Innovation: Up Shit Creek Without a Paddle… #2
In early June 2014, I took responsibility for an ‘innovation’ programme in one of Team GB’s Olympic sport teams.
A fatal error pushed me firmly towards ‘Shit Creek’ and a rough ride where I failed athletes who deserved much, much better.
But ‘Shit Creek’ also led me somewhere unexpected; on a transformative journey into the unknown that changed my perspective on work, sport, and life for good.
In 2011, I became Head of the Centre for Defence Enterprise, a multi-million pound technology venture fund that was the “jewel in the crown” of Sir Peter Luff’s Ministry of Defence equipment, science and technology portfolio.
The pressure was ball-breaking, but with Sir Peter’s enthusiastic backing, I was given unbelievable freedom to act within the boundaries of 2 agreed policy goals.
By late 2013, however, I’d become restless. I recklessly jumped at an offer to take up a senior role at UK Sport, but failed to do any due diligence on the organisation or the role.
Soon afterwards, I knew I’d made a terrible mistake.
I’d traded a free hand for tied hands. I worked with some good people but the atmosphere was sterile, stifled by the presence of a rigid hierarchy. Months later, I’d resigned.
With a mortgage and bills to pay, I knew I’d run out of money in about 4–6 months.
Things were not looking good but, unexpectedly, a past favour was about to be returned.
In the run-up to London 2012, I’d helped a GB Olympic team by using my Ministry of Defence connections to secure access to a unique testing facility.
That same team threw me a lifeline. I eagerly accepted the offer.
The fatal error
The trouble with insecurity is that it makes you a little too keen to ‘fit in’, too willing to tell people what you think they want to hear.
Early on, I was shocked to receive a summary of 11 technology projects that were already underway in the programme. I hadn’t expected anything on this scale.
Fear grew within as I contemplated the ambitious list of projects I was now responsible for.
The technical risks were considerable. The timescales looked improbable. The potential for disruption incalculable.
I knew I had to ask some serious questions. Why was there such a vast array of complex technology projects?
But I said nothing.
While at UK Sport, I’d learned that the performance sport system valued people who “got shit done”.
I still had that mortgage and the bills.
I got my head down.
Silently, I’d committed myself to a Mission: Impossible.
In his landmark book on innovation, Clayton Christensen explains that the goal is to ‘disrupt’ your competitors, not your own organisation.
By taking on many simultaneous technology developments, the team faced compounding and unpredictable changes to its established working practices.
As Peter Block has expertly noted, when technological solutions are offered for an organisation’s problems “the resolution of the problem most often requires a change in thinking and action”.
Life has taught me that people are slow to change how they think. Behaviour change is harder still.
As Rosabeth Moss Kanter famously said:
“Change is a threat when done to me, but an opportunity when done by me”
However smart you are, if you try to change someone else, it’s unlikely to work. For an organisation to change, the impetus has to come from the people inside it. Imposed change can, at best, only hope to achieve ‘malicious compliance’.
Here’s where I made my second mistake.
When I walked into the team’s offices, it didn’t feel right. A flat mood, stilted conversations, infrequent laughter. It didn’t look, sound, or feel like a happy camp.
Later, I learned that relationships were strained. The team rapidly gained a reputation for having a ‘revolving door’ for staff.
This was not the place to introduce ‘disruptive’ changes in thinking and working practices.
Yet again, however, I failed to voice my concerns.
Yet again, I got my head down. I ‘got shit done’.
Mission: Impossible was underway. The course set towards a threatening Shit Creek.
Paddle faster, I think I can hear banjos…