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June 2008


Sometimes the best remedy to paralysis, to the enervating power of inertia, is to just start, break ground, get out there, get going, shake up the status quo and surf the currents of the feedback you inspire forward towards what you intend.

To begin to do what you fear you cannot, begin. And then stay with it, antennae up, curiosity at its most heightened, humility polished off to invite learning, rapidly and vigorously willing to course correct. Very often, the action you take will kick loose the very clarity you are after.

We have all manner of prognostications in the recent past, from “the end of history” to even “the end of strategy”. Alas, both history and strategy are more durable than their doubters. History is back with us, being frantically made all around us. And strategy comes back gloating whenever for example a new corporate hopeful founders on the economic reefs of an emerging economic superpower like China.

No, strategy is very much alive. It’s just materially different now. It requires not only future foresight and competitive insight, but also vast dollops of behavioral flexibility and the ability for fact-based, real-time agility in decision making.

Instead of lengthy time horizons allowing us to reverse-engineer achievements backwards from them, strategically what is far more likely today, is visionary intent, a trajectory and a value space we’re aiming for. And then we become a co-creator of the future we want to participate in and profit from with that propulsion and within those boundaries.

Meg Whitman of eBay raised numerous eyebrows when she proclaimed, “Forget about 5 year plans, we’re working on 5 day plans here.” Provocatively pithy. Of course she and her cohorts think about 5 years hence (a multi-billion dollar investment in Skype was hardly on the basis of a whim), but they’re not hemmed in by some detailed master plan.

When MySpace was acquired by Murdoch & co., they had faith in that value space, they felt this could be the cusp of a real customer movement…but at the time of acquisition, there was no final clarity as to where revenue would come from. Today, subscriptions gush in at a dizzying pace with a huge deal with Google in the works if subscription targets are met.

Isadore Sharp of Four Seasons Hotels thought there must be a market for the merging of intimate motor inns (motels) and the large 800 room convention hotels that provided more amenities but were besieged with impersonality. Taking a 200 room property he owned in London with about 200 rooms, the then Inn on the Park, he created a luxury intimate hotel, thereby launching the Four Seasons brand. He introduced bath robes, shampoos, slippers and many touches of ‘home’ (today these are de rigueur, originally they were revolutionary) and charged a premium for the intimacy and exceptional support network he set up for his guests. And so a new industry was literally hatched.

Speaking of giving birth to industries, the founders of the LONELY PLANET guidebook series, had travelled through Europe and Asia en route to Australia on their honeymoon in the early 70’s. Finding friends interested in their experiences, they put together a self-published book, Across Asia on the Cheap. They stapled it together themselves and sold it. The 1500 initial copies sold launched a business. There were many difficult times, they were often so broke they steamed stamps off mail to re-use them, and paid dinners by credit card, collecting cash from fellow diners to use immediately, knowing the credit card payment could be deferred. Today, the company has revenues of over $100 million, and BBC publishing has purchased a majority stake. Moreover they have numerous imitators like the ROUGH GUIDE and more.

It is unlikely our ancestors had a long-term strategic plan to ‘discover’ fire, build shelters, move to hunting and farming, and eventually launch civilization. No, they had a sense of what needed improving, some insight into where to look and what to try, and then massive trial and error, and iterative progress. The strategic element for those who made it was doubtless in the quality of lessons learned and the imagination with which those lessons were leveraged to map the future.

Recently the news in the United States has been buzzing with speculation as to the sorry state of the US auto industry given soaring oil prices and the decline of behemoth vehicles like the SUV and their ilk. But what has most stupefied people is why the Japanese foray into hybrids was not emulated by the US auto-makers when it could have made a greater difference.

Likely answer: until recently, they were making large amounts on gas guzzlers. And likely they couldn’t see precisely under what circumstances hybrids would flourish, how they would make money, what the precise market would be…and that’s the point! When the world is palpably changing on you, or you suspect it might, you have to get out there to locate or create your answer to these queries. Endless planning and analysis won’t donate the answer. In the meantime, Toyota has gained an impressive advantage here by creating the answers, by massive testing, experimentation, feedback gathering, and judicious tapering of their products to the needs and realities of their customers and consumers. Hot on their heels are European car makers…having also felt the wind changing and knowing they had to dive in.

This injection of vitality into your business also pays other dividends. Top CEO’s particularly of venerable companies like GE and IBM benchmark the level of excitement of their projects and activity by assessing if the most talented 20 and 30 years olds are lining up to join them. If not, they fear they are becoming yesterday’s news. The question is whether we are leading the leading edge, with projects so exciting that the most talented want to participate in them, learn from them and contribute to them.What revolution are you leading? What precedent are you planning to shatter?

It has been said that those who risk nothing, do nothing, learn nothing and become nothing. They may avoid certain variants of suffering and sorrow, but they cannot change, grow, evolve or outdo their own past best. Chained by their fears, such organizations and individuals forfeit their ultimate freedom. Only those who risk are free.

Of course there are reckless, mindless risks, those driven by feckless discipline and analytical lassitude rather than entrepreneurial edge, creative insight and a burning passion to define markets and ‘wow’ customers. We are here extolling strategic risks — well placed bets which are enhanced by full throttled action and engagement. And action orientation does NOT remove the need for judgment and good timing — the fate of Atari and the premature Newton PDA of Apple are instances of trying to run before you’ve managed to include walking in your repertoire.

We all venerate the 3M of old for creating space for sanctioned experiments, whereby 15% of time can be spent on projects of your choice. Google has emulated this, taking the number to 20% for software engineers. 3M got Post-It notes and Scotch Guard, Google got Google News and Froogle among others as a result. These are still disciplined companies, and they haven’t removed all the management processes or guard rails by any means. Tom Peters and Bob Waterman famously captured this paradox way back IN SEARCH OF EXCELLENCE calling these “simultaneous loose/tight properties.” Amen!

Can you therefore launch a skunks work at your job? A guerrilla project, something seriously cool? It can be in your own circle of influence. But get enough of these going and induct fellow “evolutionary revolutionaries” and the ripples can congregate into waves of often formidable change led and informed by creative initiative.

Many presenters now cite Cirque du Soleil as a paradigmatic example of stunning, jaw-dropping excellence. They re-imagined and recreated circuses into adult theater, into performance art. However their ability to evoke and provoke imagination and enroll others to participate with them in the joy and drama of their performance, is being leveraged into everything from non-profit ventures where they help teach juggling and other imagination-building skills in developing countries to large staged events, to possibly what…corporate training perhaps? There are many avenues they could pursue, and they will have to look for the right intersection between their passionate values, the type and magnitude of financial rewards they are after, and the arenas where their greatest talents and corporate DNA can best be flexed and expressed.

That said, never forget that while your knitting may evolve as your strategic moves do, there will always be knitting, and while it’s there and yours, you do need to stick with it. Internet banking may have truly changed the face of the banking industry, but is that internet connectivity user friendly, is it truly fostering service not just convenience? And when you need personal attention, does that now require an act of God to find a living, breathing human who actually knows the banking business? Or have we used technology to free us up to focus on those areas where personal, expertise-rich human contact excels? Try a few banks and you’ll see how little this opportunity and differentiator is successfully exploited.

On the whole though, the reason to head out for the frontier of what is currently possible is because knowledge of ‘what is’ frequently inhibits us to see beyond it. It is hard to return to the naivete of not knowing. Hence by taking bold action in new areas, we return ourselves to facing fresh ignorance, and hopefully transcending it. In so doing, we may have no choice but to find new pathways forward. We voluntarily court ignorance ardently and often therefore, so we can find ways of transcending it.

A fascinating study emanating from Bain & Co. assessed various corporate transformations. The one commonality in virtually all of those that produced measurable, profit-based benefits to the business, involved quick and tangible change in roughly a two year period. On average those that did this decisively and palpably, and made the change in areas that mattered to their customers and to the talented best in their own company, showed a stock price rise of approximately 250 percent during the period of the revival.

Such conviction fosters energy, excitement, mass commitment and an exhilarating outpouring of passion. Think of IBM selling a major part of their hardware business and switching into a company now getting the bulk of its profits from services. Fast, tangible, bold, visionary change, with committed execution and consistent follow-through.

It has been said in battle, “fortune favors the bold”. If you are timid, statistically you are more likely to die. When bold, you may win, you may lose, but your chances of making it go up. In corporate life, the timid decay and fester, the bold learn how to make the currently difficult blockages into portals of opportunity for tomorrow. Indeed, fortune favors the bold.

We’ve experienced this ourselves. In the consulting arena, we always had the skill to coach given the background of many in our business, but the new area of corporate coaching was something at that time, outside our domain. We could have studied it, sought dubious certifications and danced around the fringes for a decade. Instead, we partnered with an established coaching firm on a project, learned the ropes, added a team coaching dimension to the individual coaching they were doing, but focused on strategic business results. We then were able to take this to a global client to use coaching to grow tomorrow’s leaders (a key issue for major companies worldwide). Our first project was $250,000 and that company reaped very tangible value. Not a huge consulting number, but a respectable beginning. Today, leadership and team coaching is a key part of who we are and what we’re known for. Each engagement has helped us refine how to make coaching impactful, pertinent and strategically valuable for both the individuals and their companies.

So definitely spend time on strategic rigor. Identify your ideal value space and pick the right targets and bulls eyes. But then, get moving, with vigor and sensory acuity, and flexibility, and openness to feedback and results which will become floodlights on the path to ongoing innovation.

Start to create the future, and gain clarity from your engagement, not just your planning. Leadership is about kicking the ball into play — while choosing the type of ball, the playground, and the sport. But new sports can be invented, and venerable ones added to. The world continues to both revolve and evolve — so should we and our businesses…led by passionate action!