Most managers take it for granted that the world has become much more volatile and complex and that we need to constantly adapt. The days when we could simply plan and execute a strategy and hope to effectively compete are long gone.
So it was notable, to say the least, when Roger Martin recently wrote in Harvard Business Review that he thinks that all the talk about adaptive strategy is a cop-out. In his mind, it is just a way for managers to get out of making hard, dangerous choices.
It’s tempting to dismiss his objections out of hand, but Martin, a former partner at the Monitor Group and Dean of the Rotman School of Management, has been one of the sharpest strategic thinkers for over two decades. While I don’t agree with much of his argument, he does make some important points that need to be addressed.
Tim Geithner is not America’s sweetheart. Over the past six years, the former Treasury Secretary and central banker has been accused of being just about everything, from a rapacious capitalist working in the service of bankers to a pure unadulterated socialist.
Yet whatever you think of Geithner, his memoir, Stress Test, is a book that everybody in a position of responsibility—or hopes to be someday—should read. It offers an excellent first-hand account of what it’s like to operate at the center of a crisis.
True crises are rare. By their nature, they are unusual and unexpected. Crises break out when seemingly manageable risks take on a life of their own and spin out of control. When that happens, there is no easy guide, no clear rules to follow. Still, you have to make hard choices and that has consequences. Geithner offers some rare insight into what that’s like.
In 1997, a little known Harvard professor named Clayton Christensen published a surprise bestseller called The Innovator’s Dilemma, where he coined the term disruptive technology, which later evolved into disruptive innovation and became a mantra for the digital age.
Yet in a well argued piece in The New Yorker, his colleague at Harvard, the celebrated historian Jill Lepore, cries foul. She calls disruptive innovation a “competitive strategy for an age seized by terror.” “Transfixed by change,” she writes, “it’s blind to continuity.”
It’s not just Christensen’s theories that Lepore opposes, but what she calls the “rhetoric of disruption” which leads us to seek change for change’s sake, undermining productive stability. She also points out that disruption is no panacea and leads to failure more often than it does to success. So, is it time to rethink our culture of disruption?
In the late 90’s McKinsey declared the war for talent and argued that, in a knowledge economy, having the right people is even more important than having the right strategy or technology. Recruiting and retaining the “best and the brightest” became a corporate mantra.
Yet today, the firm is more concerned with the skills gap. In data science, for example it estimates a shortfall of 140,000 to 190,000 data scientists and 1.5 million managers who have the skills needed to use the insights to drive decisions. But even that understates the problem.
With technology accelerating change in the marketplace and automation replacing highly skilled workers with robots, the decision to invest in any particular set of skills is far from obvious. Empty platitudes about “upgrading skills” and “investing in our people” will not suffice. We need to start thinking seriously about viable strategies to manage the skills gap.
Tony Hsieh, the phenomenally successful CEO of Zappos likes to say that, “your brand is your culture” and believes so strongly in preserving his that he offers new recruits $1000 to quit. Anybody who doesn’t fit in will happily take the money and run.
While few managers are as steadfast in their resolve to build and maintain a strong corporate culture, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t believe in its importance. It’s the third rail of corporate life. You simply don’t mess with a company’s culture.
Yet a culture can also hold you back. Blockbuster and Kodak both had strong corporate cultures and in both cases, ingrained attitudes contributed to their demise. Excessive reverence of culture makes it difficult to adapt to new realities and therein lies the dilemma. We need to honor a culture’s values even as we adopt new ideas and practices.
Technology transforms marketing in waves. New platforms like search engines, social media and the mobile web create amazing opportunities, but leave marketers scrambling to develop the talent and tactics to capitalize on them.
Before long, false gurus emerge. These “instant experts” are like umbrella salesmen in a Manhattan rainstorm. They have no special talent or skills, but thrive because they happen to be at the right place at the right time. Before long, misinformation grows into myth.
That’s been especially true of content marketing. Unlike search engines or the mobile web, content feels familiar, we’ve all watched TV and read magazines. So for brand planners who’ve spent their careers developing strategy for ad campaigns, content doesn’t seem like it should be so different. Unfortunately, it is and that’s why content marketers are failing.
Legendary strategists have long been compared to master chess players, who know the positions and capabilities of each piece on the board and are capable of thinking several moves ahead. Historically, that’s been a smart way to run businesses too.
The boundaries were marked by clear industry lines, the timelines defined by strict accounting periods and the players well known. Through clever planning and effective execution, you could create important efficiencies in crucial areas and attain dominance.
Yet strategy is no longer a game of chess because the board is no longer set out in orderly lines. Industries have become boundless and permeable. Competitive threats and transformative opportunities can come from anywhere. Strategy, therefore, is no longer a punctuated series of moves, but a process of deepening and widening connections.
Journalism has been thoroughly disrupted over the past decade. News organizations, especially newspapers, have come under heavy financial pressure, news bureaus have been closed or consolidated and journalists have had to rethink their profession.
Yet amidst the rubble a new form of the craft has emerged—data journalism. Rather than pounding a physical beat and cultivating human sources, this new breed immerses itself in statistical data and policy papers.
Two paragons of the new form, Nate Silver and Ezra Klein, have recently left traditional outlets to create their own news organizations, FiveThirtyEight and Vox, respectively. Yet, now it looks like the model might not be as scalable as it first appeared and these new ventures already seem to be struggling. Data journalism, for all its promise, has a problem.
The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said that, “talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.” Lots of people are smart, but true genius has always had an element of mystery to it.
Nobody really knows where genius comes from. While surely there is a genetic component, most child prodigies do not attain outstanding professional success. Some creativity experts consider genius to be a method as much as it is an ability.
However, while many people define genius differently, most agree that Richard Feynman was one and there is probably no better example of his brilliance than his famous talk, There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom. It not only launched a revolution in physics and engineering that is still being played out today, it shows us how a true genius really thinks.
One of the first things you learn as a manager is that your own performance doesn’t really matter anymore. You might have gotten promoted by being a hot shot, but once you are in a position of responsibility you have to get others to perform in order to succeed.
That’s an uncomfortable position to be put in. We grow up learning to pursue accomplishments. Getting good grades in school, making the all-star team in sports, getting into the “right” school and getting the a good job all depend on individual performance.
Yet management is different. It’s about empowering others rather than glorifying ourselves and, the truth is, few of us are taught or encouraged to do that. So not surprisingly, many managers never learn how to motivate employees. Instead, they continue to act as if they were higher status versions of their former selves. Here are five things to look out for.