[Thoughts] Think like a startup… or why you need to doubt to be lean in the corporate world

I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard that phrase: “think like a startup, act like a startup”… I guess you stopped counting too.

But this imperative calls for a deeper question, why is it so hard for existing businesses to do so?And aren’t we underestimating the harshness of being a startup?

You need to start with the definition of a startup: A startup is an organization formed to search for a scalable and repeatable business model (according to Steve Blank, in “The four steps to Epiphany”)
Read it again. The startup is formed to seach
The establish organisations isn’t formed to search – it’s designed to execute.

Startup entrepreneurs undergo tremendous pain and agony through the growth process between idea and product/market fit and revenue generation.
They will have to go through  the hard questioning, doubting, hole-poking and criticism inside an accelerator to make the venture even stronger.  I haven’t met any manager or executive in established businesses willing to go through such pain… because they don’t have time to do so, and they have no incentivized to do so.

So maybe for established businesses to think and act like startups, they need to institutionalise some time to doubt, to assess wrongful assumptions, challenge their limiting beliefs, articulate their intuitions, raise questions (see leads of belief change in one of my previous posts).

Dare to doubt

As I write these posts and continuously research and read about contexts and behaviours enabling innovation and creativity, I have found doubt/skepticism and questioning at the foundation of most approaches.

It is the framework which changes with each new technology and not just the picture within the frame (Marshall McLuhan)

To harness doubt in a positive way I often suggest this framework:

  • the things you know you know: norms, rules, bright spots, best practices…

check that these facts are still valid or true against data (see my previous post here)

eg. This mobile carrier brand is destined to young adult and teenagers (Sosh by Orange)… when it actually observed great take-up with unemployed population.

  • the things you know you don’t know: these are the additional questions and assumptions you’re trying test.

Try to answer the question through further analysis with the data you already have…

eg. How sensitive are our Mom consumers to the presence of this ingredient in our recipe, given growing negative buzz around the topic.

  • the things you don’t know you know: that’s you’re intuition, your know how

Try to identify and normalise it to improve effectiveness, efficiency and transferability, Turn your hypothesis into evidence

  • finally the things you don’t know you don’t know: that’s you blind spot.

This is the area where you need to accept to doubt and put your discovery skills to practice (the why? the how? the if?)

This is also where the opportunity awaits.

It is a huge task. Startup entrepreneurs have to do it, or they will fail to find a market/product fit and scalable business model or pivot to new markets.

Established businesses have a market/product fit and business model but are alienated by them, and will fail to survive if they don’t adapt to a fast moving and uncertain environment.

Data informed vs Data Driven

In both cases – this framework has to be data informed.

I’m purposefully writing “data informed” and not data-driven as I’ve encountered many data-driven-ish companies loosing sight of the bigger picture, trapped in analysis paralysis or worshiping irrelevant KPIs in the scorecard. I have so many stories it is embarrassing.

The reason I suggest data informed framework is because good metrics change the way you behave, they are a driver of action and incentive specific behaviours to create better alignement with strategy. They make you accountable.

As Jedi Master Yoda would say: “Good metric is the path to the Force. Good Metric leads to clarity, clarity leads to accountability,  accountability leads to alignement”

If you have found an nugget, idea, insight or opportunity during this discovery process it is either in line with your current product/market fit and business model – … or not:

  • If you’re a startup, that’s the opportunity to pivot it into a new market…
  • if you’re in an establish business, good luck: you are kryptonite (unless you work a P&G) – get an executive sponsor and make sure everyone else knows you’ve got one.

Measuring what matters: Debunking a few myths

  • Brand Awareness/Top of Mind: Actually consideration is a better proxy for sales and marketshare in most industries I’ve been working with
  • Number of Fans, followers, Likes: that’s a typical vanity metric. If you can’t get them to do something useful for you, they are useless
  • Number of contacts in database: as previously, useless unless you know how many will open an email for eg. and act on what’s inside.
  • Number of visits / Market Share: is it one person who visits/buys a hundred times or a hundred people who visit/buy one time?
  • Number of downloads: Downloads alone have no value. Activations, ARPU do.

Now ask yourself this question – and feel free to contact me if you wish to discuss this further:

  • What are the metrics you are working towards?
  • How are they aligned to what your business – startup or established is trying to achieve today, tomorrow?
  • How many help you make business decisions?
  • Can you kill the ones not adding value?
  • Some industries use a single or aggregated success metrics for e.g.. NetAdds or CLV or ARPU… would it be possible for you?

[Thoughts] The OCD of CDOs

Two pieces of informations came to bug me recently.

On the one hand, Innosight’s executive briefing on strategic readiness and disruptive change stating:

  • Fully 85% of respondents say their organizations need to transform in response to disruptive change
  • yet only 49% say that feel very confident or confident that their organizations are prepared for transformation in 3 to 5 years.
  • That number drops to 42% in a time frame of 5 to 10 years.
  • Only 12% of organizations have a formal growth strategy with at least a 5+ year time horizon.
  • The remaining 88% either have no formal growth strategy or it is shorter term.

One the other hand, the rise of the Chief Digital Officer …:

  • 25% of companies will have a CDO by 2015 as reported by Gartner in 2012
  • the number of Chief Digital Officers in 2013 doubled again in one year—to a total of 500. And the CDO Club is conservatively projecting that number to double again, to some 1,000 Chief Digital Officers by the end of 2014.

As if the answer to the increasing need for lasting transformation is to be addressed by this new created role of the Chief Digital Officer.

Now when you look a CDO Club figures, CDOs were predominantly represented in the following industries/categories

  • advertising sector, at 36%
  • media at 18%,
  • publishing (13%), nonprofits and municipal (10%),
  • and financial (8%).

68% of them are in the US, 23% in Europe (mainly United Kingdom, France, Spain, Italy and Germany).

Now that bother’s me. So I tried to understand what CDO means and what is their remit, given the 3rd industrial revolution that is taking place is impacting many parts of the organisations value chain, not just Marketing and communications.

Russel Reynolds, the executive leadership and search firm explains that “traditionally, digital was positioned as part of the marketing function within the business, responsible for driving the organization’s online presence. The last two years have seen the rise of the Chief Digital Officer, a senior executive who sits at the right hand of the CEO and is seen as instrumental to the future of the organization.” Gasp!

Understandably “For many companies, especially those in the retail and leisure sectors, digital is the fastest- growing revenue stream, and a Chief Digital Officer (or, sometimes, SVP Online) is extremely important in driving that growth”. But according to Russel Reynolds, CDOs will “be the executives with the operating experience, management skills, strategic mindset and vision to lead businesses in an increasingly technological future.” (…) and the role will “require change management capabilities that can impact the whole company” (also they mention this specifically for traditional media industry).

Although I understand the need for companies to realign their business models, and processes to address their customers. But Digital Transformation goes beyond MarComms function.
In his post about the 2014 State of Digital Transformation, @BrianSolis form Altimeter group makes an interesting point:

  • investing in digital technologies does in of itself not equate to digital transformation
  • digital transformation has become yet another victim of the technology first efforts that miss the human mark, i.e. how people in organisation use tools and techniques to get the job done
  • true implication of digital transformation spans beyond technology on the real of infrastructure, organisation and leadership – across “everything from HR to collaboration to sales to supply management and beyond”.

Erik Brynjolfsson – director of the MIT Center for Digital Business and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research (see the video in footnotes), explains that 120 years ago, when American factories began to electrify their operations: productivity did not increase in those factories for 30 years. “That’s long enough for a generation of managers to retire.

the first wave of managers simply replaced their steam engines with electric motors, but they didn’t redesign the factories to take advantage of electricity’s flexibility.It fell to the next generation to invent new work processes, and then productivity soared, often doubling or even tripling in those factories.”

and just as the earlier generations of managers needed to redesign their factories, we’re going to need to reinvent our organizations and even our whole economic system.
He’s TED Talk explains brilliantly the cascading effects of technology, and the specifics of what he calls the machine age, i.e.the revolution supported by machine computation (see my previous post: “I don’t believe in Digital”): replicable at no cost, exponential and combinatory.

SO even though CDOs might be useful, for some companies and businesses – as is, i.e. eCommerce and Marcomms roles to engage with digital customers at every touchpoint of their journey, I doubt the creation of the role alone will be sufficient for organisation to understand and act upon how they need to transform and survive in the long term.

When the Wise Man Points at the Moon the Fool Looks at the Wise Man’s Finger


Digital MarComms, Social Media, technologies are the finger. They distract us from understanding the profoundness of the disruption taking place.

As Gary Hamel states in his HBR article:

Until we challenge our foundational beliefs, we won’t be able to build organizations that are substantially more capable than the ones we have today.

That’s all folks!


Innosight:  The Strategy Confidence GapResults From Our Survey on Strategic Readiness and Disruptive Change
Gartner: Every Budget is Becoming an IT Budget
CDO Club: Number of Chief Digital Officers Doubled in 2013
Russel Reynolds Associates: The rise of the Chief Digital Officer
Altimeter Group:  2014 State of Digital Transformation
Erik Brynjolfsson: The key to growth? Race with the machines
Gary Hamel:  The Core Incompetencies of the Corporation

[Thoughts] Quantum physics, The Matrix and the corporate world

The problem with beliefs (see my previous post “I don’t believe in Digital”) is that beliefs determine your reality.

I am surprised that as individuals and as a human society, we have not learnt of the implication of Quantum Physics and it’s multiple repercussions in all fields of human activities ( but that’s another topic and if you’re interested you’ll find wealth of material on the Internet and a documentary in the footnotes).

Quantum physics has left scientists all over the world baffled, especially with the discovery that our physical material reality, isn’t really physical at all.
So belief in a material world we can grasp through our sense and common sense is flawed. Deeply flawed.

Interestingly enough, it’s the discovery of quantum physics that has led to invention of computer (1939), transistor (1947), WWW (1990), laser (1960) and can therefore be considered as the impulse of the digital disruption currently at work.

“Welcome to the desert of the Real” (Morpheus)
Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real.

We like to think we are rational, but that’s just because we are not aware, and have not been made aware of our cognitive and heuristic biases.
To make sense of the world around us, we tend to simplify, use shortcuts to manage the complexity of our environment. Most of the times it’s a good thing and allows us to function (ie. we don’t need to think to breathe to breathe). But for more sophisticated cognitive processes – ie. making decisions it can be a problem.
If you’re not familiar with the the concept, there a neat list here.
And you can find examples in corporate life in this article from CFO/Mc Kinsey

My biggest concern – as a professional – is how badly the corporate world is equipped to face this reality, recognize the risk and minimize its devastating consequences on business strategy and execution.

If you don’t have a framework to re-assess and test the rules of the environment you’re operating, how can you decently expect to decide, adapt, grow and survive.
A company that is not able to envision, express and vocalize what the digital disruption means – for its business, market, product, techniques and processes, employees, stakeholders… – is a company that is doomed to die from irrelevance.
And if this vision starts and stops with digital advertising alone and just cool shiny objects it is already dead.

“Most organizations still rely on a way of working designed for the industrial age. Their operating models have barely changed since they were invented over 100 years ago” (Undercurrent)

Therefore the first step towards evolution and change is to test the belief system of your company, department, team… even yours.
And there are 6 leads of opinion or belief change – that I’ve discovered this week in an EdX course on Heuristics and Biases by the University of Queensland, Australia

  1. what do you believe anyway?
  2. how well based is the opinion that you already hold?
  3. how good is the evidence? Is it based on experiments? Is it based on that personal experience? How good are the data?
  4. does the evidence really contradict what you already believe? Is there a way of reframing the issue, of stating the evidence in a way that allows you to use this new information, this new evidence, rather than just rejecting it outright?
  5. given the evidence presented, if that’s not enough for you to change your mind, change your opinion, then what would be enough?
  6. is it worth finding out about, or is just a case of why not? Why don’t I just continue to believe this stuff? What’s the cost? Can I just persist in this belief?

And good opportunity to test your belief system – applied to marketing  would be Dr. Byron Sharp‘s book “How brands grow”.
It is a myth-busting book, in the tradition of classic scientific discoveries. Unlike most business books it’s based on extensive data, on real world buying, and is based on decades of research that has progressively uncovered scientific laws about buying and brand performance.

Equation-for-ChangeThat’s all folks.
I hope to develop further in the next posts re: cognitive bias and the equation for Change


[Thoughts] I don’t believe in digital

Sun orbiting around flat Earth

I have caught this statement in a social media newsfeed. A connection of mine commenting on a dinner with two major french companies somewhere in New York.
I must admit I have been thinking about it since then, and I’m still trying to figure out how someone can decently say that – unless they have been living in a cave or have a clamshell phone.

The problem with this statement is that it is equivalent, in my opinion to stating you don’t believe in electricity, combustion or computing.
Unless – and I assume this is the case – you are talking about digital advertising (this topic deserves a proper post if you allow me).

The problem with “digital” is the same as the one of contemporary art. It forces you to define the limit of “digital” as contemporary art forced to redefine the limit of Art.
If everything is Art – beyond wooden frames, museum halls and accepted academism – … then nothing is Art.
If everything is “digital” then nothing is digital… and you have once again failed to name it and define it. Back to square one.
And digital advertising is not “Digital”.

In order to understand what Digital is, you need to understand the impact the 1st and 2nd industrial revolutions had on agriculture, biotechnology, communication, hardware, engineering, medicine, transport… name it.

Then I would invite you to study again how the transition to this new technologies, methods and processes tremendously impacted human standards of living (food and nutrition, housing, consumer goods…), population increase, labour conditions and organisation, urbanisation, mass production…
There are great article on wikipedia… but if you don’t believe in digital, you’ll hardly know about wikipedia.

Now step back, and think again. You get it?

Digital is the evolution from analog, mechanical and electronic technologies and processes to a new form of technologies and processes enabled by the binary system – zero and ones, and computed by machines.
Using binary computation system, any kind of information can be copied, edited, moved without any loss of quality.

This coupled with the proliferation and inter-connection of devices ( see Wikipedia for Moore’s Law and Internet or the history of inventions derived from Quantum Physics theory such as computer, transistor and WWW) allows for an exponential number of possible interactions (ie. exchange of content, communications, and commercial transactions) between human and machines (ie. human to human, human to machine, machine to machine).

So when you say: I don’t believe in digital… you basically say you don’t believe in the existence of computer, email, game consoles, ATMs, mobile phones, the Internet, the pictures your friends sent through the other day, the hotel you booked for your vacation, the groceries your got delivered this evening.

This is what keeps me awake at night (among many other things some may say…). When you claim you don’t believe in digital, you basically demonstrate that you ignore the disruption that is taking place and it’s magnitude.

There’s sufficient literature to be found in libraries and even on a place called Internet regarding how postal services, retail, travel, music and news video industry have been disrupted.
If you are reading the news, you might get a sense of things happening in transport, financial services, automotive, health…
Please note I’m talking about the business here… not advertising.

So you might not believe in digital, just like some people didn’t believe the Earth was orbiting around the Sun, and that it was NOT flat. I just think that if you’re a senior executive in a company you deserve to be fired as you’re a danger to the business you’re in.

Right, I said it… feel better now.