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!

A business strategy that’s everywhere is actually nowhere

If you define your strategic focus too broadly, you don’t have a strategic focus.

Geoff Wilson

Remember when Steve Jobs returned to Apple in the late 1990s—more than a decade after being fired from the company he co-founded? Apple lore says one of the first things he did was cut through all the diverse initiatives and products to establish four focus areas with a very simple matrix. On one axis was “Pro vs. Consumer” and on the other was “Portable vs. Desktop.” By doing this, Jobs created a relentless focus for a relatively large organization around only four possible core products.

What are you relentlessly focused on?

That question is a good test of your strategy. If you can answer it honestly, you probably find that “focus” can be a hard thing to pin down. Many business strategies start with goal-based focus areas: grow revenue, reduce cost, improve delivery time, etc. The problem with goal-based focus areas is they rarely constrain the scope of activity enough to create real focus. You end up “focusing” on something that actually can drive a lack of focus.

Focusing on sales growth is a great example. If you’re focused on sales growth, any sale might seem like a good sale. You might take that really complex deal that promises a lot of revenue at the expense of working to develop a customer base that is both simpler and more profitable over the long term. Your sales “focus” creates strategic diffusion.

And there’s the rub. Your relentless focus shouldn’t necessarily be on a goal, but rather on an outcome that creates sustainable advantage. Who cares if you grew sales 20 percent last year when the way you did it isn’t profitably replicable over time? The Steve Jobs example above is actually pretty vague: We are going to focus on four product types. But it created focus on being great in four areas, and four areas only, on the way to broader success on the metrics. The rest is history with Apple.

This post is not to denigrate tactical wins. If you have the capacity and can afford the distraction, by all means, take the money or invest in the new thing. Apple certainly has. But all too often a distraction breeds more distraction. It also creates confusion for those who don’t know the difference between a tactical decision (“Sure, we’ll take that complex project.”) and a strategic aim (“We aren’t strategically focused on complex projects.”).

The takeaway from this one is simple: If you define your strategic focus too broadly, you don’t have a strategic focus.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Data rich, insight poor

The secret to your organization’s success is rarely more data.

Geoff Wilson

I woke up this morning and stood on my bathroom scale. The scale is, like many things nowadays, networked and bluetooth’d. It takes my weight, heart rate, body fat percentage (don’t ask), water percentage, and something called “pulse wave velocity” that I’ve yet to understand or investigate. It logs all that data for me to shamefully view on my mobile phone whenever I like, thanks to an app that connects to my bathroom scale.

An APP that attaches to my BATHROOM SCALE, people! The United States landed a man on the moon using slide rules to calculate, and here I am today with a scale that can instantly dispatch my disgrace around the world.

But it isn’t enough for information to simply be collected and “there”—it’s what you do with it that matters. And on that note, let’s shift from the topic of my body weight (nothing to see here, folks).

Data rich, insight poor

Modern institutions have astounding arrays of data sets to access. The sets are often not only overwhelming but competing as well. One client we serve measures revenue at least three ways, and gross profit margins can be viewed in at least three more ways—as in, we could apply three different margins to each of the three different revenue stream metrics.

Management teams have access to operational statistics, people statistics, economic data, customer surveys, sales force metrics, supply chain metrics, and countless additional data bases and data points. They can, quite literally, send measured data anywhere, anytime.

So-called “big data” is here—but it isn’t always what it’s supposed to be. That’s because there’s a paucity of insight accompanying that data. For all the richness of data at our fingertips, we’re poor when it comes to insight. In the worst cases, we are paralyzed by the sheer volume of data we can access.

At one client we recently served, a long-range forecast of a global market turned into the ultimate merry-go-round, as the forecast assumptions were tweaked and adjusted to the point where debates raged about long-range global growth rates and whether they should be .1% higher or lower over 10 years. The debate, while comforting to those involved, didn’t really matter.

That, my friends, is the consequence of being data rich and insight poor. And it’s a frequent problem.

The answer

So, what’s an action-oriented executive to do? I’ll put it simply: Know when enough is enough.

Sure, employ data scientists to ensure you’re getting the right cuts of data and analysis, but be sure that you’re also focused on insight. That means you’re identifying meaning in all those numbers you can pull. Just because you have access to mountains of data doesn’t mean you have to (or should) use it all!

Bill Clinton famously wrote that he got involved in some unsavory executive behaviors because he could. In other words, he engaged in unproductive activities because his great power enabled him to.

Many of today’s executives, analysts, and advisors participate in navel-gazing exercises that result in really cool charts but no action because they have access to never-ending data and capacities to manipulate it, without the will to stop and ask two key questions:

  1. What does the data we have mean? Interpret data for insight. Don’t just admire data for merely existing.
  2. What would more data really do to improve our understanding of that meaning? Analyze for decision-worthiness. Think of data availability as a question of “enough to make a decision” vs. “enough to make a comfortable decision.” By the time you make a comfortable decision, the competition is already there.

Our mission at WGP is “to improve our clients’ strategic positioning and enduring performance by providing practical strategic data, analysis, insight, and advice to top management.” It’s true. We wrote it down. We are focused on the fact base, but we fail if we deliver no insight from it. If we can present meaning and action, we are successful. If we merely deliver data, we aren’t doing our jobs.

Our clients appreciate us for this fact-based yet practical approach. In today’s data-rich and insight-poor environments, it’s important to have a partner to help sort through the morass.

Your bathroom scale may be able to send you data while you’re chowing down on fried chicken, but does that really matter if it doesn’t result in changed behavior? Knowing is only half the battle.

What do you think? 

Dear Younger Me

10 pieces of advice I would give to my twenty-something self


After recently depositing my youngest at college, it got me thinking about myself back then. I was painfully shy, insecure and still trying to find my identity. The same was true when I entered the work place and, in spite of apparently performing well, I was riddled with anxiety. Over the years, I eventually found my footing but I can’t help wondering how many years I shaved off my life with needless worry. If only I knew then what I know now.
So, if like the Little Debbie ad, I could back and talk to my younger self, here are the 10 pieces of advice I would give…
1. A problem shared is a problem halved – Don’t shoulder the burden yourself, especially if the issue is out of your control. Talk to your manager, but come armed with some potential solutions too.

2. Conflict now is better than a tsunami later – Addressing the issue may seem daunting, but not addressing it will probably come back and bite you in the butt at some point. And if nothing else, you will sleep better afterward.

3. Check once, check twice, check thrice –  Adopt the discipline of checking documents first for comprehension, second for logic/flow and third for typos/grammar.

4. Feedback is a gift –  It may not feel like it, but feedback is important in helping you to grow. Ask for it, receive it and provide it.

5. Don’t compare yourself to others – We are all different and you were hired for your unique skills. By all means, observe others and adopt what you like, but obsessive comparisons drive feelings of inadequacy.

6. Silence can be golden – Listen to what is being said and process it instead of worrying about not speaking. That way, you will learn and be able to contribute to the discussion.

7. Don’t assume everyone knows what they are talking about – Confidence does not always equate with competence. If something smells wrong, trust your instinct and push back.

8. No pain, no gain – Push yourself to stretch beyond your comfort zone. That’s how you grow. Except when it comes to roller blading in your forties. Don’t do that. There will be much pain.

9. Seek out mentors –  They have made mistakes that you have yet to make. Actively foster relationships with people you admire. They will become lifelong friends.

10. Don’t worry, be happy –  Worrying never solved a problem. One day, someone will tell you to write down your worries on a piece of paper and put them in a box. After a month, you will open the box and find that most of them have miraculously disappeared.

This will change your life…

What about you. What would you tell your younger self?

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?

Strategy That’s Liquid At Room Temperature

Formulating and deploying effective strategy during good times is hard…A few basic practices can help you along.  


One of the fascinating things about most people is their ability to rise to the occasion during times of stress.  For many of us, stressful times create focus.  They foster creativity. They engender a competitive edge.

Apply heat to most of us, and we respond well. Crisis cuts through the crap. It liquefies culture and allows it to flow.

Nobody questioned the need to change when responding to the global financial crisis.  Nobody questioned the need to drastically re-think homeland defense following the 9/11 attacks.  Those things, by themselves, liquefied old thinking.

But a crisis shouldn’t–can’t–be the only way to create strong and responsive strategic discipline.  How do you get all of these really good things–focus, creativity, edge, and responsiveness–during times of plenty?

How do you, in short, create a strategy that is liquid at room temperature?

I’ll describe one way that might work for you and that I’ve seen work well in many circumstances. And, I’ll give you one that probably will work but that is the wrong way.

Strategic Search As A Liquefying Agent

The fundamental mindset underlying strategic discipline is search.  A spirit of inquisitiveness–about one’s flaws, one’s strengths, one’s competition, one’s product, and one’s customer–is the spirit of fluidity that strategic discipline requires.

In your organization, you probably need to build periodic search time into the calendar on each of these aspects.  Sure, you can complete a yearly SWOT analysis and get there to some degree (to be clear, a surprising proportion of business leaders don’t even apply that level of periodic discipline). But, a relentless search for the facts in good and bad times is the catalyst of fluid strategy. Why? because without facts and data, you can’t test hypotheses.

So, how do you get there?

One means of getting there is building a strong and ongoing intelligence gathering apparatus. A fatal flaw of too many strategic plans is that they are built upon fact bases that were crammed for the test.  A far, far better approach is to constantly scan and gather competitive and customer data as a matter of course, and to use periodic strategic planning sessions to draw implications from the data, rather than to try to gin up data and implications at the same time. Investing in just a bit of excess capacity to gather and disseminate good business intelligence can be a godsend.

Another means of getting there is to enlist a broader set of people in the search for insight. A typical corporate approach to strategic planning during good times is to gather a few experts and draw on their expertise on the way to an incremental adjustment to the plan.  Let everyone else keep executing because, well, they are busy with good stuff…

The problem with this approach is it tends to confirm the good times and avoids looking for any canaries in the coal mine.  An approach to creating employee, supplier, customer, and other focus groups as critical inputs to strategy on a periodic basis can keep your strategic plan liquid at room temperature.

Finally, the notion of “liquid at room temperature” has to permeate your leadership culture. If your leaders believe that the good times are permanent, they are much more likely to shut down their search for strategic insights before the work is done.  Your leaders have to install search as a fundamental part of their job, vs. a reaction to poor business conditions.

A method to avoid

That last leadership point brings me to an approach that may work for you, but that is best to avoid.  I’ve been near leadership cultures who use secrecy as a means of manufacturing a crisis mindset.  Leaders were good at masking how good things really were and creating a tense sense of unease among their subordinates…even going so far as to set vastly different performance expectations for subordinates than they set for themselves.  This absolutely created liquidity and creativity when it came to strategic search…

…but it’s an approach that, put simply, lacks integrity.  Now, if you are the shareholder of your business, you may do as you like. However, if you rely on fooling people into a false sense of insecurity, it will eventually come around to bite you.

To wit: the best example of this is when subordinates, spun up into a sense of crisis by goals that they have to attain in order to meet highly inflated “false crisis” metrics, create and recommend options that senior management never seems to act on (because senior management doesn’t have the same compensation metrics and knows that their own life is good).  They conduct a frantic search for options, senior management cherry picks a few and disregards the rest, and subordinates are left to wonder why their superiors don’t share their own sense of urgency–given to them by their superiors.

Do that for a few cycles and people will catch on.

Creating strategy that is liquid at room temperature requires a leadership culture that engenders search, and that builds search into the very fabric of strategic management processes.

Feel free to comment on this below…


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?



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.

Your Customer Has a Voice. Are You Listening?

Why hanging out with customers should be on everyone’s job spec


When was the last time you visited a customer?  If you’re in sales, it doesn’t count; that goes with the territory. I mean visited them purely to find out what’s on their mind. When running workshops, I often ask this question, and you’d be amazed how few people can honestly say they have looked a customer in the eye in the last 12 months. Taking time to learn about your customers first hand, face to face is a small investment that can yield big benefits.

Let me explain. It doesn’t matter how much you spend on market research—nothing can replace the real experience. It’s like the difference between reading a traveler’s guide to a country and actually visiting that country. I am by no means suggesting that market research doesn’t play a role because it does, but being able to visualize customers when you are making decisions that affect them can be very powerful.

In addition, seeing the environment in which your product or service is being used can identify issues or opportunities that might otherwise be missed. You may see that your customer has “MacGyvered” your product for a different purpose, or that the casing on your product has become so worn, the branding has disappeared. Issues like these may not be picked up in traditional market research.

Including a diverse mix of employees in customer visits is also important. Functional expertise, for example, can lead to different perspectives on the same situation. R&D, finance, HR, and even legal can all bring valuable insights from customer interactions.

Customers are usually more than happy to participate. Who doesn’t like to talk about themselves?  It’s like free therapy.

So what’s stopping you?

It’s All Moneyball…

The search for value is the key to strategy.


Michael Lewis’s Moneyball never did provide the answer to the question of where value is in our own lives, but it certainly inspired us to look.

Remember Moneyball?

It was a book by Michael Lewis… a guy who has made a career out of taking mundane subjects (like bond trading, high frequency stock trading, left tackles, and baseball scouting) and making them imminently interesting by melding fantastic stories around the topics.  You may have recently seen one of his works come to the big screen in The Big Short.

Moneyball was Lewis’ take on the search for value and the need to avoid “conventional” wisdom…especially when one faces constraints that conventional thinkers do not.  the story was simple: The Oakland A’s were an anomaly.  They won more games than they were supposed to when their payroll was factored in.  That’s right… dollars in, wins out was considered to be the metric.  Why?  Because all scouts were assumed to be looking at the same components of talent: a traditional view of the “tools” that ballplayers had been evaluated on for years.

Only something happened…someone, somewhere realized that the value of a ballplayers in terms of the game itself wasn’t necessarily correlated with the old school way of looking at things.  Turns out that players who were unorthodox when measured by traditional metrics but really effective at doing things that got them on base more often were actually undervalued by those who scouted and paid ballplayers.

In other words, a key trait was undervalued in the market, and a team like the Oakland A’s that would focus on that trait could find valuable ballplayers with a lower pricetag.  That translated to wins for fewer dollars.

This insight is brilliant for anyone in business: When everybody else is paying for traits, it’s good to try to pay for results.

This is true for my friends who pay up for educational pedigrees that don’t translate to results.

It’s also true for my friends who go after market trends because they are “hot.”  Anytime there is a clear stampede to something, ask yourself why. Is there value left in the equation?

In a world of hype and conventional wisdom, have the patience to seek value.

What do you think?