Leading Innovation & Successful Change Management: Q&A w/ Bill Taylor
"DON’T LET WHAT YOU KNOW LIMIT WHAT YOU CAN IMAGINE" – FAST COMPANY CO-FOUNDER BILL TAYLOR
Co-founder of Fast Company magazine Bill Taylor has had a front row seat at the very beginning of a revolution in management and competition driven by technology. While there he watched and profiled the mavericks and rule breakers who have achieved outsize success by taking a different path.
In a world that’s changing faster than ever, Bill’s driving questions for business are:
“Are you determined to make sure that what you know doesn’t limit what you can imagine about the future?"
We’re living in a world where being ordinary and improving incrementally are sure-fire paths to irrelevance, if not extinction. From his work at Fast Company and beyond, Bill has been committed to helping organizations engage its most powerful asset, its people, and unleash innovation and performance that exceed wildest expectations.
I asked Bill Taylor to talk a bit about the hard work of leading innovation and successful change management in organizations. I also asked the top business speaker about his latest book and how he tries to make a difference when he speaks.
Coincidentally, Bill's new blog "5 Questions to Ask About Corporate Culture to Get Beyond the Usual Meaningless Blather," is on the HBR Hot List this week.
Q&A WITH BILL TAYLOR
TD: Talk about the early days of Fast Company magazine
BT: We started Fast Company more than 20 years ago now from a sense that business, leadership, and competition were at a moment of true re-imagination. A whole bunch of different forces was converging at the same time: disruptive technology, entirely new business models, a new generation of leaders taking a big role in established organizations, and a rising generation of young talent that was looking for a new sense of satisfaction and a new sense of freedom from their jobs. We saw we were at a pivot point in the future of business, leadership, and organizational models.
TD: What was the vision for Fast Company?
BT: We started the magazine with the declaration: A revolution is changing business and business is changing the world. The headline for our first cover boldly stated The New Rules of Business, beginning with Work is Personal, Computing is Social, Knowledge is Power and Break the Rules. And thus began this now incredible two-decade journey where Fast Company, and now a lot of the work I do on my own, really creates an invitation for leaders, entrepreneurs, technologists, and brand builders to ask themselves some really fundamental questions: What kind of organization are we trying to build; what are the kinds of economic strategy do they think will allow themselves to stand for something special in the marketplace; are we working as distinctively as we compete; are we creating a culture that allows us to do extraordinary things; and are we as an organization the kind of organization where the brightest, the most passionate, the most talented people want to spend lots and lots of hours every week?
TD: How has business changed since the magazine launched?
BT: So it was a different time 20 years ago, but in many respects, the same questions are as alive today as they were 1995-1996 when we launched Fast Company. Change remains the name of the game. What I try to do, whether it's going back to the founding of Fast Company or now in the books I write and that talks I give is to create both a manifesto for change -- a set of ideas to help people understand the world -- and a manual for achieving it. I strive to deliver a set of practices and techniques that allow people who want to make change, to really bring it to life.
TD: What’s the challenge for leaders in this environment?
BT: Today is a really exciting time to be a leader, although it can be a really daunting time to be a leader, as well, and here’s why. We are now in a world where ordinary is just not an option. You can't do big things anymore if you're content with doing things a little bit differently from everybody else or a little bit better from how you've done them in the past. In an era of hyper-competition and non-stop disruption, the only way to stand out from the crowd as a company, as a brand, or as an individual leader, is to stand for something that’s special. The goal is no longer to be the best at what lots of other people already do; it’s to be the only one who does what you do. What do you promise that only you can promise? What do you deliver that only you can deliver? Those are the questions that great organizations and great leaders have to answer.
TD: How do you do that?
BT: If you can develop really compelling answers to those questions, you have an opportunity to achieve truly extraordinary results no matter what kind of field you work in. That's why it's such an exciting time to be a leader. Of course, that's also what makes it such a daunting time to be a leader. You actually got to come up with compelling and exciting and provocative answers to these very basic questions. But if you as a leader can inspire your colleagues in the organization to in some basic ways rethink and reimagine what's possible in your field, you have the opportunity to achieve truly extraordinary results.
TD: What’s the idea behind your new book, Simply Brilliant?
BT: The animating spirit of Simply Brilliant, and really in some basic ways the reason I wrote the book, is that you don't have to be part of Silicon Valley or a blank-sheet-of-paper start-up to unleash innovations and create a sense of possibility that creates tremendous economic value and excitement in your field. What I set out to do in this book is to show that you can unleash truly extraordinary change and growth even if you work in fields we might consider mature or ordinary.
TD: Please explain.
BT: During my Fast Company days we would introduce all these radical ideas to business people and talk about Facebook or Google or Starbucks or Apple. Folks would have two reactions. One: that’s incredibly exciting, but how can we expect to be a passion brand like that? I'm in insurance or I'm in retail banking. What we do is important, but it's just not that exciting. Or, two: well those are all really razzle-dazzle innovations and very exciting, but my company or industry has been around for a hundred years. How do we take lessons from companies that have been around for 10 years or 15 years?
TD: So Simply Brilliant was the answer to both reactions?
BT: Exactly! The message I'm trying to share is that you don't have to be part of a high-tech cluster or a snazzy start-up to rethink and reimagine what's possible in your field. In fact, sometimes you can make the most extraordinary progress in industries that have been a little too ordinary for a little too long. So Simply Brilliant is an invitation to folks in more established, more traditional, more Main Street parts of the economy - saying we can all engage in the work of thinking in new ways about our strategy. We can all find ways to create cultures that are as exciting and compelling as the best and the brightest in our fields.
Read Chapter one of Simply Brilliant by Bill Taylor,
co-founder of Fast Company magazine.
TD: What do leaders need to do to make that happen?
BT: The most important challenge for individual leaders is to make sure that what we know and how we grew up doesn't limit our capacity to imagine a new and exciting future. Are we as leaders learning as fast as the world is changing? If we can take that mindset and that spirit and put it in traditional, established parts of the economy, really tremendous growth and change can happen.
TD: I know you’ve been a top business speakers for a long time. Why do you love speaking so much?
BT: I get a special kind of satisfaction and I draw a special kind of energy by going in front of an audience of people who really care about their organization, take their work really seriously, and are trying to invent a better future for themselves, their colleagues, and their company. So when I get before an audience, I try to do several different but related things to spark their imaginations.
TD: They are?
BT: Number one, I try to be both provocative and positive. I do want to shake folks up - in a good way - with a set of ideas that encourage them to think really differently about the industry they're in, the company they're part of, and the work they do. At the same time, I'm not interested in stressing people out. Lord knows we all have enough stress and pressure in our lives and in our jobs. So when I introduce these ideas, it's all from the point-of-view of trying to reassure people that the work of change is the work of leadership, the work of leadership is the work of making change, and that there are a set of ideas that will help you do that more effectively. That's the overarching goal for my talks.
TD: If that’s the big picture, what are the action steps?
BT: I try to offer people a set of techniques and tools, and also a set of questions they can ask themselves and put their teams. These are things they can use in their daily routine and actually allow them to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work of making big change. I don’t have any magical five-point programs or anything like that, but I do have a set of dirty fingernails ideas -- very useful techniques, practices, and questions that help people be more effective as individuals and organizations.
TD: How do you make these ideas come to life?
BT: It’s the favorite thing I do: I tell a set of colorful, really entertaining stories that come by virtue of me in the course of writing my books, really immersing myself in all kinds of organizations from all kinds of fields that are really just doing stuff that is so exciting, so inspiring, so energizing. I talk about a community bank that’s defied the odds in a historically unimaginative industry; I tell a story about a quick service food chain in the south that is absolutely best-in-class; I talk about a parking garage in Miami that also doubles as an events space, a yoga spot, and even a retail store – all these examples from different yet ordinary industries help audiences reimagine how they might transform their own organizations. So I bring my audience to these organizations and allow them to see for themselves - through storytelling - what these ideas and what these techniques look like in practice.
Supplemental Reading: Bill Taylor Q&A: On Leading Innovation and Being Simply Brilliant
and Bill Taylor: 50 Reasons Why We Can’t Change
TD: How do you define a successful talk?
BT: For me, a good talk is one where I’ve gotten people thinking a little differently about how they make sense of the world. People are walking away with one or two questions -- maybe they'll look in the mirror and ask questions of themselves; maybe they'll have a brown bag lunch and put them out of their team - some techniques, questions, practices that allow people to at least consider the possibility of doing things a bit differently. Lastly, I want to create a sense of confidence by showing them organizations - kind of like their own - that are actually making change, doing innovation, and unleashing value very successfully. I try to reinforce to everyone that leading innovation and successful change management is hard, but it is totally doable. Ultimately my goal is that I can help my audience walk away with a real sense of confidence that they can set about the business of making positive, meaningful, long-lasting change in tough, demanding, fast-moving times.
About Tony D'Amelio
Tony has spent his career putting talented people and audiences together, first in the music business and later representing the world's leading speakers. After concluding 27 years as Executive Vice President of the Washington Speakers Bureau, Tony launched D'Amelio Network, a boutique firm that manages the speaking activities of a select group of experts on business, management, politics and current events. Clients include: Mike Abrashoff, Geoff Colvin, Katty Kay, Polly LaBarre, Nicole Malachowski, David Meerman Scott, Bill Taylor, Bill Walton, and Bob Woodward.