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If You Want To Tell A Compelling Story, Do These 3 Things

2024 February 4
by Greg Satell

There’s a great, although perhaps apocryphal, story about Franz Kafka and a little girl. The relatively unknown author—he wouldn’t achieve great fame until after his death—met a young girl who lost her doll. Kafka helped her look for it, but to no avail. The doll was lost forever and the girl was heartbroken.

But then Kafka told her a story. The next day he brought her a letter from the doll. “Please do not mourn me, I have gone on a trip to see the world.” Kafka would bring her letters telling her of the doll’s adventures. He eventually bought her another doll and gave it to her with another note that said, “my travels have changed me.”

As the story goes, after Kafka’s death the girl found another letter hidden in the replacement doll that said, “Everything that you love, you will eventually lose, but in the end, love will return in a different form.” We can’t all write like Kafka, but with a little bit of knowledge and some practice, we can all learn to tell stories that give meaning and purpose to our messages.

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We Need To Rethink The Myth Of Macintosh And Xerox PARC

2024 January 28
by Greg Satell

When people like to tell stories of historic corporate missteps, the story of Xerox and the Macintosh is near the top of the list. As the tale goes, the corporate giant spent a fortune to create all the technology that the famous computer was based on, but failed to market it and let Steve Jobs steal it out from under them.

But that version leaves out important context. Yes, Xerox did create the technology. It was also true that Steve Jobs, while touring the company’s research facility, understood that he could use it to make a revolutionary consumer product. But it wasn’t a blunder. Steve Jobs was there because Xerox had invested in Apple at bargain prices, not because they were tricked in some way.

The story has deeper implications, because the myth of Xerox’s blunder influences how firms invest in technology. The truth is that Xerox’s research strategy was visionary and incredibly successful. In fact, it likely saved the company. So rather than looking at the story of Xerox and the Macintosh as a cautionary tale, we should see it as a model to replicate.

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4 Things That I Learned About Change From The Orange Revolution

2024 January 21
by Greg Satell

In 2004, I joined a KP Media, the leading news organization in Ukraine, where I would become Co-CEO. In the runup to the presidential election that year, the opposition candidate for president, a technocratic reformer named Viktor Yushchenko, was poisoned by pro-Russian agents. He survived, but his face was permanently disfigured.

In that moment, the once mild-mannered banker was transformed into an inspirational leader. His opponent, an almost cartoonish thug named Viktor Yanukovych, tried to falsify the election. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians poured into the streets to protest in what came to be known as the Orange Revolution.

It was very much an awakening. That was the moment when Ukraine, although not yet ready to turn away from Russia, began to insist on its independence and freedom, something that Vladimir Putin wasn’t willing to respect. It was also a turning point for me. It would permanently change how I saw the world and how it works. Here are four things I learned.

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Why Truth Matters

2024 January 14
by Greg Satell

In 2012, when Marco Rubio was gearing up for a run at the Presidency, he sat for an in-depth interview with the magazine GQ to bolster his image. “I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow,” he proudly declared. “I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that.”

The attitude belies dangerous ignorance. The big bang is not just a theory, but a set of theories, including general relativity and quantum mechanics that underlie modern technologies such as computers, GPS satellites, lasers and solar cells, just to name a few. Our economy literally could not function without them.

As Vannevar Bush famously wrote, “There must be a stream of new scientific knowledge to turn the wheels of private and public enterprise.”  Yet today we get “alternative truths” and book bans. Make no mistake: truth matters. History shows when we abandon the quest for discovery and design narratives to suit our preferences, the consequences tend to be severe.

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2024: A Pivotal Year

2024 January 7
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by Greg Satell

There was big news in Somalia a few weeks ago. The country’s President, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, had passed enough reforms to qualify for debt forgiveness by the IMF and the World Bank, re-enter the global financial system and join into the East African Community, an important regional block.

Yet few noticed. With war raging in Ukraine and Gaza, as well as complete disarray in the US Congress, progress in a troubled country in the Global South doesn’t warrant much attention. While the global economy—especially in the US—seems to have recovered from the shock of the pandemic, I can’t remember when there has been so much chaos.

Last year I wrote that we would see a shift of focus from disruption to resilience and that’s largely been true. It’s hard to imagine anyone would argue for shaking things up more than they are now. The question for 2024 is what comes after? It’s fairly clear that a new world order is emerging, but not at all clear what it will look like. Our future lies in the balance.

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Top Posts Of 2023

2023 December 24
by Greg Satell

My friend Stephen Shapiro does not like New Year’s Resolutions. “According to our study, only 8% of Americans say they always achieve their New Year’s resolutions,” he writes. “The way it seems to work now, setting a New Year’s Resolution is a recipe for defeat. It has come to be one of the nation’s most masochistic traditions.”

He suggests that we replace resolutions with broader themes by thinking seriously about what we want to achieve in the year ahead and what we want to focus on. What do we want to do more of and what do we want to do less of? What will make us happier and more productive? A good theme should feel empowering not guilt ridden.

I find the same can work in reverse. By reflecting on the year that has passed, certain themes arise and my ritual of going through my top posts of the year is a great way to reflect. When I look back on what I wrote and what people read, it helps reveal things about the past year that weren’t obvious in the thick of events. Take a look and see what emerges for you.

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The 2023 Digital Tonto Reading List

2023 December 17
by Greg Satell

I mark time through books because books define the zeitgeist. They reflect not only the wisdoms being received, but the questions being asked. We go to books not only for answers, but to sharpen our own inquiry. Last year’s list featured books about Ukraine (and this year’s list includes a great one too).

So perhaps it’s not surprising that this year’s list is especially heavy on change. We’re going through a lot of it and clearly there’s a lot still to come. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it definitely puts stress on the system. Certainly, we are living in an age of great peril and there’s a level uncertainty that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before.

If we’re going to make it through we need to understand change, how to make it, how to adapt to it and how it happens. There are no easy answers. Change isn’t something you ever really master, but it is something that you can build skills to deal with more effectively. My hope is that some of these books can help you on your path. They certainly helped me.

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Change Can Come From Anywhere

2023 December 10
by Greg Satell

In the small town of Alamogordo, New Mexico in 2002, a plan was hatched to pass a no smoking ordinance. The wife of a City Council member, a strong no-smoking advocate, orchestrated the campaign. She recruited activists from the next town over, twisted arms and, in a show of force, pushed for a quick vote. It failed.

Compare that to a similar effort in El Paso, Texas around the same time. The central advocate in this case was not anybody with great clout, but a student on an internship assigned to do research on the issue. As he quietly gathered facts, he became a local authority, spreading what he learned. The ordinance passed by a vote of 7-1.

People often say that change has to start at the top, but that’s not really true. Change isn’t top-down, nor is it bottom up. It emanates from the center of networks. Ironically, the way you get to the center is by connecting out to small groups, loosely connected and uniting them with a shared purpose. To really drive change, you can’t overpower, you need to attract.

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You Need To Be Skeptical Of Advice From Business Pundits And Gurus. Here’s Why:

2023 December 3
by Greg Satell

In 2005 W. Chan Kim and Renée published Blue Ocean Strategy, which found  that “blue ocean” launches, those in new categories without competition, far outperformed the shark-infested “red ocean” line extensions that are the norm in the corporate world. It was an immediate hit, selling over 3.5 million copies.

Bain consultants Chris Zook and James Allen’ published, Profit from the Core, around the same time. They found that firms that focused on their ”core” far outperformed those who strayed. For example, they warned that Amazon was putting itself from peril for expanding its business beyond books and predicted dire results.

Clearly, none of this makes sense. How can you both “focus on your core” and seek out “blue oceans?” It betrays logic that both strategies could outperform one another. Today, Amazon makes most of its money outside of books. Yes, new markets lack competitors, but they also lack customers. The truth is that most business research is surprisingly shoddy.

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Can We Finally Kill The Idea Of Leaderless Organizations?

2023 November 26
by Greg Satell

About a decade ago, the management guru Gary Hamel wrote a highly cited article in Harvard Business Review entitled First, Let’s Fire All the Managers. He analyzed the success of Morningstar, a leading manufacturer of tomato products that operates with a flat management structure and called for other corporations to follow its lead.

“A hierarchy of managers exacts a hefty tax on any organization,” he wrote. “This levy comes in several forms. First, managers add overhead and, as an organization grows, the costs of management rise in both absolute and relative terms.” The article was created a lot of buzz and helped bolster other flat models, such as Holacracy.

Yet the “flat organization” idea hasn’t caught on. “Since 1983, the size of the bureaucratic class—the number of managers and administrators in the US workforce—has more than doubled, while employment in other categories has grown by only 40%,” Hamil recently wrote. The truth is that we need managers and trying to eliminate them is a waste of time.

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