Hipsters go to TED for inspiration about what the future will bring, but the world’s greatest physical scientists go to Solvay. It was there in 1927, at the fifth Solvay Conference that Albert Einstein famously said, “God does not play dice with the universe,” to which Niels Bohr retorted, “Einstein, stop telling God what to do.”
Bohr’s quip was much more than a clever line, but a tipping point in the world of physics toward a quantum world of probabilities rather than the deterministic universe that Einstein preferred. Even Einstein, when faced with a flaw in his core beliefs, was unable to adapt and it doomed the latter part of his career.
It makes you wonder what chance the rest of us have. We all like to think of ourselves as innovative and agile, but when our core beliefs are called into question, the cards are stacked against us. Our brain chemistry, social networks and even our basic instinct for survival will resist the change. To master the art of the shift, we first need to master ourselves.
In 2009, McKinsey & Co. proposed what was touted as a radical shift in marketing practice they called the consumer decision journey. The article called into question the long held concept of the purchase funnel in favor of a new model that incorporated customer experience and advocacy.
“If marketing has one goal, it’s to reach consumers at the moments that most influence their decisions,” the authors of the study wrote, but continued, “today, the funnel concept fails to capture all the touch points and key buying factors resulting from the explosion of product choices and digital channels.”
McKinsey’s vision was met with great enthusiasm among marketers. Yet at its core it still largely represents the same old thinking. Rather than merely targeting messages based on past behavior, consumers increasingly expect marketers to adapt in real time and make personalized suggestions. We need to seriously rethink the consumer decision journey.
The National Football League is a place steeped in tradition and resistant to change. Chip Kelly, the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, on the other hand, is anything but conventional. He travels widely during the offseason to pick up new insights, regularly consults with academics and runs a unique offensive scheme.
Yet it is his personnel moves that has raised the most eyebrows. This offseason, he let go of the team’s quarterback, top running back and top receiver—all former All-Pro’s. He also got rid of both starting offensive guards and almost the entire defensive secondary. Some of the key moves were done in the name of culture.
So how’s it going so far? Not very well. In the first three games of the season, his vaunted offense mostly stalled, putting up some of the worst numbers in the league. Blockers miss their assignments, receivers drop balls and runners are caught behind the line of scrimmage with disturbing regularity. Culture, despite what some say, isn’t everything.
When Alfred Sloan conceived the modern corporation at General Motors, he based it on hierarchical military organizations. Companies were split into divisions, each with their own leadership. Authority flowed downwards and your rank determined your responsibility.
Yet lately, those top-down structures are being called into question. Brian Robertson, whose new book Holacracy offers a well thought out alternative to traditional organizations, thinks it’s time for a change and has gotten hundreds of firms to sign on. It’s an idea that every manager should take seriously.
The problem isn’t that hierarchies have somehow become illegitimate, but that they are slow and the world has become fast. Still, recent events at Zappos show that radically transforming how your company functions is not without its pitfalls. So perhaps instead of making the leap to an entirely new form of organization, we should think more seriously about the problem of agility itself. Here are four questions every manager should be able to answer:
In Holacracy, his book about the management system of the same name, Brian Robertson writes at great length about the “heroic leader,” whose job it is to “predict and control” the fate of an enterprise. In a world of ever expanding complexity, he argues, the concept is becoming increasingly untenable.
When you look at the statistics, you can see his point. Today’s leaders operate at gunpoint. Recent data shows that fully 80% of CEOs are eventually fired and tenures as a whole have declined by 20% since 2000. Clearly, any system that produces an 80% failure rate is in great need of rethinking.
But does the problem lay with the leaders themselves or with a failed concept of leadership? In a knowledge economy, which relies on an amazingly diverse array of expertise, managers’ visibility into their organizations is necessarily limited and tough decisions need to be made further down. In truth, leadership isn’t heroic, but great leadership can inspire heroism.
Today, we find ourselves in the midst of a data revolution so vast, pervasive—and young—that it’s hard to take it all in. It is likely to lead to a transformation no less consequential than the Industrial Revolution, creating new wealth, prosperity and convenience on a truly massive scale.
Yet like any major change, data is often misunderstood and that can lead to serious problems. Just as the Industrial Revolution led many to devalue basic precepts of humanity—an error which led to enormous social strife—the data revolution is leading some to abandon common sense in the name of expediency.
It’s relatively easy to collect information, aggregate it and apply algorithms to derive insights, but much harder to understand where the data comes from, what type of analysis is being applied and what types of error are involved. Insights, even when powered by impressive technology, never come easy. To get full value from data, we must understand its downside.
Successful people solve problems. Look at any great fortune, whether it be Carnegie, Ford or Gates and you find that the source of their vast accomplishment was a problem solved. Even more prosaic executives spend most of their time solving one problem or another, with greater or lesser skill.
The contrast in outcomes can be attributed to the scale and difficulty of the problems they tackled. All too often, we get so mired down in day-to-day challenges that the bigger issues fall by the wayside, being left for another day which never seems to come. That, in the final analysis, is the difference between the mundane and the sublime.
So we should pay special attention to those whose ideas had impact far beyond their own lifespan. It is they who were able to see not only the problems of their day, but ones that, although they seemed minor or trivial at the time, would become consequential—even determinant—in years to come. Here are four such men and what we can learn from them.
Business in the digital age has become a seemingly neverending series of “next big things.” Whether it’s e-commerce, search engine optimization, social media, big data or something else, the pattern of firms struggling to adapt is as predictable as Gartner’s hype cycle.
First there is widespread panic, then a rushed effort to get up to speed by hiring consultants who are long on showmanship but short on merit. That’s soon followed by period of disillusionment as key expectations aren’t met and finally the “big thing” in question fades into the background as a fairly routine operating activity.
The problem isn’t that the trends aren’t important or that they lack impact—many have been transformational—but that the short term impact is often overestimated, while the long term impact is often underestimated. What’s needed is what Rita Gunther McGrath calls a shift from “learning to plan” to “planning to learn” and a focus on skills rather than trends.
In the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, both Russia and Poland embarked on remarkably similar journeys. Using the same western advisors, they privatized state owned companies, implemented free market reforms and transformed their legal systems to compete more effectively in the world economy.
Yet despite the nearly identical programs, the results couldn’t have been more different. Poland today is a well functioning, vibrant society, while Russia has descended once more into chaos. It almost defies logic. How could the same plan, designed largely by the same people, have two such divergent outcomes?
There are myriad ways to evaluate the strength of a nation. Military power, GDP, natural resources and human capital all play a role. Yet what stuck me most in my 15 years in Eastern Europe is how vital it is to build a culture of change that can adapt to unforeseen challenges. Now, more than ever, the ability to shift is the ability to compete.
In a column in The New York Times as well as in a popular TED talk, David Brooks has pointed out the conflict between resume virtues and eulogy virtues. Resume virtues, he says, are the ones that are prized by the marketplace, while eulogy virtues are those which fortify inner being, that of ourselves and others.
He further argues that, while most would agree eulogy virtues are infinitely more valuable, we spend the bulk of our time pursuing resume virtues. Our focus on productivity and getting things done—”turning inputs into outputs” as he phrases it—often stands in the way of leading a more fulfilled life.
There is wisdom in what Brooks has to say, but I believe he errs in the assumption that the two types of virtues are mutually exclusive and constantly in conflict. In fact, the underlying theme at this year’s Business Innovation Factory (BIF) Summit was that intrinsic motivation is essential to truly exceptional achievement. You can’t really have one without the other.