War Games and the Forgetting Challenge

by Adi Gaskell

corporate-war-gamesOne of the hardest challenges facing any organization that aspires to innovate is overcoming the existing orthodoxy.  This is especially so when that orthodoxy has become a successful and well celebrated part of your company’s past, and has led to the successful rise through the ranks of many of your senior executives.

It’s a topic I’ve touched on before, with a key tranche of Vijay Govindarajan’s Three Boxes methodology being selectively forgetting the past (the post linked here outlines a relatively simple test you can take to gauge the size of your own ‘forgetting challenge’).

Govindarajan outlines three distinct traps that undermine our ability to mold a new future for us and our organizations:

  1. The complacency trap, whereby we are lulled into thinking that the good profits of our cash cow will continue indefinitely
  2. The competency trap, whereby we are lulled into putting all of our eggs into the profit generating side of the business, ignorant of the fact it will inevitably not last forever
  3. The cannibalization trap, whereby we are prevented from investing in innovation for fear that doing so might cannibalize our cash cow

Overcoming these traps

A nice method for overcoming these traps is implemented at Chinese telecoms giant Huawei.  They have tried to encourage dissenting voices by creating a ‘Blue Team’, whose sole responsibility is to serve as the voice of opposition to the company (the Red Team).

The approach is described in detail in a recent book on the company by Tian Tao and David de Cremer, where they describe the philosophy of CEO Ren Zhengfei.

“The Blue Team is everywhere in the company.  Every part of the organization includes members of the Blue Team; it doesn’t exist only at the top of the organization…

…I believe the Blue Team exists in every field and every process, and the opposition between blue and red is always present,” he says.

War gaming

Of course, this kind of thing is perhaps not new, and companies have conducted ‘war games’ for some time now.  Such games tend to thrive in uncertain environments where a number of possible scenarios can be played out.  They often have no real ‘right’ answer, but do work wonders at shedding fresh light on a situation and offering fresh perspectives from which to consider matters.

Where the Huawei concept seems to differ however is that it isn’t a process that has a clear timescale and a clear brief.  Instead, the blue team are tasked with being an ongoing and constant rival to the existing status quo.

In that sense it offers the prospect of a more lasting and enduring effort to self-critique where the organization is going and how it plans to get there, which as Govindarajan points out, is crucial if we hope to innovate.

Do you have something resembling a Blue Team in your own organization?

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Adi-Gaskell-150x150Adi Gaskell tells us: “I am a free range human who believes that the future already exists if we know where to look. From the bustling Knowledge Quarter in London, it is my mission in life to hunt down those things and bring them to a wider audience, with my posts here focusing particularly on the latest research on innovation and change.” Follow Adi @adigaskell

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