Stretching for New Technology Strategy

Last week a client was reaching for new understanding of how to spark imagination and facilitate stretch among the leaders in his organization for a more robust global technology strategy. To think in a way that is leading edge while remaining committed to partnering with business functions can be something of a leadership dilemma for those who lead R&D; functions. Often our outlook is simply too short-term and too parochial, despite our intent to reach aggressively into the future.

As I think about the challenge of stretching our thinking, creatively as well as strategically, I am acutely aware that rice has become too expensive for many who are dependent on it for survival. Last week a new exhibit opened for the summer here in Minneapolis at the Walker Art Center called Design for the Other 90%. In a local review of the exhibit, Andrew Blauvelt, the Walker design curator, comments, “Most design is geared to the wealthiest 10 percent of the population but the new idea is that the poor are the next billion customers.”

Steep commodity prices may be only temporary. But examining the relationship between food and energy is but one example of the opportunity for new ways of thinking strategically in the domain of technology. G. Pascal Zachary writing in the NYTimes “The Brighter Side of Higher Prices” comments that “to be sure, engineering a new ‘green revolution’ that will yield, say, cheaper wheat and rice — all the while meeting the concerns of various special interest groups — will be much harder than designing a better music player.”

The complexity of issues such as the relationship of global food supply and environmentally sound energy solutions should not deter us. “Strategy as a Wicked Problem” , by John C. Camillus in the last issue of Harvard Business Review (May, 2008) provides some very helpful guidance for strategists and others. He writes: “Wicked problems often crop up when organizations have to face constant change or unprecedented challenges. They occur in a social context; the greater the disagreement among stakeholders, the more wicked the problem. In fact, it’s the social complexity of wicked problems that make them tough to manage. ” Environmental degradation, terrorism, and poverty, Camillus cites, as classic examples of “wicked problems” (I shared a reprint of this article with our client.)

George Bernard Shaw, the Irish playwright, wrote: This is the true joy in life, being used for a purpose recognized as a mighty one.” What inspires others to imagine, to stretch, is usually not in our comfort zone. It is often not in our domain of expertise. It is simply “beyond us”. But inspiration and strategy do intersect.