Doubting our plans

Most things written by academics about strategy fall into the two broad categories of strategic planning and strategic execution.

It seems that the academics have not been speaking to people outside their institutions enough. 

John Lennon probably had a clearer view of how things really work when he sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Nobody sees the future like they believe they do. Ask Nassim Nicholas Taleb or Daniel Kahneman.

All we can do is hypothesise and test those hypotheses as Jim Clarke describes in his work on Business Plan You.

Doubting that our plan will work is the first step towards thinking about the future as it is likely to play out. 

Beyond planning and executing to testing hypothesise

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Two ways forward

There are at least two ways to plan and get things done. 

One way is to plot.

That is breaking everything that needs to get done into smaller and smaller pieces and then manage your way towards the outcome. 

The other way is to be ready.

When opportunities arise grab them, when they don’t arise sit back and wait for opportunities to arise.

Both ways need you to know, at a high level, where you would like to get to.

The first so you can plot the steps and the second so that you know which opportunities to grab.

In 1998, author Richard Rumelt (Good Strategy / Bad Strategy) met with Steve Jobs and pointing out that having only one computer would consign Apple to a niche that they would never be able to escape from, Rummelt asked Jobs, ‘What is your long term strategy?’

Jobs didn’t attack his argument. Instead he smiled and said ‘I’m going to wait for the next big thing’

Steve Jobs - I'm going to wait for the next big thing













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Mandela: I want revenge but I want something more

There is a line in the movie Mandela, Long walk to freedom which struck for its honesty and insight. 

While still in prison and negotiating with his captors, at a point they say that he ‘surely wants revenge’. 

“I admit I want revenge”, he says, “but I want something more. I want to live without fear and hatred.”

Whether he actually said the words or they are a dramatisation created for the movie, the message is profound particularly when thinking about strategy. 

Mandela could have been caught in his emotions of hatred for what whites and apartheid had done to his people. He realised however that this would simply reverse roles. He said to his captors that if focused on revenge, then the end game would be him caught in the same prison that they were in.

An incredible insight. 

Like a good chess player, he had played out the scenarios and seen them clearer and further into the future than his enemy at the time.

Personally, by acknowledging his want for revenge and being able to put it aside, he was able to go after what he really desired, sustainable freedom for all South Africans.

He lifted the whole negotiation to a different level. 

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
– Nelson Mandela

“I admit I want revenge












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Can we assume Blackberry will still be around?

Assumptions are filters through which we see the world. With too much information flowing past us and too many decisions to make on most days, we do a very human thing which is to assume. 

As assumption is like a mental shortcut. It allows us to move forward without doing all the detailed work. This makes a lot of sense most of the time.

Sometime however assumptions can cause real problems. Like in an environment where misunderstanding can have high costs. I remember my flying instructor explaining how we do radio calls to the control tower at Cape Town International airport.

A quick piece of context here is that we were flying in a two seater Cessna and were using the same runway as the local and international Boeing’s and Airbuses. His line which has always stuck with me is that if we assume something in this situation we are at risk or making an-ass-of-u-and-me.  

In business making assumptions is a key part of being entrepreneurial and growing a business. If we spend too much time analysing, we don’t ever get out the door. To get out the door we need to make some assumptions.

The deceptive thing about assumptions is that if we have made them once and they worked out, then we are likely to feel more confident the next time when making a similar assumption. This has been the downfall of many a business person who has been very successful in one area and tried to do exactly the same in another without checking their assumptions. Michael Jordan attempting to play baseball for the Chicago White Sox is also an example of this. 

Blackberry’s challenges over the past years is a modern day example of assumptions gone wrong. Coming from the success that RIM and now Blackberry had, dominating the business smartphone market for all those years, it must have been hard for them not to assume that they would continue to dominate.

Their assumption was that an iPhone was impossible back in 2007 when it was announced. A former employee of Blackberry revealed that the assumption internally was that what Apple were promising in the iPhone could not work. Imagine the panic when they realised that they were wrong. They have been playing catch up ever since. 

It is hard to be at the top of your game and then have someone join in who changes the rules to your disadvantage. Assuming it will never happen in a world where technology changes as fast as it does is perhaps a little naive. Andy Grove of Intel took his distrust of assumptions to an extreme level by calling his autobiography, ‘Only the paranoid survive’.

Blackberry’s current roll out of Blackberry Messenger (BBM) to iPhone and Android is looking like further poor assumptions. From the outside we can only guess at the impact giving BBM away free to their competitors will do for their floundering business.

Internally Blackberry must have made a couple of assumptions that look something like this:

  1. Keeping BBM proprietary to Blackberry will sentence it to obsolescence on a shrinking client base,
  2. Bearing (1) in mind, people other than the dwindling Blackberry population, will use BBM if it is available for free; and
  3. BBM available free on the competitor iPhone and Android platforms will be good for the Blackberry business.

Supposing I am correct about the assumptions above, then it is clear that this is a delicate situation for Blackberry. Perception has changed about Blackberry’s ability to deliver a popular smartphone. This is reflected in its market share of 4% at the end of August (against iPhone’s 40.7% and Android’s 51.6%), a fraction of the 20% they held in 2009 (source Gartner).

This makes the manner in which they have rolled out BBM disappointing. This included delivery in late October despite aiming for early September, mixed messages from their partner Samsung, no communication to people who have indicated interest and when it did arrive on my iPhone the only thing the app does is to say that I am in a queue to get it later. Really?

Perhaps there is an assumption that the whole world is anxiously awaiting BBM. This may be the case or it may be that many people like me are wanting it to stay in contact with the handful of people close to them who still insist on staying with Blackberry. I hope for Blackberry’s sake that when it does actually arrive it is a strong contender for WhatsApp and paid for text messages.

BBM assuming everyone is waiting with bated breath for BBM






















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Looking for answers is a poor substitute for good questions

For the past seven years I have  taught a course on strategic thinking to students at the University of Cape Town. I ended up doing this by accident.

Prof John Simpson, well known for starting and leading the UCT Unilever Institute of Strategic Marketing was the previous convenor of the course and asked me to help him out after a guest lecture I did on the changes we were navigating in our startup bank.

With the Prof’s wanting to focus on the Unilever Institute after his retirement, I took over the convening of the course a few years later.

I was intrigued to bring together my business experience of strategy and the academic world of strategy. I started on a steep learning curve attempting to create an environment where final year Business Science students could think more strategically about the business world that lay ahead. 

The students come predominantly from a finance background (60%) which is roughly split in half between those aiming to become CA’s and those not. The next biggest segment is marketers and then actuaries, organisational psychologists and a handful of people majoring in technology.

I quickly identified three significant challenges that I faced in teaching the class.

  1. Students adopt a strategy of getting to the other side of exams with as many marks and as little work as possible.
  2. The text books are more suited to academics than to preparing students to be strategic thinkers.
  3. The education system encourages the finding of ‘right answers’ over asking useful questions. 
The first item is a possibly a universal given for any student.
The second I addressed by replacing a single text book with selected readings from contemporary journals and books covering a wide range of topics related to thinking strategically. 
The third I decided to take on as a challenge which still engages me.
My experience of working in my own business and working with many large and small organisations over the past 25 years has confirmed that there are few easy answers in the world of strategy. Leaders who are seeking a single answer to a strategic challenge are possibly naive or missing the point.
The problem with strategy, is that we do not know how the future will play out and despite our best guesses, plans or budgets, to think otherwise is irrational. 

So rather than look for an answer to this dilemma, a good question offers many nuances that are useful to our thinking process. Open and insightful, a question which challenges our thinking can lead us on a much more useful thought process than spending our time trying to find the single correct answer.

While a question is the start of this process,  an answer often signals to us that we have reached the end and can stop looking.  This finality, while tempting, can be fatal for a business person on the way up or at the pinnacle of success.

Questions and answers are of course linked. However we need to resist jumping to answers before we have spent enough time on the question. 

Anyone who has tried to implement the suggestions in a business advice book will confirm there are no model answers in business.

We have more chance of success by getting clear on the question. By refining it and polishing it and allowing ourselves the indulgence of thinking deeply over a period of time, new possibilities can open up. 

In a world with all information available to mostly everyone all the time, the opportunity for eureka moments is long gone.

Our challenge comes in navigating information, making connections, synthesising and integrating. A good question is a great pilot for this navigation. 

And to my students frustrated by the lack of clearly defined answers in the world of strategic thinking, here are some questions.

How can you engage in the practice of strategic thinking?  

How have the answers you have arrived at been tested by insightful questions? 

And, isn’t there something else you may have missed?

Questions are more powerful than answers











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Dance to your own tune

Considering the number of books offering business, managerial, leadership, strategic, self help and other forms of advice, it is a wonder how we managed before they were around.

Funnily enough these books can be useful, just don’t follow them too closely. 

Read what they say, listen to the theories and the proposals for what you should do or think, and who and how you should be.

But then build your own theory.

Borrow from others.  But never believe their theories will work for you in the same way they work for them.

We all need to test and try and perfect our own theories for success.

Then perhaps we can write our own book.

Even if it is just for ourselves.

Borrow from others. But never believe their theories will work for you in the same way they work for them.

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Strategies that change the world: Grameen Bank

Muhammad Yunus has shown himself to be a leader who has managed to translate visions into practical action for the benefit of millions of people, not only in Bangladesh, but also in many other countries. Loans to poor people without any financial security had appeared to be an impossible idea. From modest beginnings three decades ago, Yunus has, first and foremost through Grameen Bank, developed micro-credit into an ever more important instrument in the struggle against poverty. Grameen Bank has been a source of ideas and models for the many institutions in the field of micro-credit that have sprung up around the world.

Every single individual on earth has both the potential and the right to live a decent life. Across cultures and civilizations, Yunus and Grameen Bank have shown that even the poorest of the poor can work to bring about their own development.

Micro-credit has proved to be an important liberating force in societies where women in particular have to struggle against repressive social and economic conditions. Economic growth and political democracy can not achieve their full potential unless the female half of humanity participates on an equal footing with the male.

Yunus’s long-term vision is to eliminate poverty in the world. That vision can not be realised by means of micro-credit alone. But Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank have shown that, in the continuing efforts to achieve it, micro-credit must play a major part.”

I’m interested in people who have strategies to change the world? Often these people go unnoticed for many years. I’d like to notice them. Who do you know who is changing the world?

Source: press release for the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize

Read more about the Grameen Bank and Muhammad Yunus.

Has Google outgrown ‘do no evil’?

Google this week moved their servers from mainland China to Hong Kong. It signals their best possible response to the dilemma of balancing their mantra of “do no evil” against a Chinese government intent on censoring and limiting the way the search company tries to organize the world’s information.

Caught up in mud-slinging between the US and Chinese governments and a Chinese cyber attack on some of its senior engineers, Google is also facing some serious strategic issues.

Against the backdrop of their significant success these latest issues may seem trivial. They are however as a result of their successful strategy to date and indicate some of the challenges that only arise when an organization gets to the size of Google.

Over the next years they are going to need to completely re-think the strategic approach on which founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin built the company.

‘The bigger they are the harder they fall’ is a reminder to Google that it cannot step as nimbly and unobtrusively as it did in its early years where it boldly took on a number of markets which it quickly dominated. Now every move has bigger consequences.

One such play is the Apple / Microsoft / Google showdown. Apple is thinking of replacing it’s default search on its iPhone with Microsoft’s Bing while Google’s Android is competing head on with the iPhone. What sounded like a great idea, launch a phone, is now looking like a long hard battle for market share against a formidable foe in Apple. On another front, Google is squaring off against the European community where there are growing problems on the antitrust front with either lawsuits or threatened lawsuits by Italy, France and Germany.

Building relationships with governments and co-existing with some seriously ambitious competitors and partners is going to become more and more important to their strategic thinking.

At 12 years old, Google heads into its teenage years facing many of the confusing dilemmas teenagers discover, often to their horror. Suddenly not everyone loves them and each decision seems to have ever more far reaching consequences. Without a clear view of the future the complexity can be bewildering.

With everyone wanting to take a bite out of them, often in markets that they have themselves created, the balance between creating new success and holding on to success is likely to even out. Their strategy will need to address this.

All the while “do no evil” is starting to sound a little quaint.

Methods of persuasion

Strategy is no good without getting people to follow it. If you have cleared up your strategic direction then you could look to Aristotle on how to persuade people to follow you.

My friend and colleague Liz shared Aristotle’s wisdom on modes of persuasion at a leadership development programme that we co-facilitated earlier this week.

Aristotle proposed that there were three modes of persuasion; Logos, Pathos & Ethos.

Logos – persuading people with logic
Pathos – persuading people through emotion or a passionate appeal
Ethos – persuading people through your character

What’s your dominant approach and how could you be more persuasive?

Video Blog: Springbok Coach Gary Gold on Strategy

Gary Gold
Gary Gold
Gary Gold and I sat down this week and recorded a video blog about his strategy when he decided to become a professional rugby coach. He’s had a very successful stint as part of the team that won both the Tri-Nations and the Lions Tour last year.

I really enjoyed the advice he had for rugby coaches wanting to make a career professionally.

The video is in two parts.

Part 1:

Part 2