The importance of vision (McKinsey article)

Again from the McKinsey Quarterly comes a useful article about the challenges faced by new entrants to C-level positions. Of note was the reference to the difficulty of creating a shared vision:

When asked about different aspects of their transitions, executives rank business-related activities among the most important to the transition’s overall outcome. The largest share say it was very or extremely important to create a shared vision and alignment around their strategic direction across the organization (Exhibit 2). This is also among the most difficult aspects to carry out: just 30 percent of all respondents say it was easy to create a shared vision in their new role.

This has been an extremely important piece of the work that I have assisted the Canterbury DHB with over the last seven years, and has been one of the keys to the successful transformation programme (for more detail see here).

Visions are not created by black and white typing on a Powerpoint slide, neither are they broadcast down from a stage.  The best visions are co-created with the people that work in an organisation in such a way that they share ownership, and feel like they are part of something bigger.

This directly links to some previous work – also from Mckinsey – about strategy co-creation which you can read about here.


Source: Ascending to the C-suite | McKinsey & Company

The eight essentials of innovation (McKinsey article)

The most recent McKinsey Quarterly has a concise article that sums up a multi-year research project by the organisation.  As the title suggests, it breaks the findings into eight areas.  While the article is rich in highly quotable insights, the one below caught my attention:

Innovation also requires actionable and differentiated insights—the kind that excite customers and bring new categories and markets into being. How do companies develop them? Genius is always an appealing approach, if you have or can get it. Fortunately, innovation yields to other approaches besides exceptional creativity.

The rest of us can look for insights by methodically and systematically scrutinizing three areas: a valuable problem to solve, a technology that enables a solution, and a business model that generates money from it. You could argue that nearly every successful innovation occurs at the intersection of these three elements. Companies that effectively collect, synthesize, and “collide” them stand the highest probability of success. “If you get the sweet spot of what the customer is struggling with, and at the same time get a deeper knowledge of the new technologies coming along and find a mechanism for how these two things can come together, then you are going to get good returns,” says Alcoa chairman and chief executive Klaus Kleinfeld.

(Source: The eight essentials of innovation | McKinsey & Company )


Observations from presenting at the Nobel Cause Symposium



I’ve just returned from spending three days with some of the smartest minds in the world on climate change at the Nobel Symposium in Hong Kong.

I presented about visions for cities, and how energy saving in street lighting is a very tangible way to cut carbon emissions through dealing with a small group of decision makers.

There’s very few scientists that dispute the data about the challenge of climate change, and the evidence is very strong.  However after listening to speakers present data and show compelling graphs, it occurred to me that challenge is no longer data, it’s how you form the narrative.

This is a common problem with many experts, who have difficulty creating a story that resonates with enough people to start a social movement.

No story, no movement.  No movement, no change.


(More details about the symposuium are here: Programme — Nobel Cause Symposium, and the photo is of six Nobel Prize winners signing a memorandum imploring decision makers to take stronger action to combat climate change.)

John Oliver reframes complex narrative with ‘Dick Pics’

I watched the John Oliver show about the renewal of the Patriot Act upcoming in June.  His central argument is that the American people don’t care about NSA mass surveillance programmes as it’s too complicated.

He goes to Moscow and interviews Ed Snowden, and you can watch Snowden struggle to understand how to frame his story.  Then John Oliver reframes the massive complexity of NSA surveillance  around, errrr…Dick Pics sent online.

He shows Snowden interviews with people in Times Square before and after the reframing, and the results are absolutely clear when it comes to the formation of great narrative.

The full clip is 30min but you need to watch it in it’s entirety to see the beauty of the formation of the story.  Before the reframing people aren’t particularly worried about the powers of the NSA.  After the reframing they are passionately against it.

It’s a virtual masterclass in how to reframe complexity in such a way that it can trigger a narrative to be re-told.  It’s also an extremely topical and relevant story in itself.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Government Surveillance (HBO) – YouTube.

Strategy article on megatrends and opportunity


This is a five minute read which is well worth the time.  It outlines some collisions between megatrends that are already in plain sight and makes the point that:

If you are a leader in government or a company, you still have time to build the necessary strategies and capabilities for a robust and effective response.

The challenge with this is always how to focus a board or executive team on the long term, and in my experience this is challenging at the best of times.  For further context about this, I recommend reading about the three-box model in an HBR article from 2011.

Essentially this points out that most leaders focus on operational efficiency today, when they should actually be thinking about creating more value by inventing the future.  From left to right, Box One is operational, Box Two is Change and Box Three is the future.  Most value comes from Box Three, but nearly all leaders focus on Box One.  In a world of accelerating change, this is not the value to endure organisational longevity.

For the megatrend piece, go here: How to Seize the Opportunities When Megatrends Collide.

Fast innovation cycles

One of the issues that leadership teams often wrestle with is the length of time it takes for innovation to bear fruit.  I don’t think there’s a magic bullet for this, but that organisations should try a range of approaches.  For large organisations, innovation at scale can be achieved through a range of software solutions including MindJet SpigitEngage.  However it’s still hard to beat the face-to-face interaction of small teams racing against a clock in the same room.  With that in mind a new book from Michael Schrage favours the 5×5 approach:

…half of Schrage’s new book is devoted to an innovation methodology called 5×5 that captures the benefits of experimentation. In the 5×5 approach, writes Schrage, “A minimum of 5 teams of 5 people each are given no more than 5 days to come up with a portfolio of 5 ‘business experiments’ that should take no longer than 5 weeks to run and cost no more than 5,000 euros to conduct. Each experiment should have a business case attached that explains how running the experiment gives tremendous insight into a possible savings of 5 million euros or a 5-million-euro growth opportunity for the firm.”

Schrage says that he’s been facilitating these 5×5 exercises in companies, under the auspices of MIT’s Sloan School of Management and the Moscow School of Management since 2009. The results: “There are always—without exception—at least three or four experiments that make top management sit up straight, their eyes widening or narrowing, dependent on temperament, and incredulously ask, ‘We can do that!?’”

via How to Avoid Bad Investments in Good Ideas.

(article) Where do breakthrough strategies come from?

From the excellent strategy & business publication (formerly booz) comes this short article about where the good stuff comes from.  The paragraph below sums it up:

“…breakthrough strategies rarely come from the typical strategic planning effort. Nor do they typically result from the common practice of generating and evaluating strategic options. And they certainly aren’t inspired in a traditional board offsite, executive retreat, or brainstorming session. Instead, they start with individuals working on big, specific challenges who find novel ideas in unexpected places, creatively combine them into innovative strategies, and personally take those strategies to fruition—against all odds.”

via The Truth about Breakthrough Strategies.

Long term study into forecasting skills (article from the FT)

The FT has published a long article looking at the history of prediction.  What makes it worth reading is that it references the work of Philip Tetlock, who’s research into forecasting categorised people as either foxes or hedgehogs (this is explained in the article).

It’s worth a read:

So what is the secret of looking into the future? Initial results from the Good Judgment Project suggest the following approaches. First, some basic training in probabilistic reasoning helps to produce better forecasts. Second, teams of good forecasters produce better results than good forecasters working alone. Third, actively open-minded people prosper as forecasters.

But the Good Judgment Project also hints at why so many experts are such terrible forecasters. It’s not so much that they lack training, teamwork and open-mindedness – although some of these qualities are in shorter supply than others. It’s that most forecasters aren’t actually seriously and single-mindedly trying to see into the future. If they were, they’d keep score and try to improve their predictions based on past errors. They don’t.

via How to see into the future –

Architecting serendipity – article from Wired

What exactly is a serendipity architect? I get asked this a lot, and my answer is two-fold depending on how the question is being asked.

First the title is a litmus test for who I’d like to work with. If people look at me sceptically when they ask, then it’s a fairly safe bet that working with that person is going to be difficult (like the time one executive introduced me to an audience as a “self described serendipity architect.”).  On the other hand, the people that I like to work with smile when they mention the title, or are simply curious.

Secondly it describes a lot of what I do – keeping abreast of a lot of fast moving areas, discussing interesting developments with people that know these areas well, pulling insights from the mix and then working with leadership teams to understand how they can take advantage of the opportunity.  One of the comments I hear during the last phase of this process goes along the lines of “wasn’t it lucky that we…”   My response is that this isn’t luck.  It’s designed serendipity.

If you want a longer read about how serendipity happens in an online world, Wired magazine published an extract from the book “Smarter Than You Think.”  The last paragraph of the extract sums it up nicely:

The birth of Ushahidi is a perfect example of the power of public thinking and multiples. Okolloh could have simply wandered around wishing such a tool existed. Kobia could have wandered around wishing he could use his skills to help Kenya. But because Okolloh was thinking out loud, and because she had an audience of like-minded people, serendipity happened.

Insights from different sectors

I  encourage to people to mix in areas that are outside their knowledge domain, and to keep an open mind when they do so.  The reason for this is because insights often happen not when you’re looking harder at a challenge, but when you take a step back and look around to see how others have approached analogous challenges.  The January 2014 issue of Wired has an article about a doctor seeking different ways of treating cancer, and it makes for an interesting read on it’s own.  However the part that got my attention was the following when he explained where he found new directions for his thinking:

The second moment occurred five years later, at the Aspen Ideas Festival. There Agus met the famed physicist Murray Gell-Mann, who had won the Nobel Prize in 1969 for his work on the theory of elemental particles. Talking to Gell-Mann crystallized the ideas that Leaf’s article had set in motion. “My ‘Aha!’ moment came when he talked about the complex systems he confronted in physics and how he would go about trying to build models,” Agus wrote in The End of Illness. Physicists were able to build theoretical models of things they still didn’t completely understand and make discoveries using those models. Why hadn’t doctors approached medicine like this? he wondered.

It’s a great example of looking outside to go deeper inside.