14 Jun. 2012 | Comments (0)
Think back to the last time you played chess with a first-grader. (Never? Shame!) You'll recall the almost overwhelming temptation the kid feels to play with the pieces off the board. First-graders can learn the rules and make appropriate moves on the board, but they aren't so ready as grownups to give up on the pieces that land on the sidelines. In fact, off the board, those pieces can be more interesting. Kings can strut about. Knights can whinny and gallop.
As adults we might smile at such imaginative play, but we don't tend to encourage it. We'd rather see the focus on the strategic use of the relevant assets and on the kinds of moves that could win the game. To a kid's mind, that's thinking too narrowly. However huge the number is of possible strategic combinations and re-combinations on the chessboard, it is nothing compared with the number and variety of moves off the board.
I thought about all this when I heard Karim Khoja's story. (It is one that I tell in my book, The Coming Prosperity ) When he started building the mobile phone company Roshan in 2003, he faced some singular challenges. Why? Because Roshan is in Afghanistan. Seventy percent of the people in Afghanistan are illiterate. So when Roshan advertised that it was hiring, ten thousand people responded, but few had even the most rudimentary qualifications. You could say they were all pieces off the game board of the global economy.
Khoja recalls his chief technology officer, Eric Chapman, announcing a week into the search that they were going to have to choose their engineers in a different way. Sounding totally exasperated, he continued: "If they can open up a PC, switch it on, and speak English, we're going to hire them." Four million subscribers later, Khoja was running the largest company in Afghanistan and still marveling: "Those were our engineers." The key was Roshan's sustained commitment to on-the-job training of Afghans. Khoja continues: "Today when you come to Roshan, you come to our network control center, you come to our call center, you will find not one single expatriate. It is those sixteen engineers we chose—the ones who could speak English and start up a PC—that today run a quarter-of-a-billion-dollar network nationwide."
You may or may not be planning to start a company in Afghanistan. But frontier spaces are everywhere: They are the vast expanses off the board. They are the places where the rules you've learned along the way don't necessarily apply, and might only prevent your most valuable moves.
Far from Aghanistan, in the USA, the world of work off the game board is becoming an increasingly lively place to be. A new generation entering the workforce is experiencing the harsh reality that there are fewer and fewer opportunities to play—much less succeed—as pieces on the 20th century's game boards. (Wasn't the most popular one Monopoly®?) They join a large number of game pieces that have been removed from the board in the course of play during the past decade—or that, Toy Story-like, simply got up and walked. For one reason or another, many of the most capable and determined players in the economy are now playing off the board, and yet not feeling on the sidelines.
Truly game-changing institutional innovations are unlikely to come about from internalizing the rules and making the moves that allowed others to win. If the game board represents existing business models, the most promising pathway to disruptive innovation is to look around for underutilized assets—those game pieces off the board—and to configure them for success in a world of unbounded possibilities.
This notion that innovation happens when people can ignore business-as-usual rules might remind you of the value of a "skunk works"—a team set apart from a larger organization and given license to work on its own terms. The protoypical Skunk Works was Lockheed Martin's Advanced Development Projects (ADP) unit, a group characterized by autonomy, secrecy, and an elite identity. Its unconventional approach not only yielded the design of the U-2 spy plane and other famed aircraft, it inspired hundreds of other companies to create, or at least to tolerate the creation of, similarly (un)structured innovation units.
But the new version of playing off the game board goes even further. It isn't hidden in the cracks of a massive corporate hierarchy; it's outside the hierarchy entirely, in the open space. When it's corporate sponsored, it might look like Microsoft's Garage, where employees go to pursue their passions even when those passions don't connect with Their Work. They're spotting intriguing, leftover pieces from the standard, rule-bound game and finding ways to play with them according to ideas of their own. Today, in contrast with the 1950s, companies are creating or joining such spaces only partly because they hope that the new games their employees invent there will result in new product and service lines. They also recognize that providing employees with opportunities to play games off the board is becoming essential to the recruitment and retention of top talent.
Chances are good that in your organization, too, the people who represent your best future are playing with the pieces off the game board. Don't just encourage them. Join them.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 06/11/2012.
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