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Innovation and disruption: Forces Turned on and off by human beings

Posted on Sunday, Dec 2nd 2018

By Guest Author Marylene Delbourg-Delphis

In her new book, Everybody Wants to Love Their Job: Rebuilding Trust and CultureMarylene Delbourg-Delphis reflects on the demise and death of once-giants.

Companies either fail or succeed. It’s just a simple truth. There were certainly plenty of causes for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, but the primary one, according to the famous 18th century historian Edward Gibbon, was the gradual disappearance of its citizens’ civic virtues. Similarly, the main causes of companies’ annihilation could very well be human. Employees have stopped being citizens of their company and fighting for it. They behave. They aren’t causing problems or generating liabilities. They’ve just given up on the idea that their voice matters.

Most of the postmortem analyses of what happened to Kodak as we used to know it revolve around the inability of the company to self-disrupt and wander into philosophical variations more or less inspired by Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction.” It’s probably true that companies should be more willing to kill their cash cow to embrace innovation.

But are innovation and disruption—or lack thereof—abstract forces? Aren’t they turned on or off by human beings? Think of the executives and boards in dozens of companies who seem unwilling to change and who stick to a myopic vision of the world that never goes beyond quarterly perspectives. They know there are new trends out in the wild because analysts and experts told them so, but since they’re “professionals,” they want trends to be confirmed—usually when it’s too late. One day, the board wakes up, decides to fire a few executives because they missed the boat, and starts hunting for new blood. But the search firm they appoint will look for “experienced” people, who have “done it before” and will be tasked with performing miracles through cascading rounds of layoffs. Press releases will ensue. Three months, maybe six months will go by. Stock prices will stabilize until they collapse again. The company will move toward its unavoidable demise.

Postmortems discuss failures when there’s no longer a path for success. What gurus and thought-leaders should wonder more often is why employees, with tens, hundreds, even thousands of pairs of eyes, who lived through such demises in real time, couldn’t do a damn thing. That’s the very question that Tim Dempsey asks in a sometimes heart-wrenching business memoir in which he narrates the collapse of Nortel, a hundred-year-old company that filed for bankruptcy in 2009: “How could such an established, successful company, filled with so many smart, dedicated, loyal, hard-working, and driven employees, have failed so completely?”

The story of Nortel shows two things: that change can only start (1) when it’s embraced at the top and (2) when the top is willing to accept the idea that intelligence, innovation, and disruption can be crowdsourced—and there was no shortage of remarkable people at Nortel.

Many companies ultimately die from self-inflicted wounds rather than because of external factors. They want the best and brightest talents, but when they need them most, they forget about what these people can bring. They believe that “leaders” know best. Employees are only the soldiers you forget about when the battle is lost (or won), even though their frustrations are frequently phenomenal barometers of the shape of things to come.

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