Skip to content

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.

read more…

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.

read more…

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.

read more…

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:

read more…

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.

read more…

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.

read more…

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.

read more…

3 Reasons Why Business Thinking Is So Consistently Shoddy

2022 September 18
by Greg Satell

“The single most important message in this book is very simple,” reads the first line in John Kotter’s highly regarded The Heart of Change. “People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings.

Really? That’s the important message? That emotive arguments are more powerful than factual arguments? What about other reasons why people change their behavior, such as social proof, conformity, incentives or coercion? By setting up a binary and artificial choice between two communication alternatives, he eliminates important strategic and tactical options.

It’s not just Kotter either, who is a well respected professor at Harvard Business School. The truth is that a lot of management thinking is surprisingly shoddy, with arbitrary notions and cognitive biases dressed up as scholarly work. We need to be more skeptical about “research” that comes out of business schools and consultancies. Here are three things to look for:

read more…

Change Isn’t About Persuasion. It’s About Power

2022 September 11
by Greg Satell

The greatest misconception about change is that it’s about persuasion. All too often, we think that once people understand our idea, they will embrace it. Nothing can be further from the truth. Anybody who’s ever been married or had kids knows how difficult it can be to convince even a single person of something.

Clearly, if you intend to influence an entire organization—much less an entire society—of something, you have to assume the deck is stacked against you. Still, organizations routinely pay armies of change management consultants to spend endless billable hours wordsmithing internal marketing campaigns. No wonder change so often fails.

The truth is that change isn’t about persuasion, but power. If you want change and can access the power to implement it, it will happen. If not, it won’t. That’s why effective change agents learn to leverage multiple sources of power. They mobilize people to influence institutions that can further their cause. That’s how you bring genuine transformation about.

read more…

Why We’re Better Off Assuming People Are Competent And Hardworking

2022 September 4
by Greg Satell

Go to just about any business conference these days and you’re likely to see some pundit on stage telling a story about a company—often Blockbuster, Kodak or Xerox—that got blindsided by nascent trends. Apparently, the leaders who rose to the top of the corporate ladder were so foolish they just weren’t paying attention.

These stories are good for a laugh, but they usually aren’t true. People who lead successful companies are, for the most part, competent, hardworking and ambitious. That’s how they got their jobs in the first place. There are, of course, exceptions. People who have a talent for self-promotion can get to the top too.

Still it’s much better to assume competence. That’s how we learn. The truth is that we all get disrupted sooner or later. It doesn’t only happen to silly people. Every square-peg business eventually meets its round-hole world. Smart, competent people fail all the time and, if we want to have a chance at avoiding their fate, we need to understand how that happens.

read more…