When a great person takes on a bad system the system always wins

quoted from Paul Cobban’s post

This quote is a bit hyperbolic, but it made me smile. I don’t think the system always has to win, but attempting to change a large system incautiously is likely to result in frustration.

Clayton Christensen in his book “The innovator’s dilemma” describes culture as a set of social and behavioural norms established by a group of people. A company is one such group of people, but instead of the behavioural norms we might think of in society such as “keep right (or left) on escalators” or “shaking hands as a greeting”, the norms of a business emerge as expectations around the best ways to build and deliver the product. The purpose of these norms is to protect the revenue and profitability of the business from spurious changes in the environment by ensuring efficient delivery of the product via “the channel”. Thus culture is intentionally slowing innovation and making it difficult to “stray off course” to help with resilience in the face of constant challenges in the supply chain and delivery channel.

Paul’s article reminded me that as innovators the biggest problem to solve - especially when faced with an existing organisation - is how to help the culture identify useful change from spurious change and incorporate that change into “the system”. As a technology leader this means understanding the entire business and cultural system you are dealing with, what tools and capabilities are available within the organisation to use, and what new tools and capabilities are needed. It’s tempting to think that everything has to be discarded and re-built from scratch but as with software development, a complete re-build from scratch is frequently not the right solution or may even be a close approximation of impossible due to other societal factors such as regulations or established social norms.

At the time Christensen wrote his book, the only example he found of a company successfully disrupting itself was that of Apple (“disruption” in this context means actively embracing change and adapting its culture). I think this might still be true today - there’s probably a warning there for innovators.