Stupidity is no bar to enterprise; on the contrary, it tends to conceal difficulties which an intelligent man would consider insuperable.
Stupidity is no bar to enterprise; on the contrary, it tends to conceal difficulties which an intelligent man would consider insuperable.
by Alan Weiss, published 2019
Estimate costs to reasonably support yourself and your family for 1 full year and set this money aside as initial startup costs for consulting
10 Key Traits of Successful Consultants
Necessary specialist help with professional staff, entrepreneurial bent, accessible, resourceful, same risk-profile:
Marketing, develop market gravity through:
Key principles of consulting sales
Gaining conceptual agreement
Focus on developing “small yeses”
7 Elements of Great Proposals
by Paul Strathern, published 2017
The history of the Medici family might best be summarized with the phrase “from dust to dust.” As if to emphasize how they were destined for greatness and nobility, the family started out as a bunch of Tuscan hillbillies who could trace their lineage to a legendary knight of the Holy Roman Empire who settled near Florence in the 8th or 9th Century. From there and then, no one heard much of these people until some of the clan moved into Florence proper in the early 1300s and formed a small money-changing business.
Using conservative business practices and investing in roles of civic responsibility, eventually a Medici was elected to the position of gonfaloniere, the primus inter pares of the Florentine Republic. From this position the dice were carefully loaded in the favor of subsequent Medici generations by artfully forming governing coalitions that cemented their public position while creating leverage across their business and investment portfolio through the tactical use of subsidy, official privilege, insider information and regulatory capture wielded against competitors and opponents.
The story of the “overnight success” of the Medici begins here. The first great head of the Medici family and Medici bank, Giovanni de Medici, had jockeyed for favor with the newly appointed (anti-)Pope John XXIII in order to secure a role as the personal banker to the Papal Curia upon his ascendancy, which was then granted. For much of the 14th Century and Renaissance period in general, the papal revenues and banking needs were equivalent to managing the treasury function for the modern era’s most wealthy and complex multi-national corporations. To gain this trust was not only a measure of unique esteem valuable in and of itself, but a responsibility that carried with it priceless information and irreplaceable business franchises throughout European Christendom and even the Levant.
However, Pope John XXIII soon became embroiled in the Great Schism in which he and 2 other rival popes were called before the Holy Roman Emperor and summarily dismissed, to be replaced with his appointment, Pope Martin V. At his son Cosimo’s urging (whom he had sent to be his representative at the delegation attending the papal conference) the Medici’s continued to support the defrocked pope, even helping to pay his ransom for his release from imprisonment. Rather than being a financial disaster, this loyal support of the former pope led to a new lucrative banking relationship under Martin V, because in return for bartering his release the former Pope John XXIII agreed to support the nomination of Martin V and participate in the reconciliation of the Schism, leading to greater legitimacy for the new pope.
As a major political player on top of his business responsibilities, Giovanni left three apocryphal warnings for his descendants:
It seems as if it should be unnecessary to say that in time this advice was forgotten and eventually, so, too, were the Medici.
But the dissolution of the Medici was a ways away yet. After Giovanni came Cosimo as head of the family and the Medici bank. He faced a disastrous and unpopular war between Florence and Lucca (backed by Milan) which threatened to ruin the Florentine treasury and which had pitted the various leading families against one another. Subscribing to Rule #3, Cosimo opposed the conduct of the war and worked to hide the bank’s assets outside of Florence to avoid expropriation in the war’s aftermath.
For these maneuvers and others, Cosimo was recalled to Florence and imprisoned in the bell tower of the Palazzo Vecchio by a faction led by the rival Albizzi who had plans to execute him for treachery. However, Cosimo’s far flung banking business and participation in the geopolitics of Western Europe had led him to a series of alliances and power relationships with foreign entities such as the Venetian Republic and the Papal States which he utilized to create a kind of diplomatic protection for himself, pressuring his enemies to choose exile over execution as his fate.
In the meantime, he used bribes and the threat of invasion of the city by his own mercenary forces outside its walls to add to the diplomatic pressure and engineer a favorable outcome for himself, all while behind bars.
Shaken but not stirred, Cosimo came to rule Florence through the intervention of the Pope and Venice, but vowed that “he would rule, but he would not be seen to rule” going forward. He had learned his lesson about bearing personal responsibility when it came to matters of state. Further, he was coming to understand that it was easier to wield power when others weren’t watching.
According to one supporter, “Whenever he wished to achieve something, he saw to it, in order to escape envy as much as possible, that the initiative appeared to come from others and not from him.” One policy he pushed for through his crony network was the use of the “catasto”, which had originally been levied to pay for the war, as a punitive tool to crush his political and business opponents through ruinous taxation. While he was forcing his enemies into exile to avoid financial ruin, purchasing and redistributing their former property to his supporters on a bargain basis, he simultaneously used inflated personal balance sheets to hide his income and appear to be bearing the heaviest personal tax burden on a relative basis.
But Cosimo was far from poor:
Between 1434 and 1471, Cosimo spent 663,755 gold florins supporting public works, by comparison, total assets of the Peruzzi bank at its height were 103,000 florins from Western Europe to Cyprus and Beirut.
If he was able to spend 6X the total assets of a well-known competitor at the height of its powers on public works, his total assets and wealth must have been a multiple of that amount. Normal banking and family secrecy aside, the Medici wealth at this time seems to have been nearly incalculable. It is no wonder, then, that one of Cosimo’s key strategies in building and wielding power was to always return favors with favors.
Following Cosimo, who was once to have said that “Trade brings mankind together, and casts glory on those who venture into it” his son Piero and Piero’s son, Lorenzo began to venture the family increasingly beyond the scope of banking and business and into the realm of politics and social standing via nobility. Depending upon how you interpret the events that followed, Piero and Lorenzo were either some of the most “magnificent” leaders of the Medici banking and political enterprises or they were equivalent to the decadent dissipators of the true talent and generational thrift of their greater ancestors.
Either way, the local power of the Medici in and around Florence was successively traded for inter-regional power and influence within the royal families of Europe. As the Medici gained a queen mothership in France, they lost their rule over the Florentine Republic to foreign invasion and intervention and increasingly squandered the capital of their banking and related enterprises. By the early 18th Century the Medici had failed to produce a male heir and had ceded their Grand Duchy of Florence to the Holy Roman Emperor and ceased to be a meaningful business or political entity forever.
by Bryce Hoffman, published 2013
As I read this book, three questions ran through my mind. The first question was “Was Ford Motor Company worth saving?”, the second question was “What do we mean by ‘save’ and what would have happened to Ford Motor Company if the effort was unsuccessful?” and the final question was “Why was Ford savable but GM and Chrysler were not?” But before I share my thoughts on those three questions I will try to summarize my understanding of how Alan Mulally did it.
Prior to being headhunted for the CEO role at Ford, Alan Mullaly had not spent any time in the international or US auto industries. While he had a nostalgic interest in Ford products rooted in his childhood memories like many Americans of his generation, Mullaly was an aeronautical engineer by education and trade and had made his name climbing the ranks of Boeing’s commercial aviation division. He was known as an able executive manager from that experience but many people inside the company and in the wider business world were skeptical that he’d be able to make an impact without understanding the unique intricacies of Ford’s automotive operations.
Besides questions about the applicability of his experience and skillset, Mulally faced the problem of the “bench”– by recruiting an outsider to run the company, Bill Ford was signaling that there was no one within the company who was up to the task. Further, there was a belief within the company and shared by other business strategists that Ford’s culture was broken and it couldn’t be fixed by continuing to employ the very leaders who were responsible for it being what it was. People expected Mulally to come in and make a number of dramatic public executions but no one could predict how he’d repopulate the executive ranks with fresh faces when the company was going through a crisis and faced a nightmare in attracting talent to a sinking ship.
Mulally’s solution, then, was both simple and unexpected. He treated his lack of industry knowledge as irrelevant in favor of installing proven management practices he developed at Boeing; and he endeavored to let the individual members of the leadership team come to their own conclusions as to whether they had what it took to change the culture and save the company– he created a new standard for performance and accountability and expected everyone to rise to the occasion or else fold under the pressure and leave on their own.
The cornerstone of his management practice was a weekly business plan review held on Thursdays with the global leadership team. Each VP was asked to run through a number of preformatted slides and color-coded KPIs in front of their peers, indicating the state of their operations against plan and projected five years out. The goal of the meetings was to publicly acknowledge challenges and to generate awareness that could lead to group problem-solving in follow-up special review meetings. Bringing visibility to problems created opportunities for the team to consider solutions that might originate outside a specific operating unit and it also allowed them to avoid compounding mistakes by adjusting operating plans in light of new challenges in related divisions.
This practice addressed one part of the corporate governance problem Ford had. The other part was addressed by restructuring roles and divisions themselves. Mulally implemented a matrix approach to management hierarchy and reporting which not only increased the number of VPs reporting directly to him, solving the problem of information silos or lack of accountability through problems hidden by bureaucracy, but it also organized more functions on a per-project basis which increased the likelihood of successful resource coordination within the boundaries of the project.
When most people think about strategy, they think about competitive strategy meaning what kinds of decisions does the company make with regard to its customers or its competition? But there is another layer of strategy which is often more important in a very large, very complex organization such as Ford, which is corporate strategy– how will the internal resources of the company be organized to maximize scale, efficiency and coordination? Mulally definitely made adjustments to Ford’s competitive strategy (such as his insight that their product lineup was too complex and fractured and needed to be radically simplified to fewer competitive models, or his commitment to raise the quality and durability of Ford’s products) but it appears the biggest impact was made through his corporate strategy rooted in new corporate governance initiatives.
Every social organization faces coordination problems. Without successfully solving these coordination problems, which are unique to each entity based upon its history, size and competitive position, there is chaos inside the company which results inwardly in waste and outwardly in a weakened competitive position. It is therefore entirely possible that something as simple as creating more effective meetings (which increase the quantity and quality of information-sharing across the organization, improving coordination) and restructuring roles and responsibilities (which empowers the “right” people to act on certain information, or else creates new responsibility for action that otherwise did not exist) can have a dramatic impact on the fortunes of a multi-billion enterprise.
Of course there were other key initiatives that took place either at Mulally’s behest or on his watch which played critical roles in how the story turned out, including a major renegotiation of the company’s union contracts as well as a massive refinancing of the company’s debt and capital structure. But from my reading of the text, these things would’ve at best given the company a bit more rope with which to hang itself. Fixing corporate governance and leveraging the company’s corporate strategy was the real coup de grace that Mulally delivered. For an amateur executive manager such as myself it is both inspiring and a bit unnerving to think of how poorly managed so many major and minor enterprises alike are given this insight.
Now that I’ve offered my interpretation of how Mulally pulled it off, let’s explore the three higher level questions I wondered about as I was reading. I’ll take them in reverse order.
The book doesn’t make it clear why Ford could be saved while GM and Chrysler could not. (Along the lines of the “rope to hang with” logic, while Ford had an incipient existential crisis aggravated by the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, GM and Chrysler remained happily/deludedly oblivious to their own until the GFC arrived.) One answer might be that Ford still had significant private family ownership while GM and Chrysler had already been converted into unfamiliar, faceless corporate automatons by that point and so there was no individual impetus to save them. This reason, if true, represents a different kind of corporate governance problem that extends into the realm of social governance.
Another reason might be that GM’s and Chrysler’s problems were too deep. Even if someone was aware they needed saving, and wanted to save them, they couldn’t be. It would’ve been futile. So no one even tried. A final argument I considered is based upon scarcity. There was only one Alan Mulally in the world, he could only save one legacy American automobile manufacturer and so once he was called upon to save Ford there was no one left for the other two. I consider this to be the least likely circumstance but it could be true.
In any case, it might not be an important question to answer. We might consider why in trying to answer the second question, “What do we mean by ‘save’ and what would’ve happened if the effort was unsuccessful?” Things get sticky here. If Ford Motor Company collapsed, as many American and international nameplates collapsed over the years ahead of it, life would go on just as it did when the others fell. Some of the physical assets, such as plants and parts inventory, would be purchased by surviving manufacturing entities and others would be scrapped or abandoned. Some employees (and managers) would find work in the same field under different ownership and others would find work in new fields unrelated to automotive. Some of the brands, technology and IP of the company might be purchased by third parties and in that way the Ford brand might be “kept alive” indefinitely. Or it may have been the case that a failure of that magnitude killed the value of this historic franchise and the Blue Oval would be buried for good.
If anything Ford did had value and utility in the marketplace, it would likely continue to have such value and utility whether “Ford” was responsible for producing it or not. And to the extent it did not (in whole or in part) there’s really no reason why such activity should continue under Ford’s aegis if it wouldn’t under anyone else’s. Nostalgia by itself is only worth so much and it turns out that is not very much.
So “saving” Ford really means keeping a certain collection of assets under the control of a certain collection of financial and management interests and retaining certain contracts with employees and a certain ecosystem of vendors and distributors. There’s nothing magic or eternal to this and the evidence for this fact is contained by the knowledge that Ford itself had agglomerated into itself other foreign brands such as Volvo, Mazda and Jaguar-Land Rover. If some brands can die and others can live on under Ford’s ownership, certainly something similar could happen to the Ford brand and organization without cosmic repercussions. The dramatic tension of the story loses a bit of gusto when we consider all of this.
The final question is a moral question. It implies a “should”. Should Ford Motor Company have been saved? Asking about its worth begs the question “Worth to whom?” And you could insert many answers there: its employees, its suppliers, its customers, politicians with Ford operations in their districts, “society” at large, and so on. But because Ford Motor Company is and was a public company owned by a collection of shareholders and operated with the intent of earning a profit and thereby generating wealth, I want to focus this question on the members of the Ford family, who were its controlling shareholders and thus primarily responsible for the strategic governance of the company.
The book makes it clear that aside from Bill Ford and one or two other direct descendants of Henry Ford, the Ford family as shareholders were not deeply involved in the management or operations of the company and in fact many of them might be what are politely termed “trust fund layabouts.” That is, many of the existing Ford family members did little through their own efforts to contribute to the enhancement of the value of the Ford Motor Company nor any other personal enterprise they might be associated with and instead enjoyed a comfortable life of easy wealth and leisure thanks to the luck of being born into an inheritance.
Personally, I see no moral evil in that, though many people do. Some people will be rich and some people will be poor and the fact that some people are rich simply because they had a successful relative isn’t their fault. If anything, we should protect these privileges as a social obligation because the wealth they enjoy was rightfully created by one of their heirs and that individual, because they created it, has every right to do whatever it is they want to do with it up to and including giving it away to charity, giving it away to relatives or burying physical manifestations of it in a giant pit.
That being said, because it is not a moral evil for them to have it it’s also not a moral evil for them to lose it. They’re certainly not entitled to it and they don’t seem to have any real capability to make anything out of it beyond a means of personal amusement. Why Ford Motor Company should be “saved” to protect them from the follies of the world is a question with no objective answer. If it wasn’t them who owned this wealth it would be someone else, so why worry so much if their ownership claim dissolves in a pool of historical mismanagement and transfers to some other person or persons with a better idea of what to do with it? That sounds like progress, to me.
In fact, it sounds not just like progress, but like Thomas Jefferson. We might but repurpose a few words from his famous correspondence to have something rather fitting for this occasion, as seen here:
What signify a few fortunes lost in a century or two? The tree of economy must be refreshed from time to time with the wealth of trust fund layabouts & shiftless public shareholders. It is its natural manure.
by Phanish Puranam, Bart Vanneste, published 2016
What is corporate strategy and how is it any different from business strategy? That was actually a distinction I hadn’t made in my own mind when I picked this title up. I was generally interested in exploring “strategy” in an economic or business competition sense and this book was one of many I selected for further research. It was a happy accident then to realize there is a difference and this book is all about explaining what it is and why it’s different.
Business strategy aims at creating competitive advantage in a firm-against-firm struggle within a given industry. It flows outward from customer behavior through organizational structure and management practice to policies and processes surrounding marketing, sales, production, distribution and customer service.
Corporate strategy aims at realizing synergies from the joint ownership of different businesses. Synergies can be realized between businesses competing in the same industry but with common ownership (and perhaps diverse geographic territories), the case of a “corporate HQ” utilizing economies of scale in back-end or administrative functions to lower their cost or raise their quality across the individual customer-facing businesses. Synergies can also be realized between businesses operating in distinct industries but where coordination between actors in these industries allows for new products or services to be bundled, consider a bank and an insurance company owned by one corporate parent which can then offer a full range of financial services to customers.
One interesting takeaway from the book is that all public equity investors who do not have 100% of their investments in a single company (ie, they own a portfolio of stocks) are engaged in corporate strategy. However, as the book advises, passive investors are not able to realize synergies which those in control of these businesses can through exerting influence over their management. So, a passive equity investor could have an insight about the unique value of owning a complimentary basket of businesses representing corporate advantage, but they do not have the means to act upon it unless they are able to successfully agitate for M&A activity or have enough resources to get voting control over the companies in which they can sway management to extract the synergies they’ve spotted.
Another concept that was interesting to me was the irony that by bringing businesses under common ownership, a corporation destroys its own best benchmark for valuation (ie, the individual market prices of each business) and thus it is trapped in a perpetual game of trying to evaluate whether it’s coordination of economic activity within the corporation is synergistic and creating value, or wasteful and destroying it.
Warren Buffett as a conglomerator par excellence is an interesting case because, at least nominally, he does not provide managerial oversight to operations of the businesses he owns and has never claimed he has purchased a business for synergistic reasons for corporate strategy. Rather, he purchases businesses ONLY because he considers them to be available on a bargain basis, that is, he thinks they are available for less than their intrinsic value.
The entire point of corporate strategy, according to the book, is to be able to pay market or “fair” prices for assets and businesses, but still realize a profit from owning them, because of the ability to manage or exploit them differently under a joint ownership structure. So, Buffett is NOT a corporate strategist, although he is a really great investor.
And if you can realize synergies AND buy at bargain prices (AND apply leverage safely…) then you are really cooking with gas!
One of the great ironies of the (public) business world is that many managers (they are hardly ever significant shareholders themselves) think they can spot synergies all over the place, which either they or their investment bankers use to rationalize their acquisition activity. But the data demonstrate that few synergies ever appear to be realized– acquiring companies usually overpay, their stock falls on the announcement of an acquisition and the target company’s stock rises. Further, these acquisitions are often followed years later by goodwill writeoffs or divestitures of the previously acquired business or assets.
On average, a corporate parent that divests a business increases shareholder value.
In fact, one of the strategic suggestions of the authors is the always be on the look out for someone who is a better owner of a business or asset than you (ie, willing to pay you more than it’s worth to you to continue owning it) and selling things seems to be one of the most reliable ways for corporate strategists to create corporate advantage. It’s a pity, then, that most corporate strategists are buyers, not sellers!
If some other corporate parent has even stronger synergies with a business than you do, you should consider divesting.
Divesting when you can, and not when you have to is usually preferable.
Imagine that, starting today, the two businesses would be moved into separate ownership and would be operated completely independently, with no communication or exchange of any kind between the two. How would the value of the businesses be effected?
If one thinks one is smart enough to beat the odds, the authors suggest four places to look for synergies from joint ownership and operations for corporate strategists:
Here are some other major strategy risks that are common:
One common negative synergy is brand dilution, ie, does the brand apply? Another is complexity. Another is market rivalry, this is a significant concern in the advertising industry, where when two firms who serve rivals merge, the chances of keeping both their clients is low.
Governance costs act as taxes that eat into the potential benefits from synergies when they are attempted to be extracted. [ie, the price you pay to operate an acquired business effectively.]
When an autonomous business becomes a division within another, the incentives of the owner and managers are necessarily diluted.
Synergies likely to generate significant transaction costs are less likely to be successfully realized in arms length relationships between independent firms than under common ownership.
I particularly appreciated the discussion about the corporate advantage that can be achieved through thoughtful design of the organization and its management.
One should be able to read the corporate strategy of a company in its organization chart: what kinds of activities does the top management feel are essential to integrate?
While all organizational structures represent a unique combination, there are three “pure form” ways to structure the corporation and its management structure: by activity, by output, by user/customer.
The authors recommend that corporate strategists “Think about the multi-business corporation as a collection of value chain activities” and look for synergies accordingly. But, being economic entities, there are necessary tradeoffs to beware of with each choice:
Grouping similar activities together emphasizes economies of scale at the expense of economies of scope, whereas grouping different activities together does exactly the opposite.
Every grouping arrangement emphasizes certain interactions but excludes others, which show up as opportunity costs and bottlenecks.
Further, if the innovation literature and hundreds of years of business history haven’t beat it into your head yet, things change. That means that the “right” structure (the synergistic one) is likely to change over time. “No structure is permanent.” Corporate strategists should always be considering the possibility that the ideal economic structure for managing the company has changed in reflection of new competitive dynamics, customer tastes and habits or advancements in technology, culture and society. A good rule of thumb might be that the appropriateness of the corporate structure needs to be reconsidered every time a major acquisition or divestiture occurs.
There were two other nuggets of corporate strategy wisdom that stood out to me. One was that most multi-business firms have capital allocation decision-making on auto-pilot. Either every request gets granted, or every request gets denied, or every business gets to keep whatever it generates. The corporate strategist can grab some low-hanging fruit by being thoughtful about capital allocation decisions within the portfolio and providing a critical voice about whether capital should be redistributed amongst divisions or even outside the company (ie, dividend or acquisition activity).
The other was in the author’s description of the typical M&A process (which includes not just execution of the acquisition transaction but also successful completion of the post-merger integration process). The most overlooked, and final, step in the process is Evaluation, which “refers to a post-transaction review of what went right and wrong” and analyzes the economic impact of the transaction on the entire firm. Were synergies realized? In the amounts predicted? Did costs materialize that were surprising? Did any other kind of disruption or distraction that was not anticipated earlier occur during the course of the merger? From my personal experience, it is difficult for management teams to take the time to look into the rear-view mirror like this, and even harder for them to be honest about what they see!!
The following are my unedited notes from my reading of Corporate Strategy:
Corporate strategy versus business strategy
Corporate advantage versus competitive advantage
Two ways of increasing competitive advantage:
1.) raise the price customers are willing to pay
2.) lower the price suppliers are willing to sell for
Maximizing corporate advantage may or may not be consistent with maximizing the competitive advantage of each individual business
Some businesses could give up competitive advantage in their business in order to enhance the competitive advantage of other businesses in the portfolio
Corporate strategy matters at least as much as the analysis of industry competition (implication for passive investment analysis)
A natural, minimal benchmark for a corporate strategist is a passive investor
Synergy is therefore the means through which corporate advantage is created relative to a typical investor who can select the same portfolio of investments
Portfolio assembly can be a corporate advantage in cases of private/restricted capital markets
By coming into existence, the multi-business firm in effect destroys its own best benchmark
The super-rich may treat their business group as their own mutual fund
Corporate advantage is defined in terms of jointly owning businesses and synergies in terms of jointly operating them.
While an investor could create corporate advantage, an investor cannot extract synergies.
For a corporate strategist to create corporate advantage over what an investor can achieve in efficient capital markets, there must at least be some form of synergy between two businesses in the portfolio
To find synergies, construct a value chain for each business/division and look for opportunities to coordinate or economize activity
Forms of synergy
One common negative synergy is brand dilution, ie, does the brand apply? Another is complexity. Another is market rivalry, this is a significant concern in the advertising industry, where when two firms who serve rivals merge, the chances of keeping both their clients is low
Governance costs act as taxes that eat into the potential benefits from synergies when they are attempted to be extracted
When an autonomous business becomes a division within another, the incentives of the owner and managers are necessarily diluted
Synergies are likely to generate significant transaction costs are less likely to be successfully realized in arms length relationships between independent firms than under common ownership
A management services firm is a kind of non-equity alliance
The more mature and efficient the capital markets in which a company operates, the greater the pressure on the company to engage in diversification primarily on the basis of potential synergies between existing and new businesses
The CEO should be spending the shareholders’ money on entry into new businesses only to extract value that the shareholder could not by investing directly in such a business on her own
In the absence of bargains, passing the synergy test is necessary but not sufficient to pass the diversification test
If some other corporate parent has even stronger synergies with a business than you do, you should consider divesting
An active policy of looking for divestiture opportunities is sensible
On average, a corporate parent that divests a business increases shareholder value
Imagine that, starting today, the two businesses would be moved into separate ownership and would be operated completely independently, with no communication or exchange of any kind between the two. How would the value of the businesses be effected?
Divesting when you can, and not when you have to is usually preferable
Outsourcing often carries significant transaction costs
Think about the multi-business corporation as a collection of value chain activities
One should be able to read the corporate strategy of a company in its organization chart: what kinds of activities does the top management feel are essential to integrate?
Pure forms of organization: by activity, by output, by user/customer
Grouping similar activities together emphasizes economies of scale at the expense of economies of scope, whereas grouping different activities together does exactly the opposite
Every grouping arrangement emphasizes certain interactions but excludes others, which show up as opportunity costs and bottlenecks
No structure is permanent
Don’t forget about how to integrate activities while you’re thinking about ways to partition them up
Corporate management functions:
The goal of resource allocation in the portfolio is thus to push businesses further away from the origin toward the top and right, away from the investment threshold (pg 212)
One low hanging fruit for multi-business firms in terms of corporate strategy is to actually give thoughtful consideration to capital allocation decisions within the portfolio
In the M&A and Post-merger Integration process, Evaluation refers to a post-transaction review of what went right and wrong
On average, acquirers do not benefit (in terms of market cap) from an acquisition; most target shareholders benefit from an acquisition
The ICSA Company Secretary’s Handbook, resource for corporate management
by Dr. Thomas Gordon, published 1977, 2001
I find this book to be interesting as a potential “handbook of general management practices” and as such, I made extensive notes throughout the text as I read. There are many sections of the book that I copied in whole into my notes. My plan for this review, unlike other reviews focused on pithiness and synthesizing my impressions into a summary, is to keep more of these notes and direct transcriptions from the book in tact so that I have a good resource in the future.
What is leadership effectiveness?
How to influence people without using power is the key to leader effectiveness.
A revolution has started– a human relations revolution of great significance. People want to be treated with respect and with dignity; people are demanding to have a strong voice in their own working lives; people are less willing to be coerced and exploited; people want the right to achieve self-respect in their work and have work that is meaningful and rewarding; people are rebelling against inhuman working environments in very human ways — by jobhopping, absenteeism, apathetic attitudes, antagonism and malicious mischief.
While workplace regulation and government interference don’t help the capitalist or manager in this regard, the shift in workplace expectations is cultural and -psycho-intellectual-progressive (not political-progressive!) and gone are the days, real or imagined, of early industrialism in this country in which the business had all the power and could dictate, like a “captain” how would would be performed or else. Today, the dignity of the organization’s members is paramount to leadership effectiveness and great managers both a.) leave their associates feeling heard and understood and b.) offer them agreeable reasons to do the company’s work that serve their own self-interests.
Seems simple enough, so why does workplace and managerial conflict persist?
People come naturally to these built-in patterns of negative responses; they learned them when they were children. The leader inherits each group member’s “inner child of the past.”
Because group members at first perceive most leaders as probable controllers and dominators, that’s the way they will respond to her, even though the leader may have no intention of using power and authority.
It is vogue to ask of people to “leave your personal problems at home.” But this proves naive because it is the same person having problems at home who comes to work– there is no way to cleave one’s personality into two halves, work and personal. Further, people wish to believe that personality dynamics are mysterious or pertain only to events and developments occurring in the present, adult life. However, just as it is the same person at work and at home, it is also the same person who is an adult now but was a child in the past! A manager need not become people’s personal therapists, but they do need to understand that many of the negative, “childish” behaviors they witness in workplace conflict are in fact a result of unmet childhood needs and failed coping strategies developed in childhood adversity and trauma.
Being the leader doesn’t make you one, because leaders don’t automatically get the respect and acceptance of their group members; so in order to earn the leadership of their group and have a positive influence on the group members, leaders must learn some specific skills and methods.
How leaders acquire followers
There is a set of principles rooted in human evolutionary biology and the logic of economic scarcity that informs social organization development and leadership roles therein:
Organizational needs are primarily for increased productivity and efficiency, while the group members needs are sometimes those that motivate them to resist pressure for increased production and efficiency.
An effective leader cannot be only a “human relations specialist” nor only a “productivity specialist”, they must be both.
A job must provide opportunity for growth, responsibility, recognition and advancement if it is to be satisfying; it is not enough to simply remove dissatisfying items from a job.
Expecting people to show up for work just to earn a paycheck is not enough. People also want a sense of personal satisfaction and meaning from doing work they consider important and doing it well.
The principle function of a group leader is to facilitate problem-solving; in somewhat different times, it is to maximize productive work time and achieve mutual need satisfaction.
Effective leaders must behave in such a way that they come to be perceived almost as another group member; at the same time they must help all group members feel as free as the leader to make contributions and perform needed functions in the group.
Group members draw away from leaders who make them feel inadequate or lower their self-esteem.
When leaders achieve this “another member” status, they actually increase the contributions they can make to the group, because their ideas will get evaluated like those of other members.
An effective group leader, then, does not need to solve problems, but to see to it that they get solved.
A 6-step process for effective problem solving
Observant leaders can use “signaling behavior” to become alert to the existence of a problem:
Once alert to a problem, a leader can follow the problem-solving process to resolve it and thus allow the team member to return to their productive functioning within their organizational role.
As a rule, people don’t get down to the real problem until after they have first ventilated a feeling or sent some opening message.
It has not been an evolutionarily-successful social strategy for human beings to be directly confrontational. As a result, most people learn in childhood to show they are hurt or have a problem without specifying what it is upfront. This necessitates the leader engaging in an exploratory process to help the person with the problem feel comfortable revealing what their problem actually is.
The “helpee” usually will not move into the problem-solving process unless the listener sends an invitation– opens the door for the helpee:
Active Listening as a tool for building trust and leader engagement
Active Listening involves establishing equilibrium between the expression of the person needing help and the impression being received by the one trying to help them. Frequent and continuous feedback of the results of the receiver’s decoding is what “Active Listening” is all about. Listeners need only restate, in their own language, their impression of the expression of the sender. It’s a check: is my impression acceptable to the sender?
At least two ingredients are necessary in any relationship of one person fostering growth and psychological health in another– empathy and acceptance. Empathy is the capacity to put oneself in the shoes of the others and understand their “personal world of meaning.” Acceptance is feeling good about what a person is doing.
The 12 Roadblocks to Communication
There are 12 common roadblocks to effective, empathetic communication between leaders and followers and almost every leader makes the mistake of running into one of these roadblocks at some time or other in the course of carrying out their leadership duties.
What makes these roadblocks ineffective tools of communication?
Implicit in these 12 categories of listener responses is the desire or intent to change rather than accept the sender, acting as vehicles for communicating unacceptance. A climate of unacceptance is very unconducive to personal growth, development and psychological health.
Listening helps keep the responsibility for problem-solving with the member. The 12 Roadblocks tend to grab responsibility away from the owner of the problem and deposit it in the hands of the leader.
Part of demonstrating acceptance is being willing to hear the WHOLE person, not just the part of the person we enjoy being around or working with. Feelings, even negative feelings, are part of everyone’s total reality and existence and will be a necessary part of an effective leader’s daily experience.
Contrary to the “feelings don’t belong here” belief, there is evidence that expressing feelings actually increases a group’s effectiveness and productivity. Openness in expressing feelings serves very much the same function for a group as pain does for one’s organism.
Leaders should treat feelings as “friendly”, not dangerous. Feelings should be welcomed because they are cues and clues that some problem exists.
Negative feelings can be quite transitory. People purposely select strong negative feelings as codes to communicate “I want to make sure I get your full attention” or “I want you to know how bad you’ve made me feel.”
However, don’t confuse the simple expression of a negative emotion as the start and end point of the problem to be explored. Sometimes people don’t know what the real reason is for their discomfort and need help finding it, and other times they just aren’t comfortable saying what it is.
People’s problems are like onions– they come in layers.
This is not unlike a child’s temper tantrum, and, as parents know full well, the best strategy is to wait for the feelings to dissipate.
Leaders do a lot of teaching– giving instructions, explaining new policies or procedures, doing on-the-job training. Yet very few leaders have received special training to carry out this important function.
Little or no learning is going to occur until you acknowledge the team member’s feelings and help him work through them somehow. Your teaching has to stop until you get evidence that he is again ready to learn. This is the most important principle of effective teaching. Just as you can’t be a leader without followers, you can’t be a teacher without learners.
Getting learners more actively involved and participating in the learning process is the mark of an effective teacher.
It’s also naive to believe that problems can simply be ignored or avoided.
The price unassertive leaders pay is that the problems rarely go away; they suffer in silent martyrdom or build up feelings of resentment toward the person causing the problem.
The difference between “I-Messages” and “You-Messages”
You-Messages carry a high risk of damaging relationships because:
People are seldom aware their behavior is unacceptable to another. Their behavior is usually motivated only by a desire to meet their own needs, not by a deliberate intent to interfere with the needs of others. When you send a You-Message, you communicate “You are bad for doing something to meet your needs.”
I-Messages are less confrontational because they represent a plea for help from one person to the other. Most people are willing to be of service to others when asked for their help.
The Three Components of a Complete I-Message:
BEHAVIOR + FEELINGS + EFFECT
When people resist changing, it is generally useless to keep hammering at them with subsequent I-Messages; what is called for at such times is a quick shift to Active Listening.
The “diagnostic model” is the fashionable management belief that a leader’s job is to figure out what kind of person each of their team members is and then to speak “their language.”
The assumption implicit in the diagnostic model is that it is the leader who assumes responsibility for producing changes in the group members, and the more leaders know about their team, the cleverer they will be in selecting methods for changing them. This is ultimately a method of manipulation.
This is the “language of control” versus the “language of influence” in the confrontive model, where the leader cares more about knowing how people feel than why they feel that way.
With the confrontive model, leaders need only understand their own feelings and how to communicate them in a nonblameful way; then they need to put listening skills to work so they and their group members can work out mutually acceptable solutions. This is simpler than trying to “figure people out” to manipulate them into doing what you want done.
The role of meetings for effective leaders
There are two kinds of meetings, each with a distinct purpose: informational and problem-solving.
Informational meetings are for such purposes as personal growth, continuing education, keeping informed about what other group members are doing (including the leader). Should problems arise, they should be put on the agenda for the next Problem-Solving Meeting. Problem-Solving meetings have 6 types, following the six step process for problem-solving outlined above.
An organization without many problems is one that is not growing, changing, adapting. Expect problems, and embrace them as vehicles to making organizational progress!
Leadership effectiveness requires regularly scheduled meetings for problem-solving and decision-making with your management team. “Show me an ineffective organization or group and I’ll give you a leader who either does not have management meetings at all or who conducts them poorly.”
Guidelines for effective management team meetings:
Some leaders pride themselves on having a problem-free workplace. They ask and expect people to “forgive and forget” or, worse, to not bring up problems in the first place. They pay a heavy price for this attitude of enforced ignorance.
The absence of conflict may be symptomatic of an organization or group that is not functioning effectively– not growing, changing, adapting, improving or creatively meeting new challenges. The number of conflicts in groups (including families) is not at all indicative of how “healthy” they are. The true index is whether the conflicts get resolved and by what method they get resolved.
I have heard executives proudly describe their groups or organizations: “We’re just a big happy family around here– we get along, no problems.” I am always suspicious of such leaders, as I am suspicious of husbands and wives who say, “We’ve been married for twenty years and we’ve never had a fight.” Usually that means that their conflicts are not allowed to surface and be faced.
Beware also of team members who avoid bringing up conflicts in order to earn rewards and avoid punishment.
In relationships with leaders who rely heavily on reward and punishment, group members selectively send messages that they think will only bring rewards, avoiding messages that might invite punishment.
These leaders, too, believe they are operating without problems or conflict, but are usually unpleasantly surprised to learn something major has simply been hidden from them out of view!
It gets a lot of mocking treatment amongst pundits and the entertainment industry, but it’s nonetheless worth reiterating the The No-Lose Method of Conflict Resolution: we will work together to find a solution to this problem that respects both our needs. For organizations which fear reward and punishment-based leadership, this can be an effective means of building trust that problems can be talked about because they will be solved to everyone’s satisfaction.
An additional concept is the “Principle of Participation” which states that those who are responsible for helping to shape a decision, feel responsible for seeing that it works. Utilizing the PoP, leaders can avoid the temptation to dictate solutions to problems that are brought to their attention and instead get their team members involvement in finding a resolution that they will actively support.
The Periodic Planning Conference Concept
People who believe they ARE the organization will want to contribute to its success, this means people need:
The Periodic Planning Conference (PPC) is an instrumental practice in soliciting their ideas, providing guidance and giving them a sense of self-determination in improving their performance such that ultimately work becomes more meaningful and need-fulfilling because the person is creating their own work.
The PPC is an alternative to the annual performance appraisal and is instead a regularly scheduled conference, generally every six months, with each group member. It may be as short as a half hour, averages two hours but may involve several meetings stretched over a period of days.
Items for discussion:
It focuses on FUTURE performance (what can be done) rather than PAST performance (what has been done). It has no scores and focuses on job functions rather than personal characteristics or qualities. It is a two-way conference.
Important assumptions to discuss and keep in mind during a PPC:
Steps to prepare for a PPC
Conducting the PPC
Potential questions to prompt the team member in preparing for the PPC:
Key points to remember about the PPC:
Implementing the decisions of a PPC
Expected benefits of the PPC
Deeper issues for leaders
Just as the adults before us are grown versions of the children they once were, and a person at work is the same person he is at home, leaders must reflect on how their choices and actions will extend and reverberate beyond the narrow confines of the workplace. These personal philosophical inquiries may be of benefit for the leader in contemplating his place in society at large and, more importantly, what kind of impact he wants to have on that society:
Several months ago, a friend of mine introduced me to “Jobs To Be Done Theory” (JTBD) via the free work of an entrepreneur named Alan Klement called When Coffee and Kale Compete. The JTBD framework is part of a growing base of entrepreneurial knowledge in the innovation space with key similarities to things like disruptive innovation (The Innovator’s Dilemma by Christensen) and Design Thinking practice. These approaches to entrepreneurship focus on empathy as a methodology for understanding the psychological motivations and needs of a potential customer rather than on their demographic characteristics or profile data. Solutions are designed to help the customer make progress rather than being built around features or functions; in this way business people might be surprised to find out that “coffee” and “kale” can be competitors in helping a person make progress on “get my morning started right”, whereas in the traditional product design space an entrepreneur might be more focused on “how to build a better cup of coffee for 18-35 year old women.”
As Klement says in the introduction,
I want to help my customers evolve themselves. I shouldn’t study what customers want in a product. I need to study why customers want.
He describes a JTBD as consisting of three elements:
These jobs originate inside people, not inside things. They have to do with motivations or states of mind, that is, they are psychic not material in nature. And there are many potential strategies for helping a person to accomplish that transition from one state to another, which is why it is possible to envision disruptive solutions that redefine the categories by which product or service competition occur.
Klement helpfully summarizes some principles of JTBD theory:
He works through a number of case studies to illustrate these principles. The methodology in each case study focuses on interviewing customers to get verbatims about how they reason about what problem they’re trying to solve and what solutions they’ve tried in the past and present. The emphasis is on revealed preference, determined by actions, rather than stated preference, determined by marketing surveys or hypothetical scenarios. By unpacking these statements rather than making assumptions, the entrepreneur can work to understand the mindset of the customer and how he sees himself struggling to make progress in a particular part of his life.
Klement later discusses two well-known case studies in the disruptive innovation literature, Kodak and Apple (iPhone vs. iPod), and reinterprets the story through the JTBD framework. With this, we see that Kodak’s business was annihilated not because they were complacent and didn’t see how technology would make their product irrelevant, but because their focus was on optimizing a particular solution (traditional film) for a particular JTBD rather than focusing on that JTBD itself and trying to ask what is the best way to help customers make progress on that in light of changing technology. In contrast, Apple took a very profitable product, the iPod, and thought about what kind of job it was fulfilling and what was a better way to do that job, the iPhone, rather than thinking about how to build a better iPod. This is because “no solution for a JTBD is permanent.”
One thing I found challenging in trying to digest this new framework was identifying the JTBD itself. Klement offers a few guidelines for deciding if you do NOT have a JTBD defined properly:
If the answer is yes, it is likely not a JTBD because JTBDs are emotional and represent psychic states. They are ways people experience their own existence and how they progress from one state of existence to another, they are not the thing that makes the progress themselves. Sometimes these JTBDs are exceedingly obvious. But a lot of the time, they’re subtle and can only be defined with confidence after a long, empathy-driven process of interviewing and conversing with customers to better understand what they think they’re trying to do. This is hard work! The JTBD framework is certainly not a quick or easy fix to the dilemma of how someone with an entrepreneurial bent can design great new products and services that meet peoples needs.
The book is chock full of case studies and deeper explanations of the basic components summarized above. I highlighted and underlined various meaningful passages that I won’t bother typing into these notes because they’d be too out of context to add clear meaning to a reader; besides, I read this book earlier this year and didn’t get to write up my notes until now, so I can’t even remember with some of them why I found them impactful at the time.
Alan Klement offers free consultation services and aspires to help people on a paid basis as well. I have spoken to him a number of times as I have read his book and attended the Design Thinking Bootcamp to share thoughts and ideas about the JTBD framework, especially as it applies to personal design challenges I am exploring in my own business. He informed me that he is working on a revised and re-organized 2nd edition which he plans to release soon. I will likely revisit the book then and consider publishing further notes and thoughts about the JTBD framework as I become more familiar with it and even work to use it in my own design challenges in the future.
by Phil Knight, published 2016
What can we learn from business books, especially business biographies?
I used to laugh about this with a friend a considerable amount– all these dopey books about businesses, business men and business secrets, written by ghost writers and know-nothing journalists (hack writers), developed for and marketed to mass audiences who want an entertaining dream and not an edifying edifice to stare at imponderably.
We would be amazed at how absent these books were of any meaningful details, in fact, precisely the meaningful details necessary to actually understand what was going on and “how’deedodat?” It was like some kind of conspiracy of incompetent stupidity, to write books about business without margins, without tax rates, without rates of return on capital, without the capital structure outlined and revisited periodically as an enterprise grew, without definitions of risk and explanations of strategy.
Instead, lists of names, dates, places. Stylized depictions of tragedy and success. Cliched, retrospective business wisdom, as if the hustler-entrepreneur thought in any terms other than pure, maddening survival or unbridled, sociopathic dominance of everyone around him. Overlooking special revenue or R&D relationships with governments that were critical to a firm’s mastery of its market or early survival, or ignoring impolitic questions of how the founder avoided getting swept up in the local social conflagration du jour and being drafted out of existence.
To this mish-mash of storytelling sins this book adds a new one, anachronistic language. Somehow, Nike/Blue Ribbon was a “startup” before startups in the 1960s (and even into the 1970s, when it had been around for almost a decade… just getting going, really!) and one of the guiding philosophies of Knight and his “Buttface” crew (more on this in a bit) was to “fail fast”, nearly five decades before the software development revolution convinced the business world that iterative testing and quick trial to failure was the right way for all businesses to grow and not just a specialized niche that could essentially emulate A/B variants of its product or service offering at no cost or risk with the simple push of a button. But yeah, the shoe makers were doing that back when Vietnam was a thing.
That is why I read “Shoe Dog” with skepticism and found myself lusting after a critical beatdown as I turned the pages. A 25 year-old Phil Knight travels to Japan and secures a distributorship for a top Japanese athletic shoe, quite by chance and without any explanation of how he surmounted the language barrier in post-war Japan, then proceeds to tour the globe for four months by himself as some kind of backpacker-type tourist while his order samples, presumably, sit and wait for him the whole time? This is the beginnings of what would become Nike. And it went just like that.
The book is full of these glaring contradictions. Knight wanted to avoid the standard, stultifying corporate life, so he built a massive corporation. He believed in playing it straight as he advised his Eagle Scout nominees, so he lied to his financiers and production partners to grow his business. He never had enough cash to keep the bank happy and grow the business organically, so he bought himself a nice home and took the team on bi-annual corporate retreats to luxurious places (the book suddenly introduces this information about 12 years into the company’s history, where it is also revealed that they endearingly refer to one another as “buttfaces”, somehow demonstrating their open and transparent corporate culture). His co-founder fools him into giving majority control of the enterprise at the time of founding, then gives him 2/3rds of his share when trying to retire without fuss or challenge.
What “Shoe Dog” taught me, then, is that I’ve been naive to think there is anything esoteric one can learn from business books like this. It is my mistake for coming to a mass market piece of media and expecting to hear an honest telling, or even an interesting one. These books are written to entertain, glorify the egos of those who they are written about or nominally by, and perhaps even to some extent to distract, delude or otherwise throw off of the scent the would-be competitors who read them.
Reading between the lines, Knight was an alcoholic. He was clearly unscrupulous and at times cruel in his dealings with others. He did not spend the time with his family that they wanted from him. He lied, consciously, to his business partners and financiers. And he sued and counter-sued to stay in business or gain advantage. He did some other stuff, too, but these are the kinds of things that seem to set people apart, alongside luck. Some people play by the rules, either legally or their own conscience or both, and some people find ways to stretch these factors or simply break them without regret. Those people go on to be billionaires. And they have an incentive to lie about what they did and how they did it because after all, lying is what got them there in the first place.
You will never know how a business was really built by reading a book about it. And you would probably never find out even if you were a friend of the founder. You may not even be clear on what happened if you were inside the company itself. It’s too complicated and there are too many human factors involved that lend themselves to obfuscating the truth, if it can even be remembered.
One thing I learned from “Shoe Dog” is it’s my own fault if I keep reading this stuff and find myself frustrated at being anything but entertained.
This post is a follow-up to some earlier posts about my recent participation at Stanford’s Design Thinking Bootcamp program. I want to reflect on what I think I know about the “design thinking” approach. I am not an expert or a scholar and I haven’t even read any books on the subject! This is my attempt to process my experiences, not to be authoritative.
As I now think about design thinking, I believe it is really three things:
I want to tackle these in reverse order.
The Design Thinking mindset
Everyone is and can be creative.
When I say design thinking is a mindset, I think about how much of what I’ve learned centers on the idea of putting oneself into a creative frame of mind. We seem to have both a creative mind, which is open, limitless, imaginative, fun and even a bit wacky, and a critical mind, which is narrow, realistic, fear-based, serious and deeply rooted in the known and knowable.
Design thinkers talk about the “Yes, and…” attitude, taking ideas offered by others and building upon them, rather than trying to shoot them down or explain why they’re wrong or off target. They separate the act of generating ideas from the act of evaluating ideas. They emphasize how we need to understand failure as an opportunity to learn, and to let go of control or thinking you can predict outcomes.
This is really a different way of experiencing life psychologically from what most people know. It’s not just about being positive, though the professional design thinkers I encountered were more positive on average than most people I know. It is an entirely different way to process one’s experiences and infer meaning from them.
Most of the time, most people are trying to avoid making what they perceive to be mistakes, and are looking for the quickest, cheapest way to accomplish a specific goal. But design thinking sets that aside. Mistakes are a part of learning and are to be embraced. It’s not that one purposefully makes mistakes, it’s that what a mistake is is not certain until it’s made and when it’s made, it is accepted as valuable data that shows us what doesn’t work.
And it’s not that design thinking looks for the longest, most expensive way to accomplish a specific goal, it’s an attitude that the destination is not obvious at the outset and so some serendipity is required to make the journey. When I was working on a design thinking project with a co-worker upon my return from the program, they were baffled by my line of questioning in some of the user interviews we conducted– we know what problem we’re trying to solve and how we intend to solve it, so why aren’t we asking people about that? I was taking the conversation anywhere but there, because as I understood it, the problem and what we think is the solution is just a place to start, but the true mindset we want to create is one of open consideration that we’re actually trying to arrive some place very different than the land we think we know.
A general approach to creativity
The mindset mentioned above is indeed a major component to the general creative approach design thinking represents. Without putting yourself into the right mental state, you have little hope of generating the breakthrough creative leaps the design thinking approach is known for.
A related concept is paying attention to space and materials when engaged in creative work. If you want to do different work and think different thoughts, you must physically work differently. Don’t sit at your keyboard, stand up in front of a white board. Don’t keep the ideas you’re ruminating about in your head, write them on colorful sticky notes and splatter them all over the walls so you and your compatriots can fully consider them. And don’t, by any means, think you can find all the answers in your office or traditional workspace– you absolutely must go into the field and talk to real people to find out what they think, rather than assume and guess at the thoughts, experiences and emotions of demographic strawmen.
I might have put this into the mindset area but another important principle is the “bias toward action.” This means not overthinking things and instead trying things. Come up with an idea, and then play with it, try it out on people you come across, see how they react. It rejects the idea that something must be perfectly engineered before it can be shown to other people. Seek “good enough” to get the major point across and go from there.
Design thinking certainly seems to offer tools and value for the individual designer, yet I think it emphasizes teamwork. There is an embedded belief that the individual is never as creative by himself as he is being creative in front of other people trying to do the same thing. Using that “Yes, and…” attitude, a group of people working creatively can work themselves into a motivational frenzy and the energy and random nature of exchange and +1 can take them to territory they don’t otherwise have a map to reach. The path isn’t clear and it isn’t contiguous.
One reason design thinking advocates doing and trying is that it’s a cheaper way to fail, and failure is seen as inevitable. Because humans are not omniscient and are extremely unlikely to come up with the perfect answer the first time, it is easy to predict that it will require multiple attempts at creativity and implementation to get to the final form that works as a solution (if even the problem itself isn’t transformed and reinterpreted along the way).
As a result, there is an emphasis on failing quick and often and not building a lot of cost into failure. Design thinking says that crude mockups and models of intended products or feature sets and the use of play-acting or imaginative role play is enough to try an idea out, get feedback and change. When you’re new to it, it seems a bit ridiculous, a bunch of grown adults essentially playing dress up and putting on a show for one another. Even more ridiculous is trying to get perfect strangers on the street to play along.
But this frugal approach allows you to try a lot of ideas quickly and cheaply. And if you get interesting or unusual reactions, you are gathering the exact data you would’ve wanted to get from focus groups, market surveys, etc.
An interesting aspect of all of this play is that it is highly experiential and is used as a tool to connect with people’s past experiences. That is what design thinkers are after– what is a real experience someone had in the past, and how did it make them feel, and how can they make them feel that same way with a new experience they’re trying to design into a product or service?
A specific process for generating user experiences
So that is some of the philosophical ideas behind design thinking. What we learned was also a specific process with 5 main steps:
The first step involves conducting live empathy interviews with “users” a euphemism for a person who might ultimately be the user of a product or service offering you are thinking about creating. Using a “probe”, which in our case was a set of flash cards with a variety of emotions and a prompt such as “Think of a time when you last X, sort these cards in the order of how strongly you felt each emotion”, the design thinker has an excuse to begin talking to strangers.
It’s easy to fool oneself into believing that the conversation is about the probe/prompt, or about the design problem itself, but it’s not. The goal of the conversation is to get people talking about themselves, sharing experiences and specific memories along with the emotional states they triggered. When those experiences are found or those emotional states are identified, certain transitions can be used to keep digging deeper, such as “You said you were feeling Y, can you tell me about another time you really felt Y?” or “You mentioned Z, can you tell me about a specific time you did Z?”
When doing empathy work, the DTBC recommended the following:
By capturing strongly felt emotions and the real experiences that generated them, the design thinker is able to move to the second step in the process, which is to Define the user. This is different than what is commonly done in standard market research by studying demographic data, because demographic data is broad, general and based on averages, whereas the design thinking “user” is specific, real and quite limited in their profile. An example of a user definition might be something like this:
“We met Paul, a graphic designer living in the city who fantasizes about running his own dairy farm whenever he eats cheese, his favorite snack”
Paul here is not a demographic profile. He’s a real, quirky dude (that I made up) with a strange contradiction between where he lives and what he fantasizes about, for example. Defining the user typically follows a process called Point of View, which looks like this:
Whether you had a specific design problem when you started, the Define step and the Point of View process can either help bring more clarity to what your problem might really look like, or it might uncover an entirely new problem you had never actually thought of solving before.
The next step is to Ideate. Ideation is the brainstorming part of the design thinking process and most calls for teamwork. You start with a simple prompt, such as “How could we X for Y so they can Z?” You then start coming up with ideas and “Yes! And…” each one as they’re created to add to it or add another idea it inspired. The goal at this stage is not to critique or rationalize ideas but to simply create as many as possible. You’re not after “one idea” you could implement, or the one that is the final solution. You don’t know what that would be, and coming up with only one simply means you have a high chance of discovering later on you’re wrong and picked the wrong horse to bet on.
One technique for coming up with greater volume of new ideas is to use constraints. The constraints could be real but are usually arbitrary and somewhat outlandish, such as “Each idea must cost $1M to implement” or “Each idea must involve technology to implement”. By focusing your creativity tightly around a special constraint you can actually be more creative within that specific domain because your mind is forced to think about the problem from a new angle.
A similar technique is to think about the emotions involved for your user and think of people or organizations or places that those emotions are strongly tied to, then to ask yourself “What would that person/organization/place create for this user?”
When you come up with a large quantity of ideas, you can then move to the next step which is to prototype one of them. As discussed earlier, prototyping is crude. First, the DTBC recommended a role play. Take your idea and set a scene, define the roles involved in playing out the scene to demo the solution selected and improvise within the role play as you try it out multiple times.
Once you’ve role played, you can actually create a crude prototype and other props to do the role play with users. You want to test one key function at a time, so your prototype includes the following information:
Materials like cardboard boxes, construction paper, glue, saran wrap, markers, pipe cleaners, PVC tubes, etc. are all sufficient quality for the purposes mentioned. What’s more, they’re cheap and just about any physically able person can design with them.
You’re now ready to take it to the field and Test. But here’s the trick! The Test is really the first step, Empathize. And the prototype is really your probe. It’s all an elaborate ploy to get people talking to you some more, but this time with a slightly more concrete circumstance and with the goal of eliciting that precious experiential and emotional feedback in connection to a real product/service you’re thinking about creating.
Over these 5 steps, which can cycle with as many iterations as necessary to find a worthwhile problem to design for and an exciting solution to create (as defined by user feedback), the innovator is going through what the DTBC refers to as “flare and focus”. In the first step, you flare out your ideas and thinking in new and unusual directions, remaining open to new possibilities and experiences you had never thought of or encountered before. When you begin defining your user, you are focusing on something specific about them you’ve noticed, something concrete that can inspire your design. When you ideate for that user’s dilemma, you’re flaring again, trying to get wildly creative with the belief that no idea is a bad idea. Then you select an actual idea you’re excited about and focus again by developing a specific prototype to demonstrate it to the user. And when you test, you flare out and open up to new reactions and possibilities and begin the cycle anew.
Throughout this flaring and focusing you want to keep your eye on your alignment assessment– how close is your “frame”, the way you’re thinking about a problem that needs solving, to your “concept”, the specific solution you have in mind for solving the problem? Your frame and your concept might both change or only one change as you iterate. You might find your frame is sound but your concept is off the mark, or that you actually have a really interesting product or service but you haven’t quite found the right user who would benefit from it.
Some hallmarks of frame and concept alignment in the form of user feedback are:
I think there is something to Design Thinking and I am interested to learn more. I am trying to internalize some of the attitudinal or mindset ideas which I think can be helpful in many domains beyond that of creating new product or service ideas specifically. I like a lot of the general processes, tools and techniques for generating creative ideas and tackling solutions to problems from unique angles. I especially like the idea of questioning whether you have the right problem (frame) in the first place!
One application I am considering is using design thinking principles within my family. How might common family problems be resolved differently with design thinking principles employed? What kind of family life or activity could be designed with design thinking?
The concept of designing for a specific user is also challenging for me to consider. As is focusing on real, past experiences rather than future hypotheticals– design thinkers throw out as unusable any speculation about how a person WOULD behave or WOULD feel in a given anticipated situation because it isn’t certain, whereas how they did feel in a specific experience from the past is known.
I plan to read a bit more on the subject and try to rethink some of the organizational problems we face in our business from the mindset of design thinking. Despite my initial failure to complete my Post Program work, I want to use Design Thinking to find a breakthrough, game changing solution rather than find some kind of incremental progress. If our future and existence as an organization truly hangs in the balance, incrementalism can only delay the inevitable, whereas a paradigm shift could offer not only a survival strategy but a way to actually thrive.