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On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights

July 05, 2016

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Andi Simon offers a fresh lens, an anthropological lens, through which to view and grow your business.

Albert Einstein once said that "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result." It's become an overused cliché, and Einstein probably never actually said it, but that doesn't make it less true. I feel the same way about the word "innovation." It's used so often in business literature that it can become a meaningless shorthand for complete thoughts and ideas, and I've come to expect that the very use of the word "innovation" probably means there isn't much of it happening in the near vicinity. But that doesn't mean it isn't real, or important to understand and implement. And, like the apocryphal Einstein quote, it speaks to the requirement for one thing: change.

Andi Simon had a life in academia before she entered the corporate world. She earned her PhD in anthropology and was a tenured professor. After leaving academia, she worked as a senior executive in financial services and health-care institutions for two decades, but she never stopped using the tools of anthropology, its concepts and methods. She became a corporate anthropologist, studying corporate culture, how it forms and how it changes. And Simon takes a great approach to discussing the topic of culture change in her new book, On the Brink, telling the story of seven separate companies she's worked with, devoting a full chapter to each. Unlike most books these days, which focus chapters and sections around ideas and pull in multiple companies to illustrate them, Simon simply dives into the companies themselves, letting their stories lead the way.

But that doesn't mean the book is devoid of ideas, and the big one is set in place in the first chapter when she references a story told by Russell Herman Conwell—the founder and first president of Temple University—in his "Acres of Diamonds" lecture. It is a story I'd never heard before:

 

Conwell's stirring lecture … begins with an ancient Persian tale of a wealthy but dissatisfied farmer who sells his farm and travels the world in search of a diamond mine. The farmer's search is fruitless, and he dies many years later in poverty. Meanwhile, the man who buys the farmer's land finds a shiny black rock in the stream that runs through the property. The rock is a diamond, and as the new owner discovers, the farm is littered with gems.

 

“Thus,” the story goes, “was discovered the diamond-mine of Golconda, the most magnificent diamond-mine in all the history of mankind, excelling the Kimberly itself. The Kohinoor, and the Orloff of the crown jewels of England and Russia, the largest on earth, came from that mine.” The moral of that story hints at the underlying reality—perhaps paradox—that most business leaders face today:

 

Many CEO know how to run a company, but they rarely have the skills or talent to change one.

 

The Persian farmer in the story from Conwell's lecture had a productive farm he managed well. He was wealthy because of it, but he wanted something more. That's not all that unusual. He was ambitious, and he had the wealth to strike out on his own and chase the possibility of infinitely more wealth, so he did. He didn't find it, and he ended up destitute. But what he desired most was not blocked by effort or willingness to work hard; it was blocked by his own mindset. If he would have looked in his own backyard, if he would have stirred up the sands on his own farm, he would have discovered the wealth he was looking for. But he saw his land as a farm, not a diamond mine. And that is the problem in most organizations today. They have an inflexible view of what the company is and does, a way of thinking about and doing things that becomes stagnant, a culture that blocks new ways of seeing.

 

Companies develop their own cultures, which keep them operating. But then, the stability and structure that has typically been necessary to grow the company becomes a major barrier to allowing new ideas to rise to the surface to become testable innovations. It becomes difficult to set up a process or support for risk-taking "intrapreneurs"—those entrepreneurs inside an organization—that allows them to convert those ideas into innovations.

 

What Andi Simon offers in On the Brink is a new way of seeing, a "process of discovery—of anthropology—" to put in your business model "so that innovation happens routinely, not episodically."

So, before heading out on a new adventure to find new business opportunities elsewhere, dig into your own organization to see if there's anything close to home you can mine. There may be diamonds there, and Andi Simon's new book can help you find them.

We have 20 copies available.

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