Present Forward or Future Back: Strategy or Vision?

The future happens slowly..and then all of a sudden. In his fabulous 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway famously wrote that bankruptcy happens in two ways:  “gradually and then suddenly”.

Some years back Andy Grove( ex-CEO, Intel) had introduced the concept of strategic inflection points in his seminal book Only the Paranoid Survive where he explained that a strategic inflection point is ” a time in the life of a business when it’s fundamentals are about to change “.

A change in the business environment that dramatically shifts some elements of your activities, throwing certain taken-for-granted assumptions into question is an inflection point. Someone, somewhere, sees the implications, but all too often they are not heard. That someone might be you!

Whether you are a powerful CEO or someone far lower down in the pecking order, not seeing the unfolding inflection points(or blind spots ) are dangerous.

What is the case we are making here? Too many managers develop strategy while focusing on problems in the present and that is especially true in the times of a crisis(like the Covid 19 pandemic that we are presently pulverised by). Lets call it ‘ missing the wood for the trees ‘. What I am trying to argue here is that leaders instead should imagine the future and work backward so that they build their organisations and brands for the new(emerging) reality.

Even during a crisis, developing a ” future-back ” mindset can spur innovation and growth.

So, in order to build strategy, start with the future.

Let’s take a look at a few examples of brands and organisations that have used the ” future-back ” approach to stunning effect.

Back in the late 90’s and the turn of the millennium, Intel was ruling the roost. With a market share well over 70%, the brand was well and truly in the driver’s seat(apart from being inside millions of computers) with the Pentium Processor going from strength to strength. At the height of that market dominance, Andy Grove took a visionary punt and launched a brand to compete against its very own Pentium– that was the Celeron range of Processors. What he did was to see the future being dominated by cheaper, faster processors( Moore’s Law ) and he did not want Intel to lose out on the potential opportunity that lay ahead of them. That saying Andy Grove was visionary would be an understatement and how prescient the observation in his book ” When spring comes, snow melts first at the periphery, because that is where it is most exposed “, bears testimony.  Intel Inside. Meets Intelligence and Insight!

Take another example of the ” future-back ” approach that Reed Hastings, Founder/CEO of Netflix adopted to reach where it is today. At the height of their DVD rental business success, they ventured into streaming(encouraging both cannibalisation and migration of their existing subscriber base) anticipating that the medium to long term future of in home entertainment will hinge on that. Not just that, look at their understanding of the competitive landscape- it went well beyond the typical television broadcast networks and cable TV of the day. They distilled the big picture into getting their prospect’s time and attention. Broadened the eco system significantly. Rather made it a category by itself. So, in effect, the competition included time their viewer/s spent going to movie houses, eating out, entertaining friends and family, travel and holidays etc etc. By wearing a different lens and examining a hitherto unseen/untried approach, helped them immensely in becoming the brand they are today.

No conversation about a ” future-back ” model and a vision preceding strategy would be complete without talking about Steve Jobs and Apple. Back in the day, the way they disrupted music consumption and music distribution through iTunes and iPod is now part of folklore. They did not wait for either the market or the customer to tell them what is needed. They took moonshots( it’s in the culture), created highly desirable products that the customer never knew they wanted or would need and generated unprecedented gravitas, and the rest they say is history. Apple as a brand and Steve Jobs as a leader was always seeing around corners, anticipating trends and operated at the intersection of a new future and non articulated consumer need and desire.

Let me add here. ‘ Customer knows best ‘ is a whole load of balderdash. If organisations were to depend on customers to know what is needed, there would not have been any Post It Notes(3M), Fax Machines(Xerox) and many of today’s incredibly successful brands like Amazon, Tesla, Netflix, Airbnb, Uber, Zomato etc. The onus and responsibility of drawing the future and working backward from there is fully on you, your brand, your organisation. So, don’t run away from it. Take it head on.

While we debate the vision vis a vis strategy and the “ future-back ” model to a ” present-forward ” one, do be aware that a vision is like an ‘ impressionist painting ‘ and NOT a ‘ photograph ‘. A photograph captures what there is already, there is NO speculation, hedging, punting and imagining the non existent. A vision on the other hand is similar to an impressionist painting in the sense that it is visualising what could/should be, what will/can be or what may/may not be. It is taking a shot at the future and setting the road to travel back from there.

To be blunt, getting through this tricky process of envisioning the future begins with confusion, experimentation and a touch of chaos followed by a single minded determination to make progress against an overarching goal. And an approach that futurist Paul Saffo recommends as creating as many forecasts as possible, fail as quickly as possible and vitally ” to hold strong opinions weakly “.

Another valuable perspective on this chaotic period of thinking is offered by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. Anything that has more upside than downside from random events(or certain shocks) is anti fragile.

Rita McGrath, Columbia Business School professor and business consultant recommends a ‘ discovery driven approach ‘ to anticipating the future and you can dive deeper into her thinking and recommendations in BrandKnew on these links https://www.brandknewmag.com/thinking-innovation-driving-growth/ and https://www.brandknewmag.com/discovery-driven-digital-transformation/ .

It was the 4th of February, 2014. Satya Nadella was announced as the new CEO of Microsoft, the third chief executive in the company’s history, following Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. Recognising that most of Microsoft’s woes at the time were a function of an approach that was ” present forward “, the first thing he did was to tell everyone in the organisation ” We are going to be moving away from a know it all organisation to a learn it all one “. Looking back on how well Microsoft is doing now compared to 2014, bears testimony to the potential for organisations in adopting a ” future-back ” model.

Brands that didn’t heed the  ” future-back ” model and met their fate inspite of being market leaders once upon a time include the likes of Blockbuster, Kodak, Nokia, Toys ‘R’ Us.

There are other industries very ripe for the picking to drive home further the point of vision preceding strategy. The pharmaceutical sector for instance. Based on empirical evidence, learnings from past epidemics like SARS, Ebola, Swine Flu, emerging lifestyle patterns and the accompanying chronic diseases that it helps manifest(diabetes for one), a pharma company can seize opportunities and address customer pain points that will occur in the future. An example that is worth looking at is the pharma giant Roche. Which saw huge potential in the ” future-back ” approach. That helped revive it’s struggling diabetes unit. The company ingeniously paired the mySugr app (which it had acquired in 2017) with Roche’s Accu-Chek Guide glucose meter, thereby allowing diabetics to have a different, gamified experience to managing their condition. By logging in their blood glucose levels, completing tasks and challenges, users can “tame their diabetes monster”. It’s a totally different approach(at least for the pharma sector) which forecasts that “the way forward will mean selling a total experience, not just a product.

Rather than look at Fall of 2020 or Spring of 2021, Universities/Colleges will be best served to go further down the road and see how do we cope, prepare and anticipate learning and training needs in the near distant future and move backward from there. With the current Covid-19 crisis having caught a lot of educational institutions severely under prepared and like a deer in the headlights with no werewithal (and mindset) for virtual/online delivery, the time is now, to graduate, to look into the future.

So, ‘ where do you go from here ‘? Or, rather, I should be asking ‘ where are you coming back from ‘ ?

PS: For leaders and organisations wanting to undertake ‘A back to the future voyage ‘, the video on this link https://www.groupisd.com/phewturecast/ can be a starting point.

ENDS

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The New Prescription for Marketers: Subscription

The New Prescription for Marketers: Subscription
Saying that we are in the ” The Age of the Customer ” would be stating the obvious. Here’s how Forrester Research describes the new consumer mindset: “ The expectation that any desired information or service is available, on any appropriate device, in context, at your moment of need.” Customers have new expectations (and yes, those expectations have certainly been driven by millennials, but at this point, almost everyone shares them). They want the ride, not the car. The milk, not the cow. The new Kanye music, not the new Kanye record.
 
Welcome to the Subscription Economy. The term refers to the growing number of businesses that use subscription or membership models and rely on recurring revenues rather than one-time purchases. And aside from transportation and retail, they are entering diverse businesses including Fashion, Personal Hygiene, Furniture etc.
Apple is a subscription business with Apple Music. And so is Google with Google Express. And all the binge watchers out there know that Netflix is one. Dollar Shave Club that sends razors home every month to subscribers is one(they got acquired by Unilever for USbillion). Salesforce, Amazon, Volvo(yes cars), Adobe..the list is growing across business verticals.
 
The Begining of a New Era
 
Before anything else, lets talk about the flavour of the season: ‘ digital transformation ‘- a vague term definitely, the kind of smart-sounding phrase that gets thrown around a lot in conferences and McKinsey reports and Harvard Business Review articles. The kind of expression that lots of people instinctively nod their head at, whether they know what it means or not. It could mean everything, it could mean nothing. Let’s try to define what it means.
 
You have read or know about this statistic already: more than half of the companies that appeared on the Fortune 500 list in the year 2000 are now gone. Poof. Vanished off the list as a result of mergers, acquisitions, bankruptcies.The life expectancy of a Fortune 500 company in 1975 was seventy-five years- today you have fifteen years to enjoy your time on the list before it’s lights out. Why is this happening? Instead of dwelling on failure and looking at all the companies that went away, let’s look at the companies that have stayed. Let’s play victor, not victim.
 
Begining with the usual suspects: Giants like GE and IBM that were on the first list in 1955-and are still on it today-but they don’t talk about their mainframes and refrigerators and washing machines anymore. They talk about “providing digital solutions,” which is an admittedly jargony way of saying RIP Hardware . In other words, these companies now focus  on achieving outcomes for their clients, rather than just selling them equipment. GE ran commercials during the Oscars with the tagline “The digital company. That’s also an industrial company.” Notice the switch there.
 
More companies from that list of 1955 have transformed including Xerox(from manufacturing photographic paper and equipment to information services). McGraw-Hill(from printing textbooks and magazines to offering financial services and adaptive learning systems)..
 
Next on the list, let’s look at some ‘ new establishment ‘ brands like Amazon, Apple, Google, Netflix, Facebook. All very every day to us but new to the list.They’ve rocketed to the top of the list and show no signs of going anywhere. They never thought of themselves as product companies-so no transformation was needed. From the start, these companies were relentlessly focused on building direct digital relationships with their customers.
 
And, finally the third category in the list are the upstarts, the ‘ anti establishment brands ‘ like Uber, Spotify, Box: They haven’t just gone beyond selling products, they’ve invented completely new markets, new services, new business models, and new technology platforms, leaving many established companies trying to play catch-up. As consumers, we love these brands, we love these services, and we love the value they provide us-a value that goes way beyond what a single product could ever offer.
 
What are the common threads among these three groups of companies? Whether it’s GE, Amazon, or Uber, they are all succeeding because they recognised that we now live in a digital world, and in this new world, customers are different. The way people buy has changed for good. We have new expectations as consumers. We prefer outcomes over ownership. We prefer customisation, not standardisation. And we want constant improvement, not planned obsolescence. We want a new way to engage with business. We want services, not products. The one-size-fits-all approach isn’t going to cut it anymore. And to succeed in this new digital world, companies have to transform.
 
The Customer is Always Right?
 
A nineteenth century phrase that was doing the rounds. The jury is still out on that question- Fortune 500 Companies built prescriptive strategies around customer focus, but they lacked a descriptive understanding of the mindset of the customer herself. And to no one’s surprise, there were certainly no sweeping changes in public sentiment toward big enterprises. It just wasn’t enough. The winds just weren’t blowing in the right direction.
 
And then it happened- like a breath of fresh air, digital disrupters like Salesforce and Amazon took the Customer First concept several notches upstream. They began by waving goodbye to the ‘ one to many ‘ approach.(What we call in marketing as the ‘ Spray and Pray ‘ route). They didn’t have customer segments anymore- they had individual subscribers. And every one of those individual subscribers had their own home page, their own activity history, their own red flags, their own algorithmically derived suggestions, their own unique experiences. And thanks to subscriber IDs, all the boring transactional point-of-sale processes disappeared. Ten years ago there was no Spotify, and Netflix was a DVD company. Today both those brands own a significant percentage of the total revenue of their respective industries! Now businesses are asking themselves a whole new set of questions: What do we need to do to build long-term relationships? What do we need to do to focus on outcomes and not ownership? To invent new business models? To grow recurring revenue, and to deliver ongoing value?
 
The New Marketing Mix
 
We are seeing a massive shift from the 4Ps( Peace Be Upon It) towards the 4Esthe new approach to customer value proposition, which embodies Engagement, Experience, Exclusivity and Emotion. The the truth is people don’t buy products anymore. They buy experiences and emotions instead. You should change your “what should I sell” or “how should I sell” into “WHY should I sell it?”.
 
The glory days of the soulless, all-powerful corporation are long gone. Today’s customers are more informed by an order of magnitude. Most of them have researched, assessed, and categorised you before you can even say hello. And to most of them, especially younger ones, ownership just isn’t that important anymore. People increasingly view the prospect of buying something as unnecessary baggage. Today people expect services to provide immediate, ongoing fulfilment, from ride shares to streaming services to subscription boxes. They want to be happily surprised on a regular basis. And if you don’t meet those expectations, you get dropped, not to mention trashed on social media. It’s that simple.
The Shift is On
 
So, on the one hand you have the old business model, where brands used to focus on “getting a product to market” and selling as many units of that product as possible: more cars, more pens, more razors, more lipsticks, more laptops, more credit cards. They did this by getting their products and services into as many sales and distribution channels as possible. Of course there must be a customer on the other end buying all this stuff, but often you didn’t really care who they were, as long as more units flew off the shelves.
 
That’s not how the modern company thinks. Today successful brands start with the customer. They recognise that customers spend their time across many channels, and wherever those customers are, that’s where they should be meeting their customers’ needs. Their arc stretches across multiple axis. And the more information you can learn about the customer, the better you can serve their needs, and the more valuable the relationship becomes. That’s digital transformation: from linear transactional channels to a circular, dynamic relationship with your subscriber. A circular economy is a trigger for the subscription model- Long term, engaging, evolving, value enhancing. So, get ready to subscribe to the thought!
 
 

ENDS

Suresh Dinakaran is Chief Storyteller at ISD Global, Dubai and Managing Editor, BrandKnew.

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Going for Gr8?

We have seen, heard and experienced this before. A top down driven organisation. Where feedback and candour is discouraged, probably a non starter . Suggestions and inputs alien. Empowerment and trust  non existent. In short, my way or …my way!

Which brings us to the concept and significance of psychological safety in the workplace. Let’s define what that is.

Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. It can be defined as “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career “. In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected.

Throwback to 2016 and Wells Fargo( then the world’s largest bank by market cap and the 3rd largest in the US). CEO John Stumpf’s mantra to employees was often “eight is great” ; meaning get eight Wells Fargo products into the hands of each customer. But this directive proved burdensome for bank employees as they struggled to meet demanding quotas and satisfy even more demanding managers. They began to cut corners and opened deposit accounts and credit cards for Wells customers – without their knowledge or permission.

After a LA Times investigation that uncovered the sham accounts and a lawsuit filed by the city of Los Angeles, Wells Fargo had to pay US$ 185 Million in fines to city regulators. Not to mention the serious drop in goodwill and reputation, a pre requisite for a financial services brand. Caused by: you guessed it, the absence of psychological safety in the work eco sphere.

Move onto another organisation. Pixar. What is common knowledge is that when it comes to films and movie production, there are far more misses than there are hits. Almost a 10: 1 ratio of misses to hits. In such an industry, for Pixar to have delivered 17 super blockbusters in a row, called for something extraordinary. At the fulcrum of it all was the culture. A culture that sought openness, persistent feedback, constructive criticism, a voice and relevance for all and a perennial hunger to excel. An environment where people felt trusted, safe, confident, believed. Ed Catmull(recently retired), CEO was a driving force in ensuring the right questions were asked all the time, facilitating an open conversational culture. (As an aside, I will urge you to read this HBR article on how departing leaders can pass along more than wisdom https://hbr.org/2019/04/how-departing-leaders-can-pass-along-their-wisdom-to-employees ).

It’s not as if that creating a ‘ psychological safety ‘ environment was the pre requisite for leading and growing successful organisations. As a counter to that, if one were to look at brands like Apple or Uber, none of what we mentioned in the case of Pixar above counted for much in these organisations. Their becoming uber successful was clearly a function of brilliant strategy and unabashed opportunism. But the jury is still out on whether these organisations can more of what we are propagating, making them even bigger, better, revered organisations.

It might be worthwhile talking briefly about Project Aristotle(a tribute to Aristotle’s quote, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts“) at Google which was initiated to understand the dynamics of effective teams, what topped the charts of the prognosis was ‘ psychological safety ‘ where team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other, apart from factors like dependability, structure & clarity and meaning.

So, what can we do to discover the ‘ power within ‘? Simple. Take some of the examples from the likes of Pixar and Google shared above and look at implementing them. At ISD Global, where I work, this has been happening for quite a while and it is only going to get better. Over to you!

ENDS

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The ‘ Expertise Burden ‘

The X Factor might make you an ‘ ex not to be factored ‘.

Contradicting yes. Certainly so. How can expertise ever be a burden? It is what gets normally equated with leadership abilities and high performance. But when we look around, you will find instances where expertise comes across as unwanted baggage, thereby halting progress, impeding momentum.

Look around and you will scores of cases where expertise has been a trap for many an organisation and individuals alike. Kodak was at the frontier of imaging technology and photography and remained glued to the thought that things would remain the same.

” You press the button. We do the rest “, quoted George Eastman. Steve Sasson was the engineer at Kodak who invented the digital camera in 1975. US$ 10 billion in sales way back in 1981. However, Kodak failed to recognise the rise of digital photography, decline in analog camera sales and the rise in digital camera sales. Eventually, the brand filed for bankruptcy in 1992. The ‘ expertise trap ‘ played its part. The hunter became the hunted.

Let’s move onto Microsoft for a bit. When Apple introduced the iPhone(without the conventional Qwerty keypad), then CEO Steve Ballmer(steeped deep in PC and connected computing business), never gave it a chance. The legacy of expertise has played its part and things didn’t look too ‘ smart’ for Microsoft as iPhone made history. Windows had shut the door on a big opportunity as the Explorer stopped exploring.

And so goes the case with stalwart retail brands who stuck to the coat tails of merchandise, brick and mortar, store design and alterations to the marketing mix- erstwhile pillars of retail success till such time Amazon came in and broke the mould completely.

While expertise has several ticks in the box, it can also lead to individual thinking that is narrow( Why upset the applecart, we have always done it that way), resting on past laurels, ignoring the dynamics of the market place, the emergence of new thinking and technology( AI, the power of algorithms that replace rote tasks very easily) and behaviours that leave a gaping distance between colleagues and business partners, causing loss of confidence and trust. Over time the very expertise that led to our success can leave us feeling unhappy, unsatisfied, and stuck.

Some examples that might trigger counter intuitive thinking is when ‘ experts ‘ realise the need of the hour and wake up to smell the coffee. Who would have thought that automobile technology, ones exemplified by brands like Mercedes, BMW and their ilk would ever get upended. And how. Till such time Tesla disrupted the space with a vengeance and driverless, autonomous technology hit the road and put them in a MUSK DO situation. Real soon, the established brands were investing their billions into the new self driving technology to keep up, send out a signal and get ready for their future. They didn’t hang on to the ‘ expert ‘ in the field narrative. They let the new rubber hit the road. Good for them.

Some warning signs that you may have fallen prey to the expertise trap:

Have you fallen into a creative rut?

Do you feel “old” and out of touch in your job?

Do others seem uncomfortable challenging your assumptions and ideas?

Are market developments beginning to take you by surprise?

These are just a few of the warning signs.

All hope is not lost. Rediscover the path to new thinking, new learning and growth. Embark on a new journey and as the Buddhists call it ‘ embrace a beginner’s mind ‘.

That’s why we are happy with our ethos at ISD Global where I work. Be hungry, be foolish. The more you know, the more you realise how much more there is to know. Changing for the better and bettering the change go hand in hand. And all the ‘ trappings ‘ be blown!

ENDS

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Is brand Apple no longer the apple of everyone’s I ?

‘I’ don’t know-hence I have some some questions about the most valuable brand in the world..

a) Is the Apple era over? Have they moved on from ‘ ground breaking and game changing ‘ to ‘ incremental fixes ‘ ? Sounds audacious but it does beg the question.

b) Have they missed the bus virtually in the Smart Speaker space in reference to Amazon & Google? With their Alexa and Assistant respectively. Though they were the true blue innovator with Siri ages ago and had a great shot at dominating the ‘ living room & kitchens ‘, they seem to be caught in no man’s land as of now. Should they have considered this space more Siriously? (Pardon the pun). As one of the most valuable brands in the world, don’t they want their ‘ share of voice ‘?

c) Should they be getting into Content Creation? They have the cash to do it but do they have the culture and the will still? Should they look at acquiring someone like an HBO or other smart acquisitions to hit the ground running? Where does Apple TV fit into all of this?

d) Have they moved on from a culture of Innovation and R&D being their biggest asset a decade ago to a huge pile of cash being their biggest asset today?

In a world of FAANG, is it still A for Apple? A for Answer is what I am looking for! What will the Doctor order to not keep the Apple away?

Ends

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