Following five years of laying low -- after famously overestimating Enron in his book Leading the Revolution -- strategy guru Gary Hamel is back in calculating mode. Unconventional thinking has defined Hamel's 20-plus-year career, during which he has written more than a dozen Harvard Business Review articles and founded consulting firm Strategos.
He's now a part-time visiting professor at London Business School where, using the field expertise garnered from his extensive résumé, Hamel is preparing to launch what's being billed as the world's first university-based "Management Innovation Lab." He recently spoke with BusinessWeek Online's Innovation & Design channel about his ambitious plans. Following are edited excerpts of that conversation:
Q: What is the Management Innovation Lab?
A:It's a work in progress. [It's] essentially built [upon] a methodology on how [companies can] be as systematically innovative with management as they have been with business policies, intelligence, communications, and planning. How do you think in radical new ways and test them? You have to create a laboratory.
Q: Why "management innovation"?
A:There's a hierarchy of innovation. Economic progress is driven by three forms of innovation: institutional innovation, which includes the legal and institutional framework for business; technological innovation, which creates the possibility of new products, services, and production methods; and management innovation, which changes the way organizations are structured and administered. Management innovation has produced the most profound shifts [in business productivity].
For most of my life as a business school professor, nobody has taken the time to look back on management history. No one has studied that in depth.
Q: Why haven't business schools tackled this issue?
A:Any business school that wanted to be experimental had to do that from scratch. The beginning of management research was very experimental.
I'm not sure academia is the best place for management study. There's too little priority to connect minds in business schools with companies. Too few business school professors are action-driven by a romantic view of what organizations could be! [Business school professors are] archeologists rather than explorers...codifiers [not] inventors. [They should] invent new management practices.
Q: Why is the London Business School taking this on?
A:I've been on the faculty for 23 years now. It's the best business school outside of the U.S. It's an extraordinarily interesting place to teach. It has a more entrepreneurial spirit to the studies there. [It has] less big corporate funding.
Faculty have to raise their own research funds. [In the U.S., faculty members are] more absorbed in papers (see BW Online, 8/10/05, "Pushing MBAs Beyond the Books").
Q: So how do you hope to change the standard approach to management?
A:Sometimes innovation is about creating a whole new class structure. Hierarchies are not very good at getting the best out of people. Communities are where people are most likely to give their gifts, bound not by economic dependency but [with] dreams.
I'd like to make business more humane. How do you create organizations where people can bring all of their humanity?
I advocate a system in which executives have to re-earn their power, [in which] their ideas have to compete with everybody else's ideas. [Not based upon] outdated Henry Ford attitudes. Work life has not become more interesting or compelling over the past few decades.
Q: How will the lab function?
A:The lab will be run by faculty at the school. [We'll look at] small progressive companies, companies that are outside the BusinessWeek 1000. You don't learn much by benchmarking the same old companies.
We'll run intensive, two-day workshops -- Management Innovation Jams -- [in which] our goal is to help senior business leaders do four things:
Identify the critical challenges that will determine competitive success over the next decade and beyond.
Understand the ways today's management processes and practices may limit their company's capacity to meet those new challenges.
Stimulate their imaginations by identifying the highly unconventional management practices of vanguard organizations.
Develop a specific agenda for management innovation within their own firm.