Monday, 29 December 2008

That old unavoidable question: what's the big idea?

That old unavoidable question: what's the big idea?

What really happened at Western Electric's Hawthorne Works site in Cicero, Illinois, between 1924 and 1932? We may never know for sure. The evidence from its experiments is disputed, and any conclusions drawn from them remain controversial.

What we do know is that big claims are still made for the "Hawthorne Effect", the idea that small changes to people's working conditions can improve their performance. (A more sceptical interpretation is also possible. Maybe workers just do better when their managers are paying attention.) Some see the Hawthorne Effect as a Big Idea. Others regard it as a bit of a joke.

The proof of a big idea is in its execution. Some colleagues and I are currently carrying out a mini Hawthorne experiment of our own. I am writing this column at my temporary desk, located in what the office planners have called a "swing area" (not as exciting as it sounds).

The move has gone down well. We have a new perspective on life - or at least on each other. Out of the corner of my eye I can see everybody else working away with great dedication. At my old workstation when I looked up all I could see was my dangerously disorganised bookshelf.

The move brought to light a dusty old box which had clearly been left in one of our cupboards for years. On it was a label with the words "Thought Leadership".

Quite right, you may think. That phrase ought to be banned, and anyone caught using it ought to be locked away and left to reflect on the stupidity of their actions.

Not everyone can be a leader. It follows that not everyone can be a thought leader either. But that does not stop many professional service firms from claiming that they (alone) offer thought leadership on certain issues.

Does the term mean anything? Last week I chaired a discussion on the subject, and saw a smart presentation by TLG, the communications consultancy. With the help of the Henley business school, TLG came up with a useful definition. Thought leadership, they said, is "the ability to develop and communicate pioneering and rigorous ideas that are relevant to society and influence people's behaviour".

Sounds good. We could do with some of that right now. Is anybody providing it? Maybe Dov Seidman and Andrew Shapiro are. Mr Seidman, who runs LRN, a company that helps businesses develop ethical corporate cultures, has joined forces with Mr Shapiro's GreenOrder, which has advised, among others, DuPont, Pfizer, JPMorgan Chase and most famously General Electric ("Ecomagination") on their attempts to become sustainable businesses.

Mr Seidman and Mr Shapiro have latched on to the concept of "outgreening", a term coined by LRN and popularised by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. "The old strategies for success - outmining, outdrilling, outconsuming, outspending - no longer offer a sustainable competitive advantage," Mr Seidman says. But you can outgreen the competition. This is not simply a question of changing light bulbs. It is about changing mindsets. Think of it as a 21st century version of business process re-engineering, only taking place under a green banner.

Is this thought leadership? "Thought leaders reframe things," Mr Seidman says. As a concept, outgreening certainly does that. The idea that we as individuals should be trying to "save the planet", or at least save a glacier, is overwhelmingly daunting. But outgreening is a corporate strategy that can be broken down into separate tasks. It allows employees to see that through their behaviour they can make a difference.

In his book How , published last year, Mr Seidman explained why he feels behaviour (as opposed to the more fashionable management notions of engagement or motivation) is the key to organisational success.

"You can coerce employees with carrots and sticks or by simply telling them what to do," he says. "But that comes with a cost. Values and beliefs are free. If you can inspire people so that they are working for something in which they believe, based on fundamental values that they share, you will get the performance you want. You will have established a deeper sense of connection that goes way beyond 'engagement'," Mr Seidman says.

And this is another route to sustainability, he adds, because: "Nothing is more sustainable than a self-governing culture, which can withstand the loss of a best-selling product, the departure of key leaders and crises of all sizes."

Outbehaving is the goal and, Mr Shapiro and Mr Seidman believe, that means outgreening everybody else. A Big Idea? Probably. A "big ask" in a recession? Yes. Easy to put into effect? Absolutely not.

Not easy, but not impossible either. And pessimism (or worse, panic) should be avoided. As (Lord) Nicholas Stern - no relation - explained last week in this newspaper's special report on climate change: "In terms of politics and business and economics this is very young. It's amazing how far we have come in two or three years."

Thought leadership, and big ideas, are rare. But here is a challenging thought for you. Outbehave, outperform, outgreen - or out you go.

stefan.stern@ft.com Read and post comments online at www.ft.com/stern For the latest thinking on management and strategy, go to: www.ft.com/managementblog


(Source: Financial Times)

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Methods there are many, principles but few, methods often change, principles never do