Apply Pareto’s Principle to move the needle of your start up

Vilfredo Pareto was a philosopher, economist and academic, fascinated by social and political statistics and trends. Legend has it that one day he noticed that 20% of the pea plants in his garden generated 80% of the healthy peapods.

He took this observation into a study about wealth and income, and discovered that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. He investigated different industries and found that 80% of production typically came from just 20% of the companies, publishing a paper, Cours d’économie politique.

Sadly Pareto didn’t live to see the general appreciation and wide adoption of his principle, and it was left to Joseph Juran to suggest The Pareto Principle or the 80/20 rule, the law of the vital few, that states that for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes – a small minority will have a disproportionate impact, generating a disproportionate share of results.

Whilst there is nothing special about the number 80% mathematically, many natural phenomena have been shown empirically to exhibit such a distribution. I have 20 rooms in my house, but I spend about 80% of my time in just my bedroom, family room, kitchen and office (exactly 20%). On my iPhone, I have 30 different mobile apps pinned to the tiles, but 80% of the time I’m only using the six (20%) on my home screen.

When I go food shopping, I definitely spend the most time in the aisles that are around the edges of the store: fruit and veg, the fish stall, dairy, breads — and generally skip the aisles in the middle of the store (except for health and beauty, obviously). When I socialise, 80% of my time is spent with the same 20% of my friends. In perfect accordance with the Pareto Law, 80% of the people reading this blog will gloss over it and be on their way, but 20% will stop, reflect and take action.

Application of this universal rule also applies to the odds of success: your odds of winning go up to 80% when you achieve the 20% that give you the most results. That is great odds. Intuitively, we know this to be true, but very few people truly understand how far this principle extends into business, and it’s especially useful when launching a startup.

In research into the productivity habits of high achieving entrepreneurs, handling every task that gets thrown their way – or even every task that they would like to handle – is impossible. They use Pareto to help determine what is of vital importance, delegate the rest, or simply let go.

So how can you apply Pareto’s principle to gain more time in your startup life?

You’re faced with the constant challenge of limited resources. It’s not just your time you need to maximise, but your entire team’s capacity. Instead of trying to do the impossible, a Pareto approach is to truly understand which projects and activities are most important, and which specific tasks you need to focus on.

The temptation is always to try the new and exciting. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but a Pareto analysis and an 80/20 mindset helps you to stay focused on your strategic plan and execution, and spend less time chasing endless new opportunities, which can be distracting and are often the cause of entrepreneurs losing their way.

No matter what your situation, it’s important to remember that there are only so many minutes in an hour, hours in a day, and days in a week. Pareto can help you to see this is a good thing, otherwise, you’d be a slave to a never-ending list of things to do. It helps your efficiency knowing that 80% of the outputs are the result of 20% of the inputs.

The 80/20 rule is also divisible, meaning that it is also true that 20% of 20% of the inputs (4%) generate 80% of 80% of the outputs (64%), and so on. While the 80/20 dynamic is powerful enough, it only gets more lopsided as it progresses. Consider, for instance, that with only three steps you arrive at 0.16% of inputs being responsible for an astonishing 41% of output.

The simple takeaway is this: Stop beating your head against the wall on working harder and putting in longer hours. Most of what you’re spending time doing doesn’t matter. 

Startup ventures are a bit harder to accept this thinking, and the 80/20 can appear paradoxical. We are predicting the future not measuring the past, so our thinking is to do everything because we can’t really decide what is important. Often I see exhausted entrepreneurs walking around wearing burnout as a badge of startup life.

This needn’t be the reality. The opportunity cost of doing the 80% is often not doing the 20% of what really matters. Once you internalise this you’ll focus on predicting the 20% instead of trying to get everything done, and always feeling you’re living on a hamster wheel and constantly behind.

So, what 20% of your work drives 80% of your outcomes? For example,

  • 20% of my leads result in 80% of my sales
  • 20% of my social connections do 80% of the sharing
  • 20% of my referral sources refer 80% of my leads
  • 20% of customers account for 80% of total sales
  • 20% of the reported software bugs cause 80% of software crashes
  • 20% of my clients soak up 80% of my time – 80% of the people who are ‘interested’ never buy

It is time to set some priorities, a focused intensity on work that matters. Ignore the numbers for a moment and understand the concept: a minority of efforts lead to a majority of good results. The 80/20 rule supplants the long established ‘work more’ mindset mantra of a startup. We should stop the wasted effort and focus on investing in the paths yielding the most sizable returns.

Startups adopting the 80/20 principle work in a precise and predetermined manner, analysing their results at fixed intervals in a data driven approach to startup strategy execution. Focus intently on the work plan by limiting distractions. If the effort does not yield significant results, change the work plan.

Results should be viewed both in a short-term and long-term perspective. In this way, startups should work to first applying the 80/20 rule by initially focusing the majority of work towards accomplishing short-term immediate goals. Correspondingly, minimal work output should initially be allocated to long-term goals.

Often, startups are an all-or-nothing proposition. It either works out or it doesn’t. In my view, the Pareto Principle for startups is actually that 20% of the initial work input is responsible for 80% of the first steps of success, and in this way no single decision matters, it’s good decision-making overall over many decisions matter.

In a startup the rate of decision-making is high, and staying on plan may not be the right thing to do. Some structure helps, but it is easy for it to become stifling, so 20% work becomes about doing the right things, as opposed to doing a lot of things. Working more hours does not necessarily increase the likelihood that your startup will succeed.

In fact, it may decrease it if it makes your thinking narrow and cloud your judgment. You may be too focused on breadth of work and not depth of work. For example, consider a startup which persists in directing its activities equally across its entire product range when perhaps 80% of customer traction derives from just 20% of the products. By discovering these statistics, the decision-making would clearly signpost where to direct your efforts, and probably that some products that could be discontinued.

So, here’s my Pareto Platform to you get started on a 20% focus:

* Develop a basic model of your key activities, the things you know that when combined and lined up, with focus, create success.

* Identify the pivots/conversion points within that model, the things you must get right at all costs

* Put in place metrics that give you a sense of what is happening right now

* Identify the levers within those conversion points you can influence to get to significantly better results

* Make small tweaks – pull the levers – and see what happens, and track results over time

These are the principles I adopt whenever facing overwhelming workload or a set of apparent priorities from different projects. It’s a return-to-basics call that gives clarity.

Taking a longer-term perspective, the Pareto Principle offers equally good insights to guide startup thinking and doing:

Focus on 20% of your market It is possible to have a successful business that either focuses on a niche market and mass sells into it, or just a segment of an overall market. Your target isn’t the market, but identify a demographic and define your addressable market with precision to ensure you have discipline, clarity and focus on your customer development.

Scale your pricing Is your pricing scalable? Many startups sell direct to end customers – by necessity – in their early stages, only to subsequently realise that margins can’t accommodate resellers and distributors when considering new channels. Test your assumptions and do your homework before setting pricing, look at 20% customer price bands and test elasticity of demand.

Less is more
Is a national market automatically better? No. Uncontrolled demand driven scaling leads to all manner of headaches and cost-bleeding, Price erosion to support volume customers is almost always irreversible. Avoid this scenario and consider partnering using exclusivity to negotiate better terms and focus on the 20% of customers available.

Hyperactivity vs. Productivity Being busy is not the same as being productive. Forget about the start-up overwork ethic that people wear as a badge of honour, you don’t scale! Get analytical and stay analytical, use 80/20 principles to stop putting out fires, duplicate your few strong areas instead of fixing all of your weaknesses

Work with ideal customers Not all customers are created equal. Apply the 80/20 principle to time consumption: what 20% of people are consuming 80% of your time? Put high-maintenance, low-profit customers on autopilot, process orders but don’t pursue them or check up on them, and exit high-maintenance, high-profit customers – the money isn’t worth the effort.

Get intimate Likelihood is that 80% of your new customers result from 20% of your offerings. Therefore identify which offerings produces most new customers, and then use the identified offerings more often (and use the less-effective offerings less often, or not at all). Get intimate with your offerings, and focus on the 20% that your customers want.

Everyone wears several hats in a startup, with overloaded schedules and too much to do. We think ‘I’m busy and therefore being productive’, but getting stuff done does not have a linear relationship to doing the stuff that makes a difference.

You already have all the time you’re going to get, and the law of diminishing returns applies – time is a bandit, and we often use extraordinary effort to keep things moving forward, but this is simply not sustainable. Management by crisis and fire fighting can become the norm, but are hugely unproductive and energy sapping. Urgency itself is not the problem.

The Pareto Principle enables a startup founder to work ‘on’ the business, not just ‘in’ the business, providing visibility for thinking time and space to focus on priorities, working with the team to do the stuff that makes a difference. The reality is most of what we do doesn’t matter, so we need to change this and focus on the 20% that moves the needle.

Signs of Spring bring out the green-fingered entrepreneur

It’s been milder this week, and the first signs of spring are here – frogspawn in the dog’s outside water bowl (she just slurps it up without stopping, must be nutritious), salad has appeared at teatime and my daughter announced her thermal onesie and bed-socks can go back in the cupboard. Feeling reckless, I have put the snow shovel away.

I love spring. Spring is a time of renewal and rebirth.  Trees are budding, the grass is becoming green again and in northern climates, people are renewing friendships with their neighbours as they finally get to spend time outdoors in the garden after a long, cold, dark winter.

In the business world, spring is a time for renewal and rebirth as well. Now is a great time to do some ‘spring cleaning’ of your business, review your strategy and assess your progress during the first quarter. If you achieved your objectives, set new ones for the next quarter. If you didn’t achieve them, reassess and put the necessary pieces in place to achieve them this quarter. Lighter mornings and lighter nights also make us feel reenergised, coming out of hibernation imposed by of dark mornings and dark evenings on the journey to and from work, and we stop wasting time mooching indoors.

Ah yes, wasting time. I read once that over a lifetime the average man wastes 394 days in the bath. That’s 56 weeks. I can’t understand that being defined as ‘wasted time’ as for me those 56 weeks are some of the happiest and most peaceful weeks of my life. I love being in the bath, contemplating life or reading, more than I love being on holiday. I certainly don’t consider it time wasted.

But 56 weeks is nothing compared with the amount of time I really do waste, standing outside the front door in the freezing cold in the winter waiting for my wife to find the door keys in her ‘winter’ handbag, and this is in addition to the ages I waste waiting for her to answer her mobile phone – the delay often being explained it was lost in my handbag. Analysis of this response simply confirms that it was never lost, just that the handbag is too big. And another thing, the keys are always found nestling at the bottom of her bag…underneath her mobile phone.

The good news is, however, that the winter handbag (similar to Sherpa Tensing’s rucksack) is being replaced by a jaunty, smaller piece of lady-kit because it’s Spring. I assume the emergency rescue flares, extra-large can of windscreen defroster and crampons will be removed for the next six months or so. The American army thought they had a tough time seeking Osama Bin Laden holed out in a cave somewhere in the mountains on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, but they should thank their lucky stars he didn’t choose to hide out in my wife’s winter handbag.

But back to Spring. People who know me best know that at I am a secret but fervent gardener, and its great to be back out there. I’ve always had a passion for pottering and potting, I find the physicality rewarding, and being in the fresh air a great counter to my Monday to Friday routine housed indoors with clients. My garden has taught me about how things grow and thrive in a vibrant and sustainable manner, and the cycle of seed-grow-harvest. I’ve often reflected on this and parallels to encouraging growth in business, and to the ways I apply my attention and energy. Spring means its time to get out there and throw off the shackles of winter.

A gardener sees the world as an ecosystem of interdependent parts, where you need to get everything together, where connected and healthy, sustaining relationships are essential to the vitality of the whole. A real gardener is not a person who simply plants flowers and creates something good to look at, but a person who cultivates the soil, and thinks about shaping the garden for the long-term. The garden has taught me about patience and persistence and the principles of nurturing and working hard to create something you want, and feeling proud of once achieved. Appreciating the annual seasons and cycle of a garden has illuminated to me the stages in growing a business, looking at a business year as four three-month periods in which to grow and develop.

I’ve learned that it’s not just what you plant, but how you plant, and the thinking and design before hand, which brings long-term rewards. Gardeners know that once strong roots are established, followed by careful nurturing, natural growth will bring your garden on in leaps and bounds. The same goes for business, set your thinking to fix the foundations in place, and then with attention, thought and effort, your business will grow. Also gardening, like business, is inherently a local activity, set within an ever-changing and unpredictable global climate – the weather and the economy throw unexpected challenges just when you think you’re on an even keel.

Showing up in person, shovel, seeds, compost and humility in hand is essential, you’ve got to put a shift into your garden or it can get overgrown by weeds and go off track. Gardeners, like entrepreneurs believe in potential – and can be known to be pathologically optimistic. We can vividly imagine the bloom and the scent of the rose even in deepest of winter, and that our new business venture can be a success. In essence, the gardener’s work is like an entrepreneur – a life of passion, effort and care, we cultivate abundance from scarce resources, we nurture, encourage, fertilise and prune when necessary.

William Rosenzweig wrote a thoughtful piece around the parallels of gardening and business which inspired me to write this blog, so as Spring beckons, here are some seeds of thought he inspired in me from his writing to cultivate new habits in your business:

Make sure you’re planting what you want to grow I don’t like green beans, so if I were to plant them, they would be quickly shriveled from lack of water, and would be overgrown by some very healthy weeds. That’s because I wouldn’t care about growing them! In your business, which goals matter to you, and what are the actions that will help you to achieve them? Follow your passion in business, because that will create a compelling proposition to customers.

Don’t over plant It takes a lot of work to grow a healthy garden, there are things to do every week. The more you try to grow, the more time you need and we all have lives apart from our gardens. In business, if you set out to cultivate 10 new habits you are likely to fail at several, and then feeling despair, give up altogether. Limit your plantings and increase your success. Focus on one part of your business at a time.

Mix in some compost Stuff grows in the garden, but flourishes if you provide some compost, nutrients and organic matter to stimulate not only growth of your plants, but more importantly, make your soil healthy. Apply some of this thinking to yourself, and invest in training and personal development to grow yourself, for today and tomorrow’s business challenges.

Take cuttings I often get cuttings from friends to put into my garden, it’s a great way to introduce new plants. In business, investigate ideas and insights that have worked elsewhere and make them part of your thinking.

Planning & preparation You can’t have a great garden overnight just by planting indiscriminately. The job must be broken down into tasks, and some will need to be completed before you can begin others. You need to start your seedlings or take cuttings, turn over your soil, provide extra nutrients that your ground is lacking, and create a plan for what will grow where. You need to know when you will take care of each of these tasks. And have a back-up plan, it inevitably rains cats and dogs on your scheduled planting days – as in business you need some options in case things change, as they inevitably will.

Dig in! You can spend forever planning every detail, and never get holes dug and seeds in the ground. It’s time to get out there and put your foot onto the spade and get it into the ground. My business mantra is the same – 20% thinking, 80% doing, you’ve talked about it for long enough, get started! Digging over vegetable beds and pruning trees makes me sweat. So does mowing the lawns and pulling out piles of weeds. Perspiration is a sign that I have put some effort into life. It’s the same for business, customers and sales don’t happen by staring at a spreadsheet.

Weeds and bugs I do everything organically possible to prevent weeds in my garden, but weeds and bugs happen. Weeds certainly seem to grow faster and stronger than the other plants. It’s the same in business, you’ve got to attend the everyday washing-the-pots tasks, they may be mundane but it’s the detail that matters, and remove any threats to your business, stuff that’s getting in the way and choking out new ideas. Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them said Eeyore, but I’m not so sure. Equally pruning, trimming and cutting back is vital – sometimes in business you have to reshape and refocus when it’s not going how you want it to do.

The gardener and the entrepreneur are alchemists alike, with a vision and a plan, turning ideas into designs into reality. We really do reap what we sow. In gardening, as in business, taking short cuts and slipshod efforts do not work. Like anything worthwhile in life if you want to succeed, hard work and commitment come first.

Gardening is a way of showing that you believe in tomorrow, and that you’re looking forward. To dig a spade into the earth, has life anything better to offer than this on a Spring Saturday morning? Of course, you can bury a lot of troubles digging in the dirt too, but the most noteworthy thing about gardeners is that they are optimistic, enterprising and never satisfied. They always look forward to doing something better than they have done before. If you take that attitude into your business, you won’t go far wrong.

To me, there’s something magical about being in my garden, it seems to make me calm and refreshed. I will make time for my garden every single day without fail, even if it’s a quick walk to the bottom down the hill first thing in the morning. It just feels like something that I need, and maybe I do, mentally, spiritually, and physically.

Fertilizer happens! In fact, nothing much grows without it. When people don’t weed their business, it gets overrun by nettles. If you don’t tend to your garden, the end result is a lack of colour. Gardens, like a business, are not made by sitting down in the shade – so get up now and go get your hands dirty, be a green-fingered entrepreneur and go for growth.

Because it’s there

I was a teenager staying at my grandmother’s house in North Wales when I came across an epic story of mountaineering: The Fight for Everest, the account of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine’s 1924 expedition, when they disappeared neat the summit, giving rise to folklore as to whether they had reached the top of the world.

I was staying with her in the summer before I went to university, doing odd jobs, perched up ladders with a paint brush in return for an endless supply of home made pies and scones. We went to the local market, and as with a habit of a lifetime, I made a beeline for the second-hand bookstall. Several were in Welsh, whose titles I didn’t understand so ignored, but I managed to scramble four books about exploration, adventure and mountaineering – and my affinity with Amundsen, Scott, Mawson, Nansen, Hilary, Herzog, Compagnoni & Lacedelli, Shackleton and Mallory began.

I started to read The Fight for Everest first. I already knew some of the details, but its black-and-white photographs and its fold-out maps captured my imagination. As I read, I was carried away to the Himalayas. The images rushed over me, I could see the distant white peaks, snow storms approaching and the climbers reaching up the ice-walls on the North Col, scaling with ropes, the oxygen masks on their backs making them look like scuba divers.

Some 30 years on, I have still marked the passage of the book that etched an enduring memory, the description by Noel Odell, the expedition geologist, of his last sighting of Mallory and Irvine, some 800 vertical feet from the summit on June 9, 1924:

There was a sudden clearing of the atmosphere above me, and I saw the whole summit ridge and final peak of Everest unveiled. I noticed far away on a snow slope leading up to what seemed to me to be the last step but one from the base of the final pyramid, a tiny object moving and approaching the rock step. A second object followed, and then the first climbed to the top of the step. As I stood intently watching this dramatic appearance, the scene became enveloped in cloud

Over and over I read that passage, and I wanted nothing more than to be one of those two tiny dots, fighting for survival in the thin, icy air, unfazed by adversity. That was it. I lived intensely with and through these explorers, spending evenings with them in their tents, thawing pemmican hoosh.

No evidence, apart from this testimony, has been found that they climbed higher than the First Step (one of three final physical stages to the summit) as their spent oxygen cylinders were found shortly below the First Step, and Irvine’s ice axe was found nearby in 1933. They never returned to their camp and died high on Everest.

On 1 May 1999, a frozen body was found at 26,760 ft. on the north face of the mountain. Name tags on the body’s clothing bore the name of G. Leigh Mallory. All the clothing labels showed the same. No subsequent searches have found either Irvine or a Kodak camera, known to be in their possession, which could hold the answer as to whether they were on the top of the world 30 years before Hilary and Tenzing.

Mallory carried a photograph of his wife, which he was going to leave at the summit. When his body was discovered, the photograph was missing and it could have been left at the summit. Whether it will ever be proven that he reached the top or not, he certainly had climbed to an altitude of at least 28,000 feet in 1924 with clothing and equipment far inferior to what is available today, a remarkable feat.

Mallory took part in the first three British expeditions to Everest in the early 1920s, joining the 1924 Everest expedition believing that at 37, it would be his third and last opportunity to climb the mountain. Mallory’s grandson, also named George Mallory, reached the summit of Everest in 1995. He left a picture of his grandparents at the summit citing unfinished business. Latterly Reinhold Messner has been celebrated as the greatest climber in history, making the first solo ascent of Everest without oxygen and the first climber to ascend all fourteen world peaks over 26,000 ft. but the fate of George Mallory makes him the most revered climber for me.

The grand prize of mountain climbing is Everest, for obvious reasons. It’s not the most difficult or dangerous mountain, but it invites the adventurous to stand at the peak of the world, the spot closest the sun, moon, and stars, the ultimate junction of earth and sky, of horizon and zenith. It allows the brave to revel above the clouds, look upwards into the void and leave the earth behind. This is what drives people to risk physical exhaustion, dehydration, even death.

Only a fraction of people have ever exalted in that experience and lived to say: I climbed Mount Everest. But for Mallory, this was not recreation or physical challenge, that was not what he sought – he pursued the pure adventure of climbing. It was Mallory with the famous aphorism that, to this day, best summarises the avid climber’s pursuit, quoted as having replied to the question Why do you want to climb Mount Everest? with the retort Because it’s there, which has been called ‘the most famous three words in mountaineering’.

It turns out that Mallory actually did answer his own question more fully, and perhaps even more beautifully, a year prior to his famous quip: The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is no use’…. if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. I look back on tremendous efforts & exhaustion & dismal looking out of a tent door on to a dismal world of snow and vanishing hopes.

I’ve kept Mallory’s retort in my head for many years, as did President Kennedy, who quoted Mallory in his speech announcing the NASA programme in 1962, and his own words with the same sentiment of ambition: We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Mallory is one of our last great explorers and one of the greatest truly ambitious men. While today climbing Everest is almost commonplace, back then it was possibly the most daunting physical challenge available. The highest peak that had been ascended was Montblanc, at 15,000 feet, which Mallory had climbed. Remember this was the 1920s, Mallory had to hike through miles of Nepalese jungle without a map – this was all uncharted. He hadn’t even seen Everest until he arrived there, and yet from the second he heard the idea he never hesitated. He is so revered that the ice-wall on the North Col which must be climbed for all who summit Everest via the North Route is named after him, the Mallory Step.

Mallory epitomises unwavering ambition and the attitude to succeed. He has focus and clarity on his goals, and also a tenacious will-to-win, qualities needed to be an entrepreneur. Starting and running a business is a lot like climbing a mountain for the first time, look at the similarities:

  • Inner drive Entrepreneurs are driven to succeed and grow. They see the bigger picture, set massive goals and stay committed to achieving them regardless of challenges that arise. Mallory had this in abundance.
  • Strong self-belief Entrepreneurs often have a strong and assertive personality, focused and determined to achieve their goals and believe completely in their ability to achieve them. Mallory has the same inner confidence.
  • Search for innovation Mallory had a passionate desire to be the first man on Everest, just as entrepreneurs look to bring new ideas to market. They are pioneers too, in their aspirations and approach to the task and opportunity before them.
  • Competitive by nature Successful entrepreneurs thrive on competition. The only way to reach their goals and live up to their self-imposed high standards is to be the best they can be. Mallory’s wasn’t competitive with other climbers – but with himself and the mountain before him.
  • Highly motivated and energised Mallory was always on the go, full of energy and highly motivated. Entrepreneurs have a similar high work ethic, restless and always trying to get to where they want to get.
  • Accepting of obstacles Entrepreneurs are on the front line and hear the words it’s never been done, it can’t be done as opportunity. They readjust their path, obstacles are an expected part of the journey. Everest was both a physical and mental obstacle in Mallory’s journey.

If you’re anything like me, you need to remind yourselves every now and then why you’re working so hard every day. Sometimes if you haven’t looked up from the grindstone for sometime, your vision can get cloudy. Mallory’s story and attitude reminds me that there’s a purpose and a reason for your dedication, discipline and hard work.

Likewise, my mantra is that if you don’t have an appetite for turning up everyday, getting some disruptive thinking going into new opportunities and giving a ‘personal best’, then you’ll just get lost in life’s busy shuffle and something must be wrong with your internal compass.

I don’t want to live my business life with any regret. At times it is not easy, and has all sorts of unexpected twists, but Mallory reminds me – as he did Kennedy – not just ‘do things’ but to do them with a passion and a purpose bigger than ‘just turning up’. Do them because it matters. Not just to cross it off a list but for the purpose of a creating a story to tell that what you’ve done matters, and that it makes a difference.

As Mallory said in one of his final interviews, when trying to explain why he’s climbing Everest, I have dreamt since I was a boy of standing atop this mountain, and it’s worth it to risk your life to make a dream come true. Business life isn’t as risky to life and limb, but there is no finishing line, just keep reaching out and pushing yourself, and ask yourself why do I want this? – and you have the answer from Mallory, because it’s there. Mallory provides a new perspective on our own aspirations and inspires us to strive for our own Everest, because it’s there.

Thinking back, playing forward with nostalgic innovation

German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk played eight live performances in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall recently – The Catalogue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 was a chronological performance of classic master works from across their celebrated repertoire, with spectacular 3D visualisations and effects. The performances showcased 40 years of musical and technical innovation, from Autobahn, to Trans Europe Express to Tour de France.

Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider formed Kraftwerk in 1970 at the Kling Klang Studio in Düsseldorf, Germany. They achieved international recognition for their revolutionary electronic ‘sound paintings’ and musical experimentation with tapes and synthesizers creating the soundtrack for the digital age. Their compositions, using innovative looping techniques and computerised rhythms, have had a major influence on several musical genres.

Kraftwerk were the first true pop music futurists, they wrote pieces about motorways, train and air travel, computers and nuclear power, and were obsessively interested in how technology was changing the way we lived, worked and communicated. It used to feel as if they’d been transported back in time from the future, so prescient were they, thirty years before the iPad.

As you made your way into the Turbine Hall you were given a black cushion to sit on (though everyone stood) and 3D glasses to watch the slide show projected onto a large screen, in front of which the four Kraftwerk members stood, impassively, at their synthesiser consoles, twiddling buttons and sequencing sounds. They were dressed in luminous one-piece bodysuits, like demented space age surgeons. There was no interaction with the audience, not even a cursory good evening from Ralf Hütter, the 66-year-old frontman and sole remaining founder member.

As a teenager I was interested in the synthesiser sounds of Ultravox, John Foxx, early OMD and The Human League, Cabaret Voltaire and Kraftwerk. I loved the way they looked and dressed, pale faces and short haircuts. The sounds they made intrigued me by the use of technology, and the cold austerity and isolation of the music.

Some 30 years on, the ultimate effect of the Turbine Hall performance on me was one of melancholic nostalgia. Kraftwerk no longer seem as if they’ve come from the future, they come from a time before the Internet. They have become nostalgists, endlessly reworking and reinterpreting their best work. It’s 2013, Kraftwerk joined up the dots between electronic music past and present, thinking back but playing forward, a multi-sensory and hypnotic offering, illustrating just how far you can push the format of one man and his Mac.

Kraftwerk were pioneers, but it’s 22 years since I last saw them. I was glad I went but I think I was disappointed – the show they played this time was greeted as a kind of remixed Greatest Hits, a recap of the near past, rather the next bold step into our future. For Kraftwerk, ultimately like all innovators, time has taken its toll and we all sleepwalk into the future. But the memories of their ground-breaking innovation made the nostalgia more evocative.

The challenge is how to create ‘nostalgic innovation’, combining the warm, fuzzy feeling of nostalgia with innovation, and reinvention, not standing still. One industry that has built commercial leverage on nostalgia is the sweet industry – loose sweets from large jars are back in fashion, with the number of traditional sweet shops rising by 15% over the last year, in spite of overall decline in sales of confectionery and high street footfall. What is it that has people hooked?

The sweet shop is a pilgrimage, it’s a sensory feast. The bright colours, the smell as you go in. Boutiques lined with glass jars of sparkling, brightly coloured sweets and old-fashioned chocolates are drawing in more customers, who are returning to the tastes of their youth. Nostalgia and novelty is an essential part of the enjoyment of sweets, stimulating a resurgence on the high street.

The sweet shop was born in the C18th, as the price of sugar dropped and the middle and lower classes could purchase a bag of aniseed balls to eat on the street. The 1800s saw the creation of butterscotch, Kendal mint cake, Turkish delight, and sherbet, and after the arrival of the Dairy Milk bar in 1905, the game was on to develop mass-market British confections for a hungry public.

Throughout the 1920s and 30s, British chocolate companies like Cadbury, Rowntree’s and Mackintosh grew with a wave of confectionery innovation, when our most popular products originated: Aero, Smarties, Terry’s Chocolate Orange, Black Magic, Dairy Box, Rollo, Fox’s glacier mints. By the 1970s consumers had established an even deeper relationship with brands and their marketing – remember the Cadbury’s Flake girl and the James Bond like Milk Tray man?

Sweetshops remind us of what it was like as children, they transport us back to a particular moment in our life, when we used to ride our bikes and catch frogs and girls were great because they were rubbish at hide and seek. It’s pure indulgence of nostalgia that takes us into these confectionery emporiums.

So what are the ‘nostalgic innovation’ lessons for your business from the retro experience of cherry lips, fling saucers, rhubarb and custard, and strawberry laces? – and note how the pick ‘n mix has become click ‘n mix, as the high street outlets have online shops too. Do you capitalise on what is familiar, giving it a slightly new twist to appeal to an existing audience? Or do you take the risk of being something completely different, innovating your business in a new direction of some sort?

There are pros and cons to both approaches. Let’s say that you are opening a new restaurant, for instance. If you take the former route, you would take some time-honoured recipes, give them a twist, and do your best to live up to those old expectations. You want to make that classic dish better than anyone else, but there is a distinct possibility that you’ll just get lost in the crowd of everyone else making the same dish.

On the flip side, if you take the latter route, you’ll come up with brand new recipes that are unlike anything that anyone else offers. You may attract that initial novelty factor from a new clientele, but will you be able to retain them in the long term? More importantly, will they like your new and fresh approach at all, and then see beyond the novelty factor to become regular customers?

What do you think? Is it better to capitalise on nostalgia or novelty when it comes to your product offerings? Can you combine them? The car industry has leveraged this in recent years with the relaunch of the Mini, an icon of the 1960s, under the ownership of BMW in 2001 with a redesign but an anchor to its heritage. A brilliant commercial that demonstrated this was the little boy dressed as Darth Vader, when he used ‘the force’ to start his Dad’s Volkswagen. The commercial visualised an unexpected way to use the auto start function of the Jetta that made all of us feel like kids again.

Into my fifth decade now, I find that the past interests me more and more, yet the future preoccupies me as a source of heightened anticipation and possibility too. Increasingly the present seems to have its moments, mainly around the growth and development of my children, but it’s merely a station through which events travel forward. It is well over a decade now since the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard argued that reality itself had been fundamentally altered by a highly digitalised world.

So maybe its all about innovation, and connectivity to nostalgic reminiscences and the ‘good old days’ (when the weather was undoubtedly better) is because of the ever-present past we now live – the hard drive of my computer is overloaded with digital images of the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met, all of them time-coded and indexed automatically, and a journey back so easy at the click of the mouse. There are email trails leading back a decade comprised of many, many thousands of ephemeral traces. Even nostalgia has gone digital.

From a business perspective, thinking back but playing forward, I believe that this ‘nostalgic innovation’ is attractive as a business strategy, because it allows your customers the opportunity to re-engage in a past activity but in new ways and with new rewards and experiences. Because the underlying activities are nostalgic, there is a familiarity that makes them easy to understand, adopt and engage.

This is shown in the advent of social media, where companies can now share their brand with a much wider audience of consumers and members of their product community. Facebook, and Pinterest have taken us back to sharing of photographs and experience, the commercial value of the underlying nostalgia and the connection they provide for marketing is well understood.

While these are technological innovations, they lead the consumer to move beyond the application, offering the cultural linkages that the original activities – photography and scrapbooking – provided. How often do you get the ‘old photographs’ out now, or maybe you’ve scanned them in as digital images? That’s my point.

Taking old activities and using technologies to let people re-engage is a great model for aspiring new companies. Turning your nation into a huge subsidiary of Tescos is not what gives you respect and influence in the world, nor a sense of dignity and value in your society, so we do need rabid innovation to invigorate our future, even if it is inevitable that many of the ‘next-big things’ of the past will become little else but memories as they are eclipsed by their younger, sleeker iterations.

Given the speed of innovation, there’s a very good chance that many of the devices and cultural hallmarks that we’ve grown up with in the last decade will be extinct before the next generation of digital natives knew they ever existed. Even recent technology is generating nostalgia – the brown plastic tape of a cassette getting chewed up, going to Boots to collect physical prints of photographs, handling my first CD and the sound of a modem connecting – are my experiences that my children will never know.

Privacy, not having a mobile phone, and not knowing exactly what all of your friends are doing and thinking at every moment seems unfathomable to my 17 year-old daughter, as does my affection for Kraftwerk, although she will always accompany me into the sweet shop hoping for a Willy Wonka golden ticket. For me, the past is only the future with the lights on, and reality leaves a lot to the imagination if you’re looking forward. William Faulkner said Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. Never look back, you only find what you left or let go, and don’t look back in anger I hear you say, not least today.

Downton Abbey – no escape from austerity, even for aristocrats

The new series of Downton Abbey is set in the aftermath of the First World War, and sees the Crawley family threatened with the loss of their fortune. Where wealth seems to be indicated by hat size, it doesn’t matter whether you think it’s a stirring melodrama or so ludicrous it could be a spoof parody by The Fast Show, it’s entertaining either way.

Downton’s appeal to me is the contrast of the upstairs-downstairs, so asking us to sympathise with the repugnant Crawley’s financial crisis is a bit much, I’m loving their turmoil! They’re bone idle and posh, living in a lavish palace the size of a small Lancashire town.

Hugh Bonneville, playing the sixth Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley, sobs as he admits that the family wealth has vanished – he invested heavily in the Canadian Grand Trunk Line, which hit the buffers and gone bust. As a result, his accountant advises If there isn’t enough money to run it, then Downton must go!  Deflated, he returns to the grand home he faces losing to learn that a new footman, Alfred, has been employed, an extra wage the family can’t afford – and who authorised the recruitment? He doesn’t know how to serve soup properly!

Cora, his American wife with an odd accent, confronts him: Are you really telling me that all MY money has gone? After a pause he tells her: I’m afraid so. Cora is less afraid of the future than her husband is, she’s much less afraid of change. The clash between the aristocratic old guard and the upstart Americans is just warming up. As the #FreeBates campaign trends on Twitter, we had The Case of the Burnt Dinner Jacket and then The Case of the Missing Dress Shirts. Endeavour Morse, where are you? Then the oven wouldn’t heat up, and the cook, Mrs Patmore, was both calm and hysterical at the same.

Then there was Mary and Matthew’s wedding. Their glee at being able to snog somewhere that isn’t amid deep shrubbery or in the bowels of the sprawling house was plain to see. However, Matthew had better watch out he doesn’t meet the same end between Mary’s thighs as that nice young Turkish diplomat from the first series. Matthew is the closet male heir to Lord Grantham and their union will secure the future of Downton. But despite the dire situation, Matthew may or may not accept a lump sum inheritance from Ginger Lavinia’s dead father. Mary saw the dollar signs, but Matthew was having none of it. Time to call the bailiffs?

Finally, to finish setting the financial scene: Shirley MacLaine (aka Martha Levinson) is minted. An American wearing moose fur (given the size of it), she’s no Lady Rockefeller and her dollars aren’t about to brave the 1922 exchange rate of US: £0.22 and pour her millions into English Estate. She did enjoy the chicken drumsticks on the carpet picnic, but like most of the landed gentry I suspect she was secretly hoping for cold pheasant pie.  The end of the picnic culminated in Martha saying a resounding NO to saving Downton, she cannot understand why they want to keep it. Typical American, no class, no heritage.

Now, if the family is to be turfed out of Downton, have we overlooked some source of revenue previously untapped? If only we had coal deposits under the Orangery or farmland to sell off for development. Like any enterprise facing a crisis, now is the time for some disruptive thinking. Perhaps they need a kick in the seat of the pants or a whack on the side of the head? Roger Von Oech, a creative thinking expert would advocate such having written books with those titles, as the Crawleys are stuck in the past, refusing to let go of the cold hand of history.

When you’re trying to solve a tough problem or come up with new ideas, creative thinking is crucial. The process boils down to changing your perspective and seeing things differently than you currently do. People like to call this thinking outside of the box, which is the wrong way to look at it in my view. Everyone is capable of innovation, you just have to strip away the imaginary mental blocks (or boxes) that you’ve picked up along the way.

Here are some habits found in highly innovative and creative people that I’ve summarised from the thinking of Scott Berkun, Roger Von Oech and Michael Michalko, that would be helpful to the fretting Lord.

Take risk, make mistakes Innovation is more about psychology than intellect. Lose your fear of failure, expect that some ideas will fail in the process of learning. Be agile, build prototypes often, test them out on people, gather feedback, and make incremental changes. Experiment is the expected failure to deliberately learn something – Scott Berkun.

Create the space, think, and write it down The more relaxed we are the more receptive we are to tap into our intuition – ideas often come to me in the bath or while out walking the dog. Many innovators keep a journal to jot down ideas and thoughts. Recall Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebook was purchased by Bill Gates for $30.8m!

Be Curious Many innovators are just curious people who are inquisitive, and like to solve problems. Ask a lot of questions and challenge the norms, think around an opportunity to see what others have missed. Find a ‘curiosity partner’ – new ideas can surface as a result of bouncing ideas. Brainstorm together, set time each week for a ‘new ideas conversation’.

There is no ‘right’ answer We all search for the ‘right answer’. Truth is, one doesn’t exist. There’s often more than one answer, and the second one you come up with might be better than the first. Accept that there are going to be setbacks, and you will go down a few cul-de-sacs on the journey. Simply shrug your shoulders, turnaround, and move forward.

Have fun! Egyptian pharaohs, Chinese emperors and European royalty have all consulted with fools, or court jesters, when faced with tough problems. The persona of the fool allowed the truth to be told, without the usual ramifications that might come with speaking blasphemy or challenging conventions. Give yourself permission to be a fool and see things for what they are.

Embrace ambiguity Almost every situation is ambiguous to some degree, and trying to force situations into black and white doesn’t help. The creative thinker rejects the false comfort of clarity and enjoys the chaos and fuzziness. Ambiguity is your friend if you’re looking to innovate. The fact that most people are uncomfortable exploring uncertainty gives you an advantage, as long as you can embrace ambiguity rather than run from it. As Thomas Edison said, Invention is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.

Of course, there is rich irony in the story line of the drama for the property itself, Highclere Castle. Owners Lord & Lady Carnarvon have raised £11m to implement a significant refurbishment programme to take advantage of the thousand of visitors as a result of the drama. It was once home to George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who financed Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt in 1922.

So who could the Crawleys look to for inspiration? Well, it has to be Apple. Having sold over 365 million digital devices over the last five years – 50 million last quarter alone, and currently averaging $4Bn in monthly profit and amassing $110Bn in cash, Apple has positioned itself to take advantage of several major trends in the new digital economy with its disruptive thinking.

Thanks to a combination of anticipation and luck, Apple, which nearly went bankrupt before the last tech boom, is poised for even greater heights if it can continue to out-think, out-innovate and out-execute its competitors. These are the three major forces the Crawleys need to embrace: Innovation, Opportunity and Execution

Apple has helped define the a generation with its range of devices, iTunes and Mac OS X. But for me, Apple’s biggest innovation was not a device, but rather a physical gesture – the right-to-left swiping motion used with Apple devices to navigate which is altering how we seek and absorb information.

David Payne, chief digital officer of Gannett & Co. Inc. parent company of USA Today, pointed out that the digital world changed when Apple introduced touch with the iPod and iPhone. Touch screens had been around for years, but Apple brought them into our daily lives with the iPhone. As a result, the way we engage and interact with devices has changed, shown by the dramatic decline in sales of the BlackBerry, and now with the explosive growth of the iPad, it’s about to change again. Payne referred to the swipe as the game-changer, or as he called to it, petting the cat.

Lord Grantham has to show the same personal motivation and innovation leadership skills as Steve Jobs, using his influence and emotional control to be a visionary in the crisis, following innovators as Walt Disney and Bill Hewlett/David Packard, and more latterly Mark Zuckerberg – the bond between the innovative leader and the organisation are inseparable.

Creating sustainable, agile innovation is a challenge for many organisations, so spare a thought for the stately Lord in his stately home as he eat his plum and almond tart. He has a recognised brand, an asset and a loyal customer (viewers) base – but no cash. In the absence of American Angel investors, he needs some fresh business thinking. Just goes to show that there is no escape from austerity, even for the aristocrats

Taking lessons from the innovation-led success of Apple, Salesforce.com, 37 Signals and Lady Gaga, Grantham may harbour dreams of a brighter future. Opportunities could include conversion to student accommodation, a joint venture with a leisure entrepreneur to build a Theme Park, the Head Office for a newly minted Russian Oligarch or a HQ for the World Cluedo Society (which would ensure all the aristocracy had jobs). Of course, he also has to consider death duties and inheritance tax planning. There’s so much to think about, it needs a fourth series to unwind it all, so lets take a break and have a cup of tea. Now, where is Carson?

You don’t need to control the conversation to get people talking about you.

Breakfast cereal boxes are generally poor works of art and don’t really trouble the judges for annual literature prizes with their prose. However, I suspect that I’m just one of many people who sit at the breakfast table munching away, reading them over and over again. Last year Kellogg’s realised it could make its packets more entertaining, and guessed that people also had their phones to hand – anything beats talking to grumpy teenagers at 7am!

The cornflake maker put 2D codes, the squares of black and white patterns better known as QR (quick response) codes, on its Crunchy Nut Cornflakes boxes in America. When scanned with their smartphones, these took cereal-munchers to a video of dawn in some picturesque part of the world. The idea was to push cereal as an all-day snack: It’s morning somewhere.

QR codes have much to recommend them. They store far more information than plain black-and-white bar codes, for example, they can fit in web site addresses and logos. One reason for the increase in the use of QR codes is the rapid uptake of smartphones with high-quality cameras and the corresponding decline in data charges. It also took time for people like me to realise why adverts contained mutant crosswords.

By using QR codes and SMS on cereal boxes, Kellogg drove more than 40,000 QR scans and 6,000 texts during its Crunchy Nut cereal promotion. The aim of the campaign was to create more engagement with the brand via mobile. Utilizing the back of the cereal box is a highly engaging static media touch point that allows users an intimate setting to try mobile and turn the static media into a rich media experience said a clever marketing executive who obviously gets up earlier in the morning than I do to eat his cereal.

In the UK, Random House, a large book publisher, will begin testing a new mobile strategy on July 1 that will see them placing QR codes on children’s menus in 139 restaurant locations, including T.G.I. Friday’s. The four-page black-and-white menus contain various activities for children’s and include Random House content promoting the publisher’s award-winning picture book Wild About Books.

The back covers of the menus feature three different QR codes linking users to a mobile app for video, information about the author and illustrator of Wild About Books and to an interactive portion of the book. A whole new experience for family mealtime beckons for all amidst the flying ketchup.

For marketers, QR codes bridge the gap between offline and online worlds. Customers who use them are in effect ‘opting in’ and asking to be told more about the company, whilst he success of a campaign is easy to measure by the number of scans. Expect to see a lot more of those funny little black-and-white patches as we further embrace digital lives and companies seek to attract, retain and engage you in the battle for customer loyalty.

But let’s call a spade a spade. What most companies are seeking is not loyalty but repeat purchases from existing customers time after time. They may call it loyalty but it’s not really and today’s sophisticated customers see straight through loyalty marketing campaigns and customer experiences designed to get them to part with their hard earned cash.

Actually achieving customer loyalty is like trying to herd cats – impossible! Customer loyalty sounds great in marketing journals and business books, and it’s also big business – an entire industry of consultants and loyalty scheme companies convince their clients to spend millions each year to implement CRM systems and loyalty reward programmes. But don’t be fooled, these initiatives will no longer deliver loyalty.

Business strategist Dean van Leeuwen (http://www.deanvanleeuwen.com/) has researched customer loyalty based on the premise of ‘herding cats’ and identified the following insights:

  • Customers have changed, it’s not just the recession, there has been a values shift in attitudes towards business and consumerism, triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers on14 September 2008;
  • Top companies have a deeper understanding of values-focused marketing and how, by connecting with personal values, meaningful relationships with customers can be cultivated.
  • Social media is about creating relationships, not sales
  • Business needs to demonstrate a more human persona to their brand – businesses should be more personable, fallible and approachable
  • Understand that technology has given customers a sixth sense in their ability to find information, seeks user testimonies and comparison searches

Customers have a growing ability to determine seamlessly and in real time which company is offering the best benefits, price and experience. The combination of the Internet, social networks and mobile devices has dramatically shifted the balance of power in favour of customers. Companies are now more transparent than ever before. With a click, customers can compare your product offering and hear what other customers are saying about you and your competitors.

Leeuwen also identifies an interesting counter to all this ‘customer love’ -recognise that you don’t always have to delight your customers, in fact, sometimes you can even inconvenience them providing the real moment of truth delivers amazing value and creates a connection. He illustrates the point with reference to IKEA, the Swedish home products and lifestyle business that designs and sells ready-to-assemble furniture and home accessories.

Now consider the average IKEA shopping experience. You typically have to drive out of your way to a semi-industrialised retail park to go shopping. You enter an enormous, dusty warehouse and get corralled like sheep around a labyrinth of furniture. You have to contend with screaming kids, tired mothers and bored dads, and of course there is the quintessential stop at the hostel styled canteen for Swedish meatballs and chips.

You finally make your way out of the maze to find stacks of heavy boxes each with their own confusing codified system telling you where your items can or can not be located, only to frustratingly find out that at least one or two of the items you hunted down in the labyrinth have already been sold out.

Too tired to head back into the maze to find a replacement item, you collect what boxes of furniture you can find and, wait for it, you have to queue up for a minimum of 45 minutes to pay. You then have to squeeze the boxes into your car, which seems to have shrunk so that you can take the boxes home and build the furniture yourself.

What is satisfying about that experience? Very little, and yet IKEA is now the world’s largest furniture retailer. And it’s not because of price either, because there are cheaper ready-made alternatives to IKEA. The reason IKEA is successful is that they understand intimately the emotional connection they have with their customers and have ingeniously recognized that one crucial moment of truth – the one that matters more than all of the other moments of truth put together – when they do need to wow their customers.

They are looking at that point when you step back and call in the family and go See, I am the man (or woman) who built this. Time and time again, IKEA delivers consistently at this primary moment of truth – their furniture represents the precision of DIY engineering. Once you get the logic of the build, every piece fits together easily and it looks really good. IKEA have identified a business model that goes against all customer experience conventional wisdom and yet still delivers happy customers.

They are not alone in this either. Have you ever visited an Abercrombie & Fitch or Hollister store? You have to queue outside, sometimes for hours, and be prevented from going inside by bouncers. Once inside you have to contend with dim lights, loud music and an overbearing smell of perfume and deodorant. Now of course this experience appeals more to a certain younger generation but their business model works well because they understand the moment of truth is in wearing the A&F brand: feeling the soft material against your skin and knowing that the trauma you went through to get the top was worth it.

Compare this, for example, to the travel industry offering lower priced seats to customers, but then penalises the customer if they need to make a change. What happens if the customer is ill or has a genuine need to change the date of travel? Under their rules it is tough luck, the only way to gain flexibility is to pay an exorbitantly high price. The airline and rail industries believe this is the only way they can be profitable but is this policy fair? Contrast this to Zappos, which offers a 365-day returns policy, previously unheard of. This has won them a lot of happy customers.

Finally, happy customers become advocates of brands that are quirky or have a personality – it’s nothing to do with QR Codes, twitter or Swedish meatballs. My favourite example of this currently is Prufrock Coffee (http://www.prufrockcoffee.com/)

Prufrock is a successful boutique coffee shop in London, run by ex-World Barista Champion Gwilym Davies. He has come up with the world’s first disloyalty card. The idea is simple: you get a stamp on a card for visiting eight different quality coffee shops. After visiting the eighth ‘friend’, which of course are actually his competitors, he will say thank you by making you a cup of his own coffee for free. There is no catch. Gwilym just wants people to try different quality coffees and become as passionate about the different flavours of coffee as he is. And of course, your next paid for coffee is at Prufrocks, and you tell all your friends about this experience.

A sale is not something you pursue, it is something that happens to you while you are immersed in serving your customer. In business, you get what you want by giving other people what they want. Ignore technology and social media, simply be everywhere, do everything, and never fail to shock the customer, in the nicest possible way. Sometimes marketing folks get too smart for their own good: you don’t need to control the conversation to get people talking about you.

Take the Olympian spirit of Jesse Owens into your business

Not everyone is a competitive or sporting person, however there are lessons which we can take from Olympic athletes and apply them to our business ambitions, behaviours and efforts. Each Olympic athlete strives for peak performance and achieving a personal best, they have the determination and mind set of a winner, choosing to move forward even when it is uncomfortable – how can we emulate that in business?

Olympians are not like ordinary people. Let’s face it, most of us are not motivated enough to get up at 4am and practice our hearts out for six hours a day, seven days a week. Most of us couldn’t handle the pressure of having ‘the world’ watch us, carefully scrutinising our every move. But for the Olympic athlete, this is what drives them – competition, challenge, defeat and victory – and they come alive, living for that moment of opportunity to win.

Olympians start out as ordinary people who learn to take on traits that are extraordinary. These characteristics are the key to their power and ability to conquer fears, insecurities, physical and mental barriers, and bounce back in the face of adversity when things don’t go their way. Olympians have a drive to meet their goals, overcoming barriers with a commitment to themselves, a purpose where success becomes the focus. The clarity of what has to be achieved to win gets them out of the comfort zone, determined to do whatever was necessary to make it happen. We can learn how to take these traits and apply them to our business and become more successful.

There have been many great Olympians, but few can compare to Jesse Owens. This was a tough man who knew what he wanted to accomplish and set out to do just that.

The seventh child of Henry and Emma Alexander Owens was named James Cleveland when he was born in Alabama on September 12, 1913. A teacher was told “J.C.” when she asked his name to enter in her roll book, but she thought he said Jesse. The name stuck and he would be known as Jesse Owens for the rest of his life.

As a child he was boisterous, and used to go wild in the school playground, always getting into trouble. Then one day, the greatest of his life he said, the junior high track coach plucked him out of a playground scuffle and set him to work training for track meets. Owens attributes all of his future Olympic successes to that coach, Irishman Charles Riley

His promising athletic career began in 1928 in Cleveland, Ohio where he set Junior High School records in the high jump and long jump, set a new high school world record by running the 100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds and created a new high school world record in the 220-yard dash by running the distance in 20.7 seconds.

At the Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor on May 25, 1935, he set three world records and tied a fourth, all in a span of about 45 minutes. Jesse was uncertain as to whether he would be able to participate at all, as he was suffering from a sore back as a result from a fall down a flight of stairs. He convinced his coach to allow him to run the 100-yard dash as a test for his back, and amazingly Jesse recorded an official time of 9.4 seconds, once again tying the world record.

Despite the pain, he then went on to participate in three other events, setting a world record in each event. In a span of 45 minutes, he accomplished what many experts still feel is the greatest athletic feat in history.

His 100-yard dash run equalled the world record of 9.4 seconds. Ten minutes later he made one long jump and cleared 26ft 8.25in, breaking the world record by more than half-a-foot. It was 25 years before anyone broke that record. Nine minutes later he slashed three-tenths of a second from the world 220-yards record and 26 minutes later he ran the 220-yard hurdles for his fourth world record of the day.

In the summer of 1936 Jesse owns arrived at the summer Olympics in Berlin. Jesse Owens, the son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave, achieved what no Olympian before him had accomplished – he became the first track & field athlete to win four gold medals in a single Olympiad. This remarkable achievement stood unequaled until the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, when American Carl Lewis matched Jesse’s feat.

Although others have gone on to win more gold medals, he remains the best remembered Olympic athlete because he achieved what no Olympian before or since has accomplished – during a time of deep-rooted segregation and Hitler’s master race theory, he affirmed that individual excellence, rather than race or national origin, distinguishes one man from another.

Athletes didn’t return from the Olympics to lucrative advertising and product endorsement campaigns in those days, and Owens supported his young family with a variety of jobs. One was of special significance – playground director in Cleveland. It was his first step into a lifetime of working with underprivileged youth, which gave him his greatest satisfaction. After relocating to Chicago, he devoted much of his time to underprivileged youth as a board member and former director of the Chicago Boys’ Club. Jesse Owens died from complications due to lung cancer on March 31, 1980 in Tucson, Arizona.

There are many quotes attributed to Owens, here are a few which I think resonate into what we can take into our business lives, from his sporting life and achievements:

We all have dreams. In order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline and effort.

I always loved running – it was something you could do by yourself and under your own power. You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs.

If you don’t try to win you might as well hold the Olympics in somebody’s back yard. The thrill of competing carries with it the thrill of a gold medal. One wants to win to prove himself the best.

One chance is all you need, a lifetime of training for just 10 seconds. It all goes so fast, and character makes the difference when it’s close. The purpose of the Olympics is to do your best. As I’d learned long ago from Charles Riley, the only victory that counts is the one over yourself.

To a sprinter, the hundred-yard dash is over in three seconds, not nine or ten. The first ‘second’ is when you come out of the blocks. The next is when you look up and take your first few strides to attain gain position. By that time the race is actually about half over. The final ‘second’ – the longest slice of time in the world for an athlete – is that last half of the race, when you really bear down and see what you’re made of. It seems to take an eternity, yet is all over before you can think what’s happening.

From the remarkable achievements of Jesse Owen, here some key Olympian traits to take into your business, and push to achieve that personal best.

  • Vision: Athletes have a clear vision of where they’re going, they are purposeful about it as a clear goal, and avoid distraction which saves time and energy.
  • Run Through: Olympians run through their events mentally before they even do them – this gets them in the ‘zone’ and gives them an edge; visualise your business success, and get this energy.
  • Discipline: Olympians may not love getting up at 5am but they know they have to put in the time – so must you be strongly disciplined.
  • Personal Growth: Athletes know they need to ‘push’ them when they want to quit. The key is clarity on seeking personal growth.
  • Never Quit Attitude: Olympians feel like quitting at times – just like us – but they push through and know they won’t win without tenacity.
  • They Lose a Lot: Olympians often lose more than they win, but it’s their strong, determined spirit that keeps them moving forward when others would quit. This makes them winners
  • Block out Negativity: Olympians may feel stress, frustration and anxiety, but they blocking these out with positive mind sets

When you run a business dealing with the Monday to Friday stops-and-starts, having the blue sky thinking of what you want to achieve and equally the washing the pots of some low level tasks filling your head, it can sometimes overwhelm you. However, it’s the people who persevere with determination and a plan and vision that will succeed.

As business professionals we must choose to meet each day with the knowledge that our path holds both obstacles and opportunity. The competition will be tough and the conditions unpredictable and unforgiving, but that’s what it takes to turn a vision into a reality.  So dig deep and unleash what drives you – not for money or fame, but for the pure joy of doing what you do best, and doing it to a new standard – aspire to be a Jesse Owens and achieve a lifetime personal best every day.

From Ian Curtis to John Peel, the unknown pleasures of creativity

It was Monday, 19th May 1980 and the John Peel show started at 10pm on Radio 1. Sat in my bedroom, I was thinking to myself, hope he plays the new Joy Division single, Love will tear us apart.  After the iconic Pickin the blues theme tune by Grinderswitch, which introduced the show, faded, the customary ten seconds of absolute silence before John’s deadpan voice.

A few seconds later, the shock news came onto the air. Bad news lads, monotoned Peel solemnly. Ian Curtis, of Joy Division, has died.

I didn’t know whether to feel sad, angry, shock or cheated or what. Joy Division had been my favourite band for the previous year, part of putting Manchester on the map. Their bleak, stark, atmospheric experimental sound had carved a place for them into the record collections of many in 1979, including my own. Living just outside Manchester, they were big news for me and my mates.

May 18th, 1980 Ian Curtis ended his life, aged 23. The driving force behind Joy Division’s dark vision, he hanged himself in the kitchen of his Macclesfield home. It was not his first suicide attempt. Curtis ended his life before he could feel the range of his influence. As the singer/songwriter for Joy Division, he wallowed in his own deep despair, peering into the dark underbelly of human existence. He wrote stunning lyrics from the pictures in his head, until he saw no purpose in living.

Factory released Love Will Tear Us Apart in April, and as a piece of music it has stood out years, surely everyone recognises the song immediately the first throws of the incessant, hollow drumming with pace launches the humming, driving guitars in the intro, before Curtis comes in with the vocals? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHYOXyy1ToI&feature=list_related&playnext=1&list=AL94UKMTqg-9BJBiOddivXxWNavYgSXPDJ

So for me, an anniversary of the death of someone who at 17 was shaping my life, still resonates today with 95 digital tracks on my iPod and the Unknown Pleasures, Closer and Still albums safely stored in the attic, and all their Peel Sessions performances saved too.

Joy Division’s appeal has far outlasted their tragically short life because, if they were miserable, they did miserable differently. Curtis’s baritone voice and lyrics about personal anxiety, pessimism and intensely dark memories, combined with his intense, wide-eyed stage presence was unique. Curtis was an innovator, a creative genius, and at the same time John Peel was a pioneer too. Both played a major part in changing the music industry in terms of their ideas, influence and how to connect with an audience – it was all about what they did, and being different.

If I think about creativity and what innovation looks like, the same slideshow of images clicks across my mind: that photo of Einstein with his unkempt hair all over the place, Edison with his light bulb, and in business terms, Steve Jobs onstage in his black turtleneck jumper introducing the latest iThing device.  For Curtis and Peel, their creativity and originality was in a different form. Who can ignore Atmosphere or The Festive 50?

For all the innovators who have impacted our lives, it’s not just about that romantic Eureka! moment, it’s about the nitty-gritty work that comes after the idea in terms of getting it accepted and implemented. For Curtis and Peel, they may have been the creative driving force, the catalyst that had the original spark, but successful innovation is frequently about the team too, being surrounded by like minded people with complimentary talents.

Forbes Insights recent study How entrepreneurial executives mobilise organisations to innovate identifies five major personalities crucial to fostering a healthy atmosphere of innovation within an organisation. Some are more entrepreneurial, and some more process-oriented – but all play a critical role in the process (http://www.forbes.com/forbesinsights/europe_entrepreneurs/index.html). Thinkers need doers to get things done, and idealists need number crunchers to tether them to reality.

Then again, the risk-takers and the risk-averse must co-exist otherwise an organisation veers too far to one extreme or the other, and either jerks all over the place with the push-and-pull, or simply moves nowhere at all. An effective and productive culture of innovation is like a good homemade vegetable soup – it needs to have the right mix and balance of all the ingredients, otherwise it’s unbalanced – and downright mushy.

The Forbes Insights study surveyed more than 1,200 executives in Europe. Using a series of questions about their attitudes, beliefs, priorities and behaviours, a picture emerged of five key personality types that play a role in the innovation cycle.

Movers and Shakers. With a strong personal drive, these are leaders where the major incentive for innovation is the idea of creating a legacy and influence over others. These are the ones who like being in the front, driving projects forward, they provide the push to get things done. On the flip side, they can be a bit arrogant, and impatient with teamwork.

Movers and Shakers tend to cluster in risk and corporate strategy, in the private equity and media industries. From the research they comprise 22% of all executives.

Experimenters. Persistent and open to all new things, experimenters bring a new idea through the phases of development and execution. Where there is a will, there is a way is perhaps the best way to describe them. They’re perfectionists and tend to be workaholics, most likely because it takes an incredible amount of dedication, time and hard work to push through an idea or initiative that hasn’t yet caught on.

Experimenters take deep pride in their achievements, but they also enjoy sharing their expertise with others. Because they’re so persistent, even in the face of sometimes considerable pushback, they’re crucial to the innovation cycle. They tend to be risk-takers, and comprise about 16% of executives – and least likely to be CEOs or COOs.

Star Pupils. Do you remember those kids at school who sat at the front, whose hands were the first in the air anytime the teacher asked a question? Maybe they even shouted out Ooh! Ooh! too just to get the teacher to notice them first? This is the segment of the executive population those kids grew into. They’re good at…well, they’re good at everything, really. They make things happen. Unsurprisingly, CEOs tend to be Star Pupils.

Controllers. Uncomfortable with risk, Controllers thrive on structure, they prefer to be in control and like to have everything in its place. As colleagues they’re not exactly the team players and networkers, more likely insular, and tend to focus on concrete, clear-cut objectives where they know exactly where they stand and can better control everything around them. They comprise 15% of executives, the smallest group overall.

Hangers-On. Forget the less than flattering name, these executives exist to bring everyone back down to earth and tether them to reality. On a dinner plate, Hangers-On would be the spinach – few people’s favourite, but extremely important in the completeness of the meal. They comprise 23% of all executives, they cluster in the CFO role. Someone has to remind everyone of budget and resource constraints.

No one group can be considered the purest entrepreneurs, the most creative or best innovators, but Movers & Shakers and Experimenters may be the closest. Younger, more innovative firms generally need Movers & Shakers at the top, channelling the energy of Experimenters into a vision that can be implemented. As organisations grow and become more established, they need Star Pupils who can translate that vision into a strategy and lead it forward, Controllers who can marshal the troops to execute it and Hangers-On who can rein it in. You need a team who between them can do the blue-sky thinking and wash the pots. Creativity should be applied or considered in everything we do, simply by asking the question how could we do this differently? Throw creativity at new ideas not money.

Everyone is born creative, everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten. Then when you hit puberty they take away the crayons and give you books, on algebra and calculus (which I liked better than crayons, but that’s a different story). Suddenly years later when you get the creative bug, you want your crayons back.

So you’ve got the itch to do something. You don’t know where the itch came from. You don’t know if you’re any good or not, but you think you could be. Go ahead and make something. Make something really special, something amazing that will really blow the mind of anybody who sees it. If you’re creative, if you can think independently, if you can articulate passion, if you can overcome the fear of being wrong, then this is your time to sing in your own voice.

Ian Curtis didn’t have the greatest singing voice or vocal range, but that didn’t stop him, right? So I guess the next question for you is, Why not?  Don’t let a new dawn fade, I’m sure you’ll find some unknown pleasures in your creativity and make your mark.

Ian Brookes is dna people, a consultancy and advisory business working exclusively with entrepreneurs, start-ups and innovative high-growth businesses.

I operate as an external advisor, non-executive director and investor, providing thought provoking business growth advice, insights and practical guidance to help you achieve breakthroughs in strategy and performance.

I guide and mentor exceptional entrepreneurs and help take their innovative ideas and disruptive technologies and turn them into successful high-growth businesses. I help people generate and then capture new ideas to drive growth and create shareholder value. I help people reach beyond their expectations.

In working this way, I apply my own business thinking and experience, alongside proven models, analysis and tools to help elicit new strategies. I don’t just sense-check ideas, I inspire individuals by enabling them to reach beyond their expectations.

Besides growth-wish organisations, I also work with companies who have got ‘stuck’ in their thinking and need an external catalyst to either stimulate a new direction or create breakthroughs. These interventions have resulted in new and focused growth strategies, new products and services and often result in 100% growth.

Based on 25 years experience, I would summarise my style and approach as a ‘thinker and a doer’, I help the ‘blue sky thinking’ and also ‘washing the pots’ in terms of bringing discipline, clarity and focus to their strategic thinking, planning and execution.

I build trust and enhance value through the application of dna people’s unique discover-nurture-accelerate approach, which underpins everything I do. I deliver in an authentic, personalised and highly energised manner, aiming to make a sustainable difference.

dna people bring discipline, clarity and focus to the thinking and execution at the heart of your growth plan, working collaboratively to identify the critical steps you need to take to achieve your next phase of growth.