Innovation and change: taking a page from the material girl

June 11, 2008

“Just as energy is the basis of life itself, and ideas the source of innovation, so is innovation the vital spark of all human change, improvement and progress” – from Ted Levitt, former American economist and professor at Harvard Business School.

As Levitt suggests, if there is one common theme when it comes to improving just about any human state, it would be that survival requires constant change through innovation.

Well, “duh” you might say. Of course we need to constantly reinvent ourselves to survive. Just look at Madonna and her countless incarnations. The pop icon has survived twenty plus years of showbiz and still manages to rock the top of the music charts.

But I digress. This post isn’t about Madonna’s various personalities, nor is it about her many musical endeavours. This post is about businesses who know how to nurture innovation in order to achieve breakthrough levels of success.

Still, Madonna makes a good case in point. She, along with companies like Apple, Google and Ideo have each tapped into a very powerful concept: by predicting what people want before they even know they want it, they are continuously redefining themselves with new and brilliant ideas.

You might be wondering why I’m writing about something that is already a well known fact. My inspiration came last week from a comment suggesting I write about Gary Hamel’s MLab (Management Lab). Hamel, a Harvard Business School professor co-founded the MLab with Julian Birkinshaw from the London Business School, to offer a place where companies can innovate and test ‘tomorrow’s best practices’.

Given that this is the first I’d heard of Hamel and Birkinshaw’s brainchild, my knowledge of the whole concept remains fuzzy. Still, I thought I would attempt to compare it with our offering and suggest how companies can harness their ideas to transform themselves into ‘tomorrow’s best companies’.


I’ll start with the similarities. Tatham and the MLab both focus on driving change through innovation using a step-by-step approach. At Tatham, it begins with Boot Camp for Executives, followed by a re-design of two business processes, and then rolling it out across the company. With the MLab, the journey starts with diagnosis, jamming, experimentation and assessing the result.

Moreover, both approaches emphasize experimentation and innovation, they aim to involve the entire company, they align goals, they require management engagement and they create a ‘safe zone’ where people are able to fail in order to learn and move forward. But I would argue that’s where the similarities end.


The differences appear to be both in how change is achieved and how to implement it. The MLab seems to encourage managers to come up with innovative ideas during their two-day jam session. However, I found no evidence showing that these ideas are directly customer driven.

By contrast, Tatham’s approach starts with the idea that to transform the way it operates, a company must change its processes from the customer’s point of view. Even if management has excellent ideas or is benchmarking against other great companies, if it’s not what their customers want, they will have wasted a lot of time and energy.

Furthermore, we believe that strategy often falls apart in implementation. Under the MLab’s model, the onus seems to be placed on managers to come up with an idea and then to execute it. And that’s exactly where things can go wrong.

Here’s how: management has a problem, so a ‘hero’ comes in to smooth things over and temporarily the problem goes away. But then the hero leaves and the problem comes back. Except that nobody else knows how to fix it. So management brainstorms and comes up with an idea. But it takes too long to implement it. So they call in an outsider, but they can’t seem to get these ideas going either. And so the company is back to square one.

When leaders face a gap between strategy and execution, often it’s not because they don’t want to see the idea through, but because they don’t have the ‘how’ to make it happen. We believe that until every person in the company learns a new way of thinking and behaving, any new idea or change will be nearly impossible to implement.


This leads to what appears to be the biggest differentiator between Tatham and the MLab. Tatham transfers its intellectual capital directly to its clients. Although we coach our clients along the journey of change, we also teach them to be self-sufficient.

Our philosophy is that when people can relate to a new vision of what they can achieve (through Boot Camp) and when they learn to apply a simple problem-solving method to come up with their own solutions, that’s when they reframe their entire way of thinking. True innovation comes when every person in the company is able to change and respond to customer demands every single day.

Perhaps the simplest way to sum it up is as follows: being an innovative company requires each individual to shift their mindset. And as a leader, you must teach your employees to wake up every morning thinking ‘how can I improve business for our customers?’

Just as Madonna, Boeing, Whole Foods, IBM, Timberland, Nintendo and GE have proven, the key to breakthrough results is getting your processes right and knowing how to connect every single individual in your organization with the customer.

That’s why, when you stop having to worry about fixing what’s gone wrong, you will find the hidden capacity that allows people to unleash their imagination and come up with brilliant and innovative ideas.

Here’s the bottom line: we may be living in a material world, but imagine what we could achieve just thinking like the material girl.

  • scotchcart

    I must have another look at what Hamel does but I think his methods involve everyone. Managers are usually remote from the customers – but the staff aren’t. There is also no reason not to include the customers!

  • I agree, as it appears that Hamel’s approach most certainly involves customers. However perhaps I should have been more clear: I didn’t see any evidence that Hamel’s approach to organizational innovation and change were customer-driven.

    In other words, it seems as though Hamel’s MLab fosters strategies that are borne from what management believes needs to change, rather than what customers want to change. This is a not a subtle difference.

    Management often makes the mistake of assuming what customers want, rather than asking them directly. A perfect example of this happened to us not long ago. We wanted to create a marketing DVD that would help explain what we do, particularly when it comes to making sales pitches.

    When we spoke to a number of potential and existing clients, they proved us wrong. They didn’t want a slick sales pitch: instead, they wanted an educational tool that would help them explain what Boot Camp is to the rest of the company once the client has already agreed to begin deploying our method. We would have spent months developing a product in which our customers didn’t necessarily see value.

    If we had included them in the process of developing the product, they would have been happy to contribute, but when we asked them point blank if that’s what they wanted, the answer was a half-hearted ‘maybe’ rather than an enthusiastic ‘absolutely’.

    Although we believe it is crucial for management to be part of the strategy and the solution, Tatham believes it should be driven by the customer, not necessarily driven by management brainstorming session that eventually includes the customer’s opinion and goes directly into experimentation and implementation. This is why companies like Apple and Ideo are so successful. They have an ability to tap into a desire people have, before they even have it. Their innovation is purely driven by customers.