Really smart people try to do too much, and that makes them look stupid

Why the proliferation of initiatives does not make you look smart, motivated, or aggressive.

Geoff Wilson

“I have too much on my plate.”

You probably hear that from people occasionally, but you rarely if ever actually hear it from the highest performing people.  And that’s the problem this post is about: When smart people try to do too much, it makes them look stupid.

If anything, one old management adage is “if you want something done, give it to the busiest person in your organization.”  Why?  Because, well, the busy people are the ones who are always finding a way to get things done.  And there’s a ton to like about that platitude.

But, as with all platitudes, there’s a ton of insight left on the cutting room floor. If you want something done, find someone who is smart, focused, and motivated.  Sure.

But if you really want something done well, find someone who is smart, focused, and motivated and then help them manage their workload appropriately. Smart, motivated people have a really hard time saying no to things.  And smart, motivated people often have a view of others that leads them to think others should be as smart and motivated as they are (and therefore have all the capacity they have).  This leads the smart, motivated, and overcommitted leader to proliferate initiatives ad nauseam.  

And that reality leads to big problems as you promote your smart, motivated people up the chain.  The problems look like executives who take on too much, and consequently ask their organizations to take on too much.  It looks like endless lists of initiatives, all running concurrently.   It looks like a mess of execution because everybody is scrambling to do too much.

And finally, it looks like really smart, motivated people experiencing failure as leaders because of the very virtues that got them to their leadership role in the first place.  Being smart and motivated leads some managers to take on too much, which leads to point failures in execution or in organizational leadership, which leads to the manager looking stupid.

The solution if this is your peccadillo?  Find that sounding board who will help you focus on the critical few things that matter and drive the organization to them.  Unfortunately, in an age where “more is better,” all too often those sounding boards have the same incentives as you do as a manager: To recommend more and bigger, not less and better.  If you can find an adviser or mentor who helps you know when to slow down and focus on fewer things, you’re already ahead of the game.

What do you think?  How do you find a way to ensure you don’t take on too much? 


How to keep culture from crushing progress

Big ideas aren’t enough to change things. You need powerful sponsorship.

This anecdote has played out more times than reruns of the original “Star Trek” series, so bear with me as I set it up.

The situation

Geoff Wilson

A highly motivated, energetic, experienced new hire is brought into the organization as an agent of change by the business unit’s president. The new hire is brought in because she thinks differently and has rich and relevant experience in organizations that look the way her new organization’s president and leadership team say they want the business unit to look over the long term. She is the poster child for effective organizational change leadership in appearance, word, and deed.

The new hire does what all highly motivated, experienced hires do: She gets to work. Carrying the president’s imprimatur by virtue of being hired, she starts propagating new ways of doing things—perhaps on processes like project management or in performance areas such as pricing or cost efficiency. She’s driven. She’s smart. She’s organized. She’s logical. She’s practical. She is, quite possibly, right.

The president of the company, sensing the strong glow of a great hire, lets her “do her thing” without guiding or intervening. After all, that’s what great leaders do: They let great people go “do their thing.” Right?

The organization’s leaders quickly sense a world of pain coming from changes to the ways things have always been done. The changes aren’t necessarily bad—just different.

Fast forward to a year later. Our motivated change agent is watching the clock. She’s waiting for 5:48 p.m. every day (that’s just late enough to not signal that she’s thrown in the towel). Her great ideas sit on white boards and in documents across the organization. But progress has been slow. She’s figured out that the organization really didn’t want all of her resume—just a few parts. Her job is easy. Her life is hard.

The leadership team, having figured out that she had no power in the first place, decided that the change agent’s recommendations, while smart, were too painful for them to implement. They have marginalized her through passive and deliberate pseudo-compliance and back-channel opting out. When one functional leader delays participation with good reason, the rest simply follow suit.

The president has entertained every grievance. By making backroom agreements on who needs to comply and who doesn’t, he has undermined the change agent—unintentionally, but still.

The organization likes her. But, hey, “Those great ideas could never work here.” And besides, the president sure didn’t seem to mind that key leaders opted out.

The president wonders why there hasn’t been more traction on his new hire’s ideas, but in reality, he just likes the fact that the business unit is performing well this year and that everyone will achieve nice bonuses.

The change agent polishes up her resume.

When our once-motivated, now-crushed change agent leaves for greener pastures, the organization gives itself a self-righteous pat on the back. See, they were right all along.

The change agent and the president (if he is a person of vision and integrity) wonder what happened.

Here’s what happened

First, the president quickly moved from a position of obvious sponsorship (he hired the change agent, after all) to a role of spectatorship. He removed the most important tool in his change agent’s toolkit: the lever of executive sponsorship.

Second, the change agent—armed with the confidence that her ideas would work and work well—fell into the trap of idealistic pursuit vs. practical and pragmatic progress.

Both have ignored the practical realities of power—call it influence, pull, or realpolitikThey misjudged the power of an organization’s culture to reject even the best ideas in favor of the status quo. They let the organization and its culture crush a valuable addition to its midst.

Don’t kid yourself: Culture is heavy. The weight of any organization’s culture will crush any change agent.

So what?

There’s no such thing as a “fire and forget” change agent. The agent—whether in the form of an initiative team or a seemingly heroic individual like our anecdotal new hire above—must have real power.

In any change program or worthwhile process, there comes a point in the organization’s journey where the broad population realizes that change is hard. They have an “Oh, shit” moment. At that moment, there must be enough momentum and felt need (or other sources of power) to move the change forward. Otherwise, change won’t happen.

In turnarounds, the momentum and felt need is easy. Either we perform or we’re gone. The change agent can drive change with that implication alone.

In improvement situations, the reality is far more nuanced. Going from good to better is hard. Really. How often do you see people who are in great shape make a New Year’s resolution to get in better shape? Not often. They make choices that diversify their focus vs. intensifying it. They want to spend more time with their kids, take up art, or shoot for that promotion at work. Their health is secondary because, well, they already have health.

That’s the problem with change in organizations performing “OK” or, especially, performing great but in an unhealthy manner (a diversified business with a few bright spots that carry the portfolio comes to mind). The organization—convinced it’s “doing alright”—sees the change as an annoyance. This is especially true in the absence of a transparent agenda. And that’s where power comes in.

Executive sponsors and change agents have to agree on the source of power that will ensure the change. And they must follow through on it!

The agenda must be explicit and have teeth. The change agent has to be able to walk into any room with the full blessing of power, and with a ready set of implications for non-participants and opt-outs. But the change agent should never have to articulate them!

For the other leaders in the organization, opting out must be a visible, deliberate action that is advertised to the highest levels of sponsorship. Opting out has to have consequences. Or else, why bother?

Practical points

Cognitive dissonance being what it is, human beings aren’t wired to admit that they individually are the problem. Chances are, you read the anecdote at the beginning of this article with a real notion of who the victim was, and the victim probably looked a lot like you. The reality is that all parties in the anecdote hold responsibility. So, here are some things to do about it:

  • Sponsoring executives have to stay engaged and deliver their positional and personal influence through their change agents. Tell the organization that the agent has power and why. Never, ever leave that communication to the change agent. Define—honestly—the agenda the agent is working to implement. And, for goodness’ sake, don’t undermine the change agent by entertaining back-channel grievances and allowing one-off deviations from the plan without explicit, advertised, and good reasons. Sponsor the right behaviors through influence or force.
  • Change agents need to clarify the source of their power. Can they state in a short sentence what would keep the organization from opting out? Are the power dynamics such that the change agent is set up to fail? Remember: Idealism is great, but not sufficient. Just going and doing a good job is not enough if the power structure isn’t in place.
  • Group or organizational leaders have to own and explain their priorities. To be sure, there are myriad good reasons—ranging from timing to talent—for opting out of change initiatives. Handled transparently, these reasons can be managed well. If handled passively or through backroom deals, however, opting out sends a signal to the rest of the organization (that doesn’t have such good reasons for it) that opting out will be tolerated and accepted. So, why bother?

If you deploy change agents, be sure to back them with enough power to make them effective. Practice sponsorship, not spectatorship. Define your agenda. Lead. Clear the way.

If you’re a change agent, be sure you have enough power through sponsorship to achieve what the organization expects you to achieve. If you don’t have it, get it. Can’t get it? Move on.

What do you think?

Doing hard things means good things for business

Managing core tasks is important but expected. Greatness lies in facing true challenge.

Geoff Wilson

We spend ample time in strategic discussions talking about challenges and how to overcome them. Challenges exist within the market, organization, product development, sales, and myriad other business strategy topics. The conversation then turns to incentives, and it all gets muddled.

Things get murky because we often confuse the incentive to overcome a challenge with the incentive to “look like you’re doing something.” And that’s where this conversation gets very personal.

I know people who have worked their entire lives on straight salary (or even hourly wages) who will risk their jobs in the name of doing the right thing or simply taking on a new challenge. That is hard.

I’ve also known individuals who have had tremendous financial incentives—amounting to multiples of their salaries—whose go-to moves were delaying and deferring decisions for the sake of prolonging their reign. That is easy. The difficulty lies in knowing both which person you are (a) led by and (b) modeling yourself after.

Most who know me know that I detest using chess as a metaphor for strategy. The game is too constrained. All the moves are mapped out. The board is obvious. Chess is tactics, not strategy, as I’ve previously written. However, the world of chess holds many valuable tools and ideas for strategy. One of those is the Elo rating system.

The Elo rating system was devised years ago to help predict player strength without requiring every player to play a series of matches against one another. The key to the Elo rating system is how strength points are traded. When a strongly rated player beats a weak player, the strong player gains minimal points, and the weak player loses minimal points. But when a weak player beats a strong player, the strong player loses many points while the weak player gains many. Accomplishment in the face of difficulty is highly rewarded, whereas flubbing the easy stuff is mightily punished.

This is your career in a nutshell. People are (or eventually will be) looking at the challenges you face and your relative performance on them. If you’re great at accomplishing things that should be easy for you, that’s fine and good. Now stop patting yourself on the back and find your next true challenge.

Few things are less compelling than a person who talks about their great work on low-difficulty endeavors. If you want to be great, do hard things well. This is true for yourself as an individual, and it is true for your business.

If you lead a business in a sector where table stakes include on-time product delivery, you deserve minimal credit for achieving on-time delivery—it’s merely expected of you and your business. Don’t bother to tout your “great” performance. Go find a way to deliver on time and redesign the product for future customer needs. You are fighting last year’s war. Move on to the next one.

If you’re a five-year professional who does a magnificent job of keeping a filing system in order, you (again) deserve little credit for getting it right. That’s expected of an experienced person. Find a more compelling challenge to solve.

As I noted in my example of executives seeking to extend their reigns, the chess world has struggled with the trend of highly rated players avoiding competitive play in order to protect their ratings. According to the previously linked Wikipedia entry, “…the rating system can discourage game activity for players who wish to protect their rating…”.

Knowing this, you want your reputation and rating to be fresh, so you have to think about your “masterful” self or organizational performance as having a rating that is in constant deflation since the last time you set the bar. And you have to evaluate your people in the same way. “Emeritus” is a title that should be awarded with grudging irregularity in today’s business world.

But here’s the real key to all of this: Be sure you don’t flub the easy stuff while you’re seeking that next big challenge. You must do both. Losing on product-delivery performance while you’re transforming your company is a classic “executive” example. Failing at basic time management while trying to do a bigger job is a classic “individual” example. They’re the kinds of things that get people fired.

Keep in mind, the more experienced you are—the higher your Elo rating—the less points you gain for doing things that inexperienced people do, too.

You want good things? Do hard things.

What do you think?

Mars, Resilience, and Resourcefulness

What do you do with what you have?


One of the cool parts about having a 13-year old homeschooled son is that I get to ride along for some of his lessons.  He is currently taking a class that revolves around watching a broad set of historically and ethically relevant films and reflecting on them.

Last night, the assignment for this class was to watch The Martian.  If you have not read this most entertaining book or watched the visually and emotionally stunning motion picture, you might be missing out on a really great science fiction narrative rooted in a very real approximation of real world scientific constraints.  But, that may be beside the point.

As I mentioned to my daughter this morning on the ride to school (she, one of our three non-homeschoolers), the lessons from The Martian are not only good lessons for a person who might one day be trapped on Mars.  They are very much real life lessons applicable in junior high or in the boardroom of the largest organizations.  They are lessons in resilience and resourcefulness…and they resonate.

Here are a few aspects that stand out from The Martian that just might save your life or career right here on earth.

First, things are going to go wrong. It’s how you respond to crisis that matters.  The main character in The Martian is a guy named Mark Watney (played well by Matt Damon in the film).  He is famously stranded on Mars after a confluence of events that make your head spin.  But, once faced with the reality of his situation, he takes stock of his situation–which is exceptionally dire–and gets busy figuring things out.  He, faced with a painfully narrow chance of surviving in a harsh environment, famously says “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this…”

We are all faced with times where we have to “manage the shit out of” bad situations. They can be immediate crises with clients or customers, or they can be the slow train wreck of a deleteriously competitive market.  Mark Watney’s example of reacting to reality is instructive.  Take stock, let the emotions work themselves out, then get to work.

Second, your resources are going to be limited, but often not as limited as you think. For me, the most amazing aspect of The Martian (and one that is far better fleshed out in the book) is its overt display of resourcefulness.  Watney is forced to confront his resource constraints in terms of power, water, air, food, warmth, physical strength, ability to communicate with the rest of the world.  He then goes about tackling, one by one, the constraints he has, and he uncovers new ways of solving his own problems. Without going into detail, I’ll simply say that Watney’s ongoing calculations of his resources form a centerpiece of the book, and his continual pressing against those constraints is instructive.

You and I are going to have to face constraints.  We can only make so many sales calls, close so many deals, and coach so many people in our organizations.  We can only spend so much capital.  It’s a fact of life.  But, many creative managers out there get more productivity out of their sales forces, work forces, and capital because they try. They don’t have to be Watney-esque, they just have to ask the question of whether constraints assumed are constraints for real.

Third, it helps to have moments to reflect…and a sense of humor.  This one seems easy, but it’s actually one of the best lessons for high stress professionals anywhere.  Watney is the king of the one liner in both the book and the movie; and he is the king of the reflective vignette that frames his awful circumstances in positive light.  In one instance, the character reflects on the fact that no matter what he does on Mars, he is the first person ever to do it.  And, that’s kind of cool.

Professionals anywhere tend to know the value of a moment of humor in a terrible circumstance. Gallows humor isn’t that hard.  What is hard is stopping for a moment and positively framing challenging circumstances.  Then, you get back to work.

Fourth–and I’ll stop at four–The entire book is a treatise on the need for resilience in problem solving.  If you aren’t failing, you probably aren’t working on hard enough problems, or you aren’t working them fast enough.  The Martian is a book about failure.  There are failures of systems, people, organizations, tools, and even imagination.  The book and film are so outstanding because of their display of resilient problem solving in the face of failure.  You get blown up by your improvised water generator, and you light that mother right back up.

Resilience is something that we are, unfortunately, breeding out of our culture. That is, perhaps, a topic for another blog sometime.  But, the fact remains that as our levels of professional, political, and social understanding narrow, we feel the buffets of perspective shocks far more than we used to. As professionals, we need to be resilient because the world changes.  We may not face life and death circumstances for our bodies, but our ideas may live and die constantly. Have the courage to keep going.  Have the courage and grace to allow your organization to keep going.

The Martian is about Mars.  And, it’s chock full of life lessons for us right here on Earth.

May we learn them.

How To Win The Bad Times

Winning in bad times starts during the good times.


It doesn’t take a much of a pessimist to suspect that the U.S. economy might be in for a reset if not for a recession in upcoming months.

I know, I know: Rates are low, the stock market is bubbly, the yield curve is normal, unemployment is at 4.6 percent, and the newspaper of record is saying that the current U.S. president is “handing a strong economy to his successor.”

In fact, things are quiet.

Too quiet.

We’ve survived for a long time on monetary stimulus pumping currency into the system, cheap debt underwriting everything from sports cars to sociology degrees, and a hefty entitlements-driven safety valve removing the discouraged unemployed from the workforce.

So, which is it?  Are we in the best of times, or the worst of times?

What do you think?

Regardless of my views on the macroeconomy (which are neither as good or as bad as I imply above…more on that some other time), I’m what you might call a micro-optimist.  That is to say that while Dickens may have described entire country economies in his tale of two cities, I actually subscribe to the notion that prosperity is exceptionally local…personal, even.

So, whether or not we as a populace face bad times, I’m a believer that you as an individual or as a business leader need not assume you are at the whim of the macroeconomy.  The best business leaders I have known are not victims of circumstance. They have through-cycle mentalities to prepare for great during bad, and to prepare for bad during great.  If bad times are looming, how do you win the bad times?

Then, if things are great, how do you have the mindset to ensure you will win during the bad times? Let me list 5 ways:

1. Ensure you win on the sales front. A rising tide lifts all boats, but it also masks a lot of foundering skiffs. If your sales efforts are doing less well in good times than they ought to be, then you have plenty to fix today. Is your sales force hitting its numbers on its talent, or on pure market beta and order taking?  If it’s the latter, then you’d better watch out when the order window line dwindles.  Go figure out how to generate and close leads in the good times.  It won’t hurt.

2. Put on your “tough times” service hat.  Yeah, I know…you are busy.  Times are good.  You may think it’s okay to ignore a few of those calls from customers or employees or potential partners because, well, you are making your numbers.  Let me tell you something:  People remember. If you want to claim that you are a high-touch servant leader, but you decide you have enough business now and don’t need to call people back after 5pm, then saddle up for a drought when the dry spell hits.  It won’t hurt you to call people back and let them know you are too busy at the moment to help.  Seriously.

3. Overinvest today in strategic marketing–to see the cracks. Without a doubt, the biggest recession excuse is “we didn’t see it coming.”  I’m not a fan of planning for recessions (or even predicting them) but am a big fan of understanding customer and end market sentiment through a hefty investment in listening. If the good times are upon you, your customers are happy, and your order book is full; it can be challenging to go ask customers or downstream buyers what they think.  It can be even more challenging to invest dollars to do so.  It won’t hurt to know whether ripples are coming.  Besides, your head in the sand–even when the sand feels good–is ignorance.

4. Take a minute out of your day to run a few scenarios. It’s an interesting facet of good times that they can cause us to stop thinking.  Still, plenty of leaders know which customers are already high risk, which facilities are already at the margin of the cost curve, and which products really aren’t cutting it.  What happens if you lose one or all?  Do you know?  What is plan b?  It won’t hurt to have a plan b.

5. Look at the market for talent.  Oooh, this one can feel scary. You as a leader should have a look at who is hiring (maybe even for you), and what kind of talent is bouncing around on the market. Have a few conversations with recruiters about where the activity is and where the softness is.  Know what kind of talent is currently in demand, and where there’s a glut. This can be both personally relevant to you (you may thank me one day, mr. or ms. executive), and professionally relevant to the quality of the team you build. Just because you aren’t hiring doesn’t mean you ignore the market for talent.  It won’t hurt.

There you have it.  5 ways to, perhaps, prepare for drought when the rain is falling.  In order to be great in bad times, you have to be great in the good times. It won’t hurt.

Go get’em.

Now, what do you think? 


Cheese, Change, and Cheyenne

Your signature characteristic as an executive will be how you respond to change.


Here’s a bit of verse for you, courtesy of country music legend George Strait:

She said, “Don’t bother comin’ home
By the time you get here I’ll be long gone
There’s somebody new and he sure ain’t no Rodeo man”
He said, “I’m sorry it’s come down to this
There’s so much about you that I’m gonna miss
But it’s alright baby, if I hurry I can still make Cheyenne
Gotta go now baby, if I hurry I can still make Cheyenne”

This post is about Cheyenne, and getting tangled up, and moving on, and dealing with unexpected change, and keeping on.

“Well, that didn’t go so well, did it?”

Have you ever had a meeting, project, job, or career move that resulted in such a polite evaluation?  Probably so. Things happen.  It’s how you react to things that will define your leadership profile and quite likely your career. It’s how you react to unexpected outcomes that will define you in front of your family, your friends, and your fellow professionals.

Life is full of surprises. Some of them are good, some of them not so good. We all have choices to make in how we respond to surprises.  Unfortunately, it’s human nature to do two things with surprises:  First, we like to take credit for favorable ones.  Second, we like to lay blame on others for negative ones.  These tendencies–taking credit and placing blame–are probably all around you, even if only in nuanced fashion.

How do we ignore credit and blame and just work to move on?

First, let me say that it’s hard.  A defining aspect of my role in the business community is that I have the opportunity to listen to many people who are in transition.  Executives are moving around all the time, and it’s easy to hear from them when your network is deep and your ears are open.  They really fall into two categories:

Category 1 transitioners are people who are focused on “why this happened.”  They fall into a cycle of diagnosis of what got them where they are.  They are focused on what they did right or wrong.  They get bogged down in blame and misunderstanding and pain. They find reasons that they were right and that others were wrong.  I’ve been there.

Category 2 transitioners are people who are focused on “what is happening next.”  They are the ones who recognize change for the opportunity that it is.  They work to define the next thing as quickly as possible. They get off the dime.  They move on.  They look forward. They hurry.

You want to know a little secret:  You don’t have to be an executive in transition to fall into these two categories.  You are in sales?  Fight to maintain a Category 2 mindset.  You are leading a company through a strategic change?  Yep… Category 2 is your ticket.  You are choosing a CEO to lead your company?  Look for Category 2 characteristics.

Category 1 people are caught in the credit/blame cycle–a perfectly natural but fully unproductive place to get caught. I won’t try to insult your intelligence beyond saying that Category 2 folks are the ones who are more successful in normal businesses and organizations.  They are also a lot more fun to be around.

They have a concept of what is possible next.

They have their Cheyenne in mind.

They are in a hurry.

Oh, boss, you don’t think it’s going to work out between you and me?  Ok.  I really liked it here, but I understand.  Gotta go now.

Oh, prospective client, you didn’t like my last and final sales pitch?  Ok. I have an appointment to make for later today if I can hurry.

This is not a post about surrendering and leaving at first difficulty. It’s about knowing how to move on when it is, in fact, time to move on.  I’m not saying have no memory or accountability for the past. I’m absolutely not saying what in the past does not matter.  I am saying that if you let it define you it will sandbag your next steps more than you’ll ever realize.

Author Spencer Johnson has sold 26 million copies of his famous book Who Moved My Cheese?.  The book is a parable about a couple of rodents who get too used to eating cheese that is in the same spot every day.  One day, the cheese is no longer there.  One rat sits still and frets.  The other?  It ties on the running shoes and gets going.

Change readiness (perhaps change openness) is a simple concept.  It’s also a concept that will define you for better or for worse.

Gotta go now, baby, if I hurry I can still make Cheyenne.

What do you think?

When The Spin Stops

Reality bites.  It bites a lot harder when you avoid it through spin and hyperbole. 


The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Theranos CEO and majority owner Elizabeth Holmes is under threat of major government sanction including a personal multi-year ban from the lab testing industry.

Holmes, a darling of the “unicorn” hype machine and a manufactured pop culture executive with outstanding political connections, has given every indication over the past 6 months that she is dedicated to a culture of spin to keep her venture going.

One need only look at the preceding and succeeding headlines of the piling on media tempest to see the realities of a spin machine undergoing a slow-motion train wreck.

First, the hype focuses on Holmes herself–she has an interesting story, and she makes for good press: College dropout, new technology, black turtleneck, mysterious company.

This Woman Invented a Way to Run 30 Lab Tests on Only One Drop of Blood” – February 18, 2014

This CEO Is Out For Blood” – June 12, 2014

Then, there is an expose’ about how the company’s technology might not actually work.

Hot Startup Theranos Has Struggled With Its Blood-Test Technology” – October 16, 2015

That is followed by the righteous indignation of the company and its founder.

Elizabeth Holmes Slams Theranos Critics” – October 21, 2015

But then people start to get wise.

The Cautionary Tale of Theranos: Beware Runaway Stories” – November 15, 2015

And individuals start to question the overall honesty of the enterprise and its founders.

How Theranos Misled Me” – December 17, 2015

Could Theranos Go From Unicorn to Unicorpse?” January 28, 2016

Theranos Sounded Too Good To Be True And It is” – February 2, 2016

Study of Theranos Medical Tests Finds Irregular Results” – March 28, 2016

Theranos wasn’t forthcoming” – April 14, 2016

Finally, as was published this week, regulatory authorities come into the picture, and in the case of Theranos, it wasn’t pretty.  In a tersely worded letter, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) officials basically told Theranos and Holmes that they are about to get the death penalty.

You can’t spin your way out of that one.  That’s when the spin stops.

So who cares about this?

Well, you should.  You probably work with people who aren’t exactly forthcoming about things that really matter.  You know them–they’re the ones who lead organizations by expounding on ethics but whose honesty and integrity are known to have more holes than Swiss cheese by those who have worked with them.

Those types have the cardinal virtue of likability, which ropes people in with narrative and story and can actually hold quite a portion of the world in thrall.  But narrative can’t overcome a lack of substance forever, and that is what the Theranos story shows.

The Theranos case also illustrates something more general.  Theranos is a high-profile, high-growth, “disruption”-oriented company.  Such companies come with a healthy dose of optimism because they are founded on the principle of swimming upstream.

But…there is a boundary in strategic thought that defines the difference between optimism and spin.  It’s the boundary between honesty and dishonesty and is usually defined by a few markers.

First is personality vs. performance – if you find that the focus of a business strategy is on the charisma and glibness of the organization’s leaders vs. actually confronting performance issues, you probably have a spin problem. A charismatic leader is a great thing, but it can’t be the only thing.

Second is story vs. strategy – if you find that the focus is constantly on getting your story straight vs. actually addressing the merits of the strategy, you probably have a spin problem. This includes an overweening focus on what not to show others (management, boards, investors, the press).  The more you have to artfully conceal–especially from fellow insiders–the more you are probably in the spin zone.

Finally is attacking vs. listening – If you find that your leaders, or the leaders you’ve hired, resort to the classic ad hominem approach when criticized, then you probably have a spin problem.  Somebody questions the numbers and suddenly becomes a “jerk.”  Somebody else brings up an issue with the logic of a strategy and is discredited as “academic.” Yet another person calls into question the sustainability of a company and simply isn’t around at the next meeting. They are attacked, whereas a sound culture listens and responds.  Elizabeth Holmes, in the case above, decided that it would be a good strategy to attack a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist at the Wall Street Journal as publishing baseless trip.  There’s a certain arrogance in that.

These markers all form the boundary between basic optimism (a good thing) and basic spin (a bad thing). They all demarcate boundaries between healthy and sick cultures.

If you look at the Theranos case, you can see failure on all three markers.

What happens when you look at your own culture?  What about your own leadership style?  What side of the boundary are you on?

What happens to you when the spin stops?

The Worst Strategy Metaphor in Use Today

Choose your business metaphors wisely, because they say a lot about how you view the world.



One of the minor annoyances present in the business world is the use of metaphors that are resoundingly misfit.

How often do we talk about “blocking and tackling,” or “moving the ball down the field,” or “hitting singles and doubles,” or going for the “Hail Mary” in our everyday professional lives?

How many times have you heard even these simple ones mixed up, as in “I think it’ll be a home run, but the boss keeps moving the goal posts…”

Often. Right?

But every now and then, a metaphor is used so often it becomes a paradigm that is dangerous.

The metaphor of business as a “chess match” is one of them; and I’ll tell you why.

Chess and chess matches, when viewed in the light of the complexity and ambiguity of the business environment, are purely tactical. Chess is tactics. I write this despite the existence of a body of literature suggesting that the preparation, staging, execution, and ultimately winning of chess matches amounts to exacting preparation for business leaders…Strategic nirvana.

I’d argue it’s analytic nirvana–necessary but insufficient for a strategic metaphor.

Alas, chess as strategy is a bad metaphor for business mortals. While chess allows us to illustrate the depth of analytic thought on an issue (the best masters of chess can see deeply into a match to judge moves and patterns); it lacks the breadth of conceptual thought necessary to be an active analog for business strategy.

Mastery of tactical depth counts for something, to be sure. But mastery of strategic breadth, on the other hand, counts for everything.

The issue is that we conflate the two…Badly.

The most magnificent Chess minds spend thousands and thousands of hours mastering tactics. They learn every potential combination of openings and defenses. They spend their lives immersed within the very box of patterns and potential moves that, for some reason, has become synonymous with “strategy.”

They do this, and yet they have been mastered by machines. Think about that for a moment, and you can start to see why the game is based on patterns and repetition vs. intuitive, virtuosic strategic brilliance. The mechanistic logic of chess is its own prison, and thus is the reason chess is a bad metaphor for business.

Allow me to create the mental image of business as a chess match, then you be the judge of whether it rises to the level of a sufficient strategic paradigm:

Imagine that you and I both agree to play in a business arena where we:

  • Start with the same resources
  • Agree to the same set of moves
  • Operate on the exact same game board
  • Disregard comparative advantage
  • Agree not to move pieces in any innovative manner
  • Operate in a purely zero sum environment
  • Keep all moves open and transparent
  • Avoid arbitrarily upgrading or switching out pieces for pieces with more power
  • Prevent the lowly from ruling the mighty (as in the illustration above)
  • Avoid outside sources of power, resupply, or leverage (i.e., capital, partnerships, brand equity)
  • Will on average play to a draw if we both play the game as well as it can be played (“…chess is a draw” according to famous grandmaster Gary Kasparov)

…and so on.

Are we now engaged in a strategic struggle for the ages?


We’ve chopped all the degrees of strategic freedom save two: Our experience and our intellect. All the real world strategic levers I’ve outlined above lie in the negative space of a chess match.

In short, once you’ve taken nearly every strategic variable off the table, you are left with a chess match. It’s two people matching wits. That, folks, isn’t strategy, it’s a contest. It’s a highly regulated, constrained caricature of real world strategy.

Chess is a closed system. Real world strategy is an open system.

Strategy is about exploiting means to achieve ends. The first means anyone exploits in a strategic contest is whether to play on the terms available. While chess matches do offer the option of a “surrender,” to do so is to incur a loss and to provide a massive advantage to one’s adversary.

A second, and very important means, is the means of overinvestment. Overloading a single point of weakness (or strength) at a single point in time is a key real world capability. Put a team together to go after a single customer? Go ahead, it’s the real world. Overload on a chess board is a sequential thing, not an instantaneous one.

Other strategy games offer exit and overload options (like folding or going “all in” in the game of poker)–limiting losses or allowing asymmetric bets based on early indications that the game is or isn’t worth playing.

These moves are analogous to real world actions. But, they aren’t really an option in Chess.

If business were such that one could simply study all the moves in history and play the next match, it wouldn’t be all that tough, would it? That is essentially what has happened in chess. If it were so in business, IBM would have developed the Deep Blue machine for business back in the 1990’s and we would all be working for IBM at this point.

That, my friends, may be the best evidence for the misfit metaphor: If a computer can outwit a grandmaster (and they pretty much all can at this point), the game is one of logic and pure horsepower; not one of strategy.

If it were a game of strategy, the grandmaster would unplug the computer first, and then ask it to make its first move–while smiling of course.

Add to all this the cardinal observation that properly played chess will typically result in a draw (as noted above) and you have a very dangerous metaphor for your organization (implicitly, if you play well and lose, you did something wrong…Not always the case in business and life).

So, what?

I write this not to split hairs, but to illustrate the importance of the metaphors we put in front of our organizations–especially during times of change. So many of the metaphors we use are quirky; but some of them are downright dangerous.

If we are to pursue an enlightened approach to strategy, then using metaphors that speak to openness, flexibility, and canniness are much more on point than those that involve pure intellect applied to closed systems that imply no loss as long as strict discipline is maintained.

The metaphors you choose say a lot about how you view the world: Do you view your organization’s business environment as a closed, zero sum game, or something different?

File this one under strategy, change leadership, and perhaps curmudgeonly explication (as if LinkedIn needs more of that).

Note: The current Carlsen – Anand world chess championship match inspired thoughts for this article. Though the game of chess may not be a good business metaphor, the drama of championship chess matches can be quite a thing to behold and study.

Geoff Wilson is a strategy executive focused on the articulation of practical strategic principles for leadership. He also harbors the specific indignity of blundering into a fool’s mate one time in the 7th grade. He has just started a Twitter presence and still isn’t sure what to make of it, so consider following: @GeoffTWilson

The Force of Fewer in Strategy

Fewer words, initiatives, metrics, and complexities just might unlock your strategy.


Did you know that Dr. Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat using only 236 different words?

Amazing, isn’t it?

But, there’s more to the story. Dr. Seuss’s publisher bet him that he couldn’t write a book using only 50 words.

Seuss’s response?

Green Eggs and Ham. That’s one of the best-known children’s books of all time.

The moral to the story is that few can be good, and fewer can be masterful. This applies to our professional lives as well. How?

Well, if you read my stuff, you already know that I have a healthy skepticism for what I’ll call “one thingism.”  In an earlier post linked here, I used an old movie scene to set off the notion that strategies formed around “one thing” like earnings growth or engaged culture fall short of the richness needed.

But holy cow, how often we over-complicate things.  To wit:

I know professionals who have more than 15 direct reports. It’s a striking executive who can care for and nourish 15 people who all look to her for guidance.  In fact, I have still not met one.

I know people who go through every day with meetings non-stop. I’m one of them. Even when I have days without meetings, I feel naked and go schedule a few. That’s not all bad, but fewer meetings would still work.

I know of strategists who build strategies with more than 20 “key” initiatives.

I know of boards who try to manage 20 “key” metrics.

I know of CEOs who believe that the obfuscation of reporting on many business lines is superior to the clarity of a few themes.

I know of managers who write job descriptions with so many “prime” directives as to be unintelligible.

We can go on and on about fewer when it comes to professional life and strategy. While some of us are sitting around thinking about our professional lives as a massive, thousand-page tome like Atlas Shrugged, others of us are thinking The Cat in the Hat.

Me? I prefer Green Eggs and Ham, and a relentless drive for fewer.

The answer is not “one thing,” but it just might be only a few.

If I were to write a strategy for the world, a few words would work.  Why won’t only a few work for your business strategy? Fewer words, initiatives, metrics, and complexities just might unlock your strategy.

Say Hello To Integrity Guy

Here’s to Integrity Guy.  He has integrity.  Just ask him.


This one is simple.

Integrity is important. Talking about it?  Not so much.

Let me introduce you to “Integrity Guy.” You probably know him.  Hey, he might be you.

Who is “Integrity Guy”? He’s the guy who espouses integrity in everything he does.  He has it; just ask him.

He’s the one who will be sure to say things like “we never lie or cheat.” And “act with integrity.” And “those guys have no integrity.” And the always imploring, “we have to have integrity.”

In every easy instance, he holds out his integrity as impeccable.  When the chips are down, he especially  holds out his integrity as impeccable. But you’ll never be able to tell by looking at his actions.

Have you found him yet?  He’s probably working not far from you.

Integrity Guy.

He wears integrity pants to work every day, he drives an integrity car, and he sits at an integrity desk.

And what’s wrong with that? Well, nothing… Except let me tell you a little secret about Integrity Guy:  The more he lauds his own integrity, the less he’s aware that he actually lacks it.

Yep, you got it.  “I only act with integrity” is actually a risky mantra. Why?  Because cognitive dissonance being what it is, our minds are great at twisting our desires, deeds, and deductions to fit our own view of integrity.

In other words, if Integrity Guy goes around convincing himself of his integrity (or ethics, or good looks, or any other laudable quality) by repeating it to himself, he becomes blind to the times when he falls short of his lofty self image.

I stabbed my boss in the back?  Nah, I was just telling the truth to those other folks.  I have integrity, remember?

I sold out my friend?  No, no, no, personal gain had nothing to do with it.  You forget that I have integrity.

I’m not a team player?  Well, you’d better look at the rest of the team–they don’t deserve my integrity-laden presence.

I lied to close that deal? No, it wasn’t a lie; I just knew more than the other guy.  I have integrity, don’t you know?

Integrity Guy–all he needs is a trademark.

He often sits right next to I-Never-Lie-Guy and around the corner from I-Only-Do-The-Right-Thing Guy.   His desk is adjacent to the desk of Ethics Guy as well.

When we espouse Integrity, Ethics, doing the right thing, or any other categorical imperative, we can only do so with a heart that allows us to go home each night and ask ourselves if we really lived up to our own standard.

So now let me introduce you to I-Really-Want-To-Have-Integrity-Every-Day-But-Sometimes-Fail Guy.

He’s a good friend and businessperson, and you will know him by his actions.