Fast/Forward: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: April 11th, 2017 by bobmorris

Fast/Forward: Make Your Company Fit for the Future
Julian Birkinshaw and Jonas Ridderstråle
Stanford Business Books/Stanford University Press (April 2017)

“What got you here won’t get you there.” Marshall Goldsmith

Goldsmith’s insight serves as the title of one of his most thoughtful books and I presume to add that what got you here won’t even allow you to remain here, no matter whatever and wherever “here” and “there” may be. This is perhaps what Julian Birkinshaw and Jonas Ridderstråle have in mind when observing that “the formulae for success that worked in prior decades offer only very limited insights into what might work in the future. This is because the business context keeps changing: not in the banal sense that we face increasing levels of technological change and higher levels of competition, but rather in the more fundamental sense that every source of competitive advantage carries with it the seeds of its own destruction. This is a version of the famous ‘Icarus Paradox’; the attribute or capability that makes companies successful in one era makes them susceptible to failure in the next era.”

Clayton Christensen is generally credited with formulating a similar concept, “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” In his eponymous work published in 1997, Christensen notes that the logical, competent decisions of management which are critical to the success of their companies are — or at least can be —also the reasons why they lose their positions of leadership. Leaders face a dilemma: Improve an incumbent product or service, or, create an entirely new product or service that can disrupt the given marketplace and (perhaps) the given industry. Apple and Google are among the few companies that have been able to do both…simultaneously.

Birkinshaw and Ridderstråle nail it when observing, “Corporate generals tend to fight the last war, using structures and methods that were designed for the previous, and endorsing plans that are linear extrapolations of what worked before. What we need instead for companies to figure out how to make the rate of change inside at least as rapid as the rate of change outside. This, ultimately, is what the book is about. “

They examine three quite different models that capture and the obvious and hidden aspects of both organizational design and redesign: bureaucracy, meritocracy, and adhocracy. Their approach reflects two separate but related modes of thought: paradoxical thinking, and, what they characterize as “alternatives to the classic hierarchical way of working.”

As they point out, the concept of adhocracy is not entirely new. It is attributed to Warren Bennis in his book The Temporary Society (1968) and then picked up and popularized by Alvin Toffler in his book Future Shock (1970). This third model is particularly suited to organizations operating in a highly unpredictable business environment. “At its core, the advocacy is a management model that privileges action over position and knowledge.”

It is worth noting that in Future Shock, published almost 50 years ago, Toffler observes, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

In their concluding remarks, Julian Birkinshaw and Jonas Ridderstråle suggest a key point to those who read their book: “By adopting the fast/forward principles of advocacy at a personal level, you are putting action and experimentation ahead of analytical rigor or deference to formal authority, and you are sufficiently self-confident to know that you can live with the consequences of this approach. That is what condemned to freedom really means.”

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Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out two others: The Three-Box Solution: A Strategy for Leading Innovation in which Vijay Govindarajan provides what he characterizes as “a simple framework that recognizes all three competing challenges face that managers face when leading innovation.” That is, simultaneously managing today’s business while creating tomorrow’s and letting go of yesterday’s values and beliefs that could keep the company stuck in the past. Also, Dual Transformation: How to Reposition Today’s Business While Creating the Future in which Scott Anthony, Clark Gilbert, and Mark Johnson explain how and why combining the assets and benefits of scale and entrepreneurial spirit will drive massive impact for almost any organization, whatever its size or nature may be.

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