Made in Sheffield: now stay hungry, stay foolish

Thursday last week saw me wearing my ‘proud Dad’ smile, and tears welling up in my eye (don’t be silly, it’s just hay fever) as my daughter Katie graduated and now the proud owner of a crisp piece of parchment that says ‘2:1 BA Honours in Business Management from the University of Sheffield’, made more poignant as it is my Alma mater. It doesn’t seem five minutes since I was taking Katie for her first outing in the pram.

Amidst the celebratory transition from graduands to graduates, I reflected that the graduation ceremony is where the vice-chancellor tells hundreds of students dressed in identical caps and gowns that individuality is the key to success. Wearing square-shaped mortarboards pulled down to fit snugly on their heads, my hope is that from time to time these folks will let their minds be bold, and wear sombreros.

Graduation is a joyous time full of personal celebration and recognition, warm reflection tinged with sadness about the passage of an era now ending, and anticipation about life beyond the student bar and university library. Of course being a new graduate you feel like a right clever-clogs but in real life never try to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people, or find a different room.

Do you need a plan from here on life’s starting grid? Not for me, throw that thinking out. To me it’s all about working hard and taking advantage of opportunities that come your way. Be curious, live with an open mind, don’t settle for the status quo. All you can do is try very hard to be in the right place at the right time, g o where there is no path and leave a trail. I’ve observed that most undergraduates living their three years at university do leave a trail, mainly of wet towels or dirty pots.

From standing on the shoulders of giants, and a paradoxical lifestyle of intellectual stimulation and alcoholic degradation, graduation releases you from one world and catapults you into another. Moving from the security of university life to the insecurity of real life is, I recall, daunting.  Clearly, life isn’t all about your job, but it’s the first step on the ladder to realising your potential.

I recall my own graduation. Well, just about. It all stays as good memories later in life. I think this is a period in life everyone should enjoy to the fullest. When you’re young you’re not afraid of what comes next, you’re excited by it. Katie, just lie back in the sun and count every beautiful thing you can see.

So let’s capture this future thinking, exuberance and energy of a new graduate and imagine we can take it into our daily business thinking. If you had the vitality, the naivety and swagger of a young graduate, what more could you achieve? You’d be hungry, eager, always looking forward, never resting on your laurels, curious, restless and bold. This would make you alert, full of beans and unafraid to try new things.

Agility in our constantly changing business world is a key to success, formulating strategies ahead of our competition to find a faster way to the future. But I think many people miss pivotal opportunities because they expect and accept the status quo. Yet surely inertia is a version of complacency, acceptance of where you are. Don’t allow complacency to keep you in mediocrity. Don’t grow comfortable where you are and use that as an excuse. Be agitated and restless.

For Katie today, her best years are ahead of her, and there is nothing much to look back on at this time aside from some glorious friendships and escapades, and memorable moments. As we get older, we spend a lot of time looking back over our shoulder with fondness for the good times past, but looking back in business can be a trap that hinders you.

We tend to spend too much of our business time lamenting the past – lost customers, lost projects, regretting the lack of discipline to get things done.  Whatever you did yesterday is gone. It is over. There is nothing you can do about it. The spare change you’ve lost down the back of the sofa yesterday is gone forever.

This tendency to continually and obsessively rehash and analyse the past isn’t helpful, you get lured into constantly looking backward, stuck in your past instead of looking forward and building your future. Live in the business of tomorrow, don’t try and fix what’s broken today, make some new stuff.

Katie will create her fortune by anticipating future trends and envisioning her own ambitions. She knows where she is going and how she is going to get there. Rarely do youngsters rest on their laurels or allow themselves to bask in the security of today, so adopt this attitude to your business.

Your challenge is to lead two businesses, simultaneously – your business of today, and your business of tomorrow. Long-term vision shouldn’t be scuppered by short-sighted, short-term actions, future orientation enables you to stay ahead of the game. I really don’t think that you can ever plan the future by linking it to the past.

We are not here to fear the future, we are here to shape it. The future is always more important than the past, you have to believe this, or why get put of bed in the morning? The future is a source of inspiration, of vitality and hope where others have resigned.

Katie has boxes and scrapbooks filled with mementos, clippings, postcard, concert and plane tickets, old letters, and trivia. This memorabilia is great, but if you want your business to succeed, your mind must focus on where you are going, not on where you have been. It would be more productive to make a scrapbook with pictures of where you want your business to go and what you want to be in the future.

So what are the key messages I’m giving to Katie as a new graduate that you could put into your own entrepreneurial business thinking? Here are ten thoughts.

Listen to the voices in your head – what do you mean, you don’t hear voices inside your head, is it just me then? Whatever the voices tell you, trust them and your instinct, and go for it.

Expect a lot from yourself, believe in yourself Don’t let someone else define your agenda, you decide what is possible for you. Dare to believe you can be best, and make it happen. Embrace challenges and setbacks as defining moments, learn from them, use them as springboards.

Don’t care about being right, care about succeeding Steve Jobs used this line in an interview after he was fired by Apple, and I think it’s a great guiding principle for anyone, as a person or business leader.

Chose your attitude Regardless of appearances, no one escapes life without enduring tough moments and cul-de-sacs. The truth is, life is messy and unpredictable. The difference between those who overcome challenges and those who succumb to them is largely one of attitude.

JRR Tolkien’s words in The Hobbit are inspiring about your choosing your attitude for personal or business growth:

The greatest adventure is what lies ahead. Today and tomorrow are yet to be said, The chances, the changes are all yours to make,The mold of your life is in your hands to break.

Be Unique Our world today is full of ‘me 2’, replicas and imitations, so craft a life of originality, novelty and innovation. Conformity to the norm will merely sentence you to mediocrity, who wants to be average, surely that’s just a blank face in the crowd of irrelevance – be the voice that other folks want to listen to.

Life’s too short to go unnoticed – be audacious, but with humility Life is all about progression from good to great, wanting to be with other people, and other people wanting to be with you. Push yourself to be there, at the top table, but never be afraid to wash the pots too.

Leaning back, or leaning forwards, which do you think is the best stance to take? The first thing you need to do is to make others sit up and take notice. Catch their eye, don’t catch a cold stood waiting.

Reach beyond your expectations – a Shackleton quote. Success means different things to different people, and that’s okay, but it’s not other’s definitions you should be concerned with, but your own expectations. As you continue your journey of growth, it’s my hope your sights will shift from the modest pursuit of success to the passionate pursuit of significance.

Live at your Personal Best Following on from the above, in this Olympic year, look into the minds of Beamon, Owens, Lewis, Fosbury, Redgrave and Liddell. Push yourself at every moment, seize the day. Today’s laurels are tomorrow’s compost.

Be a lifelong learner Graduation isn’t the end of learning, just the start. Learning defines the person and is a lifelong endeavour of discovery, improvement and fulfillment. The minute you stop learning is the minute you cede your future and check out on the race with yourself to realise your potential.

Be mindful Mindfulness isn’t just a state of mind, temporary and fleeting, but a real place to be, conscious of living in the moment. Pay attention to the moment, and make it happen. Fantasy of ‘what will be’ is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope, but don’t take life too seriously, be happy.

Stay hungry, stay foolish ok, that’s eleven, but the closing lines from Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford speech captures a sentiment that seems on the face of it somewhat flippant, however, when you reflect, it’s a statement about keeping your ambition and being adventurous, never taking yourself too seriously, and keeping the zest and attitude of youth.

In addition, Jobs made three other points to the Stanford class, which are worth repeating here and relevant to all entrepreneurs, not just graduates:

  • You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future, so follow your curiosity, intuition and your heart.
  • Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick, but keep going doing the thing you love, that is great work. If you haven’t found it, keep searching until you find it. Keeping looking don’t settle.
  • Live each day as if it is your last, because one day you will be right. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it by living someone else’s life, don’t be trapped by dogma of other people’s thinking, don’t let your own voice be drowned out by other people’s noise. Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. Everything else is secondary

Check out Job’s inspirational speech here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1R-jKKp3NA

There is a light that never goes out from your time spent at university – Katie, like myself, was made in Sheffield – so keep that alive in your business thinking. The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it. Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.

Be unique, be different – how do you stand out in a crowd?

A sometimes tense, disjointed and disappointingly infrequently cacophonous seven-way live televised political party leaders debate last week saw Ed Miliband just shave ahead of his rivals, according to a snap Guardian poll conducted after the event. A poll for the Daily Mail had Cameron just a point ahead, whilst ITV’s own poll had Miliband, Cameron, Farage and Sturgeon inseparable on a sample statistically too small to draw conclusions.

Labour, aware of Miliband’s poor personal ratings before the campaign, will be pleased he was at least matching Cameron, according to ICM and three other post-debate polls. Miliband branded the Prime Minister an ‘invisible man’, but Cameron will be relieved to emerge from a safety-first performance largely unscathed from his only head-to-head television clash with Miliband.

Cameron, remaining calm under sustained attack, drove home the central message of the Tory campaign – ‘the choice at this election is sticking with the plan that’s working’, as Cameron and Miliband were in a dead heat – 50% to 50% – when voters were asked to choose simply between the leader of the two parties. Miliband yearned for a TV debate that would be his audition for the role of Prime Minister. As it turned out, sharing the stage with six others, he struggled even to be leader of the opposition.

It’s not that he did badly, his answers were fluent and when he had the chance to square up directly against Cameron he was forceful. He said the PM had promised to protect the NHS and had let voters down. ‘They believed you, they believed you,’ he said. No, Miliband’s problem was that he could only rarely get a clear shot. In his way were others who wanted to slam the status quo – at least one of whom shone as she did so.

It was the SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, who demonstrated command and authority. Meanwhile, when Nigel Farage sank low with a rant against HIV-positive foreigners, it was Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood who won applause by telling him he should be ashamed of himself.

For his part, Cameron looked a little remote and would have suffered if viewers’ attention had not been divided into seven parts, for this was messy, complicated and a long way from the straight fight between two men that Miliband wanted. The tone was set the minute Nick Clegg took his first potshot at his erstwhile boss – everyone against Cameron, big guns scrapping among themselves, smaller ones largely ignored.

The big four offered no surprises: Cameron stuck to his much-vaunted plan, Clegg triangulated, Miliband appealed earnestly to ‘you at home’ and Farage spluttered about ‘getting real’, but it was the women who breathed life into the debate, all three were braver than the men in confronting Farage over immigration, and the Green’s Natalie Bennett spoke with humanity, articulating emotional realities behind austerity.

Though the inattentive viewer might have thought they had stumbled upon a teatime game show, it quickly became clear why the leaders signed up to this format. This wasn’t an inquisition in terms of arguments forwarded and rigorously scrutinised. This was an opportunity for each to perform their party pieces without much interrogatory pressure. Each pronounced directly to camera. Each received the exposure they desired. There was much less benefit for the viewer.

The spikiest performers were those with least to lose. Nicola Sturgeon was assured throughout. Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru staked out distinctive positions on immigration and aid. Farage came to steal the show, his mantra ‘a plague on all your houses’. His remedy at each stage: leave Europe and curb immigration. On another night, the vacuity might have been challenged. But it wasn’t going to happen, there was very little debate or challenge to distil the underlying differences on vision, values or purpose, it was a seven-seat soap box for each to broadcast their own rhetoric with a few well-worn sound bites thrown in.

Vote-wise, Cameron is, quite literally, the devil you know. The Tories have a strident plan to eradicate our deficit by 2016, and yes, some less hardy souls are surviving on food bank handouts of spaghetti hoops, but look, we’re cutting back and we’re all in this together. The Tories are – as per usual – the party which says yes to pulling up one’s socks, buckling down and keeping upper lips stiff.

Miliband’s pre-election pledges form an irresistible-sounding utopia. Labour will fund this bright future by a 50p tax for everyone earning over £150k, a mansion tax for anyone with a home worth more than £2m and, OK, the rest is unclear. The ‘We only ever win the World Cup under Labour’ banners haven’t yet been unfurled and likewise, make no bones about plans to withdraw several freebies from wealthier pensioners, too.

There’s a strong sense of too little, too late with Clegg’s election mantra of ‘Bold Ideas’ before the Lib Dems seemingly inevitable return to the political wilderness. Farage’s policies are either clear-headed patriotic sense, or terrifying starter-level Nazi bile. Farage, truly, is the ‘man in the pub’, the pub with a tattered England flag in the window. The Green Party’s manifesto is a collection of statements a wide-eyed innocent 17-year-old might shout at the Christmas dinner table, having quickly necked three glasses of merlot. It’s all a bit day-three-at-sunny-Glastonbury.

So given the intention of the debate was to offer the public a chance to ‘compare and contrast’. How do you make sure people remember you? How do you make a solid, lasting impression? What makes you different and how can you stand out from all the rest? How can you be remarkable, memorable and be the exemplar in a crowded marketplace?

According to genetics, there is not much that makes us humans different from one another, or indeed other animals – we share 98.5% of our genes with chimpanzees. Perhaps this is not such a significant matter, but we also share about 60% of our genes with tomatoes! We all wonder what makes us different and unique. From the moment we are old enough to understand the concept of uniqueness, I think we all want to know what it is that makes us stand out. We want to be inimitable, and ensure that we remain distinctive one-way or another.

For some people it means becoming the best in their field and being memorable. Others do not focus on their own individuality so much, but will still try to have some aspect of their life or personality that is truly theirs alone. I think that we make ourselves unique by what we do, how we live and the way in which we interact with other people. We do not have to try very hard to be different as it comes naturally, however many fight uniqueness in order to fit in, to belong or be accepted.

Some people have adapted to try to hide their exclusive traits so not to be judged as out of the ordinary. The phrase ‘you’re unique, just like everyone else’ springs to mind. Lots of things make me who I am, and everyone is special in some way. However, one of humanity’s greatest problems is complacency, in that not everyone pushes himself or herself to make the most of their uniqueness, to realise their potential and make their mark.

Just recently I’ve been reading about Carl Elsener. who displayed a number of traits we can learn from as we go about our everyday lives with a desire to push ourselves and be the best we can be, thus also offering insight to the seven leaders from last week’s debate.

Carl Elsener started as a teenage apprentice cutler straight from school, and went on to turn a relatively simple penknife into the global phenomenon that is the multi-functional Swiss Army Knife. He worked for the Swiss family firm Victorinox for 70 years, 57 of them as CEO. He died in June 2013, aged 90.

The famous red-handled knife with the Swiss white cross has held a lifetime fascination for me, offering a spoon, fork, compass, screwdriver, mini-screwdriver for spectacles, can opener, wood and metal saw, toothpick, tweezers, scissors, pliers, key ring, fish-scaler and magnifying glass. Moving with the times, some latest models come with an LED light, laser pointer, USB memory stick, digital clock, Bluetooth or even MP3 player.

He’s up there with Steve Jobs as my greatest innovator of all time, mainly because of the fascination his memorable device had upon me as child, and its lasting impression of ingenuity.

Elsener presided over Victorinox’s expansion into other products, including watches, clothing, luggage, rucksacks and fragrances. The ‘war on terror’ after 9/11 had seen sales of the Swiss Army Knife plummet 50% after they were prohibited from airline hand baggage, but the new product range helped keep the family firm afloat. Today, 60,000 knives are produced daily providing current annual revenues of more than $500m and making Victorinox the largest cutlery manufacturer in Europe.

It started when Elsener’s grandfather opened a cutlery business in 1884. In 1891 the company won its first contract with the Swiss army. after the founder’s mother died in 1909, he chose her name, Victoria, as his trademark; in 1921 it became Victorinox to reflect the use of stainless steel in the product.

Elsener took over as CEO from his own father in 1950 when the knives were still made by hand. After introducing machine production, he quickly recognised the popularity of his Offiziersmesser (‘Officer’s Knife’) among US forces personnel based in post-war Europe. It was the Americans who, unable to get their tongues round Offiziersmesser, first called it the Swiss Army Knife.

He was a tireless man who could work at the office until two in the morning. When he woke up in the middle of the night with an idea, he wrote it down on the wallpaper so as not to forget it. Despite his success, his motto remained: Gueti sache chone immer no bässer wärde – Good things can always be made better.

So, what made Elsener unique, what were his qualities that made him stand out from the crowd? For me, there are five special traits we can take from this outstanding man:

Questioning filled with curiosity, showing a passion for inquiry. Thought-provoking attitudes frequently challenge the status quo, Why does it need to be done like this? If we tried this, what would happen? He was renowned for asking questions to understand how things really were, why they were that way, and how they might be changed or disrupted. Their questions provoked new insights, connections, possibilities,

Experimenting Simply, he was an experimenter, constantly trying out new experiences and piloting new ideas. Experimenters unceasingly explore the world intellectually and experientially, holding convictions at bay and testing hypotheses along the way. They visit new places, try new things, seek new information, and experiment to learn new things, underpinned by a really advanced intellectual curiosity.

Restlessness Innovators like Elsener always think there is a better way, and with their passion driving them on, know that they are missing something. He failed with new designs, but in a pragmatic, thoughtful way, subsequent great ideas coming to fruition after following his instincts with persistence. As an outlier, his uniqueness was driven by a constant need to challenge status quo and find better ways of doing things.

Passion I think the key characteristic of Elsener was passion. He truly cared about what he was doing, investing time, thought and effort into creating something that made a difference. It’s this passion, combined with a willingness to fail, and learn from those mistakes, that truly marks those with standout qualities.

Purpose Elsener saw no boundaries in what they were trying to achieve. He strove to be forward thinking every day to embrace the challenge facing them. Crucially, he didn’t just talk about stuff, he did it, and with belief and self-confidence. As a result, he was unique, making his mark beyond what most of us can only dream to achieve.

If you want more votes than your political rivals – if you want to sell more than your competitors to your target market – you need to remind your audience what is it about you that is distinctive, and Elsener’s traits – especially his passion and purpose – remind us – and our politicians – as to how you become remarkable and stand out head and shoulders from your rivals.

We’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap. You need to be authentic, as Oscar Wild said, Be yourself, everyone else it taken, and as Steve Jobs was, and still is, known for his Be Unique, Be Different personal motto.

Don’t compare yourself with anyone, if you do so, you are insulting yourself. If you want to stand out from the crowd, give people a reason not to forget you. Are you unreasonable? Here’s one good reason why you should be: The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

So said George Bernard Shaw in his play Man and Superman back in 1903. The same is still true for anybody innovating and making positive change in the World. Everyone of us, whether an entrepreneur, an artist or politician should strive to be unreasonable, to push to become a force for good, create more innovation and more progress.

Katie! Focus on your business of tomorrow, and stay hungry, stay foolish

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

Steve Job’s view on how he hoped his future was shaping up is one of his most memorable quotes in a legacy brimming with inspirational thinking. Today is my daughter Katie’s 18th birthday, her future is now shaping up, she has everything before her, dots and all!

There is something special about being young, something magical. I recall my own 18th, well, just about. All the things you looked forward to when you were first a teenager are finally starting to happen, as the world opens up in front of you. Going out with your friends, partying until the morning. First boy/girl friend, first drunk party, feeling free, feeling like you know it all, feeling like the centre of the world, feeling on top of the world, feeling untouchable. It all stays as good memories later in life.

I think this is a period in life everyone should enjoy to the fullest. There is a time and place for everything. Larking about belongs in your youth. Ok I’ve extended this a bit personally by over 30 years, but this is the period in life that starts shaping you as a person, the time we go through so many experiences. There is something so thrilling about the words my first – mostly because you only get to say it once. There is something exiting about the first time you try something new, all the adrenaline going through your veins.

But if you don’t do anything stupid when you’re young, you won’t have funny things to laugh about when you’re old. When you’re young you’re not afraid of what comes next, you’re excited by it. To be old and wise you must first be young and stupid. I’ll act my age when I’m 80. So for now, Katie just lie back in the sun and count every beautiful thing you can see.

When we are young, we are the most agile and energetic. I’ve become much more aware in recent years how little joy there seems to be in people’s faces the older they get compared to the young. I get the impression the rot starts somewhere between 25-30 once responsibilities kick in big time.

I noticed this yesterday evening, as I walked my dog. I passed the cheerful girl who works in the local mini-market with the dyed blonde hair with fluorescent red and blue streaks. She seemed so happy with life, chatting away on her mobile as she danced down the street. I don’t imagine she has two pound coins to rub together, but she was carefree.

Walking on, we got to the pub, which was full of grumpy old gits like me. Everywhere I looked it was as though they had been practicing their expressions to match that of a sulking boxer dog. Then on the way back, we stopped at the chippy and a group of young lads came in. Happy as Larry, shouting the odds, messing around like playful tiger cubs and it restored my faith in the world.

So let’s capture this exuberance and energy of youth and imagine we can take it into our business thinking, day after day, as we get a little older. If you had the vitality, the naivety and swagger of youth, what more could you achieve? You’d be hungry, eager, always looking forward, never resting on your laurels, curious, restless and bold. This would make you alert, full of beans and unafraid to try new things.

Our ability to act early and quickly in today’s competitive landscape is essential. Insights and agility in our constantly changing world are key to business success. By realising tomorrow’s challenges today, we can formulate a strategy ahead of our competition to find a faster way to the future.

I think many people miss pivotal business opportunities because they have come to accept and expect the status quo. Inertia is almost a version of complacency, acceptance of where you are. They expect nothing better and even refuse to entertain thoughts of the new opportunities out there.

Don’t allow complacency to keep you in mediocrity. Don’t grow comfortable where you are and use that as an excuse. Be agitated and restless.

For Katie today, her best years are ahead of her, and there is nothing much to look back on at this time aside from some glorious school friendships and escapades, and great family moments. As we get older, we spend a lot of time looking back over our shoulder with fondness for the good times past, but looking back in business can be a trap that hinders you.

We tend to spend too much of our business time lamenting over the past – lost customers, lost projects, failure to execute ideas, regretting the lack of discipline to get things done.  We want to fix our bad habits, which is essentially the same thing as wanting to change the past.  Whatever you did yesterday is gone. It is over. There is nothing you can do about it. The spare change you’ve lost down the back of the sofa is gone forever.

This tendency to continually and obsessively rehash and analyse the past isn’t helpful, you get lured into constantly looking backward, stuck in your past instead of looking forward and building your future. Ah you say, we can learn from our mistakes. I think this is overrated, focus more on not making mistakes in the first place! Live in the business of tomorrow, don’t try and fix what’s broken today, make some new stuff.

Looking forward is the key to a better future for your business. We often go about breaking the bad habits in our business in completely the wrong way.  We tend to try to guilt ourselves into doing better, by replaying in our minds how our bad habit has caused us problems in the past.  This is not the most effective strategy.  Instead, you should develop a future focus of a compelling vision of how your future will improve once you’ve changed. Developing a strong vision of the future that pulls you forward is a much more effective strategy for breaking bad habits than trying to coerce yourself with the past.

Katie will create her fortune by anticipating future trends and envisioning her own ambitions. She knows where she is going and how she is going to get there. Rarely do youngsters rest on their laurels or allow themselves to bask in the security of today, so adopt this attitude to your business.

Markets constantly shift and flux, consumer demands change and competitors innovate: planning for the future reduces your risk and enables you to capitalise upon new opportunities. Your challenge is to lead two businesses, simultaneously – your business of today, and your business of tomorrow. Long-term vision shouldn’t be scuppered by short-sighted, short-term actions, future orientation enables you to stay ahead of the game. I really don’t think that you can ever plan the future by the past.

Some businesses aren’t doing well, and fear the future. But we are not here to fear the future, we are here to shape it. The future is always more important than the past, you have to believe this, or why get put of bed in the morning? The future is a source of inspiration, of vitality and hope where others have resigned to ‘keeping the status quo’.

Katie has boxes and scrapbooks filled with mementos, newspaper clippings, postcards, concert and plane tickets, old letters, and trivia. There is nothing wrong with this, but if you want your business to succeed, your mind must focus on where you are going, not on where you have been. It would be more productive to make a scrapbook with pictures of where you want your business to go and what you want to be in the future.

Job’s reflection you can’t connect the dots forward, only backwards came from his famous 2005 Stanford speech.  As much as we try to plan ahead in advance, there’s always something that’s completely unpredictable.  So how should Katie and business owners interpret Job’s words about looking for her future?

  • Listen to the voices in your head – what do you mean, you don’t hear voices inside your head, is it just me then? Jobs was a restless man in a hurry, a man with a plan. His plan wasn’t for everyone, it was his plan. Whatever the voices tell you, trust them and your instinct, and go for it.
  • Expect a lot from yourself We have heard stories of Jobs being an unreasonable man to work with, a perfectionist.  The bottom line is that he was filled with passion and wanted the best from himself and everyone else. He just kept pushing to a better future, and there’s not much wrong with that, is there?
  • Don’t care about being right, care about succeeding Jobs used this line more than once, and I think it’s a great guiding principle for anyone, as a person or business leader.
  • Anything is possible through hard work, determination and a sense of vision Steve Jobs was just another bloke. He was a husband, a father, a friend – like you and me.  But he had a vision of his future, of Apple’s future, and made it happen. That’s what made him a stand-out person. Do the same for yourself and your business.
  • Stay hungry, stay foolish The closing lines from Jobs’ Stanford speech captures a sentiment that seems somewhat flippant. However, when you reflect a little, it’s a statement about keeping your ambition and being adventurous, never taking yourself too seriously, and keeping the zest and attitude of youth.

Alongside Steve Jobs, I think these words from JRR Tolkien in The Hobbit are inspiring thoughts to guide your personal or business future, as you wrestle with reality of today and future ambition:

The greatest adventure is what lies ahead
Today and tomorrow are yet to be said
The chances, the changes are all yours to make
The mould of your life is in your hands to break
 

Einstein said that common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age 18, allowing us to find our own way is a vital learning, yet big thinking precedes great achievement, the future belongs to those who see possibilities before others do, so thinking outloud, big and bold, is good. If you limit your choices only to what seems possible or reasonable, you disconnect yourself from what you truly want, and all that is left is a compromise. There is a light that never goes out from our youth, so keep that alive in your business thinking. The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it. So Katie, stay hungry, stay foolish

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.