Peter Skarzynski and David Crosswhite: An interview by Bob Morris, Part One

SkarzynskiPeter Skarzynski is a founder and Managing Partner of ITC Business Group, LLC. He advises large, global organizations on strategy, innovation and organizational change and is recognized as a leading expert in enabling organizational renewal and growth through innovation. His experience cuts across industries and includes technology, consumer products & retail, healthcare, energy, financial services and transportation companies. His primary focus has been to help client organizations renew their core business through competence leverage and break-through business concept innovation. He has led and delivered client work in Asia, The Americas and Europe. Before co-founding ITC, Peter was CEO, Chairman and a founding Director of Strategos, a firm initially chaired and founded by Professor Gary Hamel. He also served as a Vice President in the strategy practice of Gemini Consulting and held several senior-level consulting roles in its predecessor, the MAC Group.

A frequent corporate and conference speaker, Peter has written thought pieces for The Wall Street Journal, CEO Magazine, and The Drucker Foundation. His 2008 book, Innovation to the Core: A Blueprint for Transforming the Way Your Company Innovates, was the first to describe how large organizations can build and sustain a company-wide innovation capability. Peter holds an MBA in Finance and Marketing and a BA (with Honors) in Policy Studies and Economics from the University of Chicago.

CrosswhiteDavid Crosswhite is an experienced management consultant with more than 20 years of work in the field of growth-focused strategy, innovation, and innovation capability development within large organizations. He is a currently a Managing Partner of ITC Business Group, LLC and a former Managing Director of Strategos. His work focuses on assisting clients with their growth strategy and strategy development processes and systems. His work in this area spans multiple industries, including consumer products, durable goods, healthcare, medical devices, financial services, and heavy manufacturing. David’s experience cuts across B2C and B2B sectors. His work with the Whirlpool Corporation is well-known and documented in Strategic Innovation: Embedding Innovation as a Core Competence in Your Organization, authored by Nancy Tennant, EVP of Leadership and Competence Development for Whirlpool. His work is also heavily documented in Innovation to the Core, and in multiple Harvard Business Review cases and other business journals. .

Prior to Strategos, David was a Principal at the MAC Group and in Gemini Consulting’s strategy practice. At MAC/Gemini, David focused on marketing and process design for growth issues in the telecommunications industry. David worked domestically and internationally across many of the major telecommunications providers to develop their go-to-market, service, and product development strategies and processes. David earned his MBA at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University, and holds a BS in Electrical Engineering from Lehigh University.

Peter and David’s most recent collaboration is The Innovator’s Field Guide: Market Tested Methods and Frameworks to Help You Meet Your Innovation Challenges, published by Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Brand (2014)

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Before discussing The Innovator’s Field Guide, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Skarzynski: Well, that is certainly a long list! Certainly it starts with my family – 5 siblings and Mom and Dad. Specific teachers and colleagues.

Like Peter, it starts with family. My parents were both public school teachers. So, education, inquiry and learning were always front and center. And watching the learning and development process of our children has always fascinated and inspired me.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Crosswhite: There is a long list of mentors over the years. Each has had their influence. In work habits and ethics. In intellectual and professional development. None of them “famous.” All of them important though.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Crosswhite: It was in the early 1990s, during the peak of “re-engineering” which as you know was all about cost cutting and right sizing. We were in the early days of doing this, at the birth of Gemini Consulting

Skarzynski: That’s right. And we were doing the work in a way that explicitly required high engagement of large client teams. At the time the firm was collaborating with C.K. Prahalad and Gary Hamel. It was then that we thought we really should be applying the “high engagement, client owns this” answers approach to strategy, growth and innovation. So, we took that path along with Gary and C.K, along with other colleagues, particularly Linda Yates, and we never turned back.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Critical. At every level. In particular my technical education at Lehigh and my MBA at Northwestern’s Kellogg School. I particularly found some of the logic and frameworks for other disciplines to be enlightening, leading me, I suppose, to be attracted to the craft of developing and enhancing “newer” disciplines like systematic innovation.

A profound impact, to be sure. At every level of education, I had the good fortune to experience outstanding teachers. In particular, my liberal arts study at The University of Chicago was immeasurably helpful. The whole focus was on inquiry: Why, why, why. It was impossible to hide from a weak argument. The same was true in graduate study.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world now that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Skarzynski: How incredibly interesting any organization can be when its leadership is seriously committed to growth and the full engagement of its employees.

Crosswhite: I think the entire OD discipline is fascinating when done well. The difference between what organizations say they want to get done vs. what they do can often be great. So learning and applying principles and techniques of change management in service of specific, meaningful goals is hard to do, but very rewarding when done well.

Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

The Godfather, Part II. It is a legitimate contender. There are two strategy stories here, one a success and one a failure: Vito’s story is one of success of bringing people together by understanding their unmet needs in the community and Michael’s story is one of failure of ruthless independence that results in his complete and utter isolation. Vito shows that business is highly personal and depends on community while Michael shows that impersonal business is more than a failure, it’s a tragedy. Of course, there’s ethics to be considered with this example.

Skarzynski: I like G2 also. And ethics, for sure is an issue with the example. But Dave’s movie choice surfaces an important point: Business success builds from doing the right thing, the right way.

You see this notion emerging prominently in business literature now. Stephen Denning writes about this in Forbes. And Dov Seidman and Clay Christensen speak well on it. How will any individual – and of all of us working in organizations – how will our actions help individuals be better people.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Too many to name! Here are three. And I owe these to my kids and wife who recommended each to me. Boys in the Boat is a great book speaking to the need for individual excellence in the context of a team (the boat) excellence in which every person (seat) must play their uniquely valuable role. Second, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Third, The Invisible Heart – An Economic Romance. It is a fictional book written by an economist. It moves quickly through basic tenets like the power of incentives, supply and demand, and markets. Easy to read, easy to understand.

Crosswhite: Does The Road to Serfdom qualify as non-business? Regardless, it offers profound insights about why and how value and wealth are created, which form a strong basis for thinking about the work of innovation as well.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Crosswhite: Makes good sense. Leading is the task of helping and allowing people to accomplish for themselves. Comports with so many of the most admired examples of leadership that one can point to.

Skarzynski: The Servant Leader.

Morris: From Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

Skarzynski: In most organizations we’ve seen, this is not an issue internally

Crosswhite: Agreed. A bigger issue is external collaboration. For many organizations, there is much more that can be done externally through networks and partnerships. By way of example, P&G is a company succeeding through external collaboration. Others should take a page out of their “Connect and Develop” playbook!

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Crosswhite: This is one of the reasons – one of many – that organizations miss the future. They resist disruption. They can’t escape the prison of served markets and can’t reimagine a new set of rules – breaking orthodoxies, if you will – in service of creating new markets or reinventing the core.


Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Skarzynski: It’s always about the question, not the “Eureka moment.” Einstein said “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would use the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

This certainly comports with the “uber-principle” that innovation equals new learning. If that’s true, it all starts with the questions that lead to new learning. And the new learning should and will often surprise you. If you already knew the answers, it’s much less likely that it’s really “innovation.”

Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Crosswhite: Of course, efficiency is important. But in some organizations efficiency is THE sole focus. And a singular focus on efficiency will blind an organization to disruption.

Skarzynski: Look at Apple’s supply chain performance, They not only lead their industry but their supply chain is literally among the best in the world for efficiency. But, when one thinks of Apple, efficiency is likely not the first thing that comes to mind. You think of amazing products and experience which delight and engage. It is rare, by the way, that for a company to be both excellent at operational excellence and superior in consumer delight.

Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Experimentation matters. Smart mistakes are those which help you manage and mitigate risk through smart experimentation. Experimentation is the best approach to explore new market spaces – which by their nature blow up one or more deeply held assumptions about what drives success. And this is important both pre-launch and post launch.

Skarzynski: And, I’d add that there is too little experimentation in most companies today. Too many have not learned to deploy an agile, test, learn and refine process through which to explore new market spaces smartly. Look at what Google does with experimentation and rapid, iterative prototyping.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Skarzynski: We don’t see that with the frequency your question implies. In fact, in the growth space – strategy and innovation – we see the opposite happening – sometimes actually too much so. Leadership’s engagement in this newer discipline of systematic innovation, well done, is critical. All too often, they don’t engage enough in this one.

Crosswhite: Completely agree. Truly new innovation with little or no leadership engagement in its development and implementation is likely to die on the vine. Their engagement is critical to making smart and measured choices in the new space being investigated or entered. And central to its “stickiness” during and after its commercialization.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Crosswhite: The conceptualization and articulation of a story can certainly be helpful to leading. You have to have a point of view about the problem, the pathway to working the problem, and eventually a point of view about actions and solutions. And you have to be able to articulate it to lead the charge. Certainly in that regard, the thought makes sense.

Skarzynski: Would agree. I’d add that a great leader makes the case for change and is sometimes ridiculed for it – think about Reagan’s Evil Empire Speech. And before that, his view of the cold war: We win, they lose. So, in a business context, Leadership needs a story for the organization. Not slogans, per se. But a story: Here’s where we are going, why we are going there and how you can help.

Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Crosswhite: Someone once said to me “you don’t change the culture to innovate, you innovate to change the culture.”.Applied in a broader context, you don’t change things and then “do,” you change things by doing. You have to engage the organization to affect the change you want. Whether it’s innovation or some other outcome you are looking to achieve, change management occurs via well thought through engagement on the issues at hand. The key is, do you have a point-of-view about the structure and nature of how to engage?

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

I think some of the more “rote” disciplines – accounting, finance – are done quite well. Some of the “softer side” disciplines are so important, and of such high value in the real world: Change management, change management in service of innovation or in service of quality or what have you, organizational development, leadership development, etc. But to be fair to the MBA industry, these are pretty hard topics to pack into a classroom and a semester format. Some of these benefit from frameworks and specific-to-topic change management techniques. And after that it requires real world experience and some skinned knees. There’s no getting around it.

Crosswhite: Agreed. I think the one thing the “industry” might consider conveying a bit more effectively in these areas is that flight hours are critical to effective skill-building. That it’s not a rote learning type of discipline. But beyond that, couldn’t agree more with Peter’s observation.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any Advice?

Skarzynski: Keeping their organizations relevant to customers, employees and other stakeholders

Crosswhite: Yes. Agree. When you look at the pace of change, it’s mind-boggling. It’s amazing so many business models actually last the length of time they do. But half-lives keep getting shorter and shorter at what seems to be a continually accelerated pace.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to The Innovator’s Field Guide. When and why did you decide to write it?

Crosswhite: We felt there was a big gap in the market. At this point most organizations know innovation is important. But no one was / is writing about how to move beyond the “Why” to the “How” of making innovation happen for each of the most pressing innovation problems and challenges common to organizations

Skarzynski: And we wanted to do that for the most pressing, persistent innovation challenges we see. These challenges are consistent across industries and organizations. Public, private, Government, NGO or not-for-profit.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Skarzynski: One revelation to us was the low level, even lack of, focus on post-launch innovation. To some extent some software and tech services do this well. But too many other industries and disciplines focus all their systematic innovation techniques and processes on pre-launch work only. Once products get launched, they go more on auto-pilot as it pertains to continued and continuous new learning and innovation techniques than ought to be the case in our view. This is an underappreciated and underleveraged discipline. We think there is lots of room for organizations to create and capture value in that area.

Crosswhite: I would agree. Another one I’d add is the topic of organizing for innovation. There’s so much to say here. I think it’s safe to say that this topic could be a whole book unto itself. It was a challenge to select the most important focus areas for that topic as a part of this book. Perhaps that’s the next book.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Crosswhite: I think we came out pretty close to the original vision and idea behind the book. Certainly we found newly discovered learnings regarding particular examples in the book. But the original idea and intent, and the final product ended up to be what we expected, I think.

Skarzynski: I agree. I can think of small differences from original concept of the project, but it’s all pretty small beer.

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In addition to the hyperlinks, Peter and David cordially invite you to check out the resources at these websites:

Innovator’s Field Guide

Our growth practice link

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