Want to conceive of a higher purpose for your organization? Design a strategy that works in an open and borderless world? Transcend traditional management trade-offs? Then build yourself a pair of 3D glasses! These glasses can help you zoom in and zoom out of how you see your organization along the three dimensions of time, space and methods. Big ideas and friendships with unusual suspects are (almost) guaranteed.
Part of the problem in management innovation is how we—self-proclaimed management innovators—conceive of management problems, where we look for answers and what methods we use to look for them. More often than not, we fall on our default settings of space, time and methods when trying to make sense of what’s going on: In terms of space, we tend to focus on our organization and our industry. In terms of time, our attention tends to live in the window between a few hours and a couple of years. In terms of methods, after all is said and done, we fall back on the cold logic of numbers from a cost-benefit analysis.
As a result, we tend to keep staring at the picture that is smaller, shorter and flatter than the picture we need to look at to come up with big breakthroughs in management technology.
One solution for this problem could be turning some version of 3D glasses into a must-have piece of equipment for the management innovator’s toolkit.
Our contribution is currently in transit between a hack and a story. What we have right now is a rough prototype of 3D glasses that we are testing in three different contexts—to redefine the purpose of a sovereign wealth fund, to develop a 20 year investment strategy for a cluster of advanced technology companies and to build an inter-organizational strategy to address a complex global challenge. Our intention here is to share a conceptual design that is detailed enough for any management innovator to put it together and try it out on their toughest management challenge.
Conceptual design of the prototype
3D glasses create a picture of any object in the world of human organizations along three dimensions of space, time and method. Another way to think about these dimensions would be to think of them as three different types of settings that you need to adjust to produce a 3D picture of reality that is most helpful for what you need to accomplish. When you use Google Earth, a detailed picture of what’s within a 500 m radius of the building you need to go to is not helpful if you don’t understand what part of town that picture comes from. You need to zoom out before zooming back in. The difference between Google Earth and management innovator’s 3D glasses is that unlike Google Earth, 3D glasses can help you zoom in and zoom out across three dimensions rather than just one:
- The dimension of space is not about physical space like in Google Earth but about the space of human organization. The smallest unit of analysis you can look at is a single human being and what he/she does & why. The biggest unit of analysis is the planet wide system of human organizations, or a system of systems and how it behaves & why. In between you have teams, organizations, industries, broader organizational ecosystems that support the fulfillment of a particular human need, etc. Depending on the individual’s role, the default space setting in many organizations tends to get stuck either on “me,””my team,” “my business unit,” “my organization,” or “my industry.” That works out fine for certain types of management issues but others require either a major zoom- out (e.g., if you want to conceive of a higher purpose for your organization or develop a long-term strategy, you often have to zoom out to the level of the global ecosystem within which your organization operates) or an ability to see one view in the context of the other (e.g., if you want to create a powerful role definition for a self-actualized individual, you have to look at “me” in the context of “my team” in the context of “my business unit” in the context of “my organization” in the context of “my industry”…potentially all the way up to the context of “my world”)
- The dimension of time is about looking at the past and trying to make sense of the future. The shortest unit is a moment, the longest unit we have used so far with meaningful consequences has been 10,000 years for looking back and 150 years for “looking” forward. Depending on the individual’s role, the default time setting in many organizations tends to get stuck somewhere in the window between a couple of hours and three years. There are many management issues that can be reasonably well addressed within that window. But others require a major zoom-out (e.g., if you want to follow maverick Raj Sisodia’s lead and reconceive of leadership as trusteeship with cross-generational responsibilities, you need to look at 40-140 years) or looking at longer time series (e.g., if you want to understand the behavior of a global ecosystem that your organization is part of and infer the de facto rules that govern the relationships between the different organizations within that ecosystem, you need to look at much longer time horizons than you would be used to.)
- The dimension of method is what gives the picture its “fullness” and where lots of interesting things tend to happen, and new ideas pop like pop corn. Out of the original seed of philosophy, we have grown an impressive tree of knowledge with thousands of disciplines and methods to study different aspects of reality. However, the default method setting in many organizations seems to be cost-benefit analysis from the discipline of economics. CBA produces a very important yet one-dimensional picture of reality. As the wearer of 3D glasses, you have a menu of methods from a variety of disciplines that you need to pick from—economics, physics, philosophy, history, psychology, cultural anthropology, ecology, ethics… even theology and science fiction. It’s a long list. The nature of the issue you are trying to take on will help you narrow down the list to the right disciplines and the right methods. Sometimes you get lucky and it turns out that somebody, somewhere has already looked at your unit of analysis (as defined by your time and space settings) with the help of the methods you have selected. But more often than not, you need to track down somebody with a mastery of a particular method and ask them to tell you what they can see when they look at what you look at with the help of their method. In the process, you find yourself befriending philosophers, physicists, anthropologists and sci-fi writers.
How to use your 3D glasses
So far, we have only been experimenting with the zooming out function of the 3D glasses’ prototype. In one case, it led to a redefinition of an organization’s purpose from something that was conceived in terms of maximizing the economic and social benefits for a particular nation to a purpose that was re-conceived in terms of playing a major role in the evolution of advanced technology on a global scale. In another case, it allowed us to move from the conventional conception of a global challenge as a finite game where participating parties were focusing their attention on the equitable allocation of blame and responsibility to a new way of thinking of the challenge as an evolutionary game.
In theory, if you can build your own version of 3D glasses and zoom in on the picture of reality that is right-sized for the management challenge you are trying to take on, then your chances of coming up with something genuinely new and creative should be pretty high. It should also push you to seek out perspectives from people you might never have considered before. That is at least our hope and the experience of a statistically irrelevant sample of early users.
Trying to use the full blown version of the 3D glasses on whatever is your organization’s equivalent of the mother of all problems might be too daunting a task and a setup for failure. It is better to either start small or to go one-dimensional.
- Small problem, all three dimensions. Choose a management challenge that you believe could be solved without going outside the boundary of your team or your organization. Set the space, time and method settings of your 3D glasses at one level above what you believe is needed (e.g., if you think the only method you need is economic cost-benefit analysis, invite a cultural anthropologist to take a look at the situation; if you think a three month time frame is enough, look at a year back and a year forward).
- Complex problem, one dimension. Stay with the most complex management challenge you are working on, but only explore one dimension at a time. Keep your space and time settings at their default and go crazy on the methods (e.g., say you are developing a long-term strategy for a global business—bring in an Earth systems scientist, a science fiction writer, a philosopher, and economist and a cultural anthropologist).
- Concept design and prototype testing: Source Integral team
- Inspiration for concept design: the zoom-in and zoom-out functionality on Google Earth and iPad; real world challenges faced by our clients, global challenges facing humanity