Julian Birkinshaw is Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School. His particular field of interest is the challenges for large companies who want to work in more innovative and agile ways, which is a topic that comes up time and again in my work with Solverboard customers as well as in all the literature around innovation. I heard Julian speak at the Front End of Innovation conference in June 2017, and then read his latest book, Fast/Forward, and he was kind enough to spend some time on the phone with me.
Hi Julian, to get us started, could you tell me a bit more about the field you work in?
There’s a perennial need for large companies to try to get a balance between economies of scale and market size and power on the one hand, and responsiveness and adaptability and innovation on the other. Most big companies are very good at being big and they’re typically fairly bad at being responsive and flexible and adaptive.
There is always an appetite for advice on how to do these sorts of things better, so that’s the broad scope of my research over the last 19 years.
What I really liked about your book was the idea of emotional conviction being vitally important. I often feel that strategy is a post-rationalisation of a gut feel or a hunch, and was wondering what led you to be interested in this particular aspect of corporate entrepreneurship?
There’s two answers to that question. One is that over the last five years or so analytics, big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning have found their way to the top of the conversation in big companies because, as always, technology enables you to do things that you couldn’t do before. The further that conversation progressed, the more worried I became, because I felt that if you allow the computers to take over you could find your way into a set of unhelpful organisational pathologies.
One of these is the risk of analysis paralysis, the feeling that we’ve got to keep on gathering data, because there’s so much available, before we get to the right answer. Another is the risk that we make sterile decisions which completely lack any sense of context or meaning. If we’re using computers to tell us the right answer and our competitors do exactly the same thing, there’s the risk that we end up with a completely undifferentiated product, or we end up investing in exactly the same things as everyone else because that’s what the smart data tells us. So all of that led me to suggest that there’s still a role for humans in the process. As you say, human insight and intuition and creativity have always been a big part of strategy making and we mustn’t lose that.
Jonas [Ridderstråle — Julian’s co-author] and I came up with the twin notions of decisive action and emotional conviction as being the essential human qualities in any strategy making process. They’ve always been part of the story, and sometimes the stronger the analytical capability, the more important emotional conviction is in order to rise up above the crowd of companies around us.
The second reason was that Jonas and I had always had the view that the traditional hierarchical perspective on structure was rather limited. We know that structure and position and hierarchy matters but we also know that for organisations to be effective, you’ve got to think in terms of the way that people actually act and behave on a day-to-day basis and you have to think of the feelings, the emotion, the intuition of individuals. The four dimensions of formal structure, knowledge, action and emotion — each one of them matters if you’re trying to make sense of a big, complex organisation. There’s nothing new here, all four of these elements have very, very long research lineages, but we wanted to give some traction to the idea that companies put a lot of time into formal structures, and many of them nowadays think about knowledge management, but they don’t give as much attention to the action imperative or to the emotional imperative.
So that’s the other way of getting to decisive action plus emotional conviction, through the theory rather than through current rhetoric.