Last week, in our series on The End of Competitive Advantage (Part I, Part II, and Part III), we explained that the notion of sustainable competitive advantage is now a pipe dream in many industries and many markets and the only way some companies can hope to survive the new chaos is to swiftly move from arena to arena where they can temporarily acquire a transient advantage and profit.
Last Thursday, in our post on Maintaining Competitiveness – Adaptable Supply Chain Structure, we noted that a company would only be able to deftly move from temporary advantage to temporary advantage if it had a supply chain that could keep up. This supply chain — which needs to focus on risk, use a variable cost structure, support flexible capacity, and use shared services — will have to be innovative at its core, and may require the organization, and Supply Management, to innovate radically new solutions to existing challenges.
As noted in this recent McKinsey Quarterly article on five routes to more innovative problem solving, today’s business leaders are operating in an era when forces such as technological change and the historic rebalancing of global economic activity from developed to emerging markets have made the problems increasingly complex, the tempo faster, the markets more volatile, and the stakes higher. We now have a situation where the number of variables at play can be enormous, and free-flowing information encourages competition, placing an ever-greater premium on developing innovative, unique solutions. But how can an organization do this? There’s no one blueprint for innovation that will work for every company, and no one approach that will always work.
Some problems are so challenging, that your odds of success are only favourable if you simultaneously attack the problem from multiple angles with multiple approaches. One way to do this might be to use McKinsey’s flexon approach, where flexon is short for FLEXible Objects for generating Novel Solutions. While traditional problem-solving frameworks address particular problems under particular conditions, they have limited applicability. In comparison, flexons offer languages for shaping problems, and these languages can be adapted to a much broader array of challenges.
The creators of flexons have developed five flexons, or problem solving languages, derived from the social and natural sciences, to accomodate the world of business problems. Just like the Gang of Four’s* five creational design patterns (which provide ways to instantiate single objects or groups of related objects) may not be sufficient for every object oriented system you can imagine, the authors don’t claim that their five flexons will be exhaustive, just that they are sufficient, in concert, to tackle a wide range of very difficult problems that will be sufficiently inclusive for most individuals. Furthermore, as with (object oriented) design patterns, it will often be the case that serious mental work will be required to tailor the flexons to a given situation, and each will retain blind spots arising from its assumptions, but multiple flexons can be applied to the same problem to generate richer insights and more innovative solutions.
Flexons are not the ultimate problem solving methodology, but they are a good methodology to have in your toolkit, because the more methodologies you have, the better your chances at solving a particular problem and innovating on demand. In Part II, we will describe the five flexon patterns.
* If you don’t know who the Gang of Four are or what Design Patterns are, it’s not critical to understand this post but it is worth researching, especially if you want a better understanding of how good software (which you will rely on) can be constructed.