Tag Archives: deliberate perturbation

Deliberate perturbation at Levi's

Last April, I received an email from Erik Joule, Senior Vice President of Merchandising and Design at Levi’s, asking to speak with my colleagues and me about our paper “Wellsprings of Creation“.  Erik and Levi’s were setting out on a “massive cultural transformation project” to renew the organization’s capacity for innovation and creativity.  After speaking with us about our research, Erik decided to use our theory of deliberate perturbation as his conceptual frame for the transformation project.  Subsequently, Erik and I have met a few times to discuss the project, and he invited me to meet with some people at Levi’s to learn more about what they’ve been up to.  On Thursday, I took him up on the offer and interviewed two people from the strategy group.  Here’s their perspective on how Levi’s has been changing.

Our conversation began with a recently launched new product development initiative.  The new product targets a market segment that has not been a priority for the company, and thus represents a significant, high level perturbation.  As Brad, Mike and I explain in our paper, the hallmark of a perturbation is that it jolts an organization away from a stable, predictable equilibrium trajectory.

The initiative incorporated a variety of lower-level perturbations designed to throw the organization out of balance.  For example, working together with a design firm, Levi’s conducted a series of three “salons”, off-site workshops lasting two or three days.  Each of these salons brought together about twenty people from functions across the organization to develop ideas around the new product theme.  One salon was conducted in Memphis, where the company rented a space and recruited local consumers to interact directly with the Levi’s team.  Levi’s wanted quick feedback about their ideas, so they sewed clothes on the spot, had consumers try them out, and got immediate reactions.  The salons were about “ripping you out of your day to day job” and getting into a different frame of mind–an image that captures the essence of perturbation.

The distribution of exploration within the company has also changed.  Previously, the company separated exploitation (day-to-day business) and exploration (innovation), concentrating the latter in a dedicated innovation group.  As with many other companies that have attempted this approach, the innovation group proved unable to drive exploration throughout the company.  Within the organization, it was seen as a “group of people off on the side”, isolated from the market and customer needs, and not taken very seriously.  Now the group is gone, and “innovation is something you do every day.”

Several concepts and phrases came up repeatedly during the interview: rapid prototyping, direct feedback from customers, the need to pursue “progress over perfection”.  The changes have been disorienting for the organization.  Putting rough prototypes in front of real consumers has been discomforting for an organization accustomed to perfecting their products before letting them see the light of day.  Projects staffed with cross-functional teams have disrupted traditional boundaries, as when members of the strategy team (without any specialized training, just a fifteen-minute orientation) participated in a consumer shop-along project that would previously have been performed exclusively by staff from the consumer insight group.  This disorientation is, of course, a sign that perturbations are occurring–that established processes are being knocked off balance.

From an organizational learning perspective, I’m intrigued by the emphasis on collecting people from across the organization and creating opportunities for them to experience their customers–shop-alongs, field trips, even a mock retail environment in a conference room at headquarters with real consumers invited in to “try it out”.  According to Ikujiro Nonaka’s theory of knowledge creation, such shared experiences enable the development of tacit knowledge.  Employees who participate in shop-alongs or see consumers walking around a mockup of a store acquire knowledge beyond what they can articulate in words.  Shared tacit knowledge provides a common frame of reference and thus facilitates communication.

Our conversation raised at least two provocative questions.

First, although employees involved in these efforts have adopted the mantra “failure is an option, fear is not”, what will happen when a significant failure occurs?  Indeed, a senior manager “jumped all over” this phrase when it was presented to him: we have to succeed!  One of my interlocutors reflected, “I don’t think we tolerate failure well … if something fails, it will be the grumbling around the water cooler” that casts a pall over the initiative.  So how should management handle failures?

Second, Erik’s openness to new ideas creates another challenge: which to pursue?  Before, the default response to a new idea was no; Erik’s default response is yes.  “Erik loves ideas”.  One project came up with a list of one thousand ideas.  The theory of deliberate perturbation posits that too few perturbations lead to stagnation, but if perturbations are too numerous or not complementary, they result in chaos and decreased performance.  So how to manage the flow of ideas and ensure that perturbations are as productive as possible?

Even rats are complex organizations?

More on balancing exploration and exploitation, this time from a Science article reviewed by the New York Times.  I have not read the original article, but here’s an excerpt from the New York Times review, entitled “Brain Is a Co-Conspirator in a Vicious Stress Loop“:

Nuno Sousa of the Life and Health Sciences Research Institute at the University of Minho in Portugal and his colleagues described experiments in which chronically stressed rats lost their elastic rat cunning and instead fell back on familiar routines and rote responses …

… regions of the brain associated with executive decision-making and goal-directed behaviors had shriveled, while, conversely, brain sectors linked to habit formation had bloomed.

In other words, the rodents were now cognitively predisposed to keep doing the same things over and over, to run laps in the same dead-ended rat race rather than seek a pipeline to greener sewers. “Behaviors become habitual faster in stressed animals than in the controls, and worse, the stressed animals can’t shift back to goal-directed behaviors when that would be the better approach,” Dr. Sousa said. “I call this a vicious circle.”

This could turn out to be a very vicious circle, since those conditions that seem likely to cause stress–environmental turbulence, deteriorating performance, anticipated threats–are exactly those conditions that require exploratory, adaptive responses.  In fact, my colleagues and I argue that deliberately stressing and destabilizing processes (“deliberate perturbation“) may be necessary to sustain exploration in mature organizations.

Does HP need deliberate perturbation?

In an article titled “Does H.P. Need a Dose of Anarchy?”, the New York Times asks whether Mark Hurd’s management is causing exploitation to drive out exploration–the classic “productivity dilemma“. From the article:

Mr. Hurd, hired four years ago in the wake of Carleton S. Fiorina’s tumultuous departure as chief executive, forced a steady, boring diet of performance benchmarks, heavy-handed cost-cutting and data-mining down H.P.’s corporate throat.  …

But with the most brutal cuts behind it, H.P. faces a fresh set of challenges as the second stage of Mr. Hurd’s tenure begins. Most pressing is widespread concern that Mr. Hurd has built an inflexible, solipsistic giant so obsessed with schematics and data-driven fiscal machinations that it has lost the ability to deliver that prized and perennial Silicon Valley trick: to surprise and astound.

This is a clear statement of what my colleagues Brad Staats, Mike Tushman, and Dave Upton and I label the “conflict school” in our working paper “Wellsprings of Creation: How Deliberate Perturbation Sustains Exploration in Mature Organizations”.  Conflict school theorists argue that the very tools organizations use to exploit their accumulated knowledge–standardized, stable, and streamlined operating procedures–also squelch innovation.  Consequently, the most efficient and productive organizations adapt poorly to environmental changes, leaving them vulnerable to attacks by more creative (albeit perhaps less streamlined) competitors.  In HP’s case, those competitors appear to include Apple, Amazon, and Acer:

It arrived late with a line of netbooks, the low-cost, compact laptops that have taken the world by storm, opening doors for its rival Acer.  …

With its software gurus, its newfound penchant for design and its deep ties to retailers, H.P. might have been expected to disrupt the cellphone market with new devices or even to concoct an electronic book reader that would complement its printer business. Instead, it’s Apple and Amazon that built vibrant new businesses around such products. 

According to the article, Mr. Hurd is not too worried:

“In spite of the fact that there are things we could always do a better job on, innovating and so forth, I don’t think we have ever felt stronger about our portfolio of products and services and our opportunity to serve the market,” Mr. Hurd says. “I don’t think we think we’re confused about what the market wants.”

Perhaps he should be more concerned: academic research suggests that the productivity dilemma is very difficult to overcome.  Our research on Toyota suggests that organizations can sustain exploration in the midst of intense exploitation, but it’s extremely hard to do.  Unless HP is tackling the problem head on, rigidity and inflexibility may be real risks.

What HP probably doesn’t need, however, is anarchy.  Anarchy would simply negate the impressive efficiency gains that the company has made over the past few years.  Instead, we would recommend deliberate perturbation: selectively and strategically destabilizing processes throughout the organization.  The mechanics of deliberate perturbation are not yet well understood, but we try to provide some ideas in our paper.

"Perspectives on the Productivity Dilemma"

The Journal of Operations Management recently published this invited article that I co-authored with Paul Adler, Mary Benner, John Paul MacDuffie, Emi Osono, Brad Staats, Hiro Takeuchi, Mike Tushman, and Sid Winter.  The article revisits the so-called “productivity dilemma” identified by Abernathy in 1978:  attempts to increase efficiency in the short term tend to inhibit innovation in the long term.  Mike and Mary attribute the problem to the “dynamic conservatism” of tightly coupled systems, while Paul Adler emphasizes the tendency of profit-seeking to undermine the trust required for cooperative innovation.  Brad and I argue that overcoming the problem requires selectively re-introducing variance into mature processes, a phenonenon that we term “deliberate perturbation”.  We are working on a theory paper with Mike that further develops the concept of deliberate perturbation.  [The paper, entitled “Wellsprings of Creation: How Perturbation Sustains Exploration in Mature Organizations”, is now available here — DJB, 24 Aug 2009]