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Archive for May, 2013

Someone recently asked me the question, “What is [business] strategy?”  Given that I call myself a “business strategy consultant,” I was disappointed to find myself fumbling around for an answer. I only managed to cobble together some vague metaphors involving “horizons” and “guiding lights.”

So what is strategy?

I should have a much clearer and more concise answer to this question, if for no other reason than to keep a better response at the ready for dinner parties when inevitably someone wants to know, “What do you do?”

When Porter came up with the Five Forces, strategy described at a high level how your company contended with these forces and beat the competition in the war for profits.  The martial language is both intentional and appropriate since the concept of strategy originated in military theory.

But Porter’s Monitor Group is now defunct, acquired by Deloitte under duress.  In an age when the pace of change from technological advancement is ever increasing, no competitive advantage is truly sustainable, and customers are better informed than ever about their available options. Simply aspiring to beat the competition will not suffice.

Firms need a more meaningful reason for being.  Call it a mission, vision or something else, they need something with which both their customers and their employees can identify.  That’s where strategy for the new era needs to begin – with the impact your company is trying to have on the world, above and beyond beating your competition.

Nonetheless, the Miltonian mandate to make money must also be heeded.  Strategy doesn’t stop with impact alone (outside of the social sector).   Rather, good strategy also identifies valuable problems to be solved and customers to be served who are willing to pay for that value.

Of course, competitors cannot be disregarded entirely in all this, but it makes no more sense to let your competitors drive your strategy than it does to drive your car looking in your rear view mirrors.  You might glance in the rear view from time-to-time, but your gaze generally remains out front on the road ahead of you.

Shifting the focus away from competitors and over to impact and customers and their problems actually leads to a more robust and responsive strategy.  Firms can better anticipate threats from disruptive new entrants and are more likely to recognize attractive opportunities in market adjacencies.

As I’ve considered my answer to the question, “what is strategy,” my conclusions have become more consequential than merely offering a new definition.  The time has come to replace the notion of business strategy entirely.  Music seems a more fitting analogy now than does war.

Imagine if we changed the conversation to be instead about winning business harmonies; rather than tactics, we discussed melodies; and in place of command and control hierarchies and processes, we empowered employees to improvise like jazz musicians.

What is business harmony then?  The broad targeting of people (consumers) and problems in the market that in turn guides organizational decision making, coordinates disparate activities, and ensures a consonant impact from a collective effort.

Just call me a business harmony consultant.

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Sometimes a picture is just better . . .

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A powerful analogy for innovation.

Catalysts are problems in need of a solution.

Adding heat means tapping into the passion of the individuals working on the problem.

Increasing the surface area amounts to opening up your organization and exposing it to more ideas.

Motion comes from changing the context – just mentally re-framing things in a new way or even physically moving your location, as you might do with an offsite.

When they all come together, there’s a transformative reaction.

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It’s been a while. Did you miss me?

Since I started this blog as a creative outlet to complement my day job, I have always tried to keep up a cadence of roughly one post per month, but I always let inspiration be the real metronome. If I was feeling particularly contemplative, I might queue up a couple posts at once to help keep the pace over slower periods.

Until recently, I have been decidedly uninspired, hence the lack of posts. There were just no topic coming to mind that I wanted to explore further in written word. Although I was reading as many books and articles as ever, nothing was all that provocative. Even after SXSW in March, zip (ok, maybe a few notes on topics I wanted to revisit later).

Writers block. Where does it come from and how can it be dealt with?

Creativity in all its forms seems to be a matter of pattern formation, all the way down to the neuronal level. Recognizing patterns where none are readily apparent. Constructing patterns that are both nuanced and pleasing. So why is it the patterns seemed to have been escaping my attention recently? What’s changed?

When I looked back at the date of my last posts (including one I never published), the dates seemed to coincide with when I decided I was ready for a change of scenery and prepared to move from the Bay Area to Southern California. Maybe there was more than coincidence or correlation at play here; maybe there was a cause.

Influenced by some work I did recently on telematics and the Connected Car, I came to suspect writers block might have something to do with cognitive load. Turns out cognition is a scarce resource. It stands to reason, then, that preoccupation with one thing or another would have a crowding out effect.

I hypothesize that concerns about my move – clearing things with my employer, finding a new apartment, moving out of my old apartment, packing up and transporting my life from one city to another – left very little to get creative and write about.

At the risk of extrapolating personal experience out too far, this hypothesis would seem to be consistent with social and cultural evolution. The arts and sciences have flourished in societies and periods of relative stability. If you’re worried about where you’re going to get your next meal, there’s no point pontificating on your navel.

This would also support practices such as Google’s famous 80/20 rule. If you want your people to innovate, you need to leave enough slack in the line for them to (mentally) explore a bit.

Bottom line, stress is the enemy of creativity. A happier workforce is going to be a more innovative workforce.

Well I’m back and feeling much more inspired.

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