“Following the light of the Sun, we left the old world”.
526 years ago, Christopher Columbus is said to have uttered these profound words. The words create a wonderful, romantic, and inspiring vision of exploration. Aside from the current controversy around Columbus, would that it be so easy to cast off into the unknown in your business life and how does one do it - especially as successful transformative business needs to always move forward.
Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, puts it in perspective in his poem “Die Slowly”;
“Dies slowly he who transforms himself to the slave of habit repeating every day the same itinerary.”
Neruda ends his fatalist poem with “Let’s try to avoid death in small doses.” Read SNAPCHAT, Sears, Toys R’Us, Circuit City, Bethlehem Steel, Polaroid, Fill in the blank. The good news here is that unlike death in small doses, we can accept new life in small doses and it can be defined in small everyday improvements. Successful companies build cultures that promote exploration and discovery as part of the everyday life of the business. Important components here include sponsorship, support, and incentives.
Columbus sought sponsorship for his voyage of discovery. When King John II of Portugal refused, he kept at it and petitioned the Spanish Monarch’s Ferdinand and Isabella who sponsored his voyages. Change initiatives need sponsorship. If you are seeking a culture that promotes innovation, you likewise need to have mechanisms in place to support discovery. In today’s world, your employees should not be required to fight for project sponsorship. It should be formulaic. Support is sometimes easier and more tangible to achieve on big ticket change…capital equipment, software upgrade, buildings, etc., but success needs an ongoing plan for investing in incremental improvement.
Sponsorship and support includes time, money, and mentorship. If you expect positive change without these things, you are setting yourself up for failure. The other component is incentive. Columbus secured a deal that he would receive 10% from the new world commerce, would be named “Great Admiral of the Ocean Sea”, become Governor of newly discovered lands… and whoever first saw land would receive a bonus of 10,000 pieces of silver. In the case of Columbus, it appears that there was a great deal of motivation all around.
A final item that Columbus didn’t need to deal with was protecting his posterity and assets at home. This is never the case in business. Thomas Jefferson said “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past” which is a totally unrealistic approach to building a business culture and the famous Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen is said to have uttered
“I demolish my bridges behind me – then there is no choice but forward.”
This as well is a short sighted approach to growth and innovation.
A blended approach to discovery works for our clients, many of whom are mature operating companies, and this is found in a simple idea espoused by Vijay Govindarajan called the Three Box Solution. It makes sense to apply the same rules of discovery…Sponsorship, Support, Mentorship, and Incentives… to three areas of Innovation and to equitably distribute your ‘innovation energy’ in three boxes:
Securing the present by affirming methods and disciplines
Letting go of the past by stopping the practices that are not achieving your purpose
Creating the future with wild and exciting new vision
This simple formula, set forth in annual or semiannual operating plans is sure to guide the development of a culture of discovery and innovation that will help your organization thrive and grow.
So, for the danger and uncertainty and the boldness that we have come to identify with the romantic (and perhaps not realistic) memory of Christopher Columbus on this annual milestone, you might take stock of these lessons which include the need to keep exploring and to be mindful of the impact that this exploration has on the world and the markets around you.
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