In praise of the anti-curator

Every organization needs a little bit of time and talent to stop, look, and notice what is going on.

Geoff Wilson

I had an interesting discussion with a friend recently that sparked a thought.

My friend is preparing for a 500-plus mile solo hike on the Camino de Santiago.  A veteran of these sorts of hikes, he explained to me that his mode of walking was to be fully aware of his surroundings…meaning he didn’t listen to music or indulge in other distractions along the way.  He related a story about a prior long hike that involved a companion who had a similar philosophy of situational awareness.

That companion, he explained to me was a great noticer.  He related how she found a wild orchid on the path that he (claimed) he would never have noticed because it just wasn’t in his nature.

And, that brings me to the thought…

Our modern, western, techno-lives deliver us into a fantastically automated and increasingly curated world.  Our privilege is the ability to put our heads down, focus on what’s directly in front of us, and miss everything else around us because the systems around us are designed to deliver to us the typically right answer or the safe answer.

But, it’s not always the fulfilling or creative answer.  It’s the closest-to-the-pin, least likely to hurt answer.  I wrote on this a couple years ago in a post entitled Come On, Feel the Noise! where I wanted us all to question whether infinite stability is a good thing.

That’s because curators (and by this, I mean anybody feeding you information based on what typical people do) have to have some “typical” data stream to go on.  And their data stream is highly dependent on what others did.

Curators, in other words and to extend from the hiking story above, are the path.  They cannot leave the path.

Sometimes, you need to ensure you have a few noticers around you.  These are people who appreciate that you are following a path, but who have the presence of mind to watch out for the occasional uplifting opportunity that might branch from the path.  They are the ones who actually illuminate the road less traveled.

They are, in a way, anti-curators.  They break the “typical” and push you to see what might be outside of your inertia.

Maybe you need a few anti-curators around you.

What do you think? 



Two ways to grow in the new year

If you want to grow this year, do these two things.

I confess, this entire new year thing has gotten ahead of me this year.  I thought it was December and now it’s January.

The new year comes with a sense of renewal.  It comes with a sense of burying all that was “bad” last year and focusing on what we want to succeed at this year.  Only, I think that for most of us that is a totally broken approach to growth–whether growing a business or growing a career or growing a skill-set.  We tend to set resolutions that we know we will break. We stretch only to settle back into our old habits before long.

So what is a person to do in order to win in 2018 (which is right now)?

I’ll offer two things that work for me, and that I think can work for most any executive out there.

First:  Focus on the strengths that you can deploy today.  Sure, sure…you know how to find your strengths. You probably have a winning smile and a wonderful personality, but what if nobody is looking or listening?  You have a problem.  You have the same problem if you have a great product in the pipeline that won’t get out until Q3.  It doesn’t matter that you have the perfect strength “coming.”  What you do with what you have today is what matters. So, focus on what you can do…right now.

Second:  Listen to your weaknesses. This is extremely hard for most executives to do–especially those who have mastered the spin of their “greatest weakness” being simply a strength in disguise (you know the ones: they always have an answer for how their weakness isn’t really a weakness). Like it or not, most executives (not you, but people you know) got where they are by sidestepping their weaknesses, not by confronting them head on.  I’m not saying “shore up your weaknesses,” I’m saying listen to them.  Find ways to grow from what you learn about your weak supply chain, or your weak sales force, or your (personally) weak communication skills.

Building on your deployable strengths and learning from your present weaknesses might just be your recipe for “better” this year…which means better right now.

Just to show that none of this is new (you didn’t really think it was, anyway), I’ll leave you with a fantastic lyric that implores you to focus on these two objectives. It’s a piece of the song Anthem by the late Leonard Cohen.  Take a moment to read it:

Ring the bells that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack, a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.

As you blast into this year, think about the bells you can still ring–now. Forget about the perfect strength–focus on what you have today. And, perhaps most importantly, find the light that comes through the cracks in your armor by listening to your weaknesses.

That’s how the light gets in.

Happy new year!

Strategy like an immigrant

Strategy has to be a synthesis of old and new.

I spent the weekend with my daughter walking around New York City.  The city is a great one. It is, at its best, a fantastic combination of culture, ethnicity, language, foods, and styles.  While walking the Lower East Side, a thought come to mind, and I’ll do my best to develop it in 500 words or less.

U.S. political leaders like to romanticize the United States of America as a “nation of immigrants.”  We have heard this platitude so many times over the past several decades (JFK first published his book by the same name in 1958) that it has attained a sort of knee-jerk validity in everyday discourse.  Our guide on a short walking tour loved to allude to this notion.

But, the notion is actually very wrong.  And we are worse off for using it.  I’ll try to articulate my simple version of the truth, and what it means for any American business leader.

Here it goes:

We are, at our worst, a nation of conquerors.

We are, at our best, a nation of builders…a nation of synthesizers.

Our country is built on conquest. You may not like that notion but it doesn’t make it less true. Our most pervasive mindsets are built on conquest. Our most polar political ideals are based on “mine” and “not yours.”  Almost since the founding of the country, we have reveled in ideals of “winning” meant only as “doing it our way.”

But, what makes us great is synthesis.  When it comes to what really made our country great, it’s building from introduced parts.  It’s assimilation in the best sense of the word. It’s not merely coexistence or “tolerance” (a fantastically risky word), but symbiosis.  It’s immigrant Jews on the Lower East Side patronizing immigrant Chinese restaurants during the high holidays…if you will.

To be a little more tongue in cheek, it’s Mexican Pizza.

So, we have to build with full recognition that we have the conqueror’s ethos that permeates our country.

What’s the message here for a blog on business strategy?

It’s this:  In your business today, you have a way of doing things.  You have systems, processes, approaches, value propositions, cultural elements, and memes (in the traditional sense of the word) that drive your business.  Your strategy can be to either “conquer” or to “build.”  You can either take “who you are” and “what you do” and apply it to all situations old and new; or you can search for piece parts to assimilate and synthesize into a higher order of success.

This might mean forgetting some of what you knew.

It might mean inviting in new perspectives (and actually listening to them).

It might even mean looking at competitors you’d previously want to conquer as potential collaborators.

If you do strategy like an immigrant, you do strategy as synthesis.  You make better out of a few pieces of really good.

Now, I’m going to go have a bagel with ham and cheese.



Business strategy and big brother

Sure, you know big brother is watching you, but is your business strategy watching big brother?

Geoff Wilson

Bombardier woke up this week to a 220 percent tariff on its high end planes, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Commerce.  The news was a blow to the company’s share price, and probably a bigger blow to those who depend on the company as suppliers and workers.  The background and justification for the tariff are beyond the scope of this post, but it brings to mind a question:

How does your business strategy take into account moves by big brother? You know, big brother…that’s shorthand for the all seeing, all knowing State with a capital S that encompasses all the regulatory regimes your business has to contend with at any point.

Capital intensive industries seem to be the recipients of constant regulatory scrutiny because, well, they are capital intensive–marginal revenue makes a LOT of difference there.  It takes a lot of time and money to bring a new airplane to market, or a new car, and it usually costs very little to make an incremental plane or car compared to the development costs.  Examples are everywhere.

China has been very clear on impending goals for electric cars within its borders.  California is getting in on the game, too.  The Trump administration has been unabashed in its willingness to push for new tariffs on lumber, steel, solar, and the aforementioned airplanes, among other things.

You may look at this and think “thank goodness I’m not competing in these markets,” but you probably are.  You just don’t know it. That steel maker buys machinery, parts, labor, and other things on many of the same markets you do.  It may be your customer if you sell software, services, or other goods.  The changing regulatory environment for one company or sector has knock-on effects in others.  The business–and regulatory reality–of your customer is very often and very much your business, whether you like it or not.

So, you are not in a vacuum. Your local car wash operator has regulatory burdens that can change over time. So do you.

I have focused on trade regulation here, but taxation and business practice regulations (a good place to start with that one is the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act) matter a lot as well.

How does your business strategy take into account the regulatory pressures that big brother can bring?  Where are there opportunities or risks in those pressures?  How do you prepare for them?

What do you think?  Does your strategy account for the whims of big brother?


Welcome to the real, messy world

Like the real world, real business isn’t as simple as you’d like it to be.

Geoff Wilson

I’ll confess, I’m a bit of a strategy junkie. You don’t have to be one to do what I do, but it helps. However, if you read my writing much, I hope you come away with a sense of the practical bent that I bring to the topic. The real world is the real world. Just as any engineer will tell you that lab scale processes rarely translate directly to production facilities, financial and strategic models rarely reflect reality—at all.

The below image was shown at a recent annual meeting of a private equity firm we have the privilege to serve. It shows indexed revenue and EBITDA performance over the life of a fund’s portfolio. Each line is a portfolio company. Lines that trend upward are green. Downward lines are red.

Keep in mind, this is a top-performing private equity fund. Returns for this portfolio were excellent. What do you see? The real world.

Each of those lines depicts the outcome of an actual business. It’s the result of some management team’s hopes and dreams. Those businesses were probably planned using relatively linear models and margins. But what you get is actual sausage making. And I’ll say it again: This is a top-performing portfolio.

The real world is sausage making. Real business comes with randomness, particularly in companies that are working to make things happen.

If you consider it failure that some parts of your portfolio might not stay in lockstep with your linear growth expectations, you probably don’t understand the nature of risk taking and enterprise building. You might be more comfortable investing in CDs.

The real world is messy. This is good to keep in mind when you’re futzing with a financial model that implies a precision that your business outcomes will never achieve.

What do you think?

Accelerate decision cycles to increase competitive advantage

The pace at which your organization makes decisions may outrank the quality of your choices.

Geoff Wilson

Imagine you and I are playing a game. The type of game doesn’t matter, but assume it requires taking turns or possessing a ball. It could be innings in baseball, possessions in soccer, or even turns in a basic game like checkers.

Now, imagine there’s a wrinkle: I get two turns for each one of yours. I get to make two moves in checkers for your one move. I get six outs per inning in baseball against your three. I get the ball twice for every possession you have in soccer. Here’s the question: Can you win?

I don’t think so—at least not consistently. If I get two chances for each move you make, and if I get to work from basically the same information you have, my probability of winning is greatly enhanced. This example may seem absurd, as you’d likely scoff if I dared propose such an unfair contest. But it’s analogous to how some companies handicap (or, conversely, advantage) themselves.

Strategic decision cycles are too often internally driven

Companies the world over operate as if their internal decision processes are all that matter. They do annual strategic planning, quarterly account planning (if they’re lucky), and maybe monthly resource planning. For many of these companies, big decisions—such as introducing a new product line or building a new plant—can take years, while seemingly small decisions—hiring a new salesperson, for instance—can take months.

Their decision cycles are internally driven—even when managers know that the outside world is moving faster than their own company’s internal cycle. This pace lagging restrains opportunity in the best cases, and paves the road to ruin in the worst cases. The worst cases are when the world is rapidly changing, or a shifty attacker emerges in the market.

Fast decision cycles are advantageous

We all want to make good decisions, and doing so requires reasonable deliberation time. However, if you are caught in a scenario where your competition is able to make decisions faster than you can, your slower-paced good decisions eventually won’t matter.

Why? Because the organization that can multiply its capability via a faster decision cycle will have a substantial advantage in avoiding risks and capturing opportunities. The company that moves through decision cycles faster than its competition—the one that can make multiple decisions while the competition makes just one—is an advantaged organization.

For decades, Toyota has been constantly lauded for its production system, but its product development system is only occasionally celebrated. Toyota captured substantial share in the 1980s by introducing products and product refinements on a development cycle that was significantly faster than its competition. This system gave Toyota a major advantage over the slower pack.

One could argue that Tesla is doing the same thing in today’s market with its “platform and upgrade” approach to auto ownership. In some ways, Tesla is able to operate inside of its competition’s decision cycles.

So what? Cycle faster!

Companies with faster cycles are advantaged. Such advantage doesn’t eliminate failure, but it increases the probability of success (and of killing off failures quickly) to overwhelm missteps. Would you rather be a baseball player with a .500 batting average who gets two at-bats per game, or a player with a .300 batting average who gets to the plate six times a game? If you’re playing for hits, you want to be the latter, not the former.

Fast cycling allows you to multiply your force. It enables you to disrupt and dismember the competition. Done well, it allows you to lead—even with less talent, capital, and “perfection” than larger, slower competition.

But beware the alternative: When your competition is inside your decision cycle, you are going to lose—eventually. If you drive at a tempo slower than your competition, you might find yourself on the slow road to oblivion.

What do you think?

It’s All About the Experience

Why a great customer experience matters, even if you’re selling widgets


With the advent of digitalization, our experiences as consumers have reached a whole new level.  You know exactly when to turn on the porch light for the pizza guy, you can have Fluffy’s kibble delivered to the same porch the next day and you can even get insurance quotes from a cockney reptile from the comfort of your favorite arm chair.


Yet when you look at the customer experience in business-to-business, especially for industrial products and services, it’s like stepping into the dark ages.  Websites often function as a product brochure, with a white paper thrown in here and there.  While it’s true that decisions in this area are more rational, decision-makers are still humans and they still appreciate a great experience.  They are the same individuals watching their pizza progress from the oven to the delivery guy and this shapes their expectations of a great customer experience.


I’m not just talking about digital experiences, either.  eCommerce platforms can come with a hefty price tag and steep learning curve, but there are other elements of the experience that don’t. For instance, good old-fashioned analog elements, like following up with a customer to see if they are happy with their solution.


In my role as an insights expert, I interview many business decision makers.  If I had a dollar for every time poor customer experience came up as a pain point, I wouldn’t be typing this from the middle seat at the back of the plane.  This includes the basics like not returning phone calls, messing up billing and not communicating when there are lead time issues.  It’s all about being easy to do business with.


The good news is that there is a lot of upside potential.  So if you are looking for a differentiated value proposition, take a good look at the experience at every customer touch point.  Your customers will thank you.

Strategic synthesis: The art and corruption of brevity

Pithy management insights have their place—and their perils.

Geoff Wilson

I dig synthesis. I mean, I really enjoy enlivening concepts by making them simple and direct. You say, “I want to have the best service, best product, best operations, and the best brand.” I say, “You want a delighted customer.”

See what I did there? Same concept, synthesized. But synthesis is a Goldilocks proposition: too much and you get burned; too little and you’re left cold. Take the above example. Is it sufficient feedback? I’m not sure. That mostly depends on the leadership team receiving the synthesis.

I know some leadership teams that would take “delighted customer” and turn it into a map of service, product, operations, brand, etc. And I know other leadership teams that would hear “delighted customer” and knuckle down on their customer service function. It’s obvious, right? Customer service is the function that delights customers … right? Wrong.

That’s where synthesis is dangerous. Excess synthesis make you pithy. Pithiness is useful in some contexts. Look at the typical internet meme and you’ll see pithiness writ large. But go too far down the pithy path and you end up at pithy’s dangerous neighbor: glibness.

If synthesis is a beautiful red wine, pithiness is a wine cooler, and glibness is a nasty bottle of Boone’s Farm. Dilettantes guzzle Boone’s until they suffer the consequences. Boone’s is cheap, shallow, and insincere—just like a glib statement.


To wit, I’m struck by a meme that recently passed through my LinkedIn feed. It depicts Simon Sinek and a quote about hiring attributed to him:


This statement epitomizes glib, dangerous advice. Would you select your surgeon based on demeanor? Or choose a mechanic based on attitude? Of course not.

The advice is so extremely context-driven as to be useless. It’s not pithy, it’s shallow—glib, even. Such thinking may apply to the most basic entry-level or noncritical jobs, but adopting the same philosophy to hire your CFO would not only be moronic but could also put you in jail.

While I’m not trying to disparage Sinek—I don’t even know if he approves of the use of this particular quotation—I am denigrating truthiness in management advice. Sinek, I suspect, may know better. Synthesis is an art of the highest order. It delivers precisely what you need when you need it.

Pithiness is an art, too, but it’s a corruptible one. Pithy bullshit sells. But that same pithy bullshit can also get you in deep trouble. Leaders, strategists, managers, and people of all sorts must be skilled at hearing a pitch, proverb, or proposal and searching for the bones beneath it.

If I tell you to “delight your customer,” you may be able to find the full skeleton of a well-built customer-value proposition. At that point, I may have done my job. But f I tell you to “delight your customer” and you then zero in on only the customer service function, I haven’t done enough. I’ve delivered you a wine cooler when you actually need more wine.

If Sinek tells you to hire for attitude and then teach skills, and you rightly ask how that works when hiring senior software engineers, you have properly looked for the bones that were never there. You’re calling bullshit on a tidy, pithy, pseudo-synthetic glass of glibness. Think Boone’s Farm.

Such swill is from the bottom shelf of management thinking—just like a $2 bottle of “strawberry-flavored citrus wine” (a description that sounds like the recipe for a bad hangover). You can live with a wine cooler now and then, but if you’re swigging Boone’s Farm, you’re in for a rough awakening.

What do you think?

The Commodity Paradox

Why serving commodity markets could be a great opportunity to differentiate.

If you work in B2B marketing, chances are you have heard or even uttered the words ‘It’s a commodity market. We’ll never make any money’. Yet in all my years in consumer marketing, I don’t think I’ve heard the ‘c’ word once. Think about it. Grocery store shelves are creaking with products that at the base level are commodities. Take milk, for example. It doesn’t get more basic than that, yet look at all the options – different fat content, source, packaging type, shelf life, flavor. They’ve even figured out how to get milk from an almond.
While there are many differences between B2C and B2B marketing, notwithstanding the size of budgets, there are some things that B2B marketers can learn from their consumer-focused peers.

1. Know your customer
Consumer marketing companies spend millions of dollars each year keeping up with their customers. You may not have a huge research budget, but having a deep understanding of your customers/potential customers is critical if you want to differentiate your offering. It goes beyond knowing what’s important to them. The answer to that is almost always ‘price’. You need to scratch beneath the surface to truly understand their decision-making environment, motivations, experiences and pain points. They may be operating under the constraints of their organization, but the key to identifying and unlocking true value is through understanding your customers as humans versus organizations. This will allow you to develop and communicate offerings that resonate.

2. Think outside the widget
Consumer marketers also remember that there is more than one ‘P’ in the marketing mix. You may be manufacturing widgets, but your customer probably doesn’t think in terms of widgets. They are trying to get a job done and if you are armed with an understanding of their world, their challenges and what they value, you can sell them a solution to their problems instead. So if their job is to keep a production line running, you could, for example, offer ‘guaranteed up-time’ through a maintenance and repair package. If they value speed and convenience, online ordering and expedited shipping may get you ahead of the competition. Concerns over a retiring talent-base could be addressed through instant tech support for less experienced employees etc. etc. There are many levers that you can pull outside of the product itself

3. Sell the value – consistently
Once you understand your value proposition, every customer touch point should support it, consistently. McDonald’s and Starbucks both sell coffee. However, the retail environment in Starbucks probably makes you feel better about blowing $4 on a cup of joe. If you are selling the value of speed and convenience, having someone available to answer the phone promptly is probably a good idea. If you are selling technical superiority, ensure your most knowledgeable staff are in front of customers and arm them with the appropriate skills to identify the needs and sell the value accordingly. As an example, in order to compete in the over-crowded arena of IT services, IBM pulled PhD’s from their R&D team and put them on sales calls, then began to offering PhD brainpower to solve customer problems.

This is clearly not easy, otherwise there would be a lot fewer commodity markets. It takes a different mindset, a lot of confidence and an appetite to invest for long term growth, underpinned by a commitment to executional excellence. However, if you can crack the code, there are almost certainly customers out there, willing to pay premium for a product or service that makes their life easier.

So are you ready to be a Fruit Loop in a world full of Cheerios?

Benchmarking – how do you measure up?

How benchmarking can leave you on the bench


A few weeks ago, my family and I took a trip to the beach. We arrived in the middle of a monsoon, so I parked quickly in an empty row and dashed into the hotel. The next morning, I looked out of the window and saw, with a mixture of amusement and embarrassment, that I had parked at a significant angle. Not only that, but five cars to the left and two to the right had done the same. My parking faux pas had changed the rules of the game.

Measuring ourselves against others is an inherent human trait, at both a personal and business level. It’s basic risk avoidance. But our choice of comparison could lead to sub-optimal decisions.

When we compare ourselves, we make assumptions. Firstly, as in the case of my parking, we assume that others know what they’re doing. They may not. For example, just because a company is the market leader, it doesn’t mean they excel at everything. They may also have made a conscious decision not to invest in an area on the basis of its perceived strategic importance. Website development for large industrial companies is a case in point.  To them,  the website is often viewed as a company intro as opposed to a key touch point and sales channel. It doesn’t mean it’s not an opportunity for others, though.

We might also be comparing ourselves with the tallest midget, meaning that the entire industry falls short.

Looking at others in the industry is not a bad thing.  It’s the basic tenet of market intelligence.  But challenging the status quo or looking outside our industry could also lead to significant opportunities.  Take Xerox Corporation, for example. Several years ago they were dissatisfied with their their order-fill rate, so they looked at online apparel retailer, L.L. Bean. Turns out they were 3 times more proficient at moving items from inventory to the customer than Xerox.  A visit to  L.L.Bean’s facility helped them understand why and take away ideas that they could replicate.  I hate to reference Apple, since it’s what everyone does, but I was intrigued to learn that their Genius Bar is apparently modeled after the Ritz Carlton’s guest service. Having recently waited 30 minutes just to pick up a new phone, I’m not entirely convinced they’ve nailed it, but they did check me in and remember my name.  No fluffy slippers or mints, though.

So next time you are scanning the horizon for comparisons, think twice about where you look and consider a different direction.

How about you…how do you think about benchmarking as a strategic tool?