Southwest Airlines is an unusual company. In an industry notorious for losing money, it has achieved over forty consecutive years of profitability. No one else comes close to matching that record. It makes you wonder why everybody doesn’t just copy their model.
Some have, but most can’t, because Southwest’s model is intertwined with its mission. Most air carriers try to dominate routes, but Southwest focuses on being “THE low cost airline” and that drives just about everything it does, from the planes it buys to where it offers service.
Richard Rumelt stresses that good strategy “brings relative strength to bear against relative weakness.” Competitive advantage is far from arbitrary. It does not come from Excel spreadsheets or PowerPoint decks, but from how a firm sees and fulfills its purpose. Great strategy starts then, not with analysis, but from defining and committing to a mission.
Henry Ford famously said that his customers could a car painted in any color so long as it was black. Many people misunderstand that quote. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about his customers needs, but that manufacturing efficiency trumped style.
Yet our generation’s greatest entrepreneur, Steve Jobs, considered design so important that he cited a calligraphy course as his most important influence. For him, design wasn’t just a product’s look and feel, but its function.
Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen a radical shift toward design as a fundamental source of value. It used to be that design was a relatively narrow field, but today it’s become central to product performance and everybody needs to be design literate. To get an idea of where its all going, I looked in on how Autodesk is promoting design as a basic skill.
“Fail fast, fail cheap, fail often,” has become a mantra for the digital age. Stodgy old dinosaurs may be afraid of failure, but it doesn’t bother the new breed of entrepreneurs. They can start-up, shut down and start-up again. Venture investors, for their part, are looking for just one or two big wins out of ten.
Yet there’s nothing cool or useful about failure. While we shouldn’t fear failure, only a maniac or a fool would embrace it. Failure means that something went wrong, that we messed up. Failure happens when we do things we shouldn’t have.
The truth is that embracing failure is, all too often, a cop-out. Just like managers who suggest a re-org to “unsilo” their enterprise or say they could deliver performance if only they had the “right people,” many in technology believe that failure comes with the territory. It doesn’t. Technology only succeeds when it mitigates failure and makes the world better.
Marketing is often confused with promotion, but it’s more than that. As Peter Drucker put it, “the aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself.” In truth, marketing is about insights more than anything else.
Unfortunately, marketing can also be a world unto itself. A smart sounding idea can reverberate through the echo chamber and become conventional wisdom. From there, it takes on the role of an established fact and is rarely challenged.
Yet many widely held ideas are misleading, if not completely untrue and that can be a problem. When real budgets are spent on false premises, the result is not only missed opportunities, it can damage the underlying business—Pepsi’s Refresh project is but one example. Here’s a list of five things marketers should know, but usually don’t.
Education has long played an important role in the success of the United States. From some of the world’s first public schools to the land grant universities which spurred innovation in agriculture, our development as long been tied to how we educate future generations.
So we should be concerned that US students performance on the international PISA tests, which evaluate not just knowledge but cognitive ability, have not been great. On the most recent one, we ranked 36th, 28th and 24th in the world in math, science and reading, respectively.
This has, of course, created much debate and some, such as Amanda Ripley in her book The Smartest Kids in the World, have offered suggestions for adapting best practices from the rest of the world. However, we also need to realize that our children will face a much different world than we did and will need to build skills for the future, not the past.
If you want to produce content, you need to think like a publisher. After all, content isn’t an extension of marketing, it’s an extension of publishing. I constantly stress that point to my consulting clients and in articles like this one in Harvard Business Review.
It seems like a simple concept, but many disagree. “Aren’t publisher’s failing?” they say. How can I hold up a struggling industry as a model? If publishing is still viable, why isn’t anybody making any money doing it?
These sentiments are common, but they are not based in fact. In truth, publishing is flourishing, attracting large investments by established companies and venture capitalists, creating massive new fortunes for entrepreneurs and more choice for consumers. While it’s true that not everyone is prospers, there has never been a better time for publishers.
Revolutions are seldom solo efforts. Isaac Newton was the greatest scientist of his age and not one known for his false modesty, but even he had to admit, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Thomas Kuhn made a related point in his classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He argued that precedence in science is somewhat arbitrary—a matter of perspective rather than fact—because new discoveries are rarely tied to the work of just one person or team.
Yet, while very few ideas are truly original, there are exceptions. Sometimes an important new idea seems to have no precursor or precedent, but springs forth whole from a single mind and completely alters our perception of how the world works. Although these are rare, they have a lot to teach us about how to become more creative ourselves.
Wells Fargo is an unusual bank. In the first place, it is headquartered in San Francisco, not in a typical financial center like New York. It is also unusually socially conscious, earning high marks for its environmental record and setting records for financing green projects.
Still, despite its offbeat culture, it has been enormously successful. With enviable operating margins of over 40% and a $260 billion market cap, it is the world’s most valuable bank. Since the financial crisis, it has had 16 consecutive quarters of profitability.
To get an idea of how Wells Fargo operates, I spoke to Steve Ellis, who runs its wholesale services group. Surprisingly, the story he told me had little to do with complex financial derivatives or risky trading strategies, but how it learned to innovate around the customer. Clearly, his experience applies not only to banks, but to any business.
Digital technology has changed marketing to such an extent that most brands still struggle to adapt. What once was a massive land war in which the biggest army had a distinct advantage, has become more like a guerrilla insurgency. To win now, you have to own the villages.
Pepsi was one of the first major brands to embrace the shift. In 2010, the company eschewed its traditional Super Bowl TV spots and invested $20 million in Pepsi Refresh, a social platform that awarded grants to good causes. Its social KPI metrics soared.
Unfortunately, in business terms, the initiative was a massive failure. Sales dropped by 5% and Pepsi lost market share. The truth is that simply adding followers on social media is unlikely to create a community of purpose. To succeed in the social arena, strategies need to be grounded in social dynamics and network science, not conjecture. Here’s how:
In the popular TV show, Game of Thrones, the denizens of the North often repeat the mantra, “Winter is coming” to remind themselves and others that they must continually prepare for the challenges ahead.
Managers also have a mantra, “the future is coming.” Some do it to warn of obsolescence, while others do it to promote their new idea. Much like the “Winter,” the future is always vague, promising unforeseen events that are devilishly hard to prepare for in any concrete way.
In a previous post about managing the skills gap, I argued that the best way to prepare for the future is to identify specific platforms—combinations of technologies and markets—that will enable your enterprise to compete. To follow-up, I spoke to some of the smartest people in technology about the platforms that will impact business in the years to come.