Interview: Curtis Michelson on Innovation and Culture

Curtis headshot AltIn today’s blog post, we break from our usual format to bring you an interview with Curtis Michelson, a consultant specialising in business analysis, architecture and change.  Curtis’ career has spanned a wide range of industries from mobile apps to pharmaceuticals, and now heads-up Minds-Alert LLC, an innovative consulting company based in Florida, USA.

I first met Curtis when we were both blogging for bridging-the-gap.com.  Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with Curtis on a number of projects and have always enjoyed his innovative style.

I recently caught up with Curtis for a ‘virtual’ chat and he shared some really useful insight:


Curtis, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed! So, tell us a little about your background….

We have an expression here in the States that might be apt – I’m a “jack of all trades, master of none”.  Though I dislike the pejorative connotation of mastery over nothing, I’ve made peace with my Jack’ness and found its strength by realizing that curiosity and adaptability bode quite well for living in fast changing times.

Lately I’ve been doing some business model concept work for a large non-profit association of publishers here in the States and bringing some strategic support to a local group called GameChanger Orlando.  And of course there’s IIBA and my local Orlando chapter, where I have worked in the Marketing role, then as Chapter president and now peacefully enjoying retirement as Past-President with Corona beer in hand in Acapulco.

Ha, just kidding! They’ll never let me go.

 

You’ve always struck me as a really innovative person. How would you describe innovation, and how does it fit within the discipline of business analysis?

Business analysis and innovation are almost antithetical concepts. Okay, now let me try to defend that complete heresy.

Let’s first define terms. Business analysis is the discipline and practice of approaching projects or organizational initiatives in such a way that participants understand very clearly what’s at stake, i.e., what change will mean, what risks and costs incur and what benefits might come if the change is organized and executed just so.

Innovation is fundamentally a different discipline and practice. It doesn’t seek first to understand risks and contexts, but rather to tear up and start afresh. It takes all that risk/benefit language and, temporarily at least, sets it aside, so that the mind can imagine multiple (sometimes hundreds) of lateral ideas and possibilities.

What I’m saying is, both practices are vital and useful, but they are distinct and somewhat opposed to each other. One aims to conserve, the other aims to progress. One converges (the analysis part) and the other diverges (the innovation). You need both really.

 

I’ve seen you present and talk about “appreciative inquiry”. What is this, and in what situations might it be used during change initiatives and projects?

Thank you for asking!  I love all forms of appreciative inquiry. What it means is that any change initiative (of the kind I was referring to above in my definition of business analysis) can be quite usefully imagined (via various forms of thought experiment) as a runaway success. In other words, it’s a form of question that begins, “what’s really good here?”, or “what would be the best outcome we can imagine?”.

Any time you want to move a product to a new level, or an org to a new position, it’s a great place to start by imagining what a total win looks like. This approach is often used more in design communities and less in business analysis in my experience. Designers seem to swim and breathe in appreciative space and they also make it very sensorial by asking questions like, what does success sound like? What does it look like? What does it taste like? And so on. They ask those questions in both literal and figurative ways.

I have met BAs who use this appreciative technique, even if they don’t call it such. One colleague would frontload his elicitations with the question “if we had unlimited time and resources here, what could we do?”  That really lets the mind wonder freely and can get the directionality going for a long range plan. It’s much easier to pull back from that long throw, and then design increments, than to go the other way around.

But that said, it’s not easy at all to get people completely at ease with such aspirational and appreciative thought experiments either.  “What do you mean imagine we had unlimited resources?”  It’s just not something people do, or allow themselves to do. (Personally noting a whole book idea right there!) The art of appreciative inquiry, is leading those conversations in ways that are rich and generative.

 

That sounds really interesting! Are there any books/websites that you’d recommend where we can read more about appreciative inquiry?

Sure,  David Cooperider and Suresh Srivastva are the two Case Western University professors who coined the term several decades ago and laid down some of the seminal academic research. Their website is: https://appreciativeinquiry.case.edu/intro/vision.cfm

There have been many offshoots since then, and many folks have rebranded or renamed the method. Here’s a contemporary example – www.solutionfocuscases.com

You can find plenty more web resources and books by googling for the phrase ‘appreciative inquiry’ and with keywords like ‘design inquiry’, ‘positive psychology’, ‘solution focus’, and such.

Books that expand and deepen the topic into other areas that I would recommend are:

  • “Solving Tough Problems”, Adam Kahane
  • “Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego-System to Eco-System Economies”, Otto Scharmer
  • “Leaders Guide to Storytelling”, Stephen Denning

 

Organisational change can be hard, and culture can enable or quash innovation and change.  Do you think cultural change is possible? How can it be initiated and accelerated?

How many pages, reams, months, years do I have to answer that question?

Seriously, the last three books I listed offer much wisdom here. Storytelling is probably my favourite way to change culture and to break organizational log jams. Really, anything that can get stakeholders in an ’empathetic space’; meaning, feeling something other than their own cubicle bounded reality; which is by definition, defensive and territorial, is positive. Natural reactions are always “what will this mean to my work, my role, my job?”

Harvesting stories from the organizational culture can be really powerful, and Denning’s book gives good examples. But a caveat – those examples are cases where some very open minded executives made culture change a mandate from the top down. And they supported it from bottom up.

For example, there’s a company here in Florida called ValPak that leveraged culture to great advantage and transformed every corner of their enterprise. It started with a new CEO who was reading some servant leadership literature and he was just the right curious type to ask the dangerous question – “how can I make this culture shift happen at scale in my company?”  You might say ValPak is something of a poster child for agile philosophy extended far past IT, into every part of a company. If you’ve ever worked in a well-run agile development project, you know how vital transparency and clean frequent communication and feedback are. Those ingredients are writ large at ValPak. When you take a tour of the place, the transparency is everywhere and it’s palpable.  Kanban boards in every department, daily stand-ups with teams, supportive workplace atmosphere for maximum creativity. You walk around and you think “this is the future of work”.  But alas, that’s not most places, yet.

 

Culture can be driven by structure (to some extent). If you were CEO, how would you structure your organisation? Do you think there is a place for self-organising teams?

Absolutely.  The ValPak case study just mentioned is a perfect example of that.

 

What do you think the biggest threat to organisations will be in the next five years?

We tend to think, and we are trained to think of threats as external things. That’s good old SWOT, right?  Strengths and Weaknesses are internal and Opportunities and Threats are external. I think the inverse is the case. The big threats are internal in nature.

The market will do what the market will do. And it’s doing it at a pace, you can’t even keep up with. I mean, imagine if you could hire a research firm to keep you current, even if you had all of Gartner at your disposal let’s say, 24/7 dedicated to tracking your sector and “what’s coming next?”, by the time you understood the analysis, got teams focused on it, and a product or program built and running, the market has already made you history.

The biggest threat to organizations is their own inability to cultivate and trust their own instincts and the intelligence and creativity of their people, in order to move at a speed and with a confidence that is market leading and not following. That sort of agility doesn’t come from analysis per se, though business analysis can support it. It comes from the art and science of healthy organizational development and enterprise design.

I’m much more attuned lately to anything that changes the organizational dynamics of creativity. Whatever can help move the conversation, unblock the log jam of thinking, is where I’m most interested. More and more, the ways I see of doing such jam breaks is right in line with the work of organizational development folks and the ‘design community’ writ large.

 

What *one* topic would you recommend that we (as BAs) read more about.

Leadership

 

Thanks Curtis, that is really useful insight. If readers want to find out more about you, or stay in touch, how can they do that?

  • twitter: @SpecsRex
  • website:  www.minds-alert.com

 


What are your views on innovation, culture and other related topics? Do you have any thoughts or tips? I’d love to hear from you, please add a comment below!


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Tom Hussey

Like the concept of appreciative inquiry – as a business analyst I often find myself spending too much time picking holes in things and looking for problems (which makes people less want to talk to me less 🙂 so it’s a good idea to consciously balance it with something more positive.

Adrian Reed

Hi Tom, I completely agree. The whole idea of “convergent” vs “divergent” thinking is really powerful. The design council’s double diamond is quite a nice complementary visualisation of this: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20080821115409/designcouncil.org.uk/en/about-design/managingdesign/the-study-of-the-design-process/

I also agree that the idea of appreciative inquiry is very useful. Sometimes by *forgetting* what is there at the moment, and defining an idealised state can help to elicit what is really important (at an ‘outcome’ level).

Thanks for the comment, and I’m glad you enjoyed the blog 🙂

Adrian

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