Search Mode V Execution Mode: Lessons from LEGO

Explorer by Unidcolor

“Companies need to figure out how to execute and innovate in parallel.” — Steve Blank (Innovation Show Episode 194)

Recently, my 6-year-old son completed all the LEGO sets, which he had received as Christmas presents. My 10-year-old son has graduated on to adult LEGO sets. When he was younger, he was not interested in LEGO and as a result, we had a huge bag old jumbled-up LEGO sets, and I spotted an opportunity for the younger one (and me).

As the LEGO pieces lay scattered all over the bedroom floor, my son and I chose a set of instructions and then searched for the corresponding pieces. The latter task was the hard work. Amidst a mass of LEGO, at least 20 mixed-up sets we had to find the correct pieces. After finding the pieces, executing to a set of instructions was the easy part. I had just interviewed Steve Blank, the originator of the Lean movement. On that episode, we discussed how a startup differs to an established organisation. The LEGO experience reminded me of our discussion, it involved two distinct tasks: Search mode to seek the pieces and execution mode to follow instructions and assemble them.

Contemporary LEGO sets are very much like established organisations. They have all the pieces in place and they have tightly defined instructions to execute to a plan. In contrast, the early days of LEGO, (like the early days of businesses) was about imagination, search and discovery trial and error.

Far From Steady and Predictable

“Learning to fly” by endegor

“In times of profound change, the learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” — Eric Hoffer

Organisations are established for steady-state environments. They excel when environments are steady and predictable. Our business environment, in fact our world is anything but steady and predictable. The acronym VUCA characterises our world today. VUCA is an acronym to describe or to reflect on the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of general conditions and situations. The U.S. Army War College introduced the concept of VUCA to describe the more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous multilateral world perceived as resulting from the end of the Cold War.

Established organisations are built for process and procedures. We organise them for pristine execution, not exploratory search. Search mode is the polar opposite mode of what established organisations do. Steve Blank tells us it is very difficult for an organisation with “Execution DNA” to survive in a disruptive world. Therefore almost every organisation who is an excellent executor cannot transition to become a new organisation fit for a new world. We have some exemplars like IBM, but what is their secret?

Search Mode, Execution Mode or Both?

Seek and you will find” by kevron2001

IBM invested in “search mode” much ahead of the necessity to do so and therefore they survive. They established exploration teams well before a proven market exists. They get it wrong, but accept that as part of getting it right. Take the example of IBM’s Deep Blue versus Garry Kasparov, a pair of six-game chess matches between world chess champion Garry Kasparov and an IBM supercomputer called Deep Blue. The first match was 24 years ago in 1996!

To give themselves the best opportunity to survive disruption, organisations like IBM continue to execute excellently while investing in exploratory search. They seek new problems to solve, new market gaps to fill. They accept failure as part of learning and eventually success (and sometimes not).

Search mode means operating without a plan, looking for the proverbial LEGO pieces amidst the mayhem. Search mode requires a very different DNA to execution mode. Search mode requires people comfortable in chaos, who thrive in uncertainty and relish change. Execution mode is suits people who like to follow orders, who strive for efficiency and who dislike deviation. You can see how these two modes contradict one another. You can see how the searchers can irritate the executors and vice versa. Therefore, innovation orchestration is so essential, and that is a leadership role. The collaboration and understanding of why each mode exists is important. The searchers need the executors to fund their exploration and if successful the executors will eventually execute the bounty uncovered by the search.

This is important to understand if you are an established business. It is also essential to understand if you are an employee or a misplaced innovator. When you find yourself uncomfortable in your corporate role, perhaps you could ask yourself “Am I a “searcher” purely doing execution, following tightly defined instructions and feeling overly monitored?”. On the flip side when you work in an entrepreneurial business or a startup, you might ask yourself “Am a corporate executor, excellent at following instruction, but uncomfortable in chaos, is this why I feel such discomfort?” These are important questions, they can help us understand if we fit where we sit.


If you are interested in “Search Mode” and the origins and ingredients of successful startups and the pitfalls to avoid, check out Innovation Show Episode 194 with the great Steve Blank.

It has been called the bible for startups and the best investment a startup can make.

A startup without customers is like a day without oxygen, and the Startup Owners Manual helps founders get it right and shows you how to get, keep, and grow customers, literally every step of the way.

This manual walks entrepreneurs step-by-step through the proven, world-renowned Customer Development process for getting startups right the first time.

The Customer Development process was developed by a Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur-turned-educator and based on his eight valley startups, four of which IPO’ed.

He joined with serial entrepreneur Bob Dorf to build the Startup Owner s Manual as a sequel to his first book, which sparked the Lean Startup movement. The Startup Owners Manual lays out the best practices, lessons and tips that have swept the startup world, offering a wealth of proven advice and information for entrepreneurs of all stripes.

We also discuss innovation within larger, established organisations.

The manual:

  • Guides startups of all types in their search for a scalable, profitable business model
  • Explains the 9 deadly sins startups commit most often and helps you to avoid them
  • Incorporates the business model canvas as the starting point for any startup
  • Provides separate paths and advice for physical versus web/mobile products
  • Explains how to test and iterate your companys road to product/market fit
  • Details strategies and tactics for how to get, keep and grow customers
  • Teaches a new math for startups — metrics that matter
  • Includes detailed checklists at every step of the process
  • and provides hundreds of ideas, watch-outs and how tos for founders and innovators

Have a listen:

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More on Steve Blank here:

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