Be a surfer; watch the ocean; figure out where the big waves are breaking and adjust accordingly

The headline to this blog posting it taken from Jason Fried & David Hansson, founders of 37 Signals, a web development company. Their attitude to strategy was we built a company we’d like to do business with, we hope you do too; a simple and elegant way of describing an approach to developing a company’s strategy.  In the business vocabularies of many people, ‘strategy’ is frequently used, yet rarely useful. For all of our strategy statements and plans, marketing, financial and innovation strategies etc., the ideas that we label as ‘strategy’ often fail to affect meaningful change. We don’t surf.

The problem is not that strategy as a concept fails us, but rather that we don’t really understand what strategy is. Perhaps the reality is a lot simpler  – there is always a better strategy than the one you have, you just haven’t thought of it yet.

Here’s where I’m starting from: Strategy is the practice of figuring out the best way to get from here to there. For me, strategy is a perspective, a mind set of how to perceive the world, from which a pattern in a stream of ideas take shape. Then again, the key to effective strategy isn’t more or better ideas, concepts or frameworks, but developing the ability to use what you already have – find out where the big waves are breaking.

Consider Kodak, which went bankrupt in January. It is no great surprise that its film business was destroyed by the growth of digital photography. What is surprising is that it was Kodak which invented the digital camera, yet they declined to develop it for fear of damaging its chemical film business. You don’t need the benefit of hindsight to see this was a bad decision. Digital photography was the classic disruptive innovation.

Kodak didn’t need better strategic thinking. It needed better ways of seeing the obvious but unpalatable, and doing the simple but uncomfortable – in the same way as Waterstones recent decision to stock Kindles and digital books. The move marks a complete turnaround in the chain’s strategy, and newly refurbished stores will now include ‘digital areas’, free Wi-Fi access and coffee shops in a drive to get digitally savvy consumers through the door. Their customers are book lovers, so let them make their choice of formats, and don’t push them away from the bookshop experience.

Most strategy is like this, simpler than consultants and academics would have you believe. You are not reinventing the company, redefining the industry or creating the next Facebook. You are looking at what’s going on in your markets to identify what customers – mostly your existing customers – are likely to be asking for in the future.

Isn’t strategy about looking inside the company to see where you are making money and where you are not, and then doing something about it? Often you end up with something quite like what you already have, with some parts expanded, others shrunk or eliminated and a few things added. Recognise that you probably have all the strategic knowledge you need. The value is not in concepts or techniques, but in the ability to see clearly and act accordingly.

A great example of being able to see clearly and act effectively is that of Steve Jobs, and the insights outlined in his biography by Walter Isaacson.

Throughout the book, time and time again you come back to one thought: the bigger part of the strategy equation is to have the vision and skills to back up strategic thinking. Isaacson identified fourteen insights from Jobs’ strategic thinking, each a valuable perspective on his perspicacity:

  • Focus Isaacson wrote extensively about Steve Jobs’ ability to pare unnecessary products, services, marketing, packaging, and even buttons on Apple’s (and Pixar’s) products. A classic of the 80/20 principle, underpinning a focus on what makes a difference.
  • Simplify I can’t think of another company that has been able to simplify the user experience and deliver customer value. Apple simplified its devices, software and applications, yet at the same time based on disruptive thinking, took users beyond where they were already delighted – an example being MP3 players to the iPod.
  • Have end-to end customer responsibility Jobs’ preferred business model was to control the entire user experience, clearly articulated with Apple’s own hardware, software, applications, devices, content and the product/service purchase and consumption experience – that’s why Apple has so little competition in the digital music space.
  • When behind, leapfrog Jobs was mortified when he realised Apple had missed the boat on burning music CDs with its original iMac. His solution was to leapfrog the competition with the iPod and iTunes. The lesson here is that strategy isn’t about playing keep up, or even catch up, but going beyond what the competition is doing.
  • Put products before profits Jobs spoke at length that Apple’s philosophy is to focus on making great products, and that by doing so, the profits will take care of themselves. Sales and finance folks tend to focus more on profits than products. Jobs believed this a recipe for mediocrity in strategic thinking.
  • Don’t be a slave to focus groups Jobs was asked by a member of the original Mac development team if they should run something by a focus group. Jobs famously said No, because customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them and this underpins Apple’s strategy of creating such innovative products that ‘wow’ the market.
  • Bend reality A consistent point made in Isaacson’s book is that Apple accomplished great things – frequently things they themselves knew couldn’t be done – simply because Jobs believed otherwise. His vision and strategy were wrapped in his ‘reality distortion field’ so that ultimately there was no compromise to what he set out to do.
  • Impute It’s all about the book, not the cover, isn’t it? Not in Apple’s strategy map, it turns out the cover really does matter. Steve Jobs obsessed over packaging and presentation, not just in the products, but in the Apple Store design and layout, the Genius Bar formats and service, and even the Mac icon designs, all wrapping the core product
  • Push for perfection Back in the day when Mac vs. Windows was the platform war that mattered, many argued that what set Apple apart from the competition was that Microsoft settled for ‘good enough’. Reading Isaacson’s narrative, it’s clear that Jobs’ pursuit of absolute perfection was a big part of why the Apple strategy was so successful.
  • Tolerate only ‘A’ players Here’s the heart of the issue of Jobs’ perceived ‘rough edges’ of his personality. Being brutally honest (and frequently rude) was one of the ways he kept the ‘B’ players out of Apple. He refused to compromise on skill and talent, wanting only ‘A’ players, although his brusqueness and rudeness did cause tensions, but left no confusion or uncertainty.
  • Engage face-to-face Apple was an early adopter of the agile software development methodology – frequent face-to-face meetings mixing development, production and marketing folk – don’t collaborate via email. Equally, there are no spectators in meetings at Apple.
  • Know both the big picture and the details Here we have another attribute of strategy development and implementation that I think sets Steve Jobs apart. He had a big picture vision and the ability to hone in on the tiniest details that he thought mattered. Seeing the blue sky and washing the pots was his strategy mind map – heads up and open, hands on and busy.
  • Combine the humanities with the sciences There’s no right or wrong way to develop your strategic thinking. Isaacson believes Jobs was focused on the idea of marrying the influence and perspectives of humanities with science, and identifies the concept as a key part of why Apple and its products are so great.
  • Stay hungry, stay foolish Isaacson notes that Jobs stayed hungry and foolish throughout his career by making sure that the business and engineering aspect of his personality was always complemented by a hippie nonconformist side from his days as an artistic, acid-dropping, enlightenment-seeking rebel. Jobs was highly-strung, temperamental and clearly a man of contradictions, but that enabled the thinking.

Of the above factors to Job’s thinking around Apple’s strategy, Ken Segall in his book, Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success, offers some intriguing insights from someone who worked closely with Jobs. He believes that Jobs’ obsession with simplicity was his greatest contribution to Apple’s strategy.

Segall was part of the team that dreamed up the Think different campaign, he also came up with the name iMac that would lead to the ‘I’ in a series of successful Apple products (Segall claims Jobs preferred MacMan!). He says, Despite the technological complexity of Apple products, the company always describes them not according to their technical specifications, like, say, a five-gigabyte drive on an iPod, but rather, as 1,000 songs in your pocket.

It’s easy to understand why simplicity gets sacrificed in strategy, for starters simplicity is often (wrongly) associated with a lack of sophistication and no one wants to be thought of as simple. But think about Apple’s iPod or Amazon’s Kindle, both are built on amazingly complex technology, yet delivered in deceptively simple, elegant designs.

Situations are rarely simple and the solutions to tough problems are usually complex, and it is important to understand all the angles and options before taking a decision, but as Albert Einstein once remarked, Things should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.

So looking at the points on Jobs’ thinking, strategy needs to be focused and simplified if you are to stand any chance of success. Strategy does not have to be complicated. In fact, new strategic directions demand clarity and simplicity if they are to succeed – so back to the title of the blog and the 37 Signals philosophy.

Tomorrow rewards the curious, so keep demanding focus and simplicity and it will pay off. We don’t have to be out there with a lot of noise all the time. What we need to do is paint a vision for customers, promise them deliverables and go do it, because after all, a satisfied customer is the best strategy at the end of the day.

Being Joe Strummer – The future is unwritten

What do you write when one of your heroes bites the dust? Today, 22 December 2011, is the ninth anniversary of the death of Joe Strummer, and for me it’s a day filled with wistful memories of my (fading) youth, and at the same time happy memories that make me smile of being at some amazing concerts, and the legacy of some fantastic tunes that I’ve been singing along to for over 30 years. Still out of tune I might add. My little sister had Diana, Princess of Wales; I had Strummer and the Clash. If you grew up with the Clash you knew exactly what they stood for. He was also a great leveler – if you met someone who liked the Clash, they were all right. Strummer was an icon, a voice with attitude and intelligence.

Strummer was the key that opened the door for me about what was out there in my later, formative teenage years, giving me more inspiration than any teachers could, apart from Mr Evans my Maths teacher who I think did more for my mathematical inspiration than Isaac Newton, although the 1-2-3-4 intro to some Clash songs showed progress towards a Fibonacci series…

Strummer was everything a rebel rock star should really be. People believed in him, he inspired all from soldiers to newsreaders to miners to the unemployed. Strummer had integrity, was articulate whilst being angry, a brilliant sloganeer, and most importantly, a great soul of humanity. His restless musical curiosity gave the lie to the caricatured image of punk as a mindless two-chord thrash, while his acute lyrics set a benchmark for song-writing that tackled political and social themes. Live fast, die young – and he did.

We all have our heroes and icons, people who influenced us, shaped our thinking, stirred our passions. I have a relatively simple definition of heroes and role models: they are people you look up to and aspire to be like because of what they have accomplished, what they stand for, and how they’ve articulated themselves. Mostly, they inspire you to live life better.

There’s no question that Strummer was an explosive live performer and a great songwriter, but he is equally remembered for inspiring a generation to try to make a difference through music. He played as if the world could be changed by a three-minute song, and when I first saw the Clash play aged 16, my world was changed forever. Over the next few years, this was it, and in the first weeks of being away from home at University, seeing the Clash play at Sheffield Lyceum, October 1981 as a first year student, this was my world! His idealism and conviction instilled in me the courage to try to make a difference. This was what I wanted. Joe Strummer was my greatest inspiration, my favorite singer of all time and my hero. He sang, he played and he didn’t stop. He’s someone to be admired. We all took a little bit of Joe from those that saw him.

I think everyone should have a hero in life. Someone you aspire to be like, who you look up to. Having a hero is a good motivator because not only does it push you to keep a high standard to your own actions but also when you feel dispirited you can ask yourself how your hero would respond. Having a hero will keep you on the right course when you’re unsure of what to do, motivate you to perform at your peak and will be a source of strength when you need it.

But let’s step back a little. This isn’t a eulogy to the memory of a hero born out of some teenage angst, rather about a man who lifted my head when my head was pretty empty of knowledge and experience, who gave me social and political conscience and an attitude born from anger, frustration, a catalyst to doing something different and doing it for myself. It isn’t hero worship, and he certainly isn’t a role model I’ve carried a torch for. A hero is not a role model.

Role models are intimately connected to our experience, whereas heroes may serve as vicarious images. Role models usually fulfill our needs, whereas heroes may be a disappointment when they fall from grace. Role models are not an extension of who we are, whereas heroes may be tied to an illusion that we have about reality. You rarely hear about role models, but heroes receive a great deal of attention. From a personal development perspective regarding business, I prefer to look for role models for spiritual and psychological growth as I find they assist me in building confidence and character, and stimulate my thinking.

While I only have one hero, I find role models everywhere. They are people who exhibit some characteristic I admire and try to emulate. Thus I think it’s possible to have many different role models, each excelling in a different field.

When things get tough, I look to Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer, who was known for his leadership, positive attitude and stamina. No matter how many setbacks got in his way, and no matter how exhausted everyone else in his expedition team was, Shackleton would still be out there leading from the front. So every time I feel myself flagging I think about this great man and find a burst of energy and renewed commitment.

A business role model I have is the company 37 Signals, a web applications development company based in Chicago, founded in 1998 – check out their website I admire their business attitude and philosophy as set down in two very readable books by founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson Getting Real and ReWork.  Like Strummer, they have confidence and attitude that there is a different way, and provide motivational insights throughout their writing. For example, whenever I’m feeling boxed in or hitting barriers, I recall these words regarding embracing constraints:

Let limitations guide you to creative solutions. There’s never enough to go around. Not enough time. Not enough money. Not enough people. That’s a good thing. Instead of freaking out about these constraints, embrace them. Let them guide you. Constraints drive innovation and force focus. Instead of trying to remove them, use them to your advantage.

There are a few other gems in the books too:

  • What you need to do is stop talking and start working.
  • Success is the experience that actually counts.
  • Be a starter. The most important thing is to begin.
  • Decisions are progress. Commit to making decisions. Don’t wait for the perfect solution. Decide and move forward.
  • Don’t make things worse by over-analysing and delaying before you even get going. Get it out there
  • The best way to get there is through iterations. Stop imagining what’s going to work. Find out for real.
  • It’s OK if it’s not perfect. You might not seem as professional, but you will seem a lot more genuine.
  • What does 5 years experience mean anyway? How long someone’s been doing it is overrated. What matters is how well they’ve been doing it.
  • Inspiration expires now. Inspiration is a magical thing, a productivity multiplier, a motivator. But it won’t wait for you.

I think that it is important to make a distinction between the heroic figures that we value and the role models that have impacted our lives. People tend to idealise their heroes and believe that they live in a world of perfection. Who can forget the candle light vigils that marked the death of John Lennon? Admire your heroes, don’t worship them.

Outside the boardrooms of Sony and EMI, there are those of us who look to music to remind us that we’re not alone, to help us make sense of a changing world, and to inspire us to believe that we can change anything if we want to. Joe Strummer’s music changed lives, and we should not forget the truly incendiary power that music can have. His intensity focused the music into something whole, and wholly his. Asked to explain what The Mescaleros, his last band, play in the song Bhindi Bhagee he said It’s got a bit of … um y’know Ragga bhangra, two-step tango, Mini-cab radio, music on the go! Umm, surfbeat, backbeat, frontbeat, backseat. There’s a bunch of players and they’re really letting go! – which of course is just what 37 Signals are doing in their own way, and we should all do with our lives.

Joe Strummer remained sincere and passionate, always has a cause to fight for – his last gig was a benefit gig for the striking fireman in London. In the audience was Mick Jones, his partner from the The Clash. Mick got onstage and they played a couple of the old tunes together for the first time in 20 years. Strummer died two weeks later. How poignant was that night. He fought against the injustices of the world, and strove to push himself forward artistically, but he will be remembered above all for the band that was loved by so many, The Clash, with his hoarse, bawling voice and choppy rhythm guitar he gave it his all, and thereby inspired a whole generation. He is sorely missed, but his music will continue to inspire.

It’s Christmas 2011, the offices and buses are empty, people are at home and Strummer is dead. All around the world, people aged between 40 and 60 are putting on Clash songs today in tribute. He said the future is unwritten,  so let’s do it, and make sure Joe Strummer lives forever.