done, instead of being bogged down in “analysis paralysis”.  We argue that dynamic execution requires clear intentions, targeted experimentation, openness to new data, fact-based assessment, and swift revisions.  Our “Recalibration Framework” describes a phased approach to execution, and the three stages of experimentation, escalation and integration, as well as action steps along the way.  The worst-case scenario is when you ignore factual feedback and adhere to the same recipe because you are intellectually and emotionally “attached” to it.  We know several brilliant leaders who failed because they were not open to input that did not fit their own world views. The essence of recalibration is thinking like scientists—develop a hypothesis, gather data, experiment, prototype, iterate, learn, and even fail along the way.

“A super-flexible organization is multi-polar, like a living organism with multiple brains, but these move in the same direction, like a flock of birds or a school of fish.”

A super-flexible organization is multi-polar, with several centers of gravity. It is much like a living organism with multiple brains, but these move in the same direction, like a flock of birds or a school of fish.  Just like an individual, a super-flexible organization has three core building blocks—the “anatomy” (the accountability and reporting structure), the “personality” or its culture and identity, and most important of all, its “circulation” or how people interact and how information moves throughout the organization.  The biggest challenge in a dynamic world is to monitor and synchronize the three building blocks, and make appropriate adjustments as priorities evolve.

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Super-flexible leadership is about how to engage, guide, and collaborate with knowledge workers in dynamic settings.  We believe effective leaders align their teams by using “peer-peer” rather than the traditional “parent-child” approaches.  Peer-peer leadership, however, is not about abdicating authority and accountability. It’s about engaging in a delicate balancing act, by what we call “placing an iron hand in a velvet glove”.

4. How is this book different from other books on flexibility/change?

We present an “integrated” approach, spanning strategy, organization, leadership, execution, and innovation, and explore flexibility from the vantage point of different disciplines. We have also departed from the traditional “market” segmentation of popular business books.  Our book is more like a handbook or a reference guide, filled with conversation starters, conceptual tools, and practical applications.  Management teams need a common vocabulary and frame of reference, and a conceptual toolkit that can help them create a shared perception of morphing reality.  We work with companies that are populated by knowledge workers, with domain expertise. They don’t want someone to tell them what to do.  They want a “midwife” or a catalyst who can help them give birth to their own ideas.  Once the conversation gets started, they come up with their own solutions.  Readers should view our book more as a toolkit of conceptual frameworks that can help them start cross-functional conversations, diagnose complex situations, interpret their own experiences, and create a shared frame of reference, rather than a menu of best practices.

5. Who is your book and research trying to help or reach?

Our book is not only for scholars or for practitioners. We have tried to build a bridge between research and practice, making the book a “hybrid”. We hope to reach thoughtful knowledge workers who want to understand the conceptual roots of flexibility and its practical application.

Specifically, we target the individual, whether they are CEOs, C-level executives, general managers, project leaders, or knowledge workers.  Our goal is to provide a toolkit to help knowledge workers navigate at different altitudes, from the trenches to the Boardroom.  For example, a CEO can use our framework on “super-flexible organization” to assess the entire company; but, the same tool can be used by a project leader to diagnose a team’s effectiveness.

6. Given the current economic and likely future challenges, how important is it for a company or organization to be super-flexible?

“In today’s interconnected world, there’s a myriad of what we call ‘revision triggers’—technological, economic, geo-political, social, environmental, and cultural triggers. These triggers bombard companies, and prompt them to deviate from planned courses of action.”

It’s more critical now than ever.  In today’s interconnected world, there’s a myriad of what we call “revision triggers”—technological, economic, geo-political, social, environmental, and cultural triggers. These triggers bombard companies, and prompt them to deviate from planned courses of action. There is also no slack in terms of time, resources, and bandwidth.  Many knowledge workers understand that they need to be flexible, but don’t know how.  Also, if you look at the new technologies unfolding, the cloud, virtualization, impact of social media and so on, there’s a massive shift in the way we do business and companies have to adapt to these developments. Given the multitude of revision triggers, we suggest you have to continually reconfigure yourself as an organization, a team, and an individual, to address the unfolding realities.

7. Why do you focus your book and research on “knowledge enterprises” only?  Wouldn’t all companies benefit from being super-flexible?

The short answer is yes, absolutely! However, dynamic adaptation is especially challenging for knowledge enterprises because by definition, they face extreme forms of uncertainty:  technology, distribution channels, global competition, legislation, speed of acceptance, and so on.  Also Silicon Valley, which is full of knowledge enterprises, has been our research lab; it is where many of our ideas have come from.

8. What if a company or organization doesn’t exist within an ecosystem like Silicon Valley or what if the company is based outside of the U.S. altogether?  Or what if the company is a non-technology company like a consumer goods company?

Silicon Valley is a Darwinian, dynamic ecosystem where firms confront “extreme” forms of uncertainty. But this also makes them an excellent research lab for studying super-flexibility.  It is like trying to understand music or fashion trends by observing teenagers. On the other hand, companies in Silicon Valley are the same as others.  They design, build, and sell products to customers around the world and want to be profitable and satisfy their stakeholders.  It may be difficult for a large global corporation to be like a Silicon Valley startup, but it doesn’t mean that they can’t learn from them and adapt the lessons to their own situations.  In our book, we offer a menu and let people choose what is most relevant to them.

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9. Is super-flexibility something that is teachable?  If so, then why do so many companies seem stuck in their ways?  And how do you get a company to change?

“We believe in helping knowledge workers take proactive steps to solve their own problems. Our goal is to ensure that they can stay ‘fit’ by having regular ‘check-ups’.”

Yes, we think it is teachable and as educators, this has been our focus during the past decade.  Our goal is to transform knowledge workers into enterprise clinicians. With the help of our toolkit, they can diagnose situations and devise appropriate solutions themselves.  Many companies don’t change effectively, because they wait until they are in a crisis mode, and then they bring in outside experts who tell them what to do, so there is no skin in the game.  Traditional interventions are like open-heart surgery, where the patient is in critical condition, has limited flexibility, and as a result, can experience high mortality rates.  We believe in helping knowledge workers take proactive steps to solve their own problems. Our goal is to ensure that they can stay “fit” by having regular “check-ups”.

10. Is there a point where companies are too “super-flexible” and don’t stay on course or focus enough?  Said another way, are there situations where companies might not want to be super-flexible?

“It is important to know when and where you need to be super-flexible, and how much is too much.”

Absolutely.  It is important to know when and where you need to be super-flexible, and how much is too much.  For example, our research shows that experimentation is critical when you embark on a new initiative, but you can’t keep your options open forever.  At some point, you have to escalate your commitment to a particular course of action or pull the plug.  Our diagnostic frameworks try to provide a balanced approach, so you can assess when you put too many eggs in one basket, or are too flexible in one or another dimension.

In part II of this interview, authors and educators Homa Bahrami and Stuart Evans discuss the “how” of super-flexibility, or how companies can put these ideas into practice. Stay tuned for more on this interesting topic in the next issue.

About the authors

Dr. Homa Bahrami is a Senior Lecturer at the Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley, a Faculty Director at the Haas Center for Executive Education, and on the Board of the Haas Center for Teaching Excellence. She specializes in organizational innovation and enterprise adaptation in dynamic, knowledge-based industries. She has published widely in leading journals, is the co-author of a major textbook (with Harold Leavitt, Stanford University) “Managerial Psychology: Managing behavior in organizations”, published by the University of Chicago Press, and the co-author of “Super-flexibility for Knowledge Enterprises” published by Springer in 2010. She serves on several boards in Silicon Valley and is active in executive education in the US and Europe.

Dr. Stuart Evans is a Distinguished Service Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Silicon Valley, where he teaches “Innovation & Entrepreneurship”. He is a board member, educator and author, focusing on dynamic high tech ventures. His professional career spans research (SRI International, Stanford Graduate School of Business), consulting (Bain and Company, Menlo Park, California), investing (Sand Hill Venture Group, Menlo Park, California) and executive management (Shugart Corporation, a Xerox subsidiary, Sunnyvale, California). He has published widely on strategic flexibility, serves on several boards in Silicon Valley and mentors high tech entrepreneurs. He is the co-author of “Super-flexibility for Knowledge Enterprises”.

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