For over a decade now, corporations have been seeking to understand how to better prepare themselves against the onslaught of technology firms spreading their way into nearly every sector, from banking to real estate to retail. They created incubation groups, acquired startups, sought to create a “culture of innovation.”
Strategy lasts. Derived from the title of ancient Greek government officials charged with rallying resources to fuel military campaigns, refined in China, then ported back to the West by Napoleon, the science or art of coming together to agree on a goal, and the method to achieve it, is an activity that like farming or governing or writing poetry distinguishes human from animal.
I can do it in my sleep. Four years at Wharton, two at Columbia Business School, and a few more in investment banking have drilled into me the most broadly used tool that guides corporate decision-making: the financial projection.
Last Wednesday, in a suburban New Jersey warehouse converted into conference space and a cooking show set, I joined 80 managers assembled to discuss their company’s strategy. We had helped design the two-day experience and were at the point in the flow of the off-site when we hoped we would hear some new, breakthrough insights.
I have been repeating myself for a decade. In each of the 1,000 or so workshops and keynotes I have delivered over the past ten years, I have repeated some version of the refrain, “Do what customers love and competitors won’t copy.”
The artist who aims at perfection in everything achieves it in nothing.
- Eugene Delacroix
In the late 1970s, Kevin Allen was sitting in a boardroom about to deliver some bad news. His client, Mastercard, would surely not respond well. But Allen is masterful at understanding markets. He understands one core concept that separates good brands from great ones. If he could get Mastercard executives to embrace this counterintuitive secret, he would set the company on a decades-long streak of wins against far larger competitors.
We have this notion that innovators come up with a big idea and then sell it with passion and influence. We imagine Steve Jobs, who was known for having a “distortion field” around him. He could walk into a room and convince everyone that the iPhone was going to change the world and as a result, because everyone was moved to believing it, it did in fact change the world.
Organizations that have all the money, talent and technology in the world are struggling to innovate with deadly consequences. Why?
- They get real comfortable
- They take it nice and slow
- They stop caring about those pesky customers
It’s happening weekly now. Someone – a client, reader, expert I am interviewing for my next book – mentions the need for a more agile approach to strategy, an approach that allows us to react more quickly to unexpected opportunities and threats.
It’s been 15 years and I still vividly remember the moment when one of our very first clients killed off a multi-million-dollar idea. They were a leading global logistics company, getting excited about the opportunity to operate shipping ports. The conversation heated up, the possibilities … the brilliance … the potential!