About That Winning Streak…

Winning streaks are both essential and dangerous…know the difference. 


How important are winning streaks?

A winning streak is a great thing.  It shows consistency.  It shows advantage. It shows careful attention to detail and general focus on the win.  It may even show talent.

But winning streaks are also dangerous. Just as anyone who has ever played a sport will tell you, a winning streak creates immense pressure within some individuals and immense complacency in others, and sometimes it’s hard to tell who is who.

In the business world, a winning streak might looks like a streak of closed sales against a main competitor. It might look like a streak of earnings increases over prior quarters.  It might even look like a streak of successful product launches or talent acquisitions. Streaks come in all shapes and sizes.

As a strategist, I argue that streaks are important in a few ways.


They build credibility where none may have previously existed.  Human minds are really complex but sometimes awfully simple; show your board or your organization a stream of small wins, and they will get it, but show them a string of wins broken by a string of losses, and they will wonder what you are getting at.  In most change efforts, a focus on early and visible wins is a core element.  There’s a reason for that…the wins build credibility.

Streaks also create attraction.  People like to bet on a winner, so it’s great to point to wins when attracting talent or wooing that next acquisition.

But streaks have a downside, and that has to be managed.  I’ll put it in the same two categories that I mentioned at the start of this post:

First, streaks create pressure, both individually and organizationally.  Why?  Because who wants to break a streak?  The downside of this pressure is that it can lead to ethical lapses because the streak must be maintained.  “We never lose” is a very dangerous mantra because it comes with the implication that we either never really challenge ourselves or we play the game in such a way that it is rigged to our advantage.

Second, streaks engender complacency.  I happened to be a part of a global firm during the last economic downturn. Many, many individuals in that firm had grown up as the recipients of a built-in winning streak.  The phone rang, and there was work to be done. However, as the economy changed, many had to suddenly learn how to sell, and a few weren’t very good at it.  Their complacency was complete.

The implications for all of us on this topic really do vary. I’ll try to put a few out there:

If you are leading change, be sure to find ways to create a streak or two. Credibility can depend on it.  Have the discipline, for instance, to leave some low-hanging fruit for others to capture vs. doing it all yourself.

Also, be sure to capture your winning streaks, celebrate them, and use them as strategic tools for talent attraction and relationship building.  Taking a moment to reflect on a streak can be powerful in almost any circumstance.

If you are in the midst of a streak, be sure to test for corner cutting or ethical lapses when the streak is uncannily extended. So, do you have a business unit that has never had a loss?  Check for whether they are burying their talents or their skeletons in the name of earning their bonuses.

Finally, if you are part of an organization that has never had a significant run of bad luck, then take the time to force the “what if” conversation and to build the contingent skills now.  It’s a bad thing to be the guy who has been sitting pretty for years based on a high tide, but who is now grounded and without the skills necessary to get unstuck.

Your career may depend on it.

Technology – Putting the Cuss in Customer Experience

Why technology is indirectly stressing our customer service experience


The other day, while waiting for my prescription to be filled, I was subjected to one side of a heated phone conversation. A clearly frustrated lady was yelling at some poor person over the phone because her credit card had been denied; after several minutes, it transpired there was in fact nothing wrong with the card. As consumers, our expectations these days are high and our patience is low, and the same situation is also evident in the workplace. How many times in the last week have you heard someone complain about their job or their coworkers?  Happy workers seem to be the exception rather than the norm.

That got my brain ticking. Why is this, and what does it all mean?

I believe that technology is the root cause. Let me elaborate.

The prevalence of technology in our lives means that we are always ”on,” and this drives the expectation of instant results with minimum effort. Heck, you can even order a pizza with an emoji these days—pepperoni is only one click away. The speed of life in the developing world is beyond warp.

At the same time, we have become increasingly preoccupied with ourselves. Much has been written about the “me” culture and the incredible sense of entitlement that prevails. Social media has fueled this, providing an outlet for our narcissism and validation that the world does indeed feel we are worthy. This has to have an impact on our levels of tolerance and patience.

So there you have it—empowered consumers who expect instant, high-quality products and services; if they don’t receive them, they will let everyone know, and then take their business elsewhere.

Now let’s look at the business side. Thanks to technology, the pace and level of competition are now at record levels in many markets, and to stay afloat, businesses often have to become lean and mean. This inevitably means employees have fewer resources, greater workloads, and pressure to deliver.

What’s the impact?  You have to believe this affects levels of customer service. And do you see where this is going? Disgruntled employees meet demanding customers—it’s a powder keg.

So what can we do?  I believe there are small things we can do. As a consumer, a little empathy can go a long way. If you encounter a frazzled employee, instead of sharing your mind, share a few kind words, maybe wish them a pleasant day. If nothing else, it might just blow the person’s mind. As an employer, remember that your employees are human too. Small, genuine acts to show your appreciation can do a lot to build trust and loyalty. For example, a monthly pizza lunch can do wonders for team morale. And don’t forget, that pizza is only an emoji away.

What do you think?  Share your comments.

What Poor Days Teach Us

Our poorest days help us appreciate our best ones.


Last weekend, I had the opportunity to watch my mother cook a large pot of soup for my kids and me while my wife was out of town visiting friends. Always the creative cook, my mother essentially concocted a vegetable soup out of a motley assortment of aging-but-good vegetables, leftovers, and other ingredients scavenged from our pantry and refrigerator.

It was excellent.  It was creative. The kids even liked it.

But, something she said to me while cooking it struck a nerve for me.  

As she combined ingredients that I suspect I and many of my contemporaries would not have envisioned as fitting together (the soup included approximately 5 different kinds of beans, but wasn’t a bean soup, folks…) she looked up at me and said:

“You only appreciate this kind of soup after living through some poor days.”

While we both chuckled at the comment, it had the weight of reality.  I won’t go into gory detail, but will say that the poor days referenced were real, and that yes, they do make you appreciate even the little creative things in life.

And, I think there’s a lesson in that for all of us.

We all have poor days.  Yours might not be financially poor days, but they might be emotionally poor, spiritually poor, or poor in other ways.  Maybe bad weather is as poor as you have ever experienced, but you’ve still experienced it.

In our professional lives, we have days where people let us down.

Days where customers call in angry.

Days where our boss or our board doesn’t get it.

Days where people are hurt on the job on our watch.

Days where we have to fire people, or we get fired.

Days where sales aren’t where they need to be, and neither are margins.

Days where it’s time to shut the whole operation down…and we do.

In other words, we live through poor days…All of us. Still, the poor days can lend rich experience.  They can enhance your sense of goodness, and your sense of performance.

When I sit and think about the best days I’ve had as a professional, I know for a fact that they were the best days because I went through some bad days to get there.

Just as I wouldn’t appreciate the taste of my mother’s soup if I didn’t understand the creativity–borne out of a few episodes of deep necessity–that brought it to life, we all have to use our poor days to improve our ability to perceive our best days.

 I don’t (and won’t) go so far as to say poor days are a blessing.  I will say that the experience and perspective poor days provide very much is.

Now, it’s your turn… If you’ve made it this far, take a moment to leave your mark here by leaving a comment.  What do you think? 

How Rogue Can Work For You

Sometimes, independence is the best policy.


Allow me to indulge in a little bit of personal storytelling to make what may be a useful point.

22 and a half years ago, I made a commitment to leave a small town in lower Alabama to head to college at Stanford University. In that day, before the internet, I had barely known what “Stanford” was when the football recruiter first came calling; I literally asked him where it was on the map. As a somewhat highly rated football recruit with a modest national profile, I was known to Stanford more than Stanford was to me. When I made that commitment, a little-known fact is that I received hate mail from my South-loving neighbors…some of it mailed anonymously, some of it sounded off in newspaper columns. My favorite was a column in the Birmingham news that ended with “somebody said go west, young man, and Geoff Wilson did.” It was a tough decision. It’s one that I still to this day don’t fully grasp how my 17-year-old self made. The easy choices were right there (Alabama! Auburn! LSU! Florida State! Tennessee!).

I went for the “total package” that was Stanford–academics, athletics, weather, diversity of thought, and, above all, teammates who seemed to be interested in being more than only ground-pounding hunks of meat. Very, very few people understood my choice. My high school football coach, after hearing (from me) that I had committed to Stanford, simply responded with “I figured that…”


20 years ago, I had a life-changing experience on the football field. I had one leg collapsed and twisted in one of those awkward ways that leads to reconstructive surgery and contemplation of one’s future athletic life. It didn’t put me off the field permanently–I missed a season and then was a starting tackle in college for a couple more years followed by a sip of coffee with an NFL club after “recovering.” But, it did blow my confidence in some ways and either physically or mentally cost me a step or two. Physically or mentally…which one, I’ll never know, but it was just enough.

14 years ago, I watched my maternal grandmother take her last breath. A sharp, spitfire (she would say “shit-fire”) of a woman, she ended her life unsure of her surroundings and probably glad of it–I doubt she would have liked the nursing home. She had rescued my immediate family and multiple other wanderers from crisis, she always had a pot of something cooking on the stove (just in case somebody dropped by), and she would not hesitate to, ahem, tan a hide or two. Watching her take a final few gasps was formative.

5 years ago, I went through a rending and private self-evaluation and made a choice to leave a prestigious and altogether fantastic global professional services firm (that I still like and respect today) while on the cusp of partnership. I can still hear the “no, no, no” admonition of a firm partner and friend when I said I’d made that choice.  I was in search of more than I thought that firm could offer in terms of long-term stability, so I went corporate.

3 years ago, I lent moral and physical support as I witnessed a very close 40-something family friend lie on a hospital bed in my mother’s living room slowly choking to death during a brief and brutal fight with lung cancer.

2 years ago, it all came to a head in two ways, almost mystically but doubtless coincidentally.  First, I faced a choice of staying corporate and doing, as far too many corporate types do, what I was told to do because it would mean more money. This choice came to me in such a way that my own purposefully transparent values and aspirations were challenged in multiple ways.

Second, during the somewhat agonizing deliberation over how to consider that choice, I had the experience of being the first good Samaritan on the scene of an awful one-car rollover crash on an interstate highway in Alabama.  The driver, with his young son and their cat in the car, had gone into diabetic shock and run off the road at 70 miles per hour.  As my wife and I saw the dust cloud ahead of us and saw the small SUV rolling multiple times, she called 911 while I shouldered our car and sprinted (as it were) to the scene.  The boy and cat were fine–the driver was not.  As the only person on scene, I was magnificently ineffective.  I clawed and wrestled to open the driver-side door of the upside down SUV only to find…finality.

It put my personal dilemma about “corporate or not” into stark relief at a time when such contrast was probably best needed. I faced the choice of either doing–in the misguided words of another colleague “whatever it took” to be a good corporate player or, in the words of a senior executive I worked with intensely for years, “going rogue.”

I chose rogue.

I think without the formative experiences of a few broken dreams (dammit, I was going to play in the NFL for a long time) and witnessing a few times how we all end with broken bodies (thank you, Chuck, for admitting that the best part was “knowing how you would go.”), I couldn’t have done it.

I think that anyone reading this has areas of life where rogue is right. It might be in work, health, or family, but choosing to go against convention can be exceptionally agonizing but altogether rewarding.  Why?

First of all, there is a binding pressure on so many of us not to be creative.  Wait, what?  Yes. The pressure to be as uncreative as possible–to be proles in somebody else’s totalitarian society–exists.  That can come at work, but I’d argue it also comes in civic society–churches, service organizations, and government.  When you are presented with choices and asked not to think them through–especially when you are scorned for thinking them through–you are facing this sort of pressure.

Conventional thinking comes from doing what you are told, not what is thoughtfully considered.

Second of all, there is a subtle but extremely strong force that holds us in thrall with the herd.  It’s known as “risk.” We view departing the herd and thinking on our own as risky. In fact, many corporate, civic, and church cultures are founded on the notion that people must be trained to feel worthless if they are disconnected from the whole. But it’s just not true–some of the most world-changing observations and decisions have been made by people who ignored the risk of solitude and actually did things.  Do you think Martin Luther ran his ideas by the hierarchy?

I’ll riff for a minute on this second one, because it is an area in which the world has actually changed for the better over the past 10 years or so.  In decades past, individuals attached themselves to firms for the promise of stability. The social contract was that people who did reasonable work didn’t get fired; they were part of the firm.

That all changed during the rise of corporate restructuring and overwhelming (but in many cases necessary) focus on shareholder value.  The baby boomer generation (my parents) walked right into the maw of this reality during the ’80s.  Lifetime employment was no longer real. Defined benefits were gone.  The social contract had changed.

But people’s behaviors did not.  They still joined companies with the thought that the company was entering into a contract with them…to the extent that they would eliminate their own professional voices and outside-the-firm career development options in favor of being “all-in.” I’d argue that such was the case until about 5 – 10 years ago.  The younger generation has gotten wise to it, although not entirely.  The world has changed.  Nowadays, it’s easy to source and sell talent on the open market, and firms play less of a role in the matter.

For young professionals, this means that “what’s in it for me” amounts more to the immediate experience and pace a role in an organization offers vs. merely a “job.”

For talented professionals with a longer and strong track record, this means that the only reason to sign one’s life away to a corporation is that that corporation has committed to an explicit contract with that individual (I’m talking ink and paper–verbal contracts are basically meaningless even when you have recorded the conversation, trust me).  The only other reason I can think of is if the talented professional owns equity in the corporation.

So firms like yours and mine are left with three basic value propositions for the people they employ:  Professional development for younger people to increase their employability within your firm or somebody else’s, ownership of your firm so that they can enjoy the longer term fruits of their labor, or a contract that offers some risk sharing.  That’s what we can offer to today’s “roguish” workforce.

That’s it: Professional development, ownership, or a contract.

But that brings you to the realization that for seasoned, talented people, an employment contract without equity is essentially a consulting contract. So, then what?  Well, the short answer is that in today’s economy, unless you’re an owner or are receiving an out-sized investment in your own professional development, you’re a consultant anyway.

Might as well admit it.

That is the biggest change in the past decade: Senior talent can finally find its own level outside of the politics and impracticalities of a firm structure, and younger talent clamors for more professional development sooner than ever.  It’s the truth. And, the only people I know who lament “their people’s” newfound ability to go get a better deal are people who think that people they employ are “theirs” in the first place.

I’ll offer a couple of implications.  You might already see through my story above and say it’s totally anecdotal. To that, I say guilty.  But still…

For the individual: This article is a long way of saying that life is short.  We all end up the same way…broken.  Once we (that’s you) have invested the time and effort necessary to build an exemplary track record, we might as well have the self-respect to exercise our freedom to choose.  Choose where and with whom we spend our time and efforts, and how we are compensated for the risk we take.  Let’s choose, at least occasionally, to be creative.

For the corporate manager:  It’s important to realize that in today’s environment, exceptionally talented individuals are going to look for ownership or a contract that looks a lot like it.  As a corporate leader, be sure to investigate the benefits that the new epoch of highly talented free agents brings to you and your organization.  Oh, and because you do employ people (just as I do), remember that the contract is different now…  people are looking for an employment value proposition today and not simply a career.  Almost no organization can credibly offer a career anymore, so you might as well offer a value proposition that extends employees’ capabilities immediately vs. promising something in the future that may or may not happen. So, go beyond hire and fire. Consider sourcing talent in a more flexible model.

No matter where you stand, rogue can work for you.


The Bias That Kills

Commitment to one’s own correctness is a dangerous thing.


On some level, we all want to be right.

We want to be right when it comes to our basic values.  We want to be right when it comes to picking a political candidate.  We want to be right when we root for a football team.

Our minds have a need to be right.  And, that’s ok.  It’s a way that we cope.

But stemming from this desire, a bias exists out there that is the absolute killer of executives and strategist of all walks: It’s the very real bias toward confirming of one’s beliefs.

I won’t go into depth on the issue, but suffice it to say that confirmation bias is a real psychological phenomenon.  We like data that says we are right, and we (as a rule) dislike data that says we are wrong.  It makes us uncomfortable.

Cases in point:

Many confirmation biases exist in personnel decisions.  We like people and it can blind us to their performance.  I once worked with a manager who had a very strong opinion about placing a particular person in an important role.  The executive viewed the placement idea as creative and nonconformist, and, in a highly collaborative manner, asked the candidate’s prospective team members about whether that particular placement would be a good idea.  Unfortunately the feedback wasn’t good.  To a person, the team gave negative comments from the aggressively passive “do whatever you want” all the way down to the directly negative “terrible idea.”

Instead of taking that advice, however, the hiring manager changed the game.  They decided to go ask several more people…people without a direct stake in the decision, and those people, of course, praised the creativity of the “idea” of the hire. The manager, probably not knowing that ego was driving the search for confirming evidence, felt free to make the placement. And the decision ultimately cost untold dollars in organizational support, coaching, and botched decision making, not to mention the friction of frustration in the team that come with dealing with a less than competent team member sponsored aggressively by the boss.

This sort of bias exists in business strategy as well. When we have a good idea about a market, we want to know that the idea is good; we seek validation.  I once worked days, nights, and weekends on a project to build a massive production facility in southeast Asia.  The economics of the facility were bad, the technology the facility depended on was unproven, and,the leadership team was marginal at best.  Behind the scenes, executives viewed evidence that the technology “might” work as highly validating, even in the face of the dominant perspective that it “probably wouldn’t” from the same engineers. In spite of a massive set of evidence that the project should be shut down, the company flushed more than a hundred million dollars into it just because its leadership team said it would work.

These cases provide the micro and the macro of this particular bias…  it’s a bias that kills.  It kills teams when people maintain commitments to non-performers they simply like and validate constantly.  It kills shareholder value when projects are not stopped when the evidence says they should be.  It kills careers when people seek a rationale to stay with a really bad role in a really bad company or under a really bad leader.

We search for confirming evidence, even in the face of massive contradictory evidence.  It might feel off color to say so, but this is the realm of battered spouses who won’t leave their mates; they always find reasons to stay.  Only it’s also the issue of highly “successful” executives who can’t for a moment believe that they might have been wrong yesterday.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.”

In other words, when we foolishly stick to our guns in the name of commitments made yesterday or the day before, we avoid the ability to explore whether we could be great.  This is not a call to avoid commitment. It’s a call to avoid the pressure your ego places on you to stay with bad commitments.

It’s a call to avoid being “little” in a leadership sense.  It’s a call to be big.

Stop, reflect, and be willing to admit…even just for a moment…that you might be wrong.

Come On, Feel the Noise!

You need a little noise with your signal to spice up your life.


Do you use services that depend on your prior “likes” and “dislikes” to serve up suggestions to you? You know, like Amazon, Pandora, or other eerily perceptive services that depend on your input to provide you with tailored experiences?

Do you think that those services depend on serving up only what you want, and not a few things that you might want?

Of course they don’t.  They may know you like Bruce Springsteen, but occasionally throw in a little bit of Bob Dylan.  Why?

Just to see.

Just to see what *might* be the boundaries of your likes and dislikes.  And, besides, if they only served up a steady helping of exactly what you likethen your life would get more and more limited, and more and more boring, to boot.

And, there is a lesson in that.

In order to find the edges of our capabilities, we have to step outside of our comfort zones.  We have to create tests of our boundaries.

We have to, in short, introduce noise into the system.

Now, all my highly structured, management guru, six sigma worshiping friends are saying NYET!  Variability is a bad thing.  I want what I want, when I want it.

Well, sure you do, but how do you know you are getting what you really want?

There is a “thing” in the physical world known as “Stochastic Resonance” or SR, for short.  SR is a phenomenon whereby the introduction of noise to a system actually amplifies the ability to see the signal.  The signal stands out more because of the noise, not without it.  Just like when we use Amazon’s suggestions, we can find what we really like by virtue of introducing a steady stream of things that we might not clearly like.

The signal gets clearer.

And, while I’m leaning on examples that have to do with consumer marketing, this type of thinking has applicability to strategists everywhere.  We in business have been brought up in systems that point to noise as a bad thing.  People who don’t do exactly what they are told are bad employees.  Financial performance that is noisy is bad financial performance.  Manufacturing processes that have variability are bad processes.

These are concepts that are near and dear to the hearts of management scientists everywhere.

Minimize uncertainty.

Create systems that minimize thought and choice.

Plan the economy.

Only, a strange thing happens on the way to technocratic nirvana…we scare out the entrepreneurship.  We scare out the little variances that create or illuminate opportunity.  We–in full thrall of the arrogance that we can create systems that know all–remove the ability for a little bit of idiosyncrasy to add to our lives.

So, what does this really mean?  Well, let me offer a few ideas.

  • For teams you lead…introduce new perspectives.  You have a team of engineers?  Bring an artist to a meeting.  You have a team of bankers?  Bring an operations guy to the room every now and then.
  • For you as an individual…Try something new.  You like playing golf? Try poker.  You like finance?  Spend a few weeks working on a marketing project.
  • For your organizations…find it within yourself to encourage a few more experiments.  Give your organization some leash and see what it can create.  Sponsor people.
  • For your organizations’ external relationships…find a way to create more of them.  Test partnerships.  Date more.

With a little bit of noise, you might be able to more clearly discern opportunity.