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Q&A on the Book Fluid

Key Takeaways

  • Dark Horse Competitors are unseen competitors that are taking away your future market share
  • To compete in the future, companies need to improve their speed and search ratings
  • Flatter Structures are more effective (improving speed), but it requires letting go of ego
  • Hidden Opportunities can be captured by any organization if they’re willing to experiment
  • The companies that are going to win in the future are ones that are fluid in the work they do and how they operate

The book Book Fluid: How Culture, Hidden Opportunities, and Flatter Structures Lead to Profitable Innovation explores how to create a culture of change in companies. Najeeb Khan shows how fluid companies can act with higher speed and experiment to innovate, and how to transform towards a flat structure that allows everyone to test and validate ideas. It’s based on research on what’s been effective with startups today, all the way back to how the Mongols were able to innovate to create one of the largest empires in the world.

InfoQ readers can register themselves to get the first chapter for free

InfoQ interviewed Khan about unseen competition, fluid companies, knowing when to change, transitioning towards a flat structure or a Holacracy model, creating change without leadership support, and increasing the speed of innovation.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

Najeeb Khan: I realize that a lot of companies are not realizing quick enough that the world is quickly changing around them. What some think of as change, is often blindsighted by another aspect of change. As a result, companies are going bankrupt or getting defunct, not because they don’t have the access to technology, but because there’s internal politics that resist change. So I wanted to write this book for them, the ones who want to change but are stuck, and the ones who don’t think change is happening. 

To do this I went back in time to explore what worked for innovation and new business units for not only startups today, but all the way back to the Mongols. I explore how the mongolian empire grew to be one of the largest empires in the world. By learning from history, we can know what principles have stayed true. 

I wanted to write a book that’s not only educational, but different than traditional business books, with storytelling, images, diagrams, and formulas. I wanted to get away from the fluff and go right into the action.

If my book can help save companies from failure and layoffs, into growing their business and hiring more employees, then I’d consider it a worthwhile effort.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Khan: This book is intended for companies with more than 20 employees and at least $5 million in annual revenue. This is because around this mark, you start to get the resistance within the culture. If you have an idea in a company with less than 20 employees, you can easily act on it. Once you have a team of 80, then it becomes more challenging, and it doesn’t matter if you’re in a startup or a large bank. 

This book is meant for the employees and executives who want to change but are stuck, and the ones who don’t think change is happening. It allows them to help push past the resistance and grow exponentially.

InfoQ: Your book starts by exploring "unseen competition", competition that companies didn't see coming. Can you elaborate?

Khan: 10 years ago, if you were a grocery store, and I asked you “Do you think a bookstore is your competitors?”, you’d probably say no. Now Amazon not only sells groceries, but they bought Whole Foods, and is one of your direct #1 competitors.

Unseen competitors is just that: competitors that you never see coming. These Dark Horse Competitors are similar to the knight piece in chess, the only piece that can jump over other pieces in a random direction. For companies, Dark Horse Competitors can be in different industries (external) or from inside your own organization (internal).

Companies that do become Dark Horse Competitors can expand into other areas to grow their business, as 23andMe and Gatorade have done.

InfoQ: What is it that makes a company "fluid"?

Khan: A company that is fluid comes down to two elements: Speed & Search. 

Speed is about improving the time to action; removing the immune resistance to new ideas, changes, within companies. As history has shown us, companies like Firestone Tire have access to the new breakthrough technology (radial tires), but they fail to act on it effectively. So it’s not always access to the new technology, it’s about onboarding the organization and implementing it.

Search is about creating and grow new experiments within the organization. Searching for the right idea and doing it without wasting resources. The search process through the fluid canal formula allows companies to not only generate ideas, but also profit from innovation.

Speed & Search go hand in hand; one can’t succeed without the other. That’s what a lot of other books miss.

InfoQ: How can organizations figure out if it's time to change?

Khan: When there’s a change in customers, sectors, metrics, business models, immunity or resources is when it’s time to change.

If you’re the leader in your category, it’s foolish to think what got you there will keep you there. The rate of change in technology is growing exponentially and as a result, to keep your lead, you must do something different to capture the future market share.

If you’re not the leader in your category, or even if you are, there are thousands of startups working to dismantle little pieces of your organization. Think of little paper cuts. There’s an ancient chinese term for it which is Lingchi, meaning death by a thousand paper cuts. 

By the time you realize that it’s time to change, it’ll be too late. So the only way to grow is to adapt for it ahead of time, if any of the above starts to change. Chapter 2: The Right Timediscusses this and outlines key action point.

InfoQ: How can an organization transition towards a flat structure or a Holacracy model?

Khan: Although a flat structure or holacracy is ideal in dealing with Lingchi, it’s often unrealistic for an enterprise Fortune 500 to do so. There are five organization models: Hierarchy, Holacracy, Flat, Flatter, Flatarchy. It’s often easier to take one team or business unit and change that section into a flat, flatter or holacratic model. This often has the higher likelihood of buy-in and is safer to experiment for an organization’s unique culture.

InfoQ: What are the possible challenges when transitioning?

Khan: The main challenge of transitioning to a complete flat or holacratic model is letting go of the ego. If you’re a C-Suite leader or a business unit manager who has worked 20 years to get to your position and get the corner office, only to be told the next day we’re making everyone equal and removing titles, you’ll have a hard time letting go and changing (generally speaking). 

So this becomes the main challenge, the ego, more so than the physical location of the office or that “parking spot perk”. 

There are ways of dealing with this “immune resistance” similar to how antibiotics work. By creating small change at a time, with a small team, then a larger team, eventually leading to the organization, this makes it easier when changing.

InfoQ: How can you create change without leadership support?

Khan: When you try to create change, there are five options. Here are the first three when you don’t have leadership support:

  1. They don’t align
  2. Go around
  3. Spread

If we take a scenario such as going around the leadership, it requires a high-trust behaviour from the change agent. If someone is new and they’re trying to force the change, it’ll often get resisted even if it’s well meaning, similar to organ rejection during organ transplants. 

This happened with Carmen initiating a change within her organization when she first started. When Carmen started working at a government agency, she wanted to create a wikipedia for government agencies. However, since she just started and didn’t have much expertise and trust within her peers, her idea didn’t move forward initially. It was only when she built up trust over time and the timing was right did her idea move forward.

The trust behaviour is built not only through the time someone stays within the organization, such as Carmen’s example above, but also their influence. The influence doesn’t necessarily need to be built from a leadership position, but rather the impact created within the team previously.

InfoQ: What can organizations do to increase the speed of innovation?

Khan: I assume you mean the speed of innovation internally within the organization. If so, it comes down to the communication and experiments of the organization. If you’re a receptionist and have a great idea at an organization with a hierarchy model, then it’ll take time to not only pass the idea up the food chain, but also act on it. If anyone in those levels doesn’t like you for any reason (internal politics), that idea will get rejected.

On the other hand, in a flatter structure, it allows you to not only quick act on the idea, but also test it and validate to know if it’s a hit or a miss by the time the idea travels up the food chain in the hierarchical structure. 

As I mentioned before, people often have good ideas and solutions, but just a “one day hackathon” or “idea suggestion box” without constant implementation and idea management, will fail, just as it did with countless companies who knew and had access to the latest technologies, from Blockbuster to ToysRUs.

About the Author

Najeeb Khan is the CEO of BigCreate, an innovation consultancy practice that helps companies execute on innovation strategies. He was recognized by American Express and Ashoka as one of the 45 “Emerging Innovators” across Canada, the United States, and Mexico. He has been covered on Forbes, Huffington Post & other media outlets, as has been a presenter at various business schools.

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