What A Caterpillar Can Teach You About Growing Your Business

Master Near Constant Change

 

Many people think that businesses should develop a strategy and stick to it at all costs.

But Sid Mohasseb, serial entrepreneur, investor, venture capitalist, and former the Head of Strategic Innovation for KPMG’s Strategy Practice teaches an entirely different approach: It’s the ability to adjust your strategy, almost constantly, that brings success. The environment is uncertain and changing, and changing with it is vital.

Sid teaches that we must push for more and evolve from one approach to another.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with him about his new book, The Caterpillar’s Edge: Evolve, Evolve Again, and Thrive in Business.

 

Prepare for Constant Flux

Why a caterpillar?

The caterpillar evolves many times over before it becomes a butterfly. It changes form until it turns into a completely different species. The caterpillar teaches us the wisdom of constant and incremental evolution and offers the promise of flying.  To compete, to advance and to win, in our businesses and in our personal lives, we must evolve constantly and purposefully, always.

 

“Things do not change. We change.” -Henry David Thoreau

 

How is the game changing? And how do leaders prepare for the constant flux?

Innovation is constantly approaching from every corner of the world. The speed of change fueled by unprecedented technological advancements and constantly increasing customer expectations are challenging companies to “stay relevant” – competitive advantages are temporary. The game has changed from, “How do I gain an advantage and defend it?” to “How do I change to stay relevant?”

To win in a state of constant flux, leaders must shift their minds and change their actions. First, by realizing their addictions (old assumptions, orthodoxies, biases, etc.). Next, by aligning with uncertainty – no plans can be permanent and no decisions are certain. Leaders must learn to live with probability and a portfolio of related plans – always ready to take the path that offers the most likelihood of success. They should also appreciate the reality of their capabilities and aim to build the future in increments; success cycles must be shorter and capabilities (people & systems) have to be created accordingly. Last, leaders must constantly look for the next advantage and aspire for more “Aha’s.” They should look for and discover the next challenge or opportunity, always; innovate, always (create new value), and evolve, always.

 

“To win in a state of constant flux, leaders must shift their minds and actions.” -Sid Mohasseb

 

How to Embrace Change

Why do we so often refuse to deal with change and uncertainty?caterpillar-cover

The refusal is more natural than intentional. We refuse to deal with change because of our fears of unknown (what is on the other side of change) and comfort with the status quo (comfortable routines we are used to and have served us well in the past). Most people embrace change when they i) realize the severity of the problem they face and ii) gain trust that what they can change to is a better state. We often refuse to change because we believe that the status quo does not present a major danger and/or we don’t trust the alternative paths offered by our leaders.

At business school and later at work, we are trained to look for certainty to plan to and execute against – assuming reduced risk. In our personal lives, we are comfortable living with probability and operating in uncertainly – there is a 40% chance of rain, and we decide, based on our risk tolerance, to take an umbrella or not. In our professional lives, we are expected to be certain and execute with confidence in outcomes. People, on a personal level, can innately adjust to uncertainty. However, they are reluctant operating with uncertainty at work because corporations expect and reward the illusion of certainty.

 

“The only thing that is constant is change.” -Heraclitus

 

3 Categories for Leaders to Plan in a World of Change

Why You May Need A Wicked Strategy

 

What do you do if you face a problem so complex that it can only be described as wicked?

Is it possible to confound competitors?

 

How Companies Conquer Complexity and Confound Competitors

John Camilius, author of Wicked Strategies: How Companies Conquer Complexity and Confound Competitors outlines a number of ways that managers can handle the most difficult problems. Camilius is the Donald R. Beall Professor of Strategic Management at the University of Pittsburgh.

 

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” -Winston Churchill

 

For those who don’t know your work, what is a wicked problem?

In the early seventies, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, two professors of design and urban planning, recognized that there are certain problems that are not amenable to resolution by traditional, accepted problem-solving techniques. They evocatively labeled these problems as “wicked” and identified ten distinguishing characteristics. Ten characteristics are difficult to remember, and over the years, I have whittled them down to just five.  If a problem displays these five criteria, you can be pretty sure you are facing a wicked problem.Wicked Strategies John C. Camillus

The first characteristic is deceptively simple and requires some thought:  Is the problem one that is substantially without precedent, something that you have not encountered before?

Second, are there multiple significant stakeholders with conflicting values and priorities? You need to go beyond the traditional big three stakeholders—employees, customers and shareholders.  Non-government organizations, multiple layers of government, creditors, communities in which you are located, political parties in power and out of power are all becoming more significant and demanding.

Third, are there several causes and are they interactive and tangled?  For instance, the future of social media is driven by a complex brew of technology advancements in hardware and apps, changing demographics, evolving social and cultural mores, government regulations, privacy expectations, geopolitical developments, educational practices, disposable income, and economic and social mobility.

 

“If we don’t change direction soon, we’ll end up where we’re going.” -Irwin Corey

 

Fourth, there is no sure way of knowing you have the right answer. Another way of phrasing this is that there is no stopping rule—you can continue searching indefinitely for a “better” answer.

Fifth, the understanding of what the “problem” is changes depending on the “solution” being considered.  In other words, the problem and the solution are interactive. For instance, entry into a country that does not permit foreign multi-brand retailers might be accomplished by creating a cash-and-carry model for small retailers or by being a minority partner with a local retailer or by entering an entirely new business employing a distinctive competency such as logistics. Each of these responses to the wicked problem of accessing the huge purchasing power of emerging economies’ populations creates a wholly different set of issues.

A note of warning may be in order. In the public policy arena, the wickedness of problems is hard to overlook. Problems such as immigration policy, violence against women, religious fundamentalism, and public education are overtly wicked. In the business world, however, the thing about wicked problems is that though they can show up anywhere, they are likely to be perceived as “tame” problems.

Wicked problems are certainly more common than most managers realize. Not recognizing that they were facing wicked problems, I believe, led to the dissolution of Westinghouse, the demise of Polaroid, and the decline of Kodak, RadioShack and Atari. Though wicked problems can occur anywhere, it is more likely than not that you will encounter wicked problems if you are a public company, operate globally, and are in a technology-driven business.

 

“Every threat to the status quo is an opportunity in disguise.” -Jay Samit

 

3 Megaforces Challenging Business

You talk about 3 megaforces that are challenging business. How do these trends help create wicked problems?

While there are a variety of forces and environmental factors that can create wicked problems, over the years I’ve identified three forces that are widely experienced which, in concert, are a major source of wicked problems. They are: the inevitability of globalization, the imperative of innovation, and the importance of shared value. The first two forces are well understood. Shared value, which has been brought to the attention of the managerial world by Michael Porter, is the notion that social benefit and economic value are synergistic. It also raises the issue of the appropriate sharing of value across diverse stakeholders.

The interactions of these three forces create strategic challenges that combine to create wicked problems. For instance, innovating to meet the needs of unserved, low-income customers across the world results—as the guru of disruptive innovation Clayton Christensen has affirmed—in disruptive technologies that can upend industries. Innovation also creates changes that differentially impact stakeholders, creating the likelihood of conflict between stakeholders as the organization transforms. The extreme complexity and uncertainty embodied in the global economy coupled with the conflicting priorities of multiple stakeholders creates unknowable futures. This roiling cauldron of disruptive technologies, conflicted stakeholders and unknowable futures is what spawns wicked problems.

I like to illustrate the interaction of these forces in a Venn diagram.

unnamed-1

Three Mega-Forces and their Strategic Challenge

These three forces can interact to create wicked problems in any context. Of course, other environmental forces can also breed wicked problems, but I have chosen to focus on these three because they are so ubiquitous and powerful.

I believe there are business contexts or “industries” that will be breeding grounds for wicked problems. Health, software, information technology, fossil fuels, water, automobiles, and public transportation are prime examples. Technological innovation, drastically changing regulations, geopolitical developments, and changing notions of social responsibility make these industries particularly prone to encountering wicked problems that demand that firms develop and deploy wicked strategies. 

 

“The human spirit is to grow strong by conflict.” -William Ellery Channing

 

How to Deal With Uncertainty

7 Corporate Strategy Myths That Are Limiting Your Potential

7 Corporate Strategy Myths

Dr. Chuck Bamford’s new book, The Strategy Mindset, is a practical guide for creating a corporate strategy. Having read more books on strategy than I can remember, I particularly like this one. As I read the book, there were times I found myself arguing with the author. At other times, I was nodding. Still at other times, I found myself with immediately actionable ideas to improve the process at my own organization. And that’s why I enjoyed the read so much.

I think the most controversial part of his book is likely the myths section, where he takes apart existing myths of corporate strategy.

 

“Strategy is about making decisions that will impact the company in the future.” -Chuck Bamford

 

1. People Are Not A Competitive Advantage

Let’s talk about the myths.

First, you say that people are not a competitive advantage. You argue that almost all employees are interchangeable. Good employees are just “table stakes.” Is it not possible to have employees who, on average, are better than the competition?

It flies in the face of so many beliefs that it is just hard to accept. Employees are VERY important as the way that business delivers to customers. However, the moment that you actually believe that your employees are smarter than your competitors’ is the moment that your competitors will start beating you in the market. You have the same (or relatively the same) collection of amazing employees, capable employees, and poor employees as your competitors. All the HR processes in the world today have not changed that dynamic in companies. The employees that you have working in your company are a combination of luck (the biggest factor), HR practices, networking, and did I mention luck!

Bamford CoverI’m not trying to be divisive here, but most of your customers do not generally care (or if they care at all, it is slight) who takes care of their business needs as long as the needs are taken care of. This does not apply to every employee in a company, just most. At every company I have ever worked with or for, there is a contingent of “franchise” employees. Those are employees who, if they left the company, would impact the success of that company quite substantially. We all know who these folks are, and if executives are smart, they take care of these employees to ensure that they stay with the organization. These “franchise” employees are not just the customer-facing employees; they reside throughout an organization.

 

“Employees are not your competitive advantage.” -Chuck Bamford

 

2. SWOT is NOT Strategy

Second, you are not a fan of the SWOT. What’s wrong with the way most organizations use it?

SWOT is the single biggest impediment to doing real strategy that exists, and it exists because certain big consulting firms continue to use it with their clients, and it makes clients “feel good” without really having to do strategy.

SWOT was an attempt to bring some structure to the topic, and as a conceptual approach, it is still fairly robust. Unfortunately, many authors, academics, and practitioners decided that SWOT was an analysis tool and a means for a company to develop its strategy. SWOT is NOT strategy, and it is not an analysis tool.

Anyone can create a SWOT. It is grounded in your own biases and view of the world. In the end, a SWOT is simply the opinion of the person or group filling it out.

 

“SWOT is the single biggest impediment to doing real strategy.” -Chuck Bamford

Why Winners Take Risks

 

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with Tom Panaggio, entrepreneur, strategic advisor, speaker and amateur race car driver about taking risks, winning, and using failure to propel success. Tom is the author of The Risk Advantage: Embracing the Entrepreneur’s Unexpected Edge.

 

The 2 Big Advantages of Risk

 

“A leader who accepts risk is setting the stage for long term success.” –Tom Panaggio

 

Why is risk an advantage?

 

There are two big advantages to risk.

First and foremost risk is directly connected to opportunity.  Every opportunity must have an element of risk or there will be no benefit.  Risk is the cost of opportunity.  All businesses and organizations must be in a constant state of forward progress because of competition and the ever-changing demands of customers.  Therefore, as an entrepreneur or business leader we must continuously seek out opportunities to meet these demands.  A leader who recognizes the vast importance of forward motion for their organization accepts risk as merely a cost of opportunity and then actively endorses this philosophy throughout his business in setting the stage for long term success.

Secondly because most people have a tendency to avoid or minimize risk, those who have the courage to embrace it already have a competitive advantage.  For example my company was a non-stop marketer.  We knew that our competition was not willing to risk the investment in marketing to the degree that we were.  So we took advantage of their unwillingness to risk the marketing dollars and dominated our market space by out-marketing them.  We put ourselves in a position to win by embracing the risk of marketing.

 


“The only way to achieve success is to have the courage to embrace risk every day.” –Tom Panaggio

 

How do you encourage the appropriate amount of risk?

It is important to understand that my position on embracing risk does not advocate blindly engaging in any and all opportunities regardless of the potential outcome.  But the only way to achieve long term success is to have the courage to embrace risk each and every day.  With that said, there is no standard to determine what level of risk is appropriate, and there is only a blanket rule of thumb that can be generally applied.  That’s the great challenge of being a business leader: recognizing worthy opportunities.  Any opportunity that is void of a sufficient benefit or is described as “no-risk” should be avoided.  Each situation that requires one to embrace risk must be evaluated on a unique basis.

If pressed for an answer, I would say that we always start with the end to determine if this is an opportunity worth pursuing.  What is the reward or benefit the company receives from committing to this opportunity?  If an opportunity provides little reward or doesn’t help with the company’s forward motion, then we limit the amount of risk.  If the opportunity can change the competitive landscape for the company or increases the value your product or service has for your customers, then the level of risk increases by the potential return.

Everyone wants a formula or template they can apply to all business situations.  That shifts the responsibility from the business leader to the formula.  But in the end, business leaders need to rely on their gut intuition and have the courage to step outside the comfort zone.

 

Adapting A Winner’s Mindset

 

How do you adapt a winner’s mindset?

This is really a difficult concept to grab hold of because human nature is pushing us to play not to lose rather than to go for the win.  A study was done and it found out that most people get twice as much joy from not losing as they do from winning.  Lose aversion creates risk aversion: “I don’t want to lose what I have.”

My father was a basketball coach so from a very early age the idea of winning was a way of life. I was conditioned to want to win and, therefore, not only to think like a winner, but more importantly ACT like a winner, which means having the internal drive that says, “I want to win” and then focusing on preparing for competition, execution and moving forward.

 

“If you do not have a winner’s mindset, odds are you will not succeed.” –Tom Panaggio

 

The truth is business does not support the theory of, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.”  In business you not only better play the game right, but you have to win, too. Competition in business has no level of compassion, you either want to win and then act like a winner or you get eliminated.  So if you do not possess a winner’s mindset when you launch a business, the odds are you will not succeed.

 

Using Failure to Succeed

Gain Competitive Advantage Through Servant Leadership

Photo by Matt McGee on flickr.

Twitter continues to amaze me as a way to connect with interesting people from all over.  Months ago, I met Bill Flint and we began a conversation.  Bill is the founder and CEO of Flint Strategic Partners based in Indiana.

Recently, Bill poured his thirty-eight years of business experience into a book on one of my favorite subjects:  servant leadership.  Bill sees servant leadership as a way to distinguish a company.  In fact, the full title of the book sums it up well:  The Journey to Competitive Advantage Through Servant Leadership.servant leadership

I’ve previously written about the characteristics of servant leadership.  Bill’s book includes his own definition and his unique perspective of this type of leadership.

I decided to share a conversation with Bill about his experiences and his work. I liked Bill’s thought that competitive advantage is like a journey, not a destination. And servant leadership is one way to help you on the path.

Bill, your book is filled with wisdom and information for developing leaders.  Let’s focus on just a few areas.

If you want to be a great leader, you need to watch out for certain temptations.  You share six areas servant leaders need to guard against.  Walk us through these areas and why they can trip up aspiring leaders.

  1. Self-Centeredness: Is when the most important person in your life is yourself. All of us struggle with self-centeredness at times. We are born selfish. A good example is to put a couple of two year olds in one room with one toy and you will see it in action. As a leader, self-centeredness says to your people, “It’s all about me, my accomplishments, my title, and you are here to serve me.” Leaders never really fool their people as they can see right through us. Self-centeredness can destroy the chance leaders have for real meaningful relationships with their people and for achieving the results the business needs. People don’t expect perfect leaders, but they want leaders who are real and care about them.
  2. Sense of Entitlement: Is when you believe because you have a title you are special and should be treated differently than others. You are #1 in your own mind.  Servant leaders put their people first. They realize people (the ones who do the work every day) are entitled to have a leader who will lead them with honesty, caring, integrity and encouragement. A sense of entitlement usually leads to destruction. Just ask the Enron executives and Dennis Kozlowski former CEO of Tyco and so many others who have fallen into the “it’s all about me” trap.