Next level performance – how successful innovators release the brakes by reinventing their organisations

Next level performance can be elusive, even for organisations with a good track record of innovation. Procter & Gamble’s experience with Pampers demonstrates what often happens when the time comes to reinvent your organisation.

Next level performance - P&G original PampersIn the early 1960’s, senior P&G researcher Vic Mills discovered that housewives hated washing diapers (nappies). As a result of this insight, Vic put the case to senior P&G management that the firm should develop a disposable diaper product.

P&G senior management were actively hostile to this idea. Vic was even threatened with termination of employment on several occasions for ‘wasting time working on that silly diaper idea’.

Fortunately, Vic was made of stronger stuff and carried on regardless. P&G finally launched Pampers in 1961, and it still remains a category leader in a global market that’s now worth more than $50Bn (2015 figure).

Why couldn’t P&G initially see the relevance of disposable diapers? P&G was blinded by the awareness of being a soap company.

This awareness was particularly strong in P&G, because was not just any old soap company, it was the world’s leading soap company.

And Pampers would do absolutely nothing to sell more soap. In fact Pampers was a direct threat to soap sales, because if customers bought disposable diapers they would buy less soap for washing traditional ‘terry’ cloth diapers.

Next level performance gets held back by “where’s the soap?” reinforcements to the status quo

P&G top brass looked at the disposable diaper idea and, in effect, asked: “where’s the soap”.Next level performance - P&G soaps in 1961

As the world’s leading soap company with a 125 year history, P&G’s primary focus was soap. They had a few non-soap products, but soap manufacturing was their status quo.

P&G are far from unique in this. Every organisation has its status quo. And every organisation has multiple reinforcements to that status quo.

These reinforcements serve to support and sustain “where’s the soap?” attitudes. It is these attitudes that slam on the brakes when trying to unlock next-level performance.

Reinforcements are either explicit or implicit. The explicit ones are tangible and consequently easier to identify and understand. They include:

  • the org chart;
  • the ‘written rules’;
  • business processes;
  • operating procedures.

The tacit reinforcements are more subtle and consequently much harder to identify and interpret. These include:

  • the ‘unwritten rules’;
  • prevalent mindsets;
  • interpersonal attitudes;
  • the awareness people have of who they are – individually and collectively.

These explicit and tacit reinforcements interact in complex systemic ways to support, sustain and defend the status quo.

This defence operates like the immune system in a body, where white blood cells engulf and overwhelm ‘alien’ invaders. It can be especially strong in ‘successful’ organisations, because people will often adopt the attitude that “it ain’t broke, so why try to fix it?”.

Many attempts to unlock next-level performance fail because they take inadequate account of this immune response.

Achieving next level performance involves honouring the past whilst opening up new opportunities for the future

Traditional management theory and practice overemphasises the explicit at the expense of the tacit. That’s unfortunate, because the subtle, tacit reinforcements of mindsets, attitudes and awareness offer far greater leverage for removing the brakes on next level performance.Next level performance - P&G products

The pragmatic, focused way to shift an organisation to next-level performance is by creating a next-level awareness that honours the past, whilst opening up new opportunities for the future.

In launching Pampers, P&G began to escape the trap of their previous awareness that ‘we are a soap company’. This freed them to develop the next-level awareness that ‘P&G exists to improve the lives of the world’s consumers’.

The organisational awareness that ‘we are an xxx company’ is a seeing-being trap operating at the organisational level. (My senior executive’s 20-minute video guide to eliminating braking friction describes these traps, how they create the misalignment leading to braking friction and how you can deal with them in a focused, pragmatic and highly effective way. You can get FREE access to the video guide here).

Focus at the seeing-being level and you can escape the traps that sustain “where’s the soap?”attitudes in your organisation. And it is only by breaking free from these traps can you reinvent your organisation to unlock next-level performance.


Footnote: Vic Mills eventually died aged 100 in Tucson, Arizona on 1 November 1997. But his legacy lives on at P&G – and not just in the Pampers brand. As a result of his contribution to innovation, P&G set up the Victor Mills Society. Membership of this exclusive club is the highest accolade that P&G only awards to its superstar innovators.

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