Saturday, May 14, 2011

Icons and Iconoclasts: A Corporate Co-existentiality Conundrum

In the contemporary corporate leadership world, iconic leadership has emerged as a new buzzword describing leaders who have led their corporations to great glory. While path-breaking leadership is nothing new and had been around from the days of industrial revolution, heightened media and analyst attention has contributed to the emergence of a school of thought on iconic leaders within the vast field of leadership theory and practice. One of the features of iconic existentialism is the relative fixation to certain successful approaches, which may or may not agree with the dynamic movements that are expected of a modern day corporation. Also, concentration of adulation often brings a counter force, however mild it is, in terms of radically opposite schools of thought in the broader society, and in the specific case of corporate leadership - the organization. This blog post examines a new theoretical conundrum of icons and iconoclasts co-existing in a corporation.

Icons and iconoclasts defined

Icons are those who achieve a halo for something they have done in a consistently trail-blazing manner. As a result of sterling achievement, icons receive great admiration and followership, not only in their organizations but in the overall industry and society. Buoyed by the success, icons expect or get used to others following them in their principles and precepts. Iconoclasts, on the other hand, are those who attack or are dismissive of cherished beliefs and pathways. Iconoclasts are loathe to following a pathway of compliance. While icons and iconoclasts are often viewed in a religious perspective, and iconoclasts in particular have a negative religious connotation, the concepts have a context and relevance to the contemporary organizational dynamics too.

From the perspective of an organization, a leader at the helm of a very successful organization tends to receive iconic status. Simultaneously, the organization gets powered by his or her vision and internally collaborates to develop strategies and implementation pathways. An iconic leader is often successful because of path-breaking approaches that he advocates and the distinctive competitive advantage he secures for the firm. In an icon-led organization, the job of the team members is often seen to be limited to focused execution rather than experimentation with new modes of business.

In an icon-led organization, there also tends to be sub-terranian angst, on the part of some, at the inspired manner in which the organization as a whole abdicates the responsibilities of independence and creativity to display solidarity and compliance with the principles laid down by the leader. Wise organizations tend to put in place structures, systems and processes that could channel such angst into discussions and debates on alternative modes of business management. Very often, however, the spell under which the broader organization finds itself under an iconic leader renders such structures, systems and processes weak.

Paradox of iconoclastic icons

It is a paradoxical truism that most icons are themselves a product of iconoclastic attributes and achievements. Intelligent and aggressive professionals who rebel against conventional or materialistic way of conducting administrative or business affairs often end up propounding radical new ways of administration and business management respectively to achieve public good or investor returns. When P V Narasimha Rao as the Prime Minister of India and Dr Manmohan Singh as the Finance Minister of India ushered in economic liberalization in 1992 they were repudiating the deeply established socialist dogmas of Indian polity. In the process, they set a new direction for the Indian economy and became icons by themselves. When the Minister for Environment in the Indian central government, Jairam Ramesh made environmental clearance the new sentinel of social activism in the government in recent years he became iconoclastic in that he challenged unbridled exploitation of natural resources in the pursuit of growth. Of course, one has the incomparable example of Mahatma Gandhi who became iconic by his passionate espousal of non-violence as a means to secure the Indian independence.

The corporate sector also offers examples of the paradox of iconoclastic icons. Steve Jobs consistently fought against the monopolies of Windows operating system and Internet Explorer and created his own Mac series of computers and Safari browsers. His emphasis on superior graphics capability and sleek form factor were trend setters and served as the core competence of differentiation for a new series of iPod, iPhone and iPad convergence gadgets. That said, the iconic phenomenon needs individual leaders to institutionalize itself. Linux is a great example of an intellectual community of developers militating against the established Windows operating system but which has not achieved the iconic focus due to a lack of individual or corporate leadership. On the other hand, Android mobile phone software system that utilizes Linux open source code achieved iconic status at the hands of Google.

The real paradox of most iconoclastic icons is that their rise to fame is based on demolition of established paradigms and models that operate outside their own space. In other words, extreme efficiency in destabilizing competition with a radically different product and service offering is the established model of an iconoclastic icon. That said, there are some interesting examples of corporations making bold departures by their dogged advocacy of path-breaking approaches. For example, the path taken by Sony in its heydays of consumer electronics leadership in terms of an aggressive foray into movies and media content was primed by leaders who thought of content as being as important as hardware and software in the decades to come. Perhaps the same can be said of Microsoft venturing into gaming devices. A few years ago and into motion flow technologies more recently. Clearly, leaders in such corporations broke the established moulds.

However, it is rare that an icon or an icon-led organization allows iconoclastic approaches within the organization. When an organization tastes success based on the path shown by the icon it does not allow alternative avenues of thought. This is one reason why certain organizations and leaders encourage disruptive thinking and constant evaluation of points of inflection in environment and technology as a means to look for alternative pathways. The impact of such mild and controlled internal iconoclastic approaches will nowhere be near the aggressive unbridled external iconoclastic approaches. Sony leadership, for example, had to face lot of internal and external criticism for its gaming and media entry. The problem in this case was not the inappropriateness of the diversification but inadequate attention on, and the consequent loss of core competence in the core consumer electronics business. The lesson here is that iconoclastism just for its sake would be hardly helpful.

Compliance and innovation

The organization design at any point of time in history has emphasized compliance; there is no evidence that future evolution of organization design would be any different. Without compliance to certain pre-defined values, vision and strategy, any organization would find it difficult to be purposeful and focused. Organizations have also developed a counterbalance to compliance in terms of innovation. Organizations have emphasized continuous, incremental innovation as well as breakthrough, pathbreaking innovation to be able to fight the status quo mindset that high degree of compliance and conformity brings in. These approaches and tools are available to all companies. The issue remains one of finding a feasible and futuristic breakthrough approach that an iconoclastic approach could bring. The example of the camera industry is illuminating in this regard.

For long, the camera industry faced successive onslaughts of disruptive technologies only to fight back and take centre stage. First, it was the phasing out of the decades old film roll technology. Then came digital technology which enabled roll-free photography with internal or external chip. This got further revolutionized with computer becoming a bridge between the camera and the Internet. However, in parallel, in recent years moblile phones and tablets have taken the imaging battle to a different plane by direct and immediate uploading of photographic images shot through them to either dedicated photo banks or enabling transmission to other recipients through email. While mobile phone and tablet cameras are no match in imaging capability to standalone professional cameras, it is the ease of uploading of images taken through these gadgets that endears them to multiple generations of users, and challenges the camera industry once again.

Had the camera makers been iconoclastic of themselves, that is being opponents of framing themselves only as imaging specialists, this attack on them by the convergence gadgets would not have looked so lethal. The camera makers no doubt achieved great strides with embedded computers and processors in the new generation cameras that reach new heights in customized image capture. If only some of the attention had been placed on embedding related processors that connect the cameras to their own customer service portals, photo banks or the email systems on the Internet, the new generation cameras would have been an even more roaring success. This kind of transformational thinking has to come from within the organizations. Strangely, companies such as Samsung and Sony which have been in the leadership of camera enabled mobile phones did not do the reverse for their own professional camera systems. This paradox is indicative of the fact that when a mega corporation has large business silos it becomes a challenge to have an end-to-end iconoclastic approach.

Innovators, mavericks, and iconoclasts

Given that a total break with an established system requires high level leadership talent which is able to differ strongly with the iconic leaders, organizations probably would need to think of alternative modes of disruptive thinking. Maverick thinkers emerge as an alternative to the scarcity of, and more importantly the churn caused by, iconoclastic thinkers. Maverick thinking reflects an unconventional, albeit unpredictable, way of problem solving which is based on lateral or out-of-the-box thinking. Maverick thinking has its limitations in that it often ends at ideation and several maveric ideas would need to be evaluated before a feasible set is selected. Unlike innovation, maverick approach tends to be based on neither logic nor science. It tends to be more intuitive and judgemental. Unlike iconoclastic leadership, it lacks the passion and commitment to drive a whole new way of doing business. To that extent, organizations may find maverick thinkers to be low on both risk and reward.

It is interesting to consider the relationship between innovation, maverick thinking and iconoclastic approach. Let us consider a hypothetical global automobile manufacturer committed to achieving the minimum possible levels fuel consumption not only in its automobiles but also in the transportation system. Innovation drives improvements in combustion systems, reduction in frictional losses and balancing of weights to ensure the least possible fuel consumption. An-out-of-the-box or maverick thinking may target manufacture of the entire automobile by the lightest possible materials such as aluminium coupled with incorporation of hybrid engines and solar panels on the roof. An iconoclastic approach may, however, look at eliminating weekend travel by creating virtual homes where by travellers can be transported virtually to the intended friends or relations' homes. Such an iconoclastic automobile manufacturer could create a totally new business of establishing large estates of virtual homes utilizing state-of-the-art computer, telecommunication, internet, audio and video technologies. Like weekend parks, they would be virtual habitats for distant families reducing weekend travel and fuel consumption on that score. Both maverick thinking and iconoclastic approach require innovation to make things happen. As can be seen from the example, the scale, scope, depth and cross-functionality of innovation enhances from an innovation for innovation play to innovation for maverick thinking play and finally to innovation in an iconoclastic approach.

Game changers

Clearly organizations need to reinvent themselves from time to time to counter the ill-effects of maturity of business and technology or take the growth to the next trajectory. While several initiatives of out-of-the-box and lateral thinking as well as disruptive thinking can throw up fresh and unconventional ideas they tend to be operational in nature. However, these initiatives appear well suited to a large spectrum of small, medium and large enterprises. On the other hand mega corporations could be a perfect canvas for more fundamental transformations with coexistence of icons and iconoclasts. Virtuous mega organizations have a way of pathbreaking leaders as well as iconoclasts becoming icons, who would at some point of time after their success encourage new waves of iconclastic approaches in parts or whole of their businesses. Co-existence of icons and iconoclasts, however, requires a strong leadership bench and a congenial iconic leader who looks beyond his principles and precepts to facilitate a transformation of proven iconoclasts into emergent icons.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on May 14, 2011

1 comment:

Narayanan said...

This post examines what appears to be counter-intuitive at first glance i.e., co-existence of icons and iconoclasts in an organization. Clearly, any entity that maximizes contributions from the two ends of this image spectrum is likely to sustain competitiveness in the chosen industry. However, an unanswered question is the relevance of these distinctions in the flat/connected world of today where there is less emphasis on hierarchy and categorization. In theory, an iconoclast who resists being turned into an icon could continue to engage in disruptive thinking. However, this is easier said than done for it means having to fight the basic human urge to fulfill extrinsic rewards/recognition. Perhaps the most insidious effect of icon worship is the "fragility" of such organizations to external threats partly contributed by extreme follower ship that emphasizes personality over process/systems. As Harold Macmillan remarked to a question on what he sees as the major challenge for a statesman - "Events, my dear boy, events"; one could argue nurturing iconoclasts within the organization could be an insurance policy for they are likely to be better prepared to think outside the box and prevail by sheer force of logic and competence over loyalty and compliance to cherished beliefs/mores ingrained in organizational psyche.