“History is one long processional of crazy ideas.”
― Phil Knight, “Shoe Dog,” a memoir by Nike’s founder
My esteemed predecessor Kevin O’Marah implored us to rise up and save the world through supply chain management. Some say that’s a crazy idea, but I believe that is the point.
Nike’s Phil Knight, quoting legendary distance runner Steve Prefontaine, said, “You are remembered for the rules you break.” Apple’s Steve Jobs famously called on his engineers to “put a ding in the universe.” Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, CEO of the fastest growing $200 billion company in history, entreats his employees to turn back time and make every day “Day 1.” “Day 2,” Bezos says, is “stasis, followed by irrelevance, followed by excruciating, painful decline, followed by death.”
I’m personally less inspired by avoidance of calamity than the achievement of our shared potential. And we need to take into account the limitations of Amazon’s single-minded pursuit of advantage, as evidenced by the recent total community backlash against the company’s New York headquarters plans. But I take Bezos’ point: In a world of exponential social, technological and climatic change, we need to fight ruthlessly against the natural urge to cling to yesterday’s advantage.
It’s no surprise then that many leaders seeking to accelerate innovation in their own ranks are intense students of Amazon’s self-disruption ethos. In fact, Gartner’s recent survey of Fortune 500 CEOs found that 63% are planning to reset their own business models in 2019. That’s a promising sign.
The threat I see is the temptation among many pundits to distill and freeze-dry Amazon’s (or Google’s, or Netflix’s) brand of intrapreneurship into a clinical premix for leaders to pass to their teams and unleash the creativity within. We could indeed condense the Day 1 formula into one robotic algorithm: Obsess customer needs, think long term, lead with data, challenge, experiment, repeat.
The list is not wrong. It’s just devoid of human insight.
If true breakthrough is the goal, far more important is that we crack the code on conviction. As one tech operations executive put it at our most recent Live Americas’ conference, “Empowerment is great, but I also need my teams to gain comfort with bold risk.” Culture really does eat strategy for breakfast.
The good news is that Operations also wrote the menu. Steering complex global supply chains through relentless, sudden shifts in product, supply and demand makes operations leaders among the most seasoned and adept at nearly every dimension of transformation – including the dual arts of inspiration and the collective pivot.
Having spent nine years in various supply chain leadership roles at Nike, I watched highly diverse, globally dispersed 1,000-plus-person teams, like schools of fish, change course repeatedly, instantly and in perfect unison whenever the opportunity to innovate and serve was clear. In those moments, we added up to much more than the machine. We were a living, breathing organism with purpose, and that in turn led to agility unmatched even by the several Silicon Valley startups I’ve also had the privilege to launch.
So maybe the real Day 1 insight is just a reminder to stay vigilant and fearless. Stand up for the customer and help others do the same, even if yesterday’s breakthrough is quite suddenly old news. As Phil Knight himself said to his Nike team in the company’s hard early days, “The cowards never started and the weak died along the way. That leaves us, ladies and gentlemen. Us.”
I can’t think of better advice as I start my own journey at Gartner and humbly join you to chase our audacious mission. Keep the crazy ideas coming.
Steve Hochman, MVP Distinguished Analyst, Global Chief Supply Chain Officers, Gartner