Comrade Excel and the Glorious Five Year Plan

Image: Tragically, Zepplin trips were outside of Lenin's core value proposition
Image: Tragically, Zepplin trips were outside of Lenin's core value proposition

Spreadsheets aren’t strategy, as Umair Haque is fond of saying.

Turns out they can actually be quite dangerous, for the temptation they bring to reduce a business (a complex, human enterprise) to a set of numbers on a page. Even more dangerous when they trick us into thinking we can predict the future and call the extended line of equations based on assumptions facts. And then, once the “facts” are there, start getting upset when behaviours in your lovely bundle of corporate human potential don’t follow the script.

I loved this post yesterday by Mark Earls about how central planning was utterly discredited at a macroeconomic level (i.e. communism was a disaster) but at a micro-economic level (in our businesses) we persist with command and control approaches.

Mark  muses on an excellent article by Simon Caulkin in Sunday’s Observer called Inside Every Chief Exec There’s a Soviet Planner:

Does your CEO tell the shareholders (and the other stakeholders of the business) stuff like, “we’re not sure what’s going to happen….”? Probably not – certainty in what will happen and the plan to meet it are essential fictions of today’s CEO.

All of which leads to the bloating of the managerial classes in any large organisation

“Central planning imposes a huge co-ordination burden – which is why there is just so much management.”

Curious then, as Caulkin observes, that when coupled with a fervent commitment by the same folk to laisser faire macroeconomics, we get oh….a total mess.

I think I totally failed to post a comment yesterday, so here’s what I was going to say:

It seems such an obvious contradiction now, but we’ve indulged the spreadsheet fantasy of control and predictability in our companies. In fact, to be outside it is to be a heretic.
“What are your projections for Q-whatever, FY-blah?” are questions that seem to demand a suspension of disbelief by all involved.

I recommend standing to attention, staring straight ahead and appending the word “comrade” to the end of any response to such questions from now on. It’s the only sane response…

Large organisations need to plan, but plan in a more agile way. One Truth is a lie. A spread, a loose plotting of your possible courses, and some ideas about how you would react to different scenarios…

There are three things this all boils down to for me:

  1. Organisations aren’t machines.They are far more human and complicated than that. If you treat them like machines they will break.
  2. Don’t be trapped by your plan.  Spreadsheets, business plans – as with all innovations, tech, methods – should serve us, support human potential, not make servants of those gathered round them.
  3. Management is a burden. It needs to be kept light or it destroys value.

Otherwise you end up, Like Hugo Chavez and his cohorts here in this public examining of the accounts trying to work out how you went off-plan…


And when the answer doesn’t match the spreadsheet…


Questions need to be asked. The spreadsheet can’t be wrong, so who is…



Anyway, thanks to Mark for summing it up nicely like that. He and the ever-wonderful Johnnie Moore have put together a podcast yesterday on the same subject which I shall be listening to with great interest later…

Strategy and innovation: Head for the edge

Image: John Hagel & John Seely Brown's book, The Only Sustainable Edge
Image: John Hagel & John Seely Brown's book "The Only Sustainable Edge"

Business thinkers John Seely Brown and John Hagel are always worth listening to. Their perspectives on innovation and concepts like FAST Strategy have not only resonated as theories for me in recent years but have given practical, effective models for the work we’ve been doing at iCrossing, especially in “edge” areas like social media research, strategy, marketing and measurement.

Like Umair Haque, who also thinks and discusses the economics of the edge, their writing seems even more urgently relevant to businesses, activists and governments in the face of multiple economic, geo-political and environmental disruptions.

If you’re confused slightly by what “edge” means in the context of commerce, politics, society etc., there’s a nice illustration given in an article by Hagel & Brown in a BusinessWeek article about Google and the phone business:

Two decades ago, wireless telephone networks created a vibrant new edge to the wire-line telephony business. Many analysts at the time viewed mobile phones as a fringe event, something that would never take hold in the mainstream telephone business, except perhaps as a status symbol among the very wealthy.

Twenty years later mobile telephones are ubiquitous in the U.S. despite continuing challenges in service coverage, particularly in buildings. In many other parts of the world, these devices have replaced the old wire-line phone as the primary means of communication. What was on the edge has now become the core.

If you’re thinking and planning right now for the year or years ahead – and many people I know are – then the piece is reading, especially for the advice the duo give. The headlines are:

  • Don’t get distracted by your existing competitors (where are the start-ups who will compete with you tomorrow)
  • Look beyond product innovation (to really develop new models and markets changing how the world works may be required)
  • Mobilise others in support of your innovation initiatives (heroic entrepreneur myths oversimplify)
  • Don’t be deceived by theoretical concepts like “emergent” and “self-organising” (leadership required!)
  • Target the edges (find where there’s high value for your customers)

Rip it up and grow some

Two posts in me feeds first thing today chime with my rant/ramble yesterday…

Mark Earls is feeling feisty about 2009 and the potential for massive postive disruptions as he makes plain in The year that everything changes:

Let’s test our ideas and practices against the simple measure: is this just the old map re-written? is it just “evolved”? Changed a little in form but not in substance?

I commented that it put me in mind of advice to journlism students from Suzanne Yada (a journalism student herself) that I’d just read on Buzzmachine:

Grow some cojones. Let me level with you. The world doesn’t need more music reviewers or opinion spouters. The world needs more people willing to ask tough questions.

Ask tough questions. Rip up the old rules. Grow some balls.  Change everything.

Cry havoc: Here comes (Oh) Nine…

2009: there are reasons to be cheerful (see footer for photo credits)
2009: there are reasons to be cheerful (see footer for photo credits)

So, yes, I shut down for a while.

Literally and virtually. I’ve had some time going with the flow with my family, for a while doing nothing but that. Wonderful.

Then, as Christmas passed, I switched on read-only mode. I read some literature in single sittings, a rare treat that only comes in holidays (The Road and On Chesil Beach – both wonderful and in their own way good at throwing even this grim present into cheerful relief, and making one do a Pollyanna blessings audit).

One other book – a personal favourite and major influence on my thinking – The Origin of Wealth pulled me back to its pages too. There was a chapter toward the end about the political and social consequences of the rise of Complexity Economics that made me shiver. It felt so absolutely aligned with the Us Now, Here Comes Everyone

Then, ever so gently, I eased myself back into the rushing river of RSS…

Now the lights are flickering back on. The only thing stopping me from writing is that there’s so much I want to write. So we’ll start with this, mainly because it is there and it’s making me smile – from a post called The Business Leader 2009: Chief Meaning Officer, by Tim Leberecht on design mind:

Consumption-driven wealth and status are being replaced by identity, belonging, and a strong desire to contribute and do something “meaningful” rather than just acquire things. Trust and reputation are no longer enablers for the exchange of goods, services, and information, they are replacing them. Values are the new value. Meaning is succeeding experience and customer satisfaction. “The job of leadership today is not just to make money. It’s to make meaning,” writes management consultant John Hagel. Out: Bottom-line-pragmatists and financial wizards. In: philosophers and ethicists.

It goes on to talk about “brands to transform themselves into arbiters of meaning” and

essence instead of luxury, free sharing instead of monetized scarcity, radical transparency instead of brand control, authenticity instead of image, empathy instead of focus groups, conversations instead of messaging, collaboration instead of dissemination.

Wonderful, although I admit I felt uncomfortable as I read the “arbiter” bit. Was this going too far? Were we drifting the wrong side of the Hicks-line that so torments many a marketing apparatchik’s conscience?

Well not really – everyone in the network’s an arbiter of meaning, to the extent that they choose to be. As long as we’re not getting lost and saying that brands are *the* arbiters of meaning, I think we’re OK.

A brand is like that thing we all started reminding ourselves of about “viral marketing”: an outcome, not a strategy. We’d be better off thinking about earning reputation than designing brands.

Anyway, now more than ever, revolution is in the air. Not the moneyed, dew-eyed hippy, let’s-all-get-along kind of revolution that 2004 – 2007 felt like. This is the real, tear-down-the-temples, raise-the-barricades, all-or-nothing stuff.

Umair Haque‘s ongoing commentary and provocations around the financial crisis continue to fuel a sense that now is the time to advance not to retreat. I feel almost a sense of duty, a moral imperative not to play safe, not to retreat and wait for the good old times to return.

They won’t and they shouldn’t.

We’ll continue to live with the severe consequences of the lies and venal mass delusions of this last boom through this year – but then comes reconstruction. And the planning and the genesis of that reconstruction start now, have started already.

It’s a time for boldness not for retreat.

I’m really looking forward to this year, even if it hurts. Good fortune to us all…

Cheer up - at least you're not the protagonist in The Road
Cheer up: It's not as bad as life on The Road

: : While looking for some images to break up the text of this ramble (think of it as a warm-up at the start of a cold year), I see that The Road is coming out as a movie this year.

The book, the text is so potent I left it lying on the kitchen table for a while like a smoking gun and just stared at it. It was so powerful it left me dazed…

The film’s starring Vigo Mortensen and is directed by John Hillcoat, so at least it’s got good pedigree and a chance of being as good as it can be. Make sure you read the book before you even see a trailer….

Photo: 2009 montage via Flickr Spell (yes, still love it). Today’s numbers are 2 by Holeymoon , 0 by mag3737, 0 by Leo Reynolds, and 9 by Adam Lawrence.