For a little while, first thing this morning, the most-read article on the FT this morning wasn’t Brexit*, war or impending catastrophe of any of the current flavours, but a heartwarming story of how a few kind words from a member of cabin crew made someone feel a bit better.
It wasn’t dramatically over the top service. They didn’t perform a miracle. They were just an empathetic and tried to make things a little better. But it won over Pilita Clark:
“In an age of relentless customer service surveys and blather about “customer delight”, that flight attendant was a reminder of how little it takes to turn customer relations disaster into triumph — and how rarely it is done well. I have lost count of the times a bank or phone company person has responded to a plea for help with a computer-assisted wall of chill. Sympathetic, warm and humorous people may not be the easiest to find. But any company that manages to put them at the heart of customer relations will always be one step ahead, especially when that help is most needed 30,000 feet up in the air.”
There’s going to be a flurry high fives and glowing emails of pride over at Qantas HQ this morning.
You might take the wrong moral from this story: treat every customer as if they are an FT columnist because… they might be! The better lesson is to hire, train and support humans to be able to act like nice humans when faced by another sub-set of humans called customers. This can be achieved by letting the first kind of human have enough humanity left intact after undergoing processing and by the corporate machine that they can show it to the customer kind of human.
* This was about 6 a.m. An hour later when I checked, the top story was – once again as it seems it shall ever be – Brexit.
Researchers recently tested [the] idea that cliched metaphors become ‘worn-out’ by overuse. They scanned people reading sentences that included action-based metaphors (‘they grasped the idea’), some of which were well-worn and others fresh. ‘The more familiar the expression, the less it activated the motor system,’ writes the neuroscientist Professor Benjamin Bergen. ‘In other words, over their careers, metaphorical expressions come to be less and less vivid, less vibrant, at least as measured by how much they drive metaphorical simulations.’
So jargon can be excluding, annoying and sometimes dangerous. Loose meanings, loosely used, cause misdirection and misunderstanding. We hide the meaning of things even from ourselves when we start talking like an insider (or what we imagine an insider should sound like).
If you’re going to use images in your language, make sure they vivid and clear and new. If you’re just doing an impression of the last corporate shmuck’s soliloquy you heard, then you’re aiming low and no one is really listening to what you’re saying. (And if you’re reading that nonsense off a PowerPoint slide, you’re virtually guaranteeing that no one knows what you were trying to say – if indeed you were actually trying to say anything of substance in the first place.)
Sure, a lot of this is cultural, habitual, hard to stop doing; but the least you can do is to start to notice when you do it – and make a note to have a word with yourself later.
The idea of “personal brand” seems to be resurgent. Ten years ago, when I wrote Me and My Web Shadow it was a thing – but then seemed to fade from conversation. I avoided using the term; reputation is a much more useful idea to focus on for individuals – it is something you can affect but it is something earned, an outcome, defined by the perceptions of others.
There’s something more controlled and designed about the idea of personal brand; an idea attached to it that you can set out how you will be seen and experienced by others. You can’t.
Reputation = what you do + what others think and say about you.
Perhaps the term personal brand is increasing used because of anxiety about how the internet can spawn mobs that will rip apart the reputation of an individual. An ugly phenomenon – once shocking, now commonplace.
Angela Nagle is an academic who studies the online culture wars. Even studying them can be hazardous, she’s found. Cross the alt-right and they will dox the offender. Question a liberal taboo, especially when it comes to identity politics and you will feel their wrath.
The appeal of the internet and of social media was that it offered us this narcissistic pleasure whereby we could almost brand manage ourselves …while the internet can give you this persona… it can also take it away and present a horrifying version of who you are.
When we look at the horror-show of the public sphere on Twitter and other social media today it can seem like the internet has created a horrifying version of us.
Some of the phenomena we are living through will be understood and analysed by future historians. We don’t know where this is all going, but we are definitely going somewhere new and we’ve moving quickly. Nagle seems to be writing a first draft of the sociology of our accelerated connected times.
Kraft Heinz shares dived nearly 30 per cent on Friday after it took a $15bn writedown, cut its dividend payout and disclosed it was the subject of a probe by the Securities and Exchange Commission into its accounting policies.
Buffet is the Western world’s most admired investor. He is admired because of the largely unbroken success of his company Berkshire Hathaway; success founded on the disciplined application of his rules, the most important being to only bet on incumbent brands that have a “moat”, meaning that they were able to defend and grow their market position and to hold shares for a long time. He steered clear of innovators and tech firms – eventually buying Apple once it has clearly shed its disruptor status and established itself as an apparently immovable giant in the music and smartphone markets.
The success of his approach undermined the claims of gospel of The Innovator’s Dilemma. Some things did never change, the predictable Buffet wins said, you can’t go wrong with big brands that people love. And that was true, as they say, until it wasn’t.
Where CPG incumbents go, advertising holding groups follow
In the CB Insights newsletter the collapse of the Kraft Heinz share price was cited as an example of digital disruption’s effect of “gradually, then suddenly” downfalls of incumbents.
The FT’s John Gapper commented, “advertising flavoured with history is no longer enough”, an analysis that can be applied to the big advertising holding groups as well.
The old rules no longer apply. Our mission is to write the new ones.
Synthetic media is a term I’d not come across before hearing about Google’s paper on fighting disinformation that was published this week. It describes those eerily realistic images and video generated through artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning (ML) techniques.
Google says it is sharing datasets of synthetic media so that others can use it to spot deep fakes and develop systems that can do this. However it admits that there are limits to what tech can do – always slightly galling for a tech giant – and says it will need to also work with “researchers, policymakers, civil society, and journalists around the world”. Although none of these watchdogs have enjoyed complete success dealing with disinformation generated by non-silicon based actors, to coin a phrase. This last ditch defence against the tidal waver of fakes has been breached many times before.
Check your anti-tech moral panic
While we are trembling at the prospect of future synthetic media horrors, we might also recall that manipulating and misleading through media is something humans have been doing without support from AI for as long as we care to recall. See The Daily Mail and other tabloids in the UK’s decades-long campaign of disinformation about the European Union, for an example of this.
Another deep fake demo that crossed my awareness this week was a website called This Person Does Not Exist, which claims to showcase images of human faces that have been generated by an algorithm, something that previously had been hard to achieve.
Hit refresh and another fake face pops up. Obviously helped by foreknowledge, I thought that many of these would bear up to a glance, but still teetered on the edge of the uncanny valley.
The giveaway – when there is one – always seems to be the eyes. Sometimes more obviously than others…
Although other things can go wrong too…
I’m not sure about the provenance of this website. I’m aware that I may be enjoying it because it plays on whatever cognitive biases I have that make me want to believe that machines will never be able to completely fool me. In fact, they probably already have.
Remember when the design community had its Two Minutes Hate about vtb design? I agreed.
But sometimes, fake analogue is just lovely.
The Google Play Books app on iOS (and presumably on Android) gives you the option of reading original page layouts. I downloaded A copy of Treasure Island onto my iPad Pro 11 and changed the tone of the display to something on the sepia spectrum.
The result is rather fetching. Reading a text as it was presented 100 years or more ago is lovely. In this context we kind of evening enjoy the page turn animation.
What did your books do for you lately? If they aren’t working hard, you should cut your losses and get new ones. That’s what I learned while reading last year.
2018 was a year when I needed my books to be right. I looked around for the ones I needed, and I abandoned several that didn’t work out.
Stopping reading a book is always a hard decision — something about giving up, about wasting an opportunity to learn – but it helps to remember sunk cost fallacy with the precious time and attention that goes into reading.
I put my 2018 list together based on the books that made the biggest contribution to my life. These are books that worked hard — and worked me hard. I’d like to give them medals. Some of them earned battlefield commissions — Brevet Majors of motivation and curiosity.
When I studied American History at university, I focused on the 20th century. What I knew of the American Civil War was just a rough outline — abolition of slavery, burning of Atlanta, enormous casualties. Of Grant I knew the name only, a counterpoint to the South’s military giant, Lee.
I have a sense that in the 90s (and before) that Lee was more admired as a historical figure. This may be because while the South was defeated militarily, a terrorist, guerilla and culture war continues to be fought to this day against the outcome. An oddity of the culture war that followed the military one is that many who wrote the history were on the losing side. If we were to believe the “history is written by the victors” dictum is generally true, then either the American Civil War is an exception, or the Union’s victory was temporary.
The War was colossal. As Shelby Foote — a Southern-rooted historian — said in the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War, more soldiers died in the Battle of Shiloh than at Waterloo. And, he points out, “there were many more Waterloos to come”.
Ulysses S Grant, who had previously served and then left the army under a cloud, helped form a volunteer Federal militia in Kentucky. Then, with incredible speed, he ascended to be the Army’s first Lieutenant General since Washington. His career, which includes many failures and setbacks but ultimately reaches the Presidency, is a story worth reading for its own sake.
After the Civil War, the book describes the very complicated and tragic tale of the emancipation of the slaves and the aftermath. Lincoln and Grant were opposed to slavery on principle, but their support for emancipation and support for equal rights for black Americans grew and hardened through the course of the war. The tragedy of great progress then being put down with horrific massacres and intimidation throughout the South is caused partly by Lincoln’s assassination at the end of the War and the subsequent fudging of the peace. Chernow notes:
Americans today know little about the terrorism that engulfed the South during Grant’s presidency. It has been suppressed by a strange national amnesia. The Klan’s ruthless reign is a dark, buried chapter in American history. The Civil War is far better known than its brutal aftermath.
Reading about the systematic violence across the South gives you a deeper perspective on the Civil Rights struggles of 100 years later, a struggle that continues today in the face of white supremacy and racism in its many forms.
Grant himself is also a fascinating individual. An alcoholic who fought the disease all his life, a gullible over-truster of others, he was also unlucky and incompetent in business matters. As President, his achievements were offset by scandal — his naivety in business dogging him to his dying day.
The accounts of Grant’s alcohol addiction — and the depression suffered by his most trusted and brilliant fellow general Sherman — reminded me of the excellent A First Rate Madness by Nassir Ghaemi. When facing extreme challenges, leaders with neurotypical or average healthy emotional profiles often fail (Ghaemi calls those with an average profile homoclytes). In peacetime people get used to steady states, predictable ways of succeeding, but in extraordinary circumstances — say wars waged on a scale with technology more deadly than they can fully understand — sometimes we need people whose minds have been to dark places and survived, learned to think and find new ways of thinking that let them survive.
Grant was accused of being a butcher who wasted lives, but the current appraisal by historians like Chernow shows Grant as someone who saw the nature of the war for what it was, both in terms of the need for unconditional surrender by the Confederacy in order to preserve the Union, the key issue of emancipation and equality for former slaves as a war aim, and the nature of the new telegraph and railroad enabled large scale, strategic warfare.
This is the most autobiographical of Le Carré’s novels — the protagonist works in intelligence and is suited to that profession in part by his malleable sense of self. His mercurial identity emerges through his childhood under the influence of his Father, a conman and fantasist.
While the story is about espionage it also about the universal puzzle of the self — who are we really? Who can know us at all, least of all ourselves? The spy of the title baffles and enrages the powers that be, his family, and his friends. It’s an amazing yarn that makes you yearn for something just out of reach of all of us. The book took me into myself and away from the world and left me as lost as anyone. I read The Little Drummer Girl shortly afterwards, which it is in the same thematic vein – and also highly recommended, even if you have seen the recent BBC TV adaptation.
The first book I read last year and a profoundly brilliant piece of storytelling. It is the story of the writing of 1984 by George Orwell, drawing from different chapters in his life to show how the masterpiece — written as he was dying of tuberculosis — drew on his experiences of being hunted by the NKVD in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, censoring things at the BBC during the war and other personal experiences. It’s so much more interesting and engaging as a story than it would be as an account of all of these things. The author pulls off the trick of making you believe that his Orwell is the real Orwell, that somehow you are reading something like a non-fiction account. Maybe this is because the Orwell we follow is bound up with petty matters and dreary mortality as well as the grand quest to write his greatest novel.
These three books share as space in my list as they combined to power the adoption of OKRs (objectives and key results). I’m not going to evangelise this approach — this isn’t the post for that — suffice to say these books made a massive difference to my year. (Hat tip to Sienne Veit for recommending Radical Focus).
One of those books you think you know already – until you read it.
The Prince was a beautiful read on a number of levels. When we stop thinking of politics as what others do in organisations and think of it as the art of getting things done then Machiavelli becomes very relevant. As well as being an interesting treatise on power, it’s timelessness as a practical guide to working in political (i.e. most human organisations).
Try reading Machiavelli and substitute “prince” for “client” or “boss” and it feels like a book written for today as much as 16th century Italy.
It also complements the first two parts of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Henry VIII’s advisor, Thomas Cromwell – Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies — which I read a couple of years ago and like to revisit now and again. “You have to choose a Prince” says Mantel’s Cromwell, who learned banking, soldiering and the art getting things done — of being “a ready man” — in Italy.
Recently, I’ve started reading Cromwell, by Diarmaid MacCullough, a biography. I was delighted to read that there was primary evidence that Cromwell read The Prince.
…some time in the late 1530s Morley could assume that Cromwell would be pleased by a gift of Niccolò Machiavelli’s best-known works the History of Florence and The Prince, in Italian editions, for recreational and instructive reading. He accompanied the present with reminiscences about the many occasions he had heard Cromwell observe of the Florentines that he had ‘been conversant with them, seen their factions and manners’.
Being someone who sometimes advises clients on innovation and organisational change – something that is often analogous to politics and war – I was stopped in my tracks by one passage in The Prince.
It is incredible that this was written 500 years before the current canonical theory of disruptive innovation. As I noted in my last blog post, it answers the question of why it is so hard to get organisations to do radically new things:
And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack, they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly, in such wise that the prince is endangered along with them.
A book full of boiling contempt for tech giants, it was a very good year to read I Hate The Internet. Gorgeous prose and ideas that in turn confuse and clarify the reader’s thoughts. There’s a dash of Ellroy’s pugilist flow and of Hunter S Thompson confrontational nihilism to the book. It gets a medal from me for its rage, for creating a place that my mind could hang out for a bit — a kind of punk retreat from the dark chaos of the world in 2018, while also being a book of its moment. Read it.
This book almost didn’t make the list, as I read it at the end of the year while I was already thinking about my books of the year. Thanks to procrastination in posting this piece, I’ve had a chance to appreciate how much of an impression it made on me. Ever since I read it I’ve seen everything else through the ideas it presented.
Written by philosopher Julian Baggini, The Ego Trick is accessible but not an easy ride. It deals with the
It was a quote from the book that made me hunt it out: “I is a verb, masquerading as a noun.” As simple a sentence as you would hope to write, but like a compressed file, there a million bits of provocation and questions that spring from it as soon as you start to consider the idea.
Step by step, Baggini walks us through the arguments for the idea of a soul, a constant self, and debunks them. You end up with your head spinning and realising what a complex, illusory and yet essential and wonderful the idea of the self really is. I can’t compress that argument here for you – I’d just recommend getting the look and going on the journey yourself.
The Ego Trick gives you the opportunity to experience and gain a threshold concept – an idea that once you truly grasp it, turns the world upside down, changes how you see everything from that moment onwards.
Only a handful of the books written about content and marketing are worth the megabytes they travel upon, but Lazar and Justin have applied academic rigour (they both lecture on marketing) to the thinking, have decades of experience that inoculates them against neophilia and wide-eyed optimism for the next big thing, and basically know what they are talking about.
I’m quoted in the book, which is awkward, but I read everything else in it and violently agreed with most of it, so whole-heartedly recommend it to you. It should be on the desk of anyone developing strategy for marketing or running content programmes. It would also save us all a lot of time if publishers insisted specialist books on marketing be as good as this before they agree to publish them.
. . . .
So, 2018 was a good year for reading. But any year is — if you choose the right books.
Below are some of the other books I read last year that I would recommend.
The Snowman, by Jo Nesbo. I think this may be the best of the Nesbo’s books – a great plot and the usual grim, Nordic existentialism (but that’s why we read it).
The Outsider, by Stephen King. Starts as a crime/mystery and ends up somewhere else. Even though you kind of know what you’re in for, the sense of rising dread in the plot is so subtle. You’re like the frog in the pot of warming water that suddenly realises the heat has been rising for a long time but you never noticed.
This Is What Happened, by Mick Herron. I love Herron’s Slough House series so much that I will basically read anything he published. This standalone tale is a creepy, twisty delight, that switches your perspective and the plot direction in very satisfying ways.
Hhhh, by Laurent Binet. Read it and then watch the movie Anthropoid. An incredible true story told in a self-regarding laconic way that ought to have annoyed me, but it mostly didn’t.
The Descent of Man, by Grayson Perry. It’s a good time to have a bit of a think about what it means to be a man. Sadly I think I have met more women than men that have read this book. It’s brilliant.
Essentialism, by Greg McKeown. A New York Times best-selling self-help book is something I tend to avoid until, as was the case with this, someone I trust recommends it (thanks, Will). This was a perfect book for me to read at the moment I did, simply about doing less as a formula for a better life.
Reinforcements, by Heidi Grant Halvorson. Another simple theme – asking people to help you. When you dive into the detail of what happens when we ask for help, you realise why it is so hard and why we don’t do it well or often enough. A more accessible book than Helping by Edgar Schein, but you should also read that if you’re interested in this subject.
Fire and Fury, by Michael Wolff. Boom! The first year of Trump. It’s so useful to have a look inside and understand some of the moving parts of the current administration. Superlatives are not enough to describe the spectacle and the horror.
On Writers and Writing, by Margaret Atwood (Published as Negotiating With the Dead outside the UK). A collection of lectures on writing by one of my favourite authors. Her mind is amazing and it is a lot of fun to hang out there.
These were all intensely useful to me in my work as CEO of Brilliant Noise. I would recommend that anyone working in leadership or management should read them all:
The Silo Effect, by Gillian Tett. A classic and so well written. All abouthow siloes emerge and how to break them.
The High Growth Handbook, by Elad Gil. The ultimate how-to book for companies that aren’t quite start-ups any more. The intereviews from leaders of businesses that have scaled are really useful and I imagine would be even if you aren’t growing a business.
Powerful, by Patty McCord. Advice and insights from a people management genius, drawn from her experiences at Netflix and elsewhere.
Principles, by Ray Dalio. Dalio has spent his working life figuring why his decisions worked or didn’t and has systematised them in his own company. Here he shares his approach and the principles (rules of decision-making, really) that have won out over 40 or so years. His specific principles might not work or be relevant for you, but the method and the thinking are really useful.
I hope one of these books is useful to you. I know I have loved reading them and writing about them too…
Like fight and flight in the dove-and-hawk game, innovation and conservatism both have costs and benefits. Innovators pay a price: it takes time to learn to make new arrowheads and to use them properly (costing, let us say, 10 points), and—perhaps more seriously—going against the way things have always been done might lose them respect (–20 points). Other men might not want to cooperate on hunts with someone so quirky, in which case the goatish inventor might actually end up with less meat, despite having better technology (another –10 points). In the end, he might just let the whole thing drop.
The dove-and-hawk-game is a conflict model. It is interesting that a model of conflict maps so easily onto what we can think of as an introducing-innovations-to-organisations model. Innovators have to fight to get their ideas accepted, they just don’t always appreciate how important that fight will be.
Innovators are often driven by zeal and a love of the new. They find it hard to understand why everyone doesn’t get on board with their new ideas, but that doesn’t stop them from losing the long game.
Machiavelli said the same something similar to Morris:
“And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack, they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly, in such wise that the prince is endangered along with them.”
The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli
Pioneers with arrows in their back, as the corporate folklore motto warns those among us who would dare to dream of better things.
“the financials of fast-growing companies look almost the same as the financials of failed companies”.
Could we apply the same principle to the success of innovators? As in the career trajectories of innovator executives can look almost the same as failing executives. Teetering on the brink until the moment they win — or lose.
Innovators – and I count myself as often have been among them in my career – huddle in groups – friends, conferences, Facebook groups – and warm themselves around the glow of stories of titans of innovation laying waste to the old certainties and inefficiencies of industries, lauded as mavericks and visionaries as they variously re-shape industries and put dings in universes.
Innovation is a high stakes game, and we rarely hear from those who played it and lost, just those who eventually won.
Image: A Japanese flintlock from the British Museum Flickr account (cc).
If you follow the money instead of the marketing services sector’s own narratives, change on a scale far larger than anything Google or Facebook have brought is on the way. That’s the conclusion we can draw when we listen to Silicon Valley’s smartest money talking about what’s next for them.
Benedict Evans is a Partner at Andreessen Horowitz (aka A16Z). His presentation a few days ago (November 2018) is — like the slower, more slide heavy Mary Meeker rival at Kleiner Perkins — billed as an annual fact fest and market proclamation. his theme this year was “the end of the beginning”.
Why is Evans worth listening to? Well, partly because he’s not speaking to you, he’s speaking to the money — his firm has US$2.6 billion of venture capital under management, and is ambitious to grow more. Its biggest successes since it started in 2012 have been backing firms like Instagram, Dollar Shave Club and Skype. It is the smartest money on the web. They are driven by the key insight articulated by founder Marc Andreessen that “software is eating the world” — everything that can be made to run better with digital technology will be disrupted and changed by the web.
There are three main points he makes that are worth looking at more closely — and then a torrent of industry-specific insights for CPG, retail, automotive, healthcare and financial services. First, When it comes to digital transformation, we are at the beginning of decades of change. Second, the past 20 years of the web have been about access — a wave of connecting up all of the people in the world — the next 20 years will be about usage, how we rethink almost every aspect of human activity using this network and the digital tools connected to it. Third, the current wave of change is being driven by machine learning and crypto (i.e. blockchain and related technologies).
A concept that leaders in every field need to grasp is that the digital revolution — the number of things that software and connected technology will change dramatically — has only just begun. Benedict Evans’s presentation will give a valuable return on the investment of your time and attention if it only helps bring that one concept to life a little more.
Watch the video of the full talk below — and a fillet of the points that I found most interesting (quotes are all from Benedict Evans, edited for clarity).
Key points from Benedict Evans The End of the Beginning
The forces at work
Access to the web — the number of people connected — has been growing the past 20 years at an exponential rate, but the usage is only just beginning to grow and there is a massive addressable opportunity.
The next wave of disruptive innovation will be of a different order of magnitude — harder problems, but bigger opportunities (and bigger disruption for established companies).
We will tackle harder markets and we probably change those markets far more than we changed things before
Social media and search were an organising layer over the web, but crypto and machine learning will allow much more profound changes to how we access and use the massive amounts of data, people and resources the internet has connected.
The upshot of these changes is that the markets that VC-backed disruptor companies will be much, much bigger. A comment by Evans as he talks about a graph gives us a sense of the scale of this:
“I used to charts in billions of dollars, now they are trillions of dollars”
Marketing disruption will be enormous
Evans characterises the disruption of marketing so far as having been mainly about advertising. For those of us working in the non-advertising areas of digital marketing we might think of this as a slight, but it’s not. From the point of view of the money, for whom we can think of Evans as the guide/spokesman, the game in digital marketing has been all about the advertising. Just look at the money that went into advertising leaders like Doubleclick vs. leaders in content and inbound marketing, or however we wish to characterise it these days. Brandwatch, Percolate and Sprinklr are worth hundreds of millions right now, but that is partly because they service relatively under-prioritised, disconnected and under-operationalised parts of marketing.
And even thinking of marketing isn’t thinking big enough, says Evans — the opportunity is more about thinking of the total cost of reaching a customer.
As I mentioned in the main post above there’s a lot more in the presentation — although it is only 24 minutes, Evans speaks at the speed of an Aaron Sorkin character, so there’s about an hour’s worth of content in there. I paused it frequently and took notes — and then wrote this post to make sure I’d had time to think through some of the profoundly interesting and challenging things he was talking about.
The leader owns the question, the team owns the answers. That’s a thread running through several of things I have been reading and writing about for clients lately.
Reading Liz Wiseman’s Multipliers this morning I saw this quote from Tim Brown of IDEO:
As leaders, probably the most important role we can play is asking the right questions and focusing on the right problems. It’s very easy in business to get sucked into being reactive to the problems and questions that are right in front of you. It doesn’t matter how creative you are as a leader, it doesn’t matter how good the answers you come up with. If you’re focusing on the wrong questions, you’re not really providing the leadership you should.
If this sounds obvious, think of all the leaders you’ve known who have insisted on arriving with the answers, or the questions about why their team hasn’t guessed the answer they have decided is obvious.
Wiseman casts this type of leader as a “diminisher“, which sounds like a monster from a Harry Potter story, but I know what she means. It’s your boss that’s always right, and therefore you’re rarely right — you soon stop trying to solve problems and just do what you’re told. Or leave because — despite their self-advertised or heavily implied genius — it’s just not that rewarding working for a monomaniacal smart arse.
There are three kinds of problem, says Grint, with increasing amounts of uncertainty: critical (a crisis with little time for decision-making and action, tame (problems with known solutions that ), and wicked problems.
The required response to critical problems is to command. Things need to happen fast and there’s not much time to consult or debate issues. Put out the fire and then we can talk about those things, the commanding leader says. Tame problems have known solutions and need to be managed through a process to be solved.
Complex problems don’t have an obvious answer. By their nature they may not even have a correct answer — they are wicked problems. If you move a piece of the puzzle all the other pieces change too. As Ben Horowitz says, “this is not checkers; this is motherf**kin’ chess”.
An example of a wicked problem…
Think of a reorganisation of a company or even just department — it’s not a series of simple questions. Person X can lead the operations team, person Y can lead the project team — simple. No. Person X is more competent at projects but more respected by the operations team who would be dismayed to feel that they are losing X for Y. The other way round? No, the operations team needs the competent manager and person X would probably leave. Can we hire for X’s role? Yes but we would lose six months of expertise of X and it could create a flight risk in the team that’s not led.
Did it give you a headache reading that? It damn near gave me one writing it, but that is a tiny aspect of a complex problem — like prioritising product development across hundreds of possibilities.
On a grander scale, Professor Grint cites JFK’s finest hour as a leader:
…President Kennedy’s actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis were often based on asking questions of his civilian assistants that required some time for reflection — despite the pressure from his military advisers to provide instant answers.
How to respond to digital disruption is a wicked problem. Other organisations may have done it, but you don’t know if they are going to be successful. Your transformation is specific to your organisation. You learn from others but your solution will be uniquely yours.
Where to start? Pilot a new approach or large scale change? What are the disruptive challenges you face — and which ones are the ones you need to focus on first? If it’s a combination of technology, business process redesign, capability building and organisation re-design which is dependent on which.
It would literally be simpler to create a start-up — except that you would have fewer resources and less capital and would still have to deal with wicked problems. Dealing with wicked problems is a core competency for any leader in the digital age, the VUCA era or however you choose to describe a time when we don’t seem to know what will happen at any level in markets, politics, the environment or technological progress. We don’t really know what’s going to happen next week, never mind next year and yet countries, companies and careers all still need to be managed.
Some things are harder than running a start-up
Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn and now Silicon Valley wise man at large, compared running a start-up to an impossible feat: “Starting a company is like throwing yourself off the cliff and assembling an airplane on the way down,” he was reported as telling Bloomberg in an interview.
Hoffman also said:
A startup, to some degree, is a set of those challenges of ‘if you don’t solve this, you’re dead.’
The challenge for an incumbent is even less clear. If you don’t solve this, you might be dead. If you do solve this, you might be dead anyway because you weren’t paying attention to the right thing.
The zeitgeist for the past ten years or so has made heroes of the start-up pioneers. This may be passing as heroes become villains and new empires rise. The heroes we need aren’t necessarily in start-ups, they are leaders who are brave enough to start
In a large organisation you may be assembling several aircraft at once and hoping at least one them will fly — and that you’ll be on it — before they hit the ground. Meanwhile you have a lot of board members and investors sitting on a slowly deflating zeppelin balloon insisting that the ground is still sufficiently far away, and that the hydrogen system that has worked for the flight so far is in no way flammable.
(Admitting) ignorance is strength
If you can’t stand not always knowing the answer — or at least appearing to — not only are you downgrading your team’s potential every time you meet them, you are blinding yourself and them to the true nature of the challenge.
Wicked problems, as Grint puts it, require clumsy solutions. If you try to find the right answer you will go mad or go out of business. You have to lead with questions, enlist every bit of thinking power in your organisation to be curious about what solutions might be and then start trying them out. The solutions will be clumsy and imperfect, but they will advance you toward things that will work. Either what you try can be crossed off the list or the grains of insight you gather from it can be applied to the next step forward and the step after that.
Progress will come from leaders who are brave enough — a theme of the recent Marketing Society conference — to take on the new, the confusing and the complex.