Tag Archives: strategy

Jazz as business metaphor

As a fan of avant garde jazz and an MBA who reads a lot of professional develpment stuff, I’m often frustrated by articles that use jazz as a metaphor or analogy to impart some advice about the importance of improvisation in business. However, I liked several things in Michael Blanding’s recent review of Michael Wheeler’s book on negotiation: The Art of Negotiation.

Blanding opens the review with a quote from Eisenhower that I really like:

There’s a saying in the military: “Plans go out the window at the first contact with the enemy.” Even General Dwight Eisenhower—who oversaw the most ambitious military invasion in modern history—said, “Plans are worthless.” But he added an important caveat: “Planning is everything.”

The review covers many aspects of negotiation, from the aforementioned planning/preparedness, to dealing with uncertainty, to listening, to strategy, to mindfulness and more. Quotes from great negotiators are laid side by side with quotes from recognized artists/improvisers. Near the end of the review, Blanding says:

Being centered emotionally is essential to negotiation success. Wheeler says it requires being comfortable with seemingly contradictory feelings—for example, being simultaneously calm and alert—and approaching negotiation as an ongoing process of discovery about the situation, your counterpart, and perhaps even yourself.

And as long as I’m discussing this, I might as well provide a link to my friend Scott’s article a few years ago, talking about what jazz soloists know about creative collaboration.

 

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The evolution of strategic thinking in noprofits

Jed Emerson’s twitter feed (@blendedvalue) pointed me to this SSIR article by Barbara Kibbe entitled Five Things Strategy Isn’t, which Emerson describes in the comments as “just a really nice framing of how we got here and where we’re headed.”

The first half of the article is just that – a great summary of how “the dynamic duo of strategy and evaluation” has evolved from flip charts that simply record discussions, to logic models, to SROI and beyond. I’m oversimplifying what Kibbe herself calls an oversimplification, but that’s because it’s worth checking the article itself if you’re not familiar with the evolution of evaluation processes, tools and thinking from the 80s to now. My own nonprofit journey didn’t start until the 90s, but being in small local nonprofits, we certainly used 80s tools/thinking in the 90s (and sometimes still today).

The second half of the article opens by saying that the current debate over the value of strategic philanthropy is healthy, but in order to have that debate we should be careful in defining our terms. And Kibbe starts that definitional discussion by pointing out five times when what we call strategic thinking isn’t actually strategic:

  • when it’s fixed – good strategy is never fixed, nor is it a single tool (or a pair of tools). Kibbe quotes Rosabeth Moss Kantor of HBS: “Strategy is a lot like improvisation—setting themes, destinations, directions, and then improvising around those themes.”
  • when it’s insulated – context is key, and if strategy and evaluation are not considered together then both will suffer
  • when it doesn’t consider people – strategy needs to be flexible enough to deal with the complexities of human beings
  • when it’s old, hidden or boring – strategy needs to be current, compelling and shared in order for others to understand it and buy in
  • when we are too attached to it – here Kibbe quotes The Independent Sector’s founder John Gardner saying “Philanthropy is the only source of truly flexible capital for the social good” and following up with how important it is for foundations to listen to and support good ideas from the field.

Kibbe closes with her hopes for the future, including this quote that I really liked:

When we look strategy (and evaluation) in the eye, we will see a useful and evolving suite of tools—no more, no less. Practiced well, and in tandem, they will continue to be powerful aids for decision-making but never substitutes for judgment.

 

Hidden Influencers

Good read today from the McKinsey Quarterly – an article called “Tapping the Power of Hidden Influencers” by Lili Duan, Emily Sheeren and Leigh Weiss.

The article introduces a surveying technique used by social scientists to get data from sex workers, drug dealers and other “hidden populations” who might not be all that thrilled or motivated to contribute to research. Basically, the technique is to keep the surveys very short and include the question “who else should I be talking to?” – it’s called snowball sampling because one name or group of names quickly snowballs into a high-quality cohort.

The authors suggest that this technique can be adapted by business leaders to identify who the “hidden influencers” in their organization are. Because their research has shown that the biggest hindrance to organizational change efforts is employee resistance, the authors encourage using this survey technique to identify influencers throughout the organization and involve those people in change efforts. They share examples of two companies that are using this method, and a few key takeaways from the early results of their efforts.

The research and recommended steps make sense to me – I think the hardest sell is to get senior management to admit their ignorance about who employees actually listen to. The authors address this point as well:

Moreover, we find that even when company leaders believe they know who the influencers will be, they are almost always wrong. At one large North American retailer, for instance, we compared a list of influencers that two store managers created before the survey with its actual results. Between them, the managers overlooked almost two-thirds of the influential employees their colleagues named; worse, both managers missed three of the top five influencers in their own stores. The retailer’s inability to recognize its influencers is no anomaly; we’ve observed a similar pattern in every other industry and geography we’ve studied.

Some of their recommendations include thinking broadly (don’t stop at middle managment – sometimes it is a well-connected and respected cashier that may be the biggest influencer in a store), vetting results (with thoughts on how to deal with the “bad eggs” who are nevertheless strong influencers), and cocreating rather than dictating (involving the influencers early and providing support later).

Good food for thought. While many of the nonprofits I’ve worked in/with are too small for such processes to be relevant, I think that the model could be adapted to include service recipients and other stakeholders.

 

Staying pure after selling out

This week’s HBS Working Knowledge newsletter starts off with an interesting proposition: what happens when a well-known socially responsible business is acquired by a multinational?  Professors James E. Austin and Herman B. “Dutch” Leonard discuss their recent research, which examines such acquisitions as Ben & Jerry’s by Unilever, Tom’s of Maine by Colgate and Stonyfield Farms by Dannon.  Their work suggests that it is possible for a company to stay true to its social mission after acquisition, presented in a working paper asking “Can the Virtuous Mouse and the Wealthy Elephant Live Happily Ever After?”  

The discussion touches on some great questions, including why the elephants would want to acquire mice with a conscience and why it could be a good deal for the mouse (they’re not selling out – they’re scaling up).

An excerpt is below, but it’s totally worth your time to read the entire (brief) HBS interview with Austin and Leonard:

Q: How can elephants protect the mouse’s social value and brand integrity?

A: The more effective large companies have recognized that preserving the social icon’s distinctive culture and business approach is essential to preserving its key success factors. Consequently, they retain a large degree of organizational independence so as to prevent “contamination” of the social technology.

This stands in contrast to the common approach in acquisitions to integrate and rationalize the assets into the new owner’s systems, structure, and culture. Some of the specific mechanisms used in successful mouse-elephant agreements include governance structures and processes that give the “mice” review and even veto power over actions by the “elephants” that might jeopardize those elements that are deemed essential to the social values underlying the brand’s integrity.

Retaining the social entrepreneur in the joint venture is highly desirable

McKinsey on Strategy – First Quarter Newsletter

I think I’ve mentioned before that I find the McKinsey Quarterly’s free resources available by signing up for their newsletter to be top notch.  This quarter’s entries for top strategy articles are no exception.  The descriptions below are taken directly from the e-mail newsletter.  I’ve deleted the ones that are only available to premium (paid) subscribers.  I’ve only read the climate change and Brad Bird/Pixar ones so far, but both were excellent.

Business strategies for climate change
April 2008
The value at stake is huge. The winners will be companies that reposition themselves to take advantage of a low-carbon future.

Dissecting global trends: An example from Italy
March 2008
Executives should examine the impact of trends on subindustries, segments, categories, and micromarkets before placing their bets.

The promise of prediction markets: A roundtable
April 2008
Prediction markets draw together information dispersed across the company, but they face organizational and legal challenges.

Innovation lessons from Pixar: An interview with Oscar-winning director Brad Bird
April 2008
His approach to fostering creativity among animators holds powerful lessons for any executive hoping to nurture innovation in teams and organizations.

McKinsey Interviews: Al Gore and More!

Consulting giant McKinsey & Co has a free subscription service offering a subscription to their business publication, the McKinsey Quarterly. While they do have some articles that are “premium” and require you to purchase full access, a startlingly large percentage of what they put out is free. It’s shocking, but they offer more free content than any of the other business knowledge services I subscribe to (HBS, SSIR, Net Impact) with the exception of Origo Inc’s cross-sector news which is totally free and published less frequently. N.B. All of these services require registration, which means giving out your name, e-mail address and company affiliation, but I find that the information I receive is worth far more than this small amount of personal data. Also, links to each of these services can be found at the right side of this page in the “Social Entrepreneurship Resources” list – no time to create individual links today – sorry!

Today I received an e-mail with the McKinsey Quarterly’s top interviews of 2007. I thought that folks might be interested in one with Al Gore and David Blood on investing in sustainability.

The others from the list that I found particularly helpful and/or interesting were:

Strategy’s strategist: An interview with Richard Rumelt
A giant in the field of strategy ruminates on strategic planning, diversification and focus, and the role of the CEO.

Crafting a message that sticks: An interview with Chip Heath
The key to effective communication: make it simple, make it concrete, and make it surprising.

Promoting growth and social progress: An interview with the president of Chile
Michelle Bachelet discusses her views on the roots of political upheaval in Latin America, and the link between economic development and the fight against poverty.

Leading change: An interview with the CEO of Deere & Company
Bob Lane details the steps his company took to engage the whole organization in an operational and cultural transformation.

Authenticity over Exaggeration

Yeah, it took an HBS professor to figure this one out. Authenticity is important in new media marketing. This recent article from HBS Working Knowledge looks at the research of professor John Deighton. After a review of the Dove “real beauty” campaign, we get this meaty tidbit:

The new rules

But what does this all boil down to for companies that want to be successful in this relatively new environment? In the working paper, Deighton and Kornfeld discuss 5 aspects of digital interactivity, including

  • Thought tracing. Firms infer states of mind from the content of a Web search and serve up relevant advertising; a market born of search terms develops.
  • Ubiquitous connectivity. As people become increasingly “plugged in” through cell phones and other devices, marketing opportunities become more frequent as well—and technology develops to protect users from unwanted intrusions. A market in access and identity results.
  • Property exchanges. As with Napster, Craigslist, and eBay, people participate in the anonymous exchange of goods and services. Firms compete with these exchanges, and a market in service, reputation, and reliability develops.
  • Social exchanges. People build identities in virtual communities like Korea’s Cyworld (90 percent of Koreans in their 20s are members). Firms may then sponsor or co-opt communities. A market in community develops that competes on functionality and status.
  • Cultural exchanges. While advertising has always been part of popular culture, technology has increased the rate of exchange and competition for buzz. In addition to Dove’s campaign, Deighton cites BMW’s initiative to hire Hollywood directors and actors to create short, Web-only films featuring BMWs. In the summer of 2001, the company recorded 9 million downloads.

These 5 aspects show increasing levels of effective engagement in creating social meaning and identity, Deighton suggests, noting that the first 2 (thought tracing and ubiquitous connectivity) change the rules of marketing but don’t alter the traditional paradigm of predator and prey. In the last 3 (property, social, and cultural exchanges), the marketer has to become someone who is invited into the exchange or is even pursued (as in the case of the BMW films) as an entity possessing cultural capital.