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3 Important Things That Monkeys Can Teach Us About Business And Life

2022 November 27
by Greg Satell

Franz Kafka was especially skeptical about parables. “Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life,” he wrote. “When the sage says: ‘Go over,’ he does not mean that we should cross to some actual place… he means some fabulous yonder…that he cannot designate more precisely, and therefore cannot help us here in the very least.

Business pundits, on the other hand, tend to favor parables, probably because telling simple stories allows for the opportunity to seem both folksy and wise at the same time. When Warren Buffet says “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked,” it doesn’t sound so much like an admonishment.

Over the years I’ve noticed that some of the best business parables involve monkeys. I’m not sure why that is, but I think it has something to do with taking intelligence out of the equation. We’re often prone to imagining ourselves as the clever hero of our own story and we neglect simple truths. That may be why monkey parables have so much to teach us.

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To Define The Change You Want To Pursue You First Need To Define Who You Want To Be

2022 November 20
by Greg Satell

In an age of disruption, the only viable strategy is to adapt. Today, we are undergoing major shifts in technology, resources, migration and demography that will demand that we make changes in how we think and what we do. The last time we saw this much change afoot was during the 1920s and that didn’t end well. The stakes are high.

In a recent speech, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell highlighted the need for Europe to change and adapt to shifts in the geopolitical climate. He also pointed out that change involves far more than interests and incentives, carrots and sticks, but even more importantly, identity.

“Remember this sentence,” he said. “’It is the identity, stupid.’ It is no longer the economy, it is the identity.” What he meant was that human beings build attachments to things they identify with and, when those are threatened, they are apt to behave in a visceral, reactive and violent way. That’s why change and identity are always inextricably intertwined.

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What You See Is How You’ll Act

2022 November 13
by Greg Satell

“Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist,” John Maynard Keynes, himself a long dead economist, once wrote. We are, much more than we’d like to admit, creatures of our own age, taking our cues from our environment.

That’s why we need to be on the lookout for our own biases. The truth, as we see it, is often more of a personalized manifestation of the zeitgeist than it is the product of any real insight or reflection. As Richard Feynman put it, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.  So you have to be very careful about that.”

We can’t believe everything we think. We often seize upon the most easily available information, rather than the most reliable sources. We then seek out information that confirms those beliefs and reject evidence that contradicts existing paradigms. That’s what leads to bad decisions. If what we see determines how we act, we need to look carefully.

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Here’s Why Your Big Idea Will Probably Fail To Survive Victory

2022 November 6
by Greg Satell

I still vividly remember a whiskey drinking session I had with a good friend in my flat in Kyiv in early 2005, shortly after the Orange Revolution had concluded. We were discussing what would come after and, knowing that I had lived in Poland during years of reform, he was interested in my opinion about the future. I told him NATO and EU ascension was the way to go.

My friend, a prominent journalist, disagreed. He thought that Ukraine should pursue a “Finnish model,” in which it would pursue good relations with both Russia and the west, favoring neither. As he saw it, the Ukrainian people, who had just been through months of political turmoil, should pursue a “third way” and leave the drama behind.

As it turned out, we were both wrong. The promise of change would soon turn to nightmare, ending with an evil, brutal regime and a second Ukrainian revolution a decade later. I would later find that this pattern is so common that there is even a name for it: the failure to survive victory. To break the cycle you first need to learn to anticipate it and then to prepare for it.

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3 Ancient Wisdoms We Needed To Leave Behind To Create The Modern World

2022 October 30
by Greg Satell

I recently visited Panama and learned the incredible story of how the indigenous Emberá people there helped to teach jungle survival skills to Apollo mission astronauts. It is a fascinating combining and contrast of ancient wisdom and modern technology, equipping the first men to go to the moon with insights from both realms.

Humans tend to have a natural reverence for old wisdom that is probably woven into our DNA. It stands to reason that people more willing to stick with the tried and true might have a survival advantage over those who were more reckless. Ideas that stand the test of time are, by definition, the ones that worked well enough to be passed on.

Paradoxically, to move forward we need to abandon old ideas. It was only by discarding ancient wisdoms that we were able to create the modern world. In much the same way, to move forward now we’ll need to debunk ideas that qualify as expertise today. As in most things, our past can help serve as a guide. Here are three old ideas we managed to transcend.

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Strategy Without Purpose Will Always Fail

2022 October 23
by Greg Satell

In 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Francis Fukuyama published an essay in the journal The National Interest titled The End of History, which led to a bestselling book. Many took his argument to mean that, with the defeat of communism, US-style liberal democracy had emerged as the only viable way of organizing a society.

He was misunderstood. His actual argument was far more nuanced and insightful. After explaining the arguments of philosophers like Hegel and Kojeve, Fukuyama pointed out that even if we had reached an endpoint in the debate about ideologies, there would still be conflict because of people’s need to express their identity.

We usually think of strategy as a rational, analytic activity, with teams of MBA’s poring over spreadsheets or generals standing before maps. Yet if we fail to take into account human agency and dignity, we’re missing the boat. Strategy without purpose is doomed to fail, however clever the calculations. Leaders need to take note of that basic reality.

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3 Strategies To Overcome Resistance To Change

2022 October 16
by Greg Satell

Max Planck’s work in physics changed the way we were able to see the universe. Still, even he complained that “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

For most transformational efforts we need to pursue, we simply don’t have that kind of time. To drive significant change we have to overcome staunch resistance. Unfortunately, most change management strategies assume that opposition can be overcome through communication efforts that are designed to persuade.

This assumes that resistance always has a rational basis and clearly that’s not true. We all develop emotional attachments to ideas. When we feel those are threatened, it offends our dignity, identity and sense of self. If we are going to overcome our most fervent opponents we don’t need a better argument, we need a strategy. Here are three approaches that work:

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Why Unlearning Is At Least As Important As Learning

2022 October 9
by Greg Satell

When I first went overseas to Poland in 1997, I thought I knew how the media business worked. I had some experience selling national radio time in New York and thought I could teach the Poles who, after 50 years of communism, hadn’t had much opportunity to learn how a modern ad market functioned. I was soon disappointed.

Whenever I would explain a simple principle, they would ask me, “why?” I was at a loss for an answer, because these were thought to be so obvious that nobody ever questioned them. When I thought about it though, many of the things I had learned as immutable laws were merely conventions that had built up over time.

As I traveled to more countries I found that even basic market functions, such as TV buying, varied enormously from place to place. I would come to realize that there wasn’t one “right” way to run a business but innumerable ways things could work. It was then that I began to understand the power of unlearning. It is, in fact, a key skill for the next era of innovation.

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This One Simple Scientific Principle Explains Why You Shouldn’t Waste Too Much Time Trying To Convince People

2022 October 2

Experts have a lot of ideas about persuasion. Some suggest leveraging social proof, to show that people have adopted the idea and had a positive experience. Others emphasize the importance of building trust and using emotional rather than analytical arguments. Still others insist on creating a unified value proposition.

These are, for the most part, constructive ideas. Yet they are more a taxonomy than a toolbox. Human nature can be baffling and our behavior is rarely consistent. Sometimes we’ll dig in our heels on a relatively minor point and others we’ll give in on a major issue relatively easily, often without any constable rhyme or reason.

Yet consider this one simple science-based principle that explains a lot: The best indicator of what we think and what we do is what the people around us think and do. Once you internalize that, you can begin to understand a lot of otherwise bizarre behavior and work to spread the ideas you care about. Often it’s not opinions we need to shape, but networks.

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Schwerpunkt: The Killer Strategic Concept You’ve Never Heard Of (But Really Need To Know!)

2022 September 25
by Greg Satell

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, his first mission was not to create but destroy. He axed a number of failing products and initiatives, such as the ill-fated Newton personal digital assistant and the Macintosh clones. Under Jobs, Apple would no longer try to be all things to all people.

What came after was not a flurry of activity, but a limited number of highly targeted moves. First  came the candy-colored iMac. It was a modest success. Then came the iPod, iPhone and iPad, breakout hits which propelled Apple from a failing company to the most valuable company on earth. Each move shifted the firm’s center of gravity to a decisive point and broke through.

That, in essence, is the principle of Schwerpunkt, a German military term that roughly translates to “focal point.” Jobs understood that he didn’t have to win everywhere, just where it mattered and focused Apple’s resources on just a few meaningful products. The truth is that good strategy relies less on charts and analysis than on finding your Schwerpunkt.

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