Embrace surprises — Great Leadership Idea No. 140

by | 21 Nov 2013 | Leadership Ideas


Management seeks to regularise the irregular; to iron-out discrepancies and to correct deviations in the search for the perfectly-managed process. But this search for efficiency and predictability can never (by definition) generate happy accidents or surprises.

Six Sigma: self-defeating?

The process of efficient management is epitomised by the Six Sigma doctrine, a set of strategies that aim to reduce variations in any process to the ultimate level of only 3.4 per million. The process is a valuable management tool, used to great effect by Jack Welch during his time as CEO of General Electric.

As a mind-set, however, the attempt to drive variation and ‘surprises’ out of all business processes is self-defeating. As management guru and author Gary Hamel points out, we live in an irregular world.

‘In the bible of modern management,’ wrote Hamel in The Future of Management, ‘”no surprises” is the first commandment. Increasingly, though, we live in an irregular world, where irregular people use irregular means to produce irregular products that yield irregular profits. For example, while one can imagine a highly disciplined product development process yielding the ‘son-of-iPod’, a line extension within Apple’s family of iconic music players, it’s unlikely that a rigid, mechanistic process would ever have hatched the iPod itself. In the 21st century, regularity doesn’t produce a superior performance.’

That’s not innovation; it’s laziness

Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks, makes a similar point.

‘If Frappuccino is a hot category and you introduce a new flavor, and it moves the needle a lot, the organization comes to believe, ‘That was a great thing we did,’ Schultz told Fast Company magazine. ‘And it imprints a feeling of, “That was innovation.” But that’s not innovation. In fact, it’s laziness.’

When he resumed the CEO’s role in 2008, with the company’s performance beginning to slide, Shultz experimented with more radical innovations, such as the introduction of fresh-pressed fruit and vegetable juice drinks. Starbuck’s experimented with a range of unlikely combinations, leading Schultz’s Fast Company’s interviewer, Jon Gertner, to wonder about some of the products ‘fresh out of the Starbuck’s R&D lab.’

‘For lunch,’ he pondered, ‘would you drink 12 ounces of neon-green liquid kale sweetened with apple juice or spiced with a ginger kick?’

‘Thank God for screw ups’

All real innovations represent a surprise. As Hamel suggests in his recent book, What Matters Now, ‘we owe our existence to innovation.’

‘Our species exists thanks to five million years of genetic innovation,’ writes Hamel. ‘Since time immemorial, life has been experimenting with new genetic combinations, through sexual recombination and genetic mutation. As human beings, we are the genetic elite, the sentient, contemplating, and innovating sum of countless genetic accidents and transcription errors. Thank God for screw ups. If life had adhered to Six Sigma rules, we’d still be slime. Whatever the future holds for us bipeds, we can be sure that happy accidents will always be essential to breakthrough innovation.’

These ideas are explored further in 100 Great Leadership Ideas and 100 More Great Leadership Ideas



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