Thursday 3 November 2011

Consistent mediocrity beats inconsistent genius

Tortoise and the Hare A manager from one of our clients recently said to me "if we could only be average in everything, we would lead the industry".

This is a "tortoise and hare" vision. It's a vision of delivering steadily, unspectacularly, but making no mistakes along the way. It doesn't sound like a very exciting vision, which is why so many companies attempt to strive for excellence in a few things, and fail in other areas. But it would be a very successful vision.

A strategy of "no mistakes" - a strategy of consistent competent delivery in all areas - is one that Knowledge Management can easily support, and it may be a better strategy for many companies than a strategy of striving for excellence and innovation. Why not get the basics right before getting adventurous?


Johannes said...

The problem is that in an environment where literally "no mistakes" can be tolerated (because it would jeopardize the delivery of consistent mediocrity), no innovation, change and improvement or can occur. And without innovation and improvement business usually die slowly. It's important to stick your neck out once in a while and risk something, possibility of failure included. Besides, life and work would also be pretty dull and boring if we didn't try ourselves out sometimes.

Nick Milton said...

The point, Johannes, is that sometimes "consistent reliability" is an effective business strategy, which change can jeopardise. Think of MacDonalds - how innovative do they want their staff to be? Or would they rather that they delivered consistent meals in teh most effective manner?

It is only "important to stick your neck out once in a while" if this is what your busiuness strategy needs. It should not always be the default.

As for "dull and boring" - then Yes, sometimes delivering reliable consistency can be dull and boring. I remember one drilling manager saying to me "I would like drilling wells (in thisparticular location) to become boring" (no pun intended). That's because when people start sticking their necks out and "risking things",the downsides can far outweight the upsides.

Please note that I am not saying all businesses should aspire to be dull and boring. What I AM saying, is that sometimes this is a very good strategy, and also that companies should sometimes aim to get the boring bits right before embarking on the risky stuff.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't "no mistakes" and "no innovation" go a bit against the grain of knowledge management?

Part of knowledge management is about learning from experience, and sharing (and recreating) insights on how to do the work better. Innovation does not always need to be radical, it can sometimes also be incremental, but any company striving to mediocrity will likely not incentivize this, and will thus ultimately be be overtaken by competitors.

With all due respect to McDonalds their strategy is to standardize, not to empower their staff with knowledge to do the best job they can - it may be an effective business strategy but I wouldn't consider it a knowledge business.

I'm also not thrilled by the line of argument which essentially says - if you want to be consistently mediocre then knowledge management is a great tool for you. Or perhaps I'm in the wrong job? said...

It depends on how you see KM.

KM need not always be about innovation. Sometimes it can be about standardisation, sometimes it can be about continuous improvement and incremental innovation, sometimes it can be about discontinuous step-out innovations.

It all depends on the business, and what the business needs. KM should be about supporting the business strategy; creating new knowledge when new knowledge needs to be created, replicating and deploying existing knowledge when the business is about standardisation and consistency.

Where KM people make mistakes, is in assuming that one approach fits all - that all businesses need standardisation, or that all businesses need innovation.

Take for example an electricity transmission company, tasked with "keeping the lights on" for a country or a state. In many such companies the knowledge is held by a rapidly ageing workforce, and needs to be transferred to a far younger demographic. Their issue is a KM issue, and it's also about getting the basics right, about consistency and about relaibility. They don't want the young guys coming in, innovating, taking risks and sticking out thir necks, they want them to do the basics right and consistently, because that's the core business strategy.

Please note, again, I am not saying that this is the strategy for all businesses, nor that this is all that KM should aspire to. I am saying that in some cases, this is a valid business strategy and a valid role for KM.

Anonymous said...

Here's a more temperate piece on when consistently mediocre is good and when it isn't on my blog - thanks for the inspiration to write this:

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