Follow the Right Idea Threads

“I can’t recall a period of time that was as volatile, complex, ambiguous and tumultuous. As one successful executive puts it, ‘if you’re not confused, you don’t know what’s going on’.” – Warren Bennis

Yesterday we had the honor or producing an event with Ram Charan, surely one of, if not the, most sought-after executive and management consultants in the world. His presentation was indeed thought-provoking and inspiring, but I’ll just pick one of his insights to share here: follow the right idea threads. We got into a conversation during our interview that has become almost cliché about the rapidity of change, the compounding nature of change, the complexity and chaos of rapidly changing technologies and information, etc etc… In our interview I asked him how is it possible to keep up with it all – which is what many people try to do. He agreed that of course this was impossible and said, “The key is to focus on what matters.”

Well yes, but that doesn’t exactly tell me what matters, so I asked him how do you know what matters. He went on to explain it’s all about context and what matters to you, in your work, in your organization, the problems you are trying to solve – and your best approach must be to follow the idea threads that matter. What he meant is that while of course we can’t possibly digest the encyclopedia of our particular domain expertise, what we must do is follow the conversations where the center of gravity is. By attending a conference relevant to your field of expertise and interest, the keynote will drop a reference to a seminal study, and then you’ll go back to your hotel room and look up that study and follow that thread. These threads don’t always end in eureka!, but by staying close enough to the thinkers and ideas that matter, you can follow the right idea threads.

I have a personal example. I recently reached out to Arie Lewin, at Duke Fuqua School of Business, to request an interview with him around his seminal ideas of creating super-adaptive firms by globally sourcing ideas. During an advance call with Dr. Lewin to discuss content he referenced the work of Vivek Wadhwa. In my ignorance I had to ask him to spell it twice, but it sent me on a journey to read Vivek’s studies and listen to several podcasts and interviews he has given recently on moving labor markets and talent. Now convinced that Vivek’s work represents not only excellence that matters in the world, but also important to my discovery process on moving talent pools, I have a new idea thread to follow. It works like that – follow the right people and ideas and they will lead you to the next.

Enjoy the journey and find the right idea threads.

Leadership character vs. The Hippo

Paul Templer is from Zimbabwe and grew up with my college roommate Anton, so I had the privilege to meet him years ago when he was traveling the states.  When he was visiting us in NC, I commented how much I appreciated his velskoene shoes from Africa – they are traditional leather bush boots, pronounced ‘fellsquin’ and known commonly as ‘fellies.’  Anyway, at the end of his visit he said he would like me to have them and I insisted to pay him something.  He said, “surprise me with whatever you want to pay for them, but they are yours.”  I gave him the $40 or so in my pocket and enjoyed these African boots, but even more so, appreciated his warm fun company and stories from Africa.  That brief story is just to set up his generous character.

A few years later we had all graduated and set off on other adventures, and Paul returned to Zimbabwe to become a licensed river and bush guide and establish a touring company.  This story you might vaguely recall from over ten years ago, because his heroic efforts hit the international news wire, and was later featured in a National Geographic story.  Paul was guiding a group of tourists down the Zambezi river and had divided his clients between himself and the two other guides aiding him that day.  Paul was keenly aware hippos are notoriously territorial and took precaution to keep his group close and periodically bang the side of the boat to encourage the hippos to surface and be seen by their little armada.

Suddenly his friends guide boat was flipped by a 4,000lb hippo and both the guide and his clients were launched into the river.  Paul responded immediately and lept into the river to save his guide and direct his clients to the shore, but the hippo attacked Paul repeatedly holding him down beneath the surface, and eventually when he was freed by the beast and swam to shore, his arm had been nearly severed and his lung had been punctured.  The nearest surgeon was 270 miles away in Bulawayo over a dusty difficult jeep ride, and hours later upon arriving and the doctor was left with no choice but to amputate Paul’s arm.

Paul’s second act has been to marry, father three beautiful children and become a successful, dedicated and talented speaker, coach and inspiration for many around the world.  In the wake of this event, Paul has found strength.  Check him out – be inspired.

Medicine is for the people, only after will profits follow

“We try never to forget that medicine is for the people.  It is not for profits.  The profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they never fail to appear.” – George Merck II

In 1995 CEO Ray Gilmartin described the principle driver for Merck as growth.  Not profitability, not cutting edge scientific breakthroughs, nor medicinal innovation or R&D… no, but growth.  That intent continued into 2000 when the chairman’s letter to shareholders stated, “As a company, Merck is totally focused on growth.”  At the time Merck had good reason to believe it could, in fact, accomplish this goal.  They were on the cusp of releasing the FDA-approved and PTO-patented drug Vioxx.  By 2002 Vioxx sales worldwide approached 2.5 billion, which weighed against a 25 billion company represented significant growth indeed.  But in the same time period studies were finding an alarming relationship between Vioxx and an increase in ‘cardiovascular thrombotic events’ – heart attacks and strokes.

In 2008 the New York Times published an article revealing that research papers on Vioxx were often ghostwritten by Merck writers and then published under the byline of prestigious doctors and scientists.  All in efforts to substantiate the value and public perception of Merck and Vioxx.  By early 2005 the FDA had officially attributed up to 139,000 deaths to Vioxx and unofficial estimates ranged upwards of 250,000 globally, although statistics are difficult to gather in developing nations.

And while Gilmartin laudably ordered Marck to voluntarily remove Vioxx from the market in the fall of 2004, sending Merck’s stock from $45 to $33, one must wonder if Merck’s goal in the product Vioxx served the vision of George Merck II.  Jim Collins reminds in How the Mighty Fall that the pursuit of profit over value, of growth over service can destroy even the mightiest of companies.  Motorola, HP, IBM, even NASA have all suffered from hubris, conceit, denial of risk, and yet returned from the brink of disaster.  Merck’s lesson is: remember the core vision and values, money will follow.

Strategy in 3 boxes

Vijay Govindarajan has a great mental model that distills strategy and innovation into a simple 3-box model: Manage the Present, Selectively Abandon the Past, and Create the Future.  People think they spend much more time creating and building the future than they actually do.  According to Vijay we spend an overwhelming majority of our time simply managing the present state of affairs, instead of executing on a vision of the future.

This isn’t to say we don’t think about the future and how we would like it to be.  As Dan Gilbert reminds us in Stumbling on Happiness, we spend a great deal of time envisioning the future and fantasizing about what will make us happy – the car, the job, the house, the spouse, whatever.  [Gilbert also describes why we often make mistakes about what we think will make us happy but he gives solutions – go read it.  Awesome book.]  Vijay’s point is that we spend precious little time actually doing anything concrete to achieve that envisioned future – that basically the present can be so demanding of our time it consumes our attention with tasks instead of truly strategic execution.  This all makes sense but I was particularly intrigued by Vijay’s suggestion that we also need to be selectively abandoning the past.  I posted about this recently after listening to Jim Collins on “Start your stop-doing list.”

We have a bunch of QuickTalks featuring Vijay and we’re scheduling to produce more with him shortly.  Enjoy!

Beware your first decisions of 2009!

It’s the first week of January and customary for us to make new or renewed vows.  Before you do, consider this advice: Once you decide something – anything really – it sets a precedent for yourself and you are quite likely to repeat that decision regardless of the quality of the choice.  Recently we filmed Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, and he has a short bit of advice warning us that what we decide once, we may be doomed to repeat regardless of the value of that decision.  Consider the common impulse to go to the packed restaurant, as opposed to the relatively less attended restaurant across the street, or across town.  Your impulse tells you that since many people fraternize that establishment, it must be better – and perhaps the crowd is right.  Barry Libert, James Surowiecki and others have built compelling arguments that the crowd knows far better than what you alone think is best, but Dan cautions against the inconsiderate repetitiveness of this kind of decision-making.

Surowiecki demonstrates the wisdom of crowds by showing that in the show “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?”, by far (91%) the audience is more helpful an accomplice than phoning a friend or the 50/50 option to reduce choices.  Ariely agrees that the market in general can be a powerful ally in decision-making but this process must be revisited repeatedly to reconfirm whatever you decide.  So instead of effectively standing in line behind yourself – since you are following your first decision – his advice is to re-evaluate the quality of that decision each time.

Change is inevitable, growth is intentional.  – Glenda Cloud

Start your Stop Doing List

Habit is a hard thing to break and some habits are good, but like Spencer Johnson’s parable Who Moved My Cheese, it’s Hem who keeps looking in the same place for the cheese which has, of course, moved… Someone close to me has stopped after years (and years!) of smoking.  The biggest challenge I’ve learned from her is that smoking is associative with all kinds of other activities and the real challenge is to discover and create whole new activities, engagements, mental models, and eventually habits, which substitute for and supplant that behavior.  Now I recognize smoking is an addition, not merely a habit, but extend that metaphor to your daily activities and create anew behaviors which supplant the habit you want to eradicate.

Think not only in terms of ‘What not to do’ but also ‘What to do instead?’ Marvelous new journeys await – she is now an accomplished photographer by using the exploration of photography and capturing beautiful imagery to supplant a habit she is breaking. What habits do you have which keep you looking in the same places for things which have moved elsewhere?  Jim Collins has a nice message here advising us to make a list of the things you do which aren’t working and – yes – begin to stop doing them!  Collins has a six-step model to Stop Doing and the first is to identify your Hedgehog: What You Are Good At, What You Are Passionate About, and What You Can Make a Livelihood At.  For example, I’m passionate about playing guitar and piano but I understand I’m not terribly good at either and I’m unlikely to make a living at it.  Recognize your Hedgehog, and align it with your Do-List and your Stop Doing List.

Seizing Opportunities

robert_kotick_half.jpgRobert Kotick was an academically dis-interested college sophmore when, on a lark, went to a charity ball. He met Steve Wynn. You have to hear him tell it. Bob Kotick is an incredibly self-effacing guy running one of the coolest companies in the world. He has made Activision a fun, cutting-edge gaming software company and the envy of Silicon Valley. And he did it seizing opportunities every step of the way.