The first installment of my interview with Clive Freeman, ‘Disruptivity and the Idea Economy’, focused on how Outsiders are re-imagining marketplaces and disrupting traditional business models, and how easy it is to get left behind, addicted to our reality-sampling and limpet-like ways, as businesses often are.
This second and final installment brings these issues inside the cozy walls of the organisation. If all this stuff is going on out there, on a macro level, how do we start to grapple with it in here, as leaders? Are you really ready to disrupt the status quo of your team or organisation? Or ready to be corporately heartbroken, as a disruptive employee does not follow your rules? And I will delve into how an original and mischievous person like Clive sustains his identity and mojo inside a global giant like Hewlett Packard Enterprise.
‘Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace’ is a book Clive had read early in his career. I loved the title. Its premise is that creativity is crucial to business success. But too often, even the most innovative organization quickly becomes a ‘giant hairball’ - a tangled, impenetrable mass of rules, traditions, and systems.
But it was written 20 years ago. So, how are today's new breed of organisation grappling with the hairball?
Day 1 and Day 2
Despite the phenomenal growth of a business like Amazon, their Chief Exec, Jeff Bezos, says they are still on Day 1. What he means by this is Day 1 is where you are innovating, and obsessing about your customers and distinctiveness in the marketplace. Day 2 is steady-state, when you start consolidating because you think you've made it. Never arrive at Day 2, is how he puts it. Day 2 companies die.
Where do you see Day 1 and Day 2 mentalities in your business? I don’t think it’s as straightforward as hierarchy segments, i.e. Day 1ers aren’t necessarily those in senior leader positions. If we think about the marketplace as an ongoing conversation – ‘Are you after one of these? No? Well what are you looking for? – then it’s often your front-line people spotting the trends, i.e. Day 1ers. But who engages front-line people in business strategy? Apart from me, of course.
Leadership can be a lonely and deluded business. Leaders tend to control the fates of those around them, and one dynamic this creates is an overwhelming desire for those closest to the leader to applaud their every burp and fart.
It’s not entirely a bad thing. We all crave a bit of adoration. And if you are a leader taking a stand - facing conflict and feeling a bit lonely in your majority of one - someone sidling up to you offering validation is understandably seductive.
Bringing in consultants can exacerbate this condition. Agreeing with you is the start of the consultant’s fee earning. They can be applauders on steroids.
So, if you do find yourself surrounded by approval seekers, how will you know if your idea is delusional or a good one?
The Minimum Viable Product.
You’ve got to test your idea to see how the marketplace responds. Whether it’s an internal initiative or an external product or service, creating a Minimum Viable Product and gauging reaction is the only acid test.
But a word of caution. If you have become the leadership equivalent of Beyoncé Knowles, and find yourself testing your new song on one of your approval-seeking entourage, clearly you’re screwed. As David Mamet, the Playwright and Director, says, ‘The only way to become a great writer is to put on plays and risk humiliation’. If you really want to know whether your new idea is going to fly, make sure you test your MVP as an ‘away match’, not a ‘home match’.
Orbiting the Corporate Hairball
'How does a maverick, original thinker like you sustain himself in a global business empire like Hewlett Packard Enterprise?', was one of the few questions I actually asked Clive.
'By not caring', he said with a glint in his eye.
Clive told me about a boss who’d issued the team with laminated identity cards. On each card, next to their photo, was a handwritten and signed note from the boss saying ‘(insert name)… is licensed to do the next right thing’. It was an expressed permission to cause a bit of corporate chaos, to not be too wedded to protocols or policies, if it’s going to make the difference to a customer signing on the dotted line.
Clive also told me a story about how HPE are grappling with consistency alongside global growth. Clive had just had an email come through from Palo Alto, HPE’s HQ, from corporate marketing, wanting feedback on each of the 18 HP marketing slides Clive was supposed to be using with clients in meetings.
Clive’s reply to HPE’s corporate HQ was, ‘Being honest, I can’t help because I’m not actually using them’.
I fell about laughing. I love Clive’s openness and honesty. And his maverick ways.
The Voice of the Customer
Clive showed me the beautifully equipped, new-leather-and-carpet-smelling room, in his customer engagement centre where he takes potential new clients. I loved that all the walls are whiteboard, designed to be written on.
His meetings always start off with what he calls ‘The Voice of the Customer’. It’s a probing, listening exercise designed to help Clive and his team understand the client, their current business model, and how they are thinking about the business challenges they are facing.
And having listened intently, why would you start talking about something completely different? Going through 18 slides all about HPE? They are beautiful slides, and the HPE marketing materials really do have a zing about them. But the experience isn't about your world, is it. It’s about theirs.
I get the impression that Clive will always do the next right thing for the client. And sometimes it’s despite what’s expected of him by his organisation. He’s someone who seeks forgiveness not permission, and this idea empowers him to get on with his job, and at pace.
What of Corporate Trust and Consistency?
It fascinated me how a major global superstar organisation like HPE is grappling with multi national growth. And handling challenges like trust and consistency. Have they found their equivalent of the Blockchain approach? Or are the 18 slides an example of sticking, limpet-like, to a centralized ledger in branding terms?
As Clive said, ‘You have to understand the nub of what those 18 slides are saying, but it wont work if you go through each one’.
And it’s always nice for us subversives to have something to kick against, right? Maybe those 18 slides are an important context for subversion?
Star performers, like Clive, are asking questions of their organisation in the same way the outsiders in The Idea Economy are asking questions of traditional business models. It’s a disruptive but healthy conversation.
How are you, dear reader, and your organisation handling people ‘not doing things properly’?
No masterpiece was ever created by a committee.
Clive does care. He’s enormously proud of HPE and making a success of his role. He’s quick to say how his new Customer Engagement Centre brings in $6 for every $1 it costs. And the Centre is a good example of the blank canvas he’s often handed to create on. And this is his point, about not caring. No masterpiece was ever created by a committee.
‘People are quick to tell you how to do things, what’s impossible or what won’t work. Of course I listen. But at the end of the day it’s my decision'.
'And I also think, “What’s the worst that could happen?” HPE will sack me and I can go and do something else’.
And BOOM! There’s that mischievous glint in his eye, once again.
My next interview is with Ginger Zerbetto. He’s a leading restaurateur and creator of some of the world’s great fine-dining experiences. Ginger is another successful genius and original thinker, but in a completely different context to Clive.
So don’t forget to subscribe to my mailing list if you want to receive In Conversation with Ginger Zerbetto (insights like, ‘being a leader can be a bit of a messy business, but so are some of the most enjoyable human experiences, like eating and sex’).
And I didn’t prepare any questions for Ginger either. There’s an art I’m keen to learn in not doing things properly.
Peter Lodemore is an independent thinker and a disruptive, loving influence. He currently gets paid as a Leadership Consultant, Coach, Facilitator and Keynote Speaker.