Barry Horwitz shares an article that extolls the benefits of reading and reading some more.
Students in my strategy classes at Boston University often ask: What applicant characteristics matter most when applying for positions with strategy consulting firms? Of course, there are some obvious ones — sharp analytical skills and strong communication capabilities among them. But one that is often overlooked — and yet quite valuable — is possession of a healthy curiosity.
As I wrote in an earlier newsletter, creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems often come from insights garnered outside of an organization’s specific field. A robust curiosity (despite its potentially negative impact on cats!) can lead you to seek additional information and generate creative insights.
Curiosity’s proven value is also why business leaders often design their offices with central gathering points (whether mailroom or kitchen areas), where individuals from different functional areas are likely to encounter one another. As Vinit Nijhawan used to say when he ran the office of tech transfer at BU, he wanted to “minimize friction and maximize collisions.”
Read, Read, and Read Some More
Of course, one of the best ways of gaining insights from a broad range of fields is to work in a broad range of fields. But what if you are early on in your career or if your career journey to date has kept you tightly focused in just a few areas?
The answer is simple: Read… broadly and a lot. Hopefully, that’s obvious. Less obvious, though, is what to read.
Key points include:
- A reading list
- Email newsletters
Read the full article, Curiosity Killed The Cat… But It Can Keep Your Business Thriving, on HorwitzandCo.com.
Barry Horwitz shares a few tips on how to improve communication between the front line and top executives when the organization is large, the problems are complex, and the stakeholders are diverse.
In her book, “Seeing Around Corners,” Rita McGrath notes that insights at the “edges” of an organization — close to the customers but far from the executive suite — can take a long time to reach the top of the food chain, if they get there at all.
This can be problematic for a number of reasons, but it’s particularly troublesome when it relates to the development of a strategic plan.
Here, communication in both directions between the front line and top executives is essential. Not only does this ensure that everyone feels engaged and part of the process, but it also uncovers critical information that may be otherwise overlooked, while limiting the likelihood of important stakeholders being surprised by the final plan.
All fine and good. But when the organization is large, the problems are complex, and the stakeholders are diverse, it may be easier said than done. It’s not like you can fit everyone into a conference room and hammer out a strategy over lunch. Under these circumstances, the “Town Hall” meeting format can be especially effective.
Direct Participation at All Levels
As the name suggests, the idea of a business Town Hall meeting originated in American politics as a way for political leaders — who were literally standing in a town hall — to speak to, and more importantly, hear from their constituents on current issues. During the Jack Welch era, General Electric was well known for using the concept to connect its senior executives to groups of employees for the same purpose.
I’ve used this approach as well in my work. For example, during the strategic planning process for a state university, we were able to successfully engage nearly 1,000 people using this format. This was an organization with many diverse stakeholders (faculty, staff, students, alumni, etc.), and the Town Hall gave participants a chance to have unfiltered, firsthand knowledge of what was being discussed and considered and, if they chose, to have direct input into the overall strategy.
But it does take some planning and an appreciation of the fact that these are not simply meetings to inform about decisions already made. To be most effective, they need to be interactive and informative, with senior leadership in particular genuinely open to feedback and input from all levels of the organization.
Key points include:
- Setting the stage
- Responding to challenges
- Post-meeting input
Read the full article, How to Run a “Town Hall” Meeting, on HorwitzandCo.com.
Barry Horwitz identifies why it is important to address the predisposition to the positive and how it often arrests the growth and improvement of the company.
Back in the early 90s, I joined the senior management team of a regional retail chain. I was new to the company and had moved there from out of town. The rest of the leadership team was made up of longstanding executives — people who had been there for years (in some cases, decades).
Not surprisingly, my colleagues enjoyed telling the positive story of their achievements. And that was fine, they had certainly accomplished quite a bit.
But the market and competitive landscape were changing; they were blind to the ways in which we were being newly threatened. In my view, if we didn’t evolve our strategic positioning, we were in danger of falling behind, or worse.
Were these executives unusual in this way? Not at all, unfortunately. Organizations work hard to build cohesiveness and teamwork among their employees and people like to feel good about the things they are doing well. Toss in the human tendency for confirmation bias and it’s easy to overlook a lot:
Sales were off a bit last month? That may have been due to bad weather or some other factor — it’s probably just a blip.
Donations are down from prior years? It’s probably the economy or the change in tax laws.
Given this predisposition towards the positive, how do you raise issues and deliver news that may not be welcomed? There is a perceived (often real) risk that by pointing out bad news or blind spots — even if it helps avoid bad things from happening — one will be labelled “not a team player,” perhaps getting sidelined or even fired as a result.
Here then, are some suggestions for highlighting — and slaying — those organizational sacred cows….
Key points include:
- Addressing prior beliefs
- Structuring recommendations
- Establishing a safe environment
Read the full post, Slay the Sacred Cows, on HorwitzandCo.com.
For everyone who has ever struggled with identifying a clear, concise, and compelling value proposition, Barry Horwitz shares an article that clarifies the issues and identifies the pitfalls.
In his book, Your Music and People, Derek Sivers addresses a problem faced by musicians: being asked to describe the kind of music they play.
Saying “all kinds,” doesn’t help. That, according to Sivers, is like saying, “I speak all languages.” Nor does claiming to be unique, since all musicians rely on “notes, instruments, beats, or words.”
A better approach, he advises, is to come up with an interesting phrase that will get people thinking. Something like, “We sound like the smell of fresh baked bread.”
Sivers wasn’t talking about “value propositions” per se. But he was making a related point — the way you describe your organization’s work can have a profound impact on both how well you are understood and how long you are remembered.
What is a Value Proposition?
A value proposition is a simple concept (maybe that’s why the really good ones are so rare). One definition I like is:
“A value proposition is a promise of value to be delivered. It’s the primary reason a prospect should buy from you.”
Notice that it is fundamentally based on the customer’s perspective, something that distinguishes it from its sometimes jargony brethren, the vision statement, mission statement, and purpose statement.
What a Value Proposition Is Not…
… full of business or technical jargon — and simply descriptive:
Here’s an example a student submitted to me as stated by the CEO of the startup at which he was interning a few years ago:
[COMPANY] is a SaaS-based technology platform that leading organizations use to design, run, and measure positive impact programs, including, but not limited to, corporate culture, well-being, social impact, and sustainability.
In addition to the excessively formal phrasing (“including, but not limited to”), and the large number of buzzwords, this description is generic; it could be applied to all sorts of organizations serving any number of markets. It may capture how those inside the company think about their offer, but I doubt it connects with prospects, investors, and others on the outside.
… a list of features:
As the old business adage goes, people don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill; they want a quarter-inch hole.
Likewise, people don’t select your product or service because of its features, but because it fulfills a need or solves a problem. Your value proposition should focus on that.
… a tag line:
While it is possible for a tag line to also work as a value proposition, these are the exceptions; in most cases, the two are not the same and serve different purposes.
Key points include:
- The music analogy
- Value propositions for nonprofits
- The tagline value proposition combo
Read the full article, Music that Sounds like Fresh-baked Bread, on HorwitzandCo.com.
Barry Horwitz shares an article with a few key pointers on communication best practices that gain better results from research.
If you hope to develop an effective strategy, it’s essential to have a clear understanding of the external forces that impact your organization. Much of this, of course, can be learned through the inevitable Google searches — finding news items in mainstream press, public reports from organizations, or trade journals.
But to really gain a clear perspective, you’ll want to speak with people who are (or were) working in the field. Frequently, the best insights come from folks who are not part of your internal team or even your customer base. Rather, they are industry players or experts who are familiar with the space in which you operate… or, sometimes, “adjacent” or even different spaces.
But how do you get their attention? And, once you do, how do you get them to share the information and insights you seek? For the most part, it comes down to effective interviewing.
Some suggestions for doing this well…
What’s in it for me?
You’ve no doubt heard the catchphrase, WIIFM: “What’s in it for me?” Well, when reaching out to people who will not benefit directly from your work and asking for their time (whether in person, phone, or video), you need to consider WIIFM and incorporate that into your request for a meeting.
Fortunately, many people are naturally inclined to be helpful — but that alone is not usually enough. One thing that can tip the balance is an offer to share a generalized summary of what you learn in your research. People are often interested in discovering how others in their field answer certain questions, so they benefit by participating.
Key points include:
- Drafting a discussion guide
- The benefit of honesty
- Respect as a tactic
Read the full article, Research through Interviewing, on Horwitzandco.com.
While many struggle with switching the focus between work and home, Barry Horwitz has published a post that is the result of a family gathering inspiring how to avoid strategic planning mistakes.
Many years ago, my mother initiated what has since become an annual family tradition.
When my father was about to reach his 70th birthday (he’s closing in on 90 now!), she decided we should gather siblings and families, and all spend a weekend together to celebrate. But where? What kind of place? There are thousands of options.
After some discussion, we agreed on two guiding criteria: It needed to be reachable by a reasonable drive, and we needed to be able to play tennis there. Over the years, that simple “vision” has remained, keeping us focused and narrowing the options greatly. This same kind of approach works well in developing a successful business strategy. It’s not everything, by any means. But by starting with a clear vision of what matters most to your organization, you, too, can greatly simplify the process on the way to achieving your goals.
Unfortunately, many organizations (despite best intentions) struggle in the development of their strategic plans. There are any number of underlying causes for this, but here are three that I come across most frequently.
- Not Enough Detail
I’ve often seen organizations start with a very broad vision statement — something that, in my family’s example earlier, would be similar to “a weekend family getaway.” While this does provide some idea of what is valued, there is not enough specificity to narrow the options and know whether or not you are headed in the right direction. (Volkswagen once stumbled in this way when it set out to become “the largest car company in the world.”)
So, there needs to be clarity on the key elements that constitute success.
Key points include:
- Identifying and describing a few critical goals
- The problem with the strategic plan ‘list’
- The implementation of strategic work
Read the full article, Three Strategic Planning Mistakes To Avoid, on horwitzandco.com.
Barry Horwitz explains why he believes industry experience is overrated and provides examples from Ford, Staples, and health organizations to back up the claim.
“In September of 2006, Boeing executive Alan Mullaly was named the new CEO of Ford Motor Company. Not only did he have zero experience in the auto industry, he drove a Lexus (shocking!).
The hiring decision was widely panned by industry experts and “regular people” alike. But Mullaly wasn’t fazed. When asked how he was going to tackle something as complex and unfamiliar as the auto industry, particularly given the financial shape Ford was in at the time, he replied, “An automobile has about 10,000 moving parts, right? An airplane has two million, and it has to stay up in the air.”
In the end, Mullaly was credited with having led a significant turnaround of Ford, which was also the only major auto manufacturer that didn’t require a government bailout during the great recession.
Industry Expertise is Overrated
When speaking with prospective clients, I am often asked whether I am an expert in their particular industry. While there are a few industries in which I have spent a number of years (e.g., retail, consumer products, health & human services, disease-based nonprofits), there are many more in which I have not.
In practice, however, lack of industry-specific experience is not usually a limitation. While it’s true that some understanding of the industry is critical, an outside resource can draw on the expertise that resides within the client organization, and from speaking with industry participants and analysts.
The truth is, if you are seeking creative and innovative ideas, they often come from looking at things from a different perspective — a perspective that is more likely in the possession of those with experiences across multiple and different industries.
There are many examples of this…”
Key points include:
- The benefit of a broad experience
- The intersection of industry innovation
- Hiring strategically
Read the full article, Respect the Unexpected, on HorwitzandCo.com.
Barry Horwitz explains why developing strategy is even more important when instability and uncertainty are the norm.
‘There has never been a time in which managers did not invoke the idea that the world is changing faster than it’s ever changed before.’
Nitin Nohria, just-retired Dean of Harvard Business School
Pandemic, rampant unemployment, economic uncertainty, climate change, political upheaval.
And that’s just what you’ll find above the fold in today’s newspaper. Given all the turmoil and confusion across the board — about today, let alone tomorrow — is there even any point in developing a strategic plan for your business?
Of course, as someone who trades in strategy, my position on this question is pretty easy to guess: The answer is a resounding YES.
First, because as Dean Nohria and many others have observed over the years, we humans are biased towards believing that change today is happening more rapidly and more broadly than ever before. It’s not. The specifics may be different, but rapid change has always been a given.
Second, it depends very much on what you envision when thinking of a “strategic plan.” If your answer is, “a fancy, dust-gathering binder full of financial projections and dozens of pages of text assembled to spell out specific plans for five years into the future,” then I agree, it’s a waste of time.
But that’s not what an effective strategic plan looks like.
Key points include:
- Strategy to determine purpose
- Strategy is direction
- Strategy recommendations
Read the full article, Is Strategy Still Relevant?, on HorwitzandCo.com.
Barry Horwitz shares a post to help you define and improve your business model.
According to Mark Johnson, co-founder of Innosight, a business model is simply this: “The way a business creates and delivers value for a customer while also capturing value for itself in a repeatable way.” It’s a straightforward concept, but important enough that academics and consultants alike talk about it frequently.
For example, in my work with entrepreneurs — both established and “would-be” (i.e., students at the Questrom School of Business at Boston University) — I often leverage something called the “Business Model Canvas,” created by training firm Strategyzer. This framework is useful in ensuring that all the relevant elements and their interconnections are considered before going to market.
The interconnections are particularly critical, since changes in one can wreak havoc on the rest.
Consider digital music. Apple’s iTunes disrupted the music industry by enabling downloads of individual songs at only 99c each, upending a once fabulously profitable record industry and forever changing how music was purchased. But it wasn’t long after that when the next tech innovation arrived — cellular broadband — which allowed for music streaming (via Spotify and others), changing the game once again, as music ownership was eclipsed by an unlimited library and a monthly subscription.
Note that renting rather than owning is not, in itself, new; people have had the choice of leasing cars instead of buying them for decades, as one example. But the application of the “rent rather than own” business model to music, was… enough to disrupt an entire industry.
Key points include:
- Customer segmentation
- Pricing and cost
- Changing the business model
Read the full article, What’s Your Business Model, on HorwitzandCo.com.
Barry Horwitz shares a recent post on digital transformation in business, and how it can provide a clearer understanding of business wants and needs — both internally and customer-facing.
In a recent webinar, Harvard Business School professor Joe Fuller (author of Managing the Future of Work) shared this mouthful: More work will be more digital more often… soon.
What does that mean? Well, what it does NOT mean is that companies should simply do remotely or digitally what they have always done before.
“Digitizing” something that was conceived decades ago is not transformation. This is like how the first cars were called “horseless carriages” (and looked exactly like a horse-drawn carriage minus the horse) and the first attempts at “digital newspapers” were simply PDFs of the printed paper attached to an email.
No. What Fuller and others are saying is that it’s time to consider new combinations and envision a novel, better approach. Not only can this protect your business from getting left behind, it has the potential to open doors that might have otherwise remained closed.
Some examples worth chewing on…
Higher Education. Mid-semester (the first full semester under COVID conditions), many schools are still struggling to figure out the best way to proctor remote exams. One option is software that monitors — Big Brother style — a student’s every move during a test; a bad combination of intimidating and creepy. Maybe it’s time to rethink our approach to learning assessment, in ways other than through closed-book exams.
Supported Living for Consumers With Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (I/DD). Rich Johnson, CEO of Ohio-based ViaQuest, envisions a future for I/DD services that is virtual, hybrid, and home-based, enabling consumers with I/DD to live with families and friends, instead of in 24-hour-staffed group homes.
Key areas of digital transformation include:
- Higher education
- B2B sales
Read the full article, Digital Transformation Is Coming For Your Business, on the Horwitz and Company website.
Barry Horwitz shares a post that explores how the pandemic has spurred accelerated decision-making and action-taking strategies in ecommerce.
Maybe you’ve had a similar experience…
You call your doctor’s office for an appointment because the nagging pain in your foot, back, or some other body part, isn’t getting any better. They say, “Of course, how’s Tuesday at 10am?” The difference now, though, is that Tuesday’s appointment will be virtual — held via a secure video conferencing link.
Is it the same experience as going into the office? No. But, depending upon your particular ailment, it’s surprisingly effective, much more convenient, and less expensive for all concerned.
Interestingly, it took a worldwide pandemic for telehealth applications — long explored but little used — to increase from very limited to nearly 100% in some services.
This is just one example. Over the past six months, many long-evolving trends have suddenly accelerated. Indeed, McKinsey notes that we have accomplished ten years’ worth of ecommerce penetration growth in just three months.
Something else has accelerated in recent months: the pace of decision making within organizations. Apparel companies, seeing a sudden shift in the market, altered production from shirts to masks. Full-service restaurants that had never before offered takeout, were suddenly rolling out online ordering, delivery and curb-side pickup.
In industry after industry, things which would normally take months were being accomplished within weeks, or even days.
Key points in the post include:
- Ecommerce penetration growth
- Proctor and Gamble’s response to toilet paper shortage
- How homegrown methodologies can hamper growth
Read the full article, The Pandemic’s (Positive) Impact on Urgency, on Horwitzandco.com.
Barry Horwitz explains how confirmation bias hurts business and provides key tips on how to identify and avoid falling into the confirmation bias trap.
I’m often reminded of a line from Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, in which a character is asked how he went bankrupt. His answer: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”
When dealing with change (bankruptcy-related or otherwise), there are often warning signs along the way — gradual shifts that are easy to dismiss as temporary or not yet consequential, until one day, abruptly, they arrive.
The point is that sudden threats to organizations are rarely truly sudden. The signs were there, but they were missed.
We’ve all heard of the examples: The streetcar company that didn’t appreciate the advent of cars; Kodak sticking with film until it was much too late (despite the fact that it was a Kodak engineer who invented the digital camera); Blockbuster turning down the opportunity to buy a struggling Netflix for a mere $50 million in 2000.
And yet, it keeps happening. Partly because our view of the world is a function of what we believe to be important. Blockbuster, for example, assumed that “movie night” was its main offer – the ability to pop into a store and instantly have a movie whenever you felt like it. Waiting two days for the mail to arrive seemed like an inferior alternative. As it turned out, Netflix, not Blockbuster, was the one to anticipate streaming as the next, best iteration.
Whatever the specifics, the human tendency to embrace evidence that supports our pre-conceived notions and dismiss that which does not (“confirmation bias”), can lead us to ignore the weak signals of change until it’s far too late.
So, how do we avoid getting caught in this trap? There are a few ways…
Key points identified in this post include:
- Checking your assumptions
- Listening to your constituents
- Keeping an eye on trends and results
Read the full article, Is Confirmation Bias Hurting Your Business?, on the Horwitz and Company website.