Leapfrogging: A book review by Bob Morris

Leapfrogging: Harness the Power of Surprise for Business Breakthroughs
Soren Kaplan
Berrett-Koehler Publishers (2012)

The power and value of serendipity on the other side of complexity

As I began to read this book, I was reminded of an observation by Oliver Wendell Holmes: “I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity this side of complexity but would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity.” This is what Soren Kaplan has in mind when suggesting that the single most important factor in fostering true game changers in innovation is “the way leaders and organizations handle the discomfort, the disorientation, and the thrill (and pain) of living with uncertainty, finding clarity from ambiguity, and being surprised.” Very few business leaders and their organizations are both willing and able to work heir way through the complexity of what I view as “the fog of innovation” until, finally, there is a business breakthrough.

In Leading Change, James O’Toole suggests that many change initiatives fail because of cultural resistance that results from what he so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Kaplan duly acknowledges that leapfrogging – “the process of overcoming limiting mindsets and barriers to create business breakthroughs – is almost never easy. On the contrary, the status quo always has staunch defenders and many of them reside in the C-suite. More often than not, the current status quo is one they created by the same process of transformation to which Kaplan refers. That is, in response to what was then the status quo, they and their associates “delivered exactly what groundbreaking innovations always deliver: something new, something powerfully effective, and – most important – something unexpected.” Now the target is on their backs. Moreover, the greatest threat the organization now faces is not from a competitor. Rather, it is internal: an obsolete mindset among its leaders who cannot respond effectively to “an age of wrenching change and hyper competition.”

Kaplan inserts real-world examples of business executives in dozens of quite different organizations (e.g. DuPont, Four Seasons, Google, Kimberly-Clark, KIPP, PepsiCo, and Unilever) who struggle – with mixed results – to “harness the power of surprise for business breakthroughs.” These are among the passages that caught my eye:

o Breakthroughs Can Come from Anywhere (Pages 17-22)
o Big Surprises Can Come in Small Doses (41-45)
o New Mindsets Are the Missing Link (52-54)
o The LEAPS Model (58)
o Liberating the Brain Delivers the Big Picture (64-69)
o ”Leapfrogging Tools” (77-79)

Note: Kaplan adds to his reader’s “tool box” with other “tools” on Pages 98-103, 121-125, 150-153, and 176-180.

o New Insights Come from Pushing Beyond Comfort Zones (87-91)
o Small Steps Can Lead to Big Things (107-110)
o External Criticism Is Rooted in Old Assumptions (161-166)
o Humility Opens Us Up to Seeing Surprise [and Being Surprised] (161-166)
o The Paradox of Surprise (188-189)

Readers will also appreciate Kaplan’s strategic insertion of “Questions to Consider” sections within – rather than at the conclusion of — Chapters 1-8 that will facilitate, indeed expedite review of key points and issues later. Moreover, of equal importance, the questions enable the reader to interact with the material by thinking about how best to apply appropriate portions of it within the reader’s own organization.

Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out three others: Peter Sims’s Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, Jason Jennings’ Think Big, Act Small: How America’s Best Performing Companies Keep the Start-up Spirit Alive, and Paul Schoemaker’s Brilliant Mistakes: Finding Success on the Far Side of Failure.

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