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Happy 13th Birthday Digital Tonto!

2022 August 7
by Greg Satell

When I started this blog back in 2009, the world was a very different place. First, and perhaps most obvious, we used to come up with brand names for our blogs instead of just using our real names. Social media was just becoming a thing and there was still debate about whether digital media was a viable advertising platform.

In the early years, I argued that Facebook actually was worth the $50 billion valuation Goldman Sachs gave it. It is now with over $400 billion, even as it faces a blackout in the EU. Today, in an era that has seen pandemic, rising authoritarianism, war and strife, those times seem almost quaint. We understood so little of what kind of trouble was brewing. Now we need to figure how to fix it all.

Still, I remain optimistic. Looking through old Digital Tonto “birthday” posts I noticed that we used to assume that we could change the world by creating more powerful technology. Now it’s more clear that our challenge is change itself, which we really suck at. This week, Digital Tonto turns 13 and, like in previous years, I’m sharing some of my favorite posts.

Adopting A Changemaker Mindset

When we look back at transformational icons, their paths seem inevitable. Of course, they were able to achieve amazing things, they were superhuman people! But they didn’t start out that way. As a young lawyer, Gandhi was so shy he couldn’t even speak up in court. Nelson Mandela started out as an angry black nationalist. Steve Jobs was a college dropout.

What made the difference, in every case I’ve come across, is that they eventually embraced a changemaker mindset—they learned to identify common ground upon which they could build a shared future. Gandhi based his “Satyagraha” philosophy on the force of truth. Mandela built bridges to his most ardent opponents. Jobs made even the most sophisticated technology accessible to everyone.

The great misconception about empathy is that it is a form of altruism. It isn’t. It is a practice that promotes the learning and understanding needed to achieve your objectives. That is the changemaker mindset: To understand that change is hard, even unlikely, but to remain clear-eyed, hard-nosed and opportunity focused.

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We Need To Stop Cheerleading Change

Everywhere you look, we’re talking about change more, but doing it less. That’s a problem. Managers who want to be seen as change leaders launch too many initiatives. Employees, for their part, get jaded and wait for the newest idea to fail, just as the others before. The result is inevitably innovation theater, rather than meaningful change.

The truth is that change is hard and people are struggling. Cheerleading change puts the cart before the horse. People don’t embrace change because you came up with a fancy slogan, they adopt what they find meaningful, that creates genuine value to their lives and their work. Without that, all the happy talk just seems like a con.

We need to have more reverence for the mundane and ordinary. For better or worse, it works and it’s what people know. To create genuine transformation we need to get out of the business of selling ideas and into the business of selling success.  If we can help allies to make change successful, even on a small scale, they can bring in others who bring in others still.

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Why Smart People Are So Easily Fooled

In an earlier age, flim-flam artists used to go from town to town, preying on unsuspecting rubes. Today, however, we seem to be living in an era of the high-class con. Stories like those portrayed in Inventing Anna, The Dropout and The Wizard of Lies faithfully told the true exploits of Anna Sorokin, Elizabeth Holmes and Bernie Madoff, respectively.

In each case, thinly veiled schemes were able to fleece supposedly sophisticated people out of millions of dollars. These people had the resources to investigate and verify basic facts, but chose not to. In fact, in many cases, they actually prevented others from vetting the investments properly because they were so sure they were on to a good thing.

Smart, successful people expect to see things others don’t, especially in our pathologically meritocratic age, where successful CEOs and entrepreneurs purport to be experts in a wide array of fields, including education, clean energy and public affairs. The truth is that there’s a sucker born every minute and, invariably, they think they’re playing it smart.

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4 Reasons Why People Resist Change

Probably the greatest misconception about change is that it fails because people don’t understand it. The truth is that change usually fails because it is actively sabotaged. The status quo has inertia on its side and never yields its power gracefully. Anytime you ask people to change what they think or how they act, you can expect resistance.

Yet not all resistance is the same. Some people are merely skeptical about change, they are looking for evidence based, rational arguments that the proposed action will achieve positive results. Often, however, resistance is irrational and no amount of evidence will be persuasive. People are actively working to subvert change efforts.

To successfully bring about significant change, you need to be able to address all forms of resistance, not just the rational ones. In fact it is the people who oppose change for reasons tied to identity, dignity and sense of self that often derail transformational initiatives. You can ask someone to change their behavior, but you can’t ask them to stop being who they think they are.

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We Need To Shift Our Mindsets To Compete In An Ecosystem-Driven World

Traditionally we’ve thought about business strategy through a linear lens. Commerce was nicely organized into industries and businesses could be represented through value chains. Managers, like chess players, could think through their moves sequentially, moving step-by-step to outsmart their competition and achieve their objectives.

Yet unlike chess, where everyone knows that their objective is to capture the opponent’s king, in today’s ecosystem-driven world the basis of competition is in continuous flux, so we cannot be absolutely sure of the objective when we start out, or even if our opponent is really an opponent and not a potential ally.

That’s why strategy today requires a more Bayesian approach in which we don’t expect to get things right as much as we hope to become less wrong over time. As I wrote in Harvard Business Review some years ago, “competitive advantage” is no longer the sum of all efficiencies, but the sum of all connections. Strategy, therefore, must be focused on deepening and widening networks of information, talent, partners, and consumers.”

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Good Management Is Not Good Strategy. Here’s What Is:

The essence of a good strategy, as Richard Rumelt noted in Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, is that it brings relative strength to bear against relative weakness in the service of solving a meaningful problem. As he points out in his new book, The Crux, managers often struggle because they fail to see how different strategy is from their regular jobs.

Managers plan and direct action. They streamline operations, create consistency and tend to the needs of their employees, partners and customers. These are important jobs that require energy, attentiveness and empathy. Yet none of them have anything to do with strategy, which requires us to make choices in the face of uncertainty.

That’s why good management isn’t good strategy. Good management achieves objectives, good strategy needs to identify and define them.. It is a process of discovery, not a matter of execution. A successful strategy doesn’t just win the game, it redefines it in ways that play to our advantage.

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4 Myths That Are Killing Business Today

Mark Twain is said to have remarked, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” The aphorism is so popular because we all know it to be true. If fact there is significant scientific evidence that suggests, the more confident we are, the more likely we are to be wrong.

That’s probably why myths are so persistent. Once something becomes common knowledge, no one ever thinks to question it, examine its basis in fact or come up with alternative theories. This is especially true in the realm of business, where authority often dictates reality.

The four myths I chose for this post are some of my favorites. Take a look and see if you recognize them.

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Leading Through Uncertainty

The most important thing a leader does is make decisions. Invariably, most of the consequential ones are made without enough time or information. We can never be truly sure we’re making the right decision, but good leaders understand it is their job to take that responsibility.

You can never really be certain until you take that step forward. The simple and inescapable truth is that to accomplish anything significant you need to travel on an uncertain journey. It is tautologically true that the well-trod path will take us nowhere new. We can never fully control uncertainty, but we can learn to lead through it.

We need to start thinking less like engineers, designing just the right combination of levers and pulleys to account for every eventuality, and more like gardeners, seeding and nurturing ecosystems, pruning as we go. Gardeners don’t need to know the exact outcome of everything they plant, but can seek to improve the harvest each season.

Read it now


Leveraging The Power Of Story

Stories have the power to unite us because their themes are universal. We can all relate to a hero, identify with their struggle and then revel in their triumph or, as is sometimes the case, learn a lesson from their tragedy. By telling a familiar story in an unfamiliar context, we can also gain insight and understanding into the hopes and fears of others.

That’s what makes the art of storytelling so powerful and so important. When Shakespeare’s King Henry needed his soldiers to fight, he did not offer to raise their pay or threaten them with the stockade, but told a story to inspire them to go “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…”

In the final analysis, we live our lives not for external rewards, but for intrinsic meaning and we determine meaning through the stories we tell, the narratives we adopt and the missions to which we dedicate the best of our talents and energies.

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How The “Uber Economy” Is Killing Innovation, Prosperity And Entrepreneurship

To date, more than $25 billion has been invested in Uber. But what has been created? What lasting value has resulted. Boeing invested about $2 billion in today’s dollars to develop the 707 in 1956. A few years later, IBM invested the equivalent of more than $30 billion to create System 360. Both transformed entire industries.

Uber, on the other hand, put taxis out of business. Well, not taxis really, but taxi dispatchers. It also spent a lot of money on marketing. No significant new technology was created or infrastructure built or even new skills gained. Most of that investment went towards undercutting competitors that could easily create the same product.

That’s the Uber economy and it’s killing us. We need to shift our efforts—and our investments—from disrupting industries to tackling grand challenges. Since I wrote this, the government has—through bipartisan legislation—committed to making significant investments in that regard. Private industry needs to do the same.

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So those are some of my favorite posts over the last year or so. Thank you all for your continued support. See you next year!

– Greg




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