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What Makes A Strategy “Good?”

2023 September 17
by Greg Satell

One of the most frustrating statements I come across is that “we had a good strategy, but just couldn’t execute it.” That’s nonsense. Obviously, if you couldn’t execute, there were some important factors that you didn’t take into account. You miscalculated in some significant way. So how was that a good strategy?

This raises an important question: What makes a strategy good? The concept of strategy gets thrown around so much and so incompetently, few stop to define the term. Strategy often becomes self-referential, a consensus-driven story that no one dares to question, but everyone is duty bound to carry out, for better or worse.

One helpful concept is the German military principle of Schwerpunkt, which roughly translates to “focal point.” You need to pick the battles that will prove decisive, the ones that matter and which you can win. Or, as Richard Rumelt has put it, good strategy puts relative strength against relative weakness. Figuring that out is what makes the difference.

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Make These 3 Cultural Shifts To Reignite Change In Your Organization

2023 September 10
by Greg Satell

On a cold November day in 2013, frustrated by recent events in Ukraine, a journalist named Mustafa Nayyem posted to Facebook, “Okay guys, let’s get serious. Who’s ready to go to the Maidan today at midnight? ‘Likes’ will not be counted. Only comments under this post with the words ‘I’m ready.’ Once there are more than a thousand, we will organize it.”

Nothing needed to be explained. Everyone knew exactly what he meant. Nine years earlier, hundreds of thousands of people flooded Independence Square in Kyiv, locally known as “the Maidan,” to protest a falsified election in a movement called the Orange Revolution. Mustafa was now calling on his fellow citizens to do the same.

It was a moment that changed history. Yet it’s not that moment we should focus on, but what came before. It was what happened in those ensuing nine years—the development of unseen networks, the learning and the cultural change—that made the moment possible. The truth is that for genuine change to take place, significant cultural shifts need to come first.

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If You Want To Innovate, Learn To Say “No”

2023 September 3
by Greg Satell

Pundits tell us that the world is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. It’s the VUCA gospel. Under the banner of  “innovate or die,” massive transformation projects are being kicked off constantly. Executives around the world scramble to reorganize and reinvent their organizations, only to reorganize and reinvent them again.

It gets worse, consider a 2014 report by PwC that revealed 65% of respondents in corporations complained about change fatigue, 44% of employees complained they don’t understand the change they’re being asked to make, and 38% say they don’t agree with it. A more recent study by Gartner in 2020 found that propensity for change fatigue doubled during the pandemic.

Executives, wanting to be seen as dynamic leaders, are launching too many initiatives, very few of which lead to positive impact, while at the same time the rest of the workforce struggles with increasing mental health challenges. The answer is less, not more. We need to focus on fewer initiatives, with more commitment to ensure their success.

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If You Care About Change, You Need To Learn To Leverage Shared Values. Here’s Why:

2023 August 27
by Greg Satell

When Lou Gerstner took over at IBM in 1993, the century-old tech giant was on its knees. Many thought it should be broken up into smaller, more focused companies. Others had different ideas. So at Gerster’s first press conference, people were curious about his strategy and disappointed when he failed to deliver one.

“The last thing IBM needs right now as a vision,” he said. What he meant was that IBM’s culture was broken. “Culture isn’t just one aspect of the game,” he would later write. “It is the game. What does the culture reward and punish – individual achievement or team play, risk taking or consensus building?”

What Gerstner saw was that IBM had lost sight of the values that had made it successful in the first place. He wasn’t “disrupting.” He was making IBM culture safe to innovate again and, by doing that, he achieved one of the most remarkable turnarounds in corporate history. If you want to achieve truly radical change, you need to start with shared values.

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It’s Usually Better To Be Careful Than Smart

2023 August 20
by Greg Satell

Not too long ago, I had a post about the danger of trusting your feelings go viral on LinkedIn. The reason it was so popular wasn’t necessarily that everyone liked it, but because many wanted to voice their disapproval. A surprising number of people vehemently objected to the idea that they should interrogate their feelings or keep them in check.

Make no mistake. While it is true that our emotions can alert us to dangers that our rational mind fails to recognize, they can also lead us wildly astray. Our hippocampus, where our memories reside, has a bee line to our amygdala, which plays a role in governing our emotions, circumventing our rational brain in the prefrontal corpus.

We tend to assume that good judgment is a function of intelligence and education, but often it’s not. We need to recognize that there are glitches in our neural machinery and that our gut feelings can be triggered by random events as well as by people who seek to manipulate us. That’s why we need to be careful. It’s always the suckers who think they’re playing it smart.

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Happy 14th Birthday Digital Tonto!

2023 August 13
by Greg Satell

When I first started this blog in my Kyiv flat in 2009 I couldn’t imagine that, in scarcely more than a decade, Ukraine would be at war with Russia, much less that it would be winning. If someone had told me back then that Ukraine’s president would be the world’s most admired leader I would’ve thought they were nuts!

Yet that is the nature of human agency. Despite all the calculations of the experts and practitioners, what made the most difference in Ukraine was not the number of tanks or planes, but how people saw themselves. It is why Putin invaded in the first place and why the Ukrainians fight so hard. Identity is a tremendously powerful force.

That’s one of the things that I’ve learned from this blog and, as we move into a new era of AI, it’s something to keep in mind. While there is value in tapping into the hive mind using services like ChatGPT, only we can decide what we think and determine our own intent. That’s a big part of what this blog has been. Here are my favorite posts from the past year.

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We Need Think Less Like Engineers And More Like Gardeners

2023 August 6
by Greg Satell

In February, 1919, the famous philosopher Bertrand Russell received a card from his former student, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was at that time in an Italian prison camp. “I’ve written a book which will be published as soon as I get home,” he would say in subsequent correspondence. “I think I’ve solved our problems finally.”

The “problems” he spoke of had to do with a foundational crisis in mathematics and logic that defied the efforts of the world’s greatest minds. The book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, was an attempt to engineer a perfectly logical language from first principles. It would become enormously influential, leading to the Vienna Circle and the logical positivist movement of the 1920s.

Yet Wittgenstein would later disown the idea and it was, in the end, found to be unworkable. There are limits to what we can engineer. The world is a messy place. Rules inevitably have exceptions, which is why every system will always crash. That’s why we need to think less like engineers making machines and more like gardeners that grow and nurture ecosystems.

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Why Business Leaders Need To Learn About Social And Political Movements

2023 July 30
by Greg Satell

Business leaders have long been fascinated by the military. When Alfred Sloan created the modern corporation at General Motors, he based it on the army. In Wall Street, the antihero Gordon Gecko habitually quoted Sun Tzu. Retired generals like Stanley McChrystal earn huge fees advising CEOs and speaking to corporate conferences.

But what about nonviolent conflict? Research has shown non-violent movements are far more successful than violent uprisings, prevailing against powerful regimes against seemingly insurmountable odds. Yet, apart from a stray Gandhi quote here or Martin Luther King Jr. slide there, these go largely unexamined in the business world.

That’s a mistake. As I explained in Cascades, business leaders can learn a lot from the principles of social and political movements. There is abundant scholarship, going back decades, about why efforts succeed and fail. We know what works and what doesn’t. If you’re serious about being a transformational leader, you need to understand these strategies.

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Ideas Can Only Be Validated Forward, Never Backward

2023 July 23
by Greg Satell

In 2007, our media company in Ukraine completed its IPO and would soon be valued at $100 million. For a rough and tumble organization that, just a few years before, was a relatively small business, it was exhilarating. We had big plans and were eager to execute them. It was a “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” moment.

We also had an innovative strategy that we thought was a clear winner—a bet on Ukrainian language media. Although the Russian language was dominant at the time, we thoroughly researched the idea and found that a large part of the market said they preferred Ukrainian. To grab the opportunity, we launched three major brands in a year.

It was a disaster. Although the first launch was cause for concern, we were moving so fast the other two were too far along to stop. Then the 2008 global financial crisis hit and we were soon struggling to stave off bankruptcy. It was a brutal lesson. You can research an idea, but you never really know what you have until you’ve actually tested it in the marketplace.

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The 5 Elements Of The Changemaker Mindset

2023 July 16
by Greg Satell

Chances are, you work in a square-peg business, because that’s the best way to make money. You work diligently to improve the pegs and to get them to where they need to go better, faster and cheaper. It is through quality and consistency that you can best serve your customers, beat your competition and win in the marketplace.

The problem comes when your square-peg business meets a round-hole world. When that happens, following traditional best practices will only result in getting better and better at doing things people care about less and less. Round holes don’t concern themselves how good your square pegs are or how efficiently you can produce them.

Make no mistake. Eventually, every business eventually finds itself in a round-hole world. That’s why good companies fail. Not because they become stupid and lazy, but because the world changes and they lose relevance. Clearly, in the midst of disruption the only viable strategy is to adapt and shift from a traditional manager mindset to a changemaker mindset.

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