Muzeable Thinking

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Brief Musings: Microsoft Nokia deal – opportunistic punt or ‘new strategy’ in action?

Posted by on Sep 4th, 2013 in muzeable thinking | 0 comments

Muzeable Thinking No. 13 – posted by Tim Brooks 4th September 2013

The news…

Interesting, very interesting.  I talk a lot about leadership/business and its need [often failure] to embrace the new world with new approaches to strategy; including a review of what might be new age essential skills. The skills that allow us to navigate in a world only idiots and charlatans pretend to understand or be in control of!

3 recently articulated new age skills were:

  • IMAGINATION – being the ability to see how the tectonic plates ‘might’ be shifting and to view innovation or M&A in this light
  • EXPLOITATION – when a freebie comes along… exploit it, but don’t pretend it was a strategic outcome resulting from your genius – publically sell the luck – then back to reality!
  • AMBIGUITY – or the essential ability to cope with and embrace the fact it’s too complicated out there for us to know with any certainty… much at all.

The Microsoft-Nokia deal is, or should be, about all this and more. At this point who knows if it is genius or desperation, a well-considered long term move or a last punt from an out-going leader, etc. but whatever holds true, it’s bold.

The bottom line

The Windows Phone is not winning and it already looks like it can’t win. It looks like a niche alternative for people who ‘just have to be’ different! With predictions [as in BBC link above] predicting 5% share by 2017, the business is looking unsustainable and for Microsoft – a bit like X-box/Tablets  – another ‘exciting leading edge division’ that the core just funds ad infinitum i.e. a commercial luxury.

In terms of the new world essentials above:

  • IMAGINATION: Microsoft is seeing their trad PC software business ebb away. The mobile world currently is marginalising them, so picturing a world with a smaller Microsoft and a series of platforms that don’t need or want ‘windows’ doesn’t need much imagination! But investing big [it’s more than money, it needs BIG CHANGE too] in competing via an integrated solution a la Apple is imaginative… as without it Windows Phone will die. With it… it might still die as this is a steep hill, but… The key is that IMAGINATION is not just about the WHAT [‘let’s get into integration/hardware’] it’s more about the WHY [‘how does this fit?’ strategic integrity] and most importantly the HOW [‘what changes round here to make this happen?’]. From here, Microsoft’s ability to do the last 2 MUST BE QUESTIONED!!
  • EXPLOITATION: Nokia are on the cusp of irrelevance in the phone world… without sales of old tech phones in Emerging markets it would be further along its decline… so Microsoft are exploiting the situation to buy a still great BRAND with tech creds and track record of note. It’s still an ASSET!
  • AMBIGUITY. Either they are supremely arrogant or MS management must be knee [neck] deep in uncertainty at the moment… mainly because I can’t really think of many e.g.s of tech companies pulling a vertical integration or leap into a brave new world off. Let alone the uncertainty brought by the current speed of change. It’s possible that developing a competitive position in Smartphones might be old hat by the time they’ve done it! I suppose the hardware platform means they are better placed to invent, create or drive that. And what does all this mean for the MS tablet division – separate it should not remain!

So, to an outsider this is a bold move with more challenges than easy money, but it has a certain logic and [potentially] it was based on a bit of imagination. For that reason alone some of me hopes it comes off [the other bit that has to work with Windows 8 on a PC doesn’t give a monkeys!]. As always to test against my principles I need some evidence that it is attached to a strategic framework that reflects something akin to a cunning plan and the IMAGINATION goes as far as the HOW.

Brief Muzings: Poor medium term prognosis for HP – when did it start?

Posted by on Aug 22nd, 2013 in muzeable thinking | 0 comments

Muzeable Thinking No. 12 – posted by Tim Brooks 22nd August 2013

As opposed to my usual ‘articles’ here is a genuine BLOG… brief and current – I hope!

That HP is struggling and sees limited light into 2014 might or might not surprise you. What interests me is how familiar this cycle of potential decline seems for so many legacy and especially legacy tech companies? I am quite obsessed by how businesses act at [or disastrously ignore] what I call Points of Change  and this is a good example of those moments when leadership earns its ‘cake’ or lives in the fat cat stylie. The moment when the next few steps on the journey will determine success or… the other, sadly more common, thing!

It could apply to many… but for HP the symptoms are obvious:

  • Their core market[s] is slipping away – what made them successful isn’t the answer now
  • & even within their current world they face new competitive threats from EMCs [Emerging Market Multi-National Corporations] like China’s Lenovo.
  • Outside in – they look like a Leviathan; lacking flexibility and a coherent [& visible] perspective on the world to drive their growth agenda.
  • & I hear on good authority of a history of petty divisional rivalries between Printers and PCs
  • They probably can’t remember the last disruptive/exciting thing they did.
  • Recent M&A has been… at times strategically questionable, apparently poorly executed and even hints at a bit of desperation…
  • & rest assured sponsoring Tottenham Hotspur is not going to help!!

A real expert could expand on this, but the point is that so many legacy companies find themselves wedged – rock and hard place – like this. Old gits will remember DEC [Digital Equipment Company] and their stall and dive from No. 2 in size, perhaps 1 in kudos [profit] to non-existence in a matter of a few years. They missed the Point of Change and then failed to find a meaningful response to it.

The problem for HP is that the answer might lie in the past.

Yes, Meg Whitman, current CEO, might have the ‘Canutian’ powers to turn the waves and rebuild a salient place in the world. I wish her every success. To be fair, HP have managed Points of Change before and HP’s scale means it’s decline will probably be slow and painful, so there is some time to play with. IBM’s ability to leave Mainframes behind and discover ‘services’, shows a re-incarnation, albeit as a smaller, but successful business is possible.

The HP Point of Change was probably 5 years ago. A host of disruptive changes were bedding in – the emergence of mobile and mobile internet; a rush of fundamental product developments, primarily revolutionising the UI [user interface]; the rapid global adoption and copying of it all; the resulting changes in working practices; the content rich social media/entertainment changes driving end usage/needs; the fundamental changes in data storage and its potential value etc. I could go on. But, 5 years ago – maybe 10 – the leadership of HP lacked the IMAGINATION to see or react to their possible futures. They failed to cope with the huge levels of AMBIGUITY and UNCERTAINTY that was all around them. They probably imagined, Dr Beeching-like that they were a PC/Printer manufacturer.  I’m not even feeling  too critical, Points of Change are one tough gig… but one suspects they didn’t REALLY live by the old Ad Agency/Mad Men adage – one proven to keep you honest and forward facing at ALL TIMES – that:

‘There is only one certainty in life; you will lose all your existing clients. The only uncertainty is WHEN!’

Death and taxes notwithstanding.

So whilst I wouldn’t advocate paranoia, I would suggest that any business, especially one with a hint of legacy, should [excuse the alliteration]:

  • Devote more time to thinking about the future more deeply, widely, slowly and reflectively – business model and future customer connectivity must be at the heart of this. There is discontinuity, so find and define it
  • Develop an 80/20 mind-set for activity/investment; 80 now and 20 in new stuff/models…
  • Dump 20th Century strategic planning processes – think more in terms of FLEXIBLE FRAMEWORKS, more RULES of THUMB than rules and all based on a deeper understanding of the Climate and Context you work in
  • Don’t imagine CHANGE is an INITIATIVE or PROJECT, start getting it hard-wired into the NOW – through your approach to innovation, interactions with customers & consumers and, most importantly, your staff’s performance and development [measurement]
  • Defend the medium/long term perspective by ensuring the business isn’t built [metrics et al] around the next quarter or two. It will be the headlights that your rabbit gets caught in. [Paul Polman at Unilever MUST be admired for his stand on this.]

There are no simple answers, cos if it was easy, we’d all have done it already, but if we all learn to run up hills – sometimes in the triumph of hope over experience – in search of USEFUL, USEABLE stuff we can actually USE to manage our POINTS OF CHANGE more effectively we might save a few DECs from the Corporate Mausoleum.

Exhibit 1: The future of computing…

Dec pic

Muzeable’s Essential Guide to Growth No. 767: Skills for the Modern Age 3 – [Learning to Love] Ambiguity

Posted by on Aug 11th, 2013 in muzeable thinking | 0 comments

Muzeable Thinking No. 11 – posted by Tim Brooks 11th August 2013

I’ve recently written about imagination & exploitation as essential VUCA*-world skills. The thought-pieces are not presented as a fact, but as an attempt to start a discussion around some of the new approaches we need for a changed and – if not new – ever-changing world. There’s a third competence in the new leadership playbook that I believe to be essential and it’s the hardest one of all to get right. It’s a brutal truth requirement in a complex world and one most of us struggle with. This is Number 3 on my list of Essential Skills, a list that, I admit, grows with ‘Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition’ like confusion… is AMBIGUITY; or at least the ability to cope with, even – ‘eaven forbid – embrace it. I would argue embracing  it is a Hobson’s Choice as if you are not swamped in ambiguity already then you are either not paying attention or psychotically thick-skinned or short sighted.

Ambiguity is particularly hard because it is counter to EVERYTHING businesses and most business leaders feel most comfortable with. Counter to everything that got most leaders to the corner office in the first place. Their near-past skill was to seek to simplify, to create order, to speed up, to get immediate results – the ability to ‘tell it how it is!’  Warts and all. This is still a requirement – especially the rigorous self/situational analysis – but the usual approach is based on the assumption you have a blind clue what ‘it’ is or enough idea that the points of error in statistically insignificant. My point is that nowadays:

  • If you do understand what’s occurring then you’re a guru/genius,
  • if you think you actually know – sympathies, you’re delusional and heading for a hard landing.
  • What you probably have is lots of ambiguity and it will be at the heart of your short and long term challenges and it won’t fit in the designated solutions box.

But there’s a bit of a ‘so what?’ lurking here. What does this ambiguity malarkey really mean and why does it matter so much?

YAWN… not more whinging about complexity

We are all well versed (tired even) of hearing about the complexity we all face and our corporate inability to find the right ways or changes we need to embrace to really understand and deconstruct the problems that lie in its shadow. Certainly, we struggle to do this with the confidence of previous ages. The point is that our tiredness does not diminish its truth! In a short diatribe such as this, that’s all you need to know about complexity. What is it that complexity and uncertainty create… you’re there already – AMBIGUITY! More ambiguous problems, more ambiguous data, lots of decisions founded on ambiguity and more and more solutions executed neck deep in contextual ambiguity. Growth strategies, marketing & comms all swim in this dark, GREY primeval soup.

Leaders have to learn to thrive and eventually swim faster in this molasses. It is counter to everything they ever learnt on the way up the greasy pole. It requires an ability to:

  • slow down and to reflect DEEPLY.
  • lose some (not all) of that psychotic decisiveness.
  • You need to let some/more stuff ride, plough on for a bit longer than is comfortable
  • acknowledge the time it will take to come up with meaningful answers – that won’t necessarily fit your reporting and planning ‘cycles’,
  • move from structured plans and certainty to frameworks and rules of thumb.

It’s another reason why the obsession with Q by Q performance is ridiculous. It also requires an uncharacteristic (in macho corporate men especially) ability to say ‘I just don’t know’.  But you need to learn how to ‘not know’ and how to ‘not know together’! Collaborative doubt is potentially powerful and empowering – not knowing alone can be scary and limiting. Even in, or perhaps contradictorily because of, the BIG DATA world there’s too much data to know  – or at least understand – everything empirically, too much wood… So the key is about the nature of the uncertainty this ambiguity forces on us. This deep shared sense of unknowing It isn’t just about playing what’s in front of you and fast, decisive reactions to new situations. That’s like trying to empty the Great Lakes with a plastic bucket and a bit of determination. It’s about learning to reflect a bit longer and harder on your world. Holistic will no longer be a rude (unfair) word to describe kaftan herbal junkies and their hippy-clappy behaviour, it will be a necessary approach to thinking your way through ambiguity. A bit like the way WELLNESS/WELLBEING is now a mainstream healthcare idea because it is based on TRUTH. Corporate wellness will need holistic consideration – and that will take time and deep reflection. Slow approaches and ideas that used to be considered on the edge. Luxuries we couldn’t afford.

So what? Outcomes…

What will be the outcomes of embracing this new doubt? An ability, the objective even, to:

  • build Strategic frameworks not pre-defined plans. Understand flows and directional importance… like CHAOS THEORY and turbulence.
  • Rules of thumb not rules.
  • Clearly articulated intent not definitive outcomes.
  • More and better data – big or otherwise – leading to more understanding of the mechanics of your category and business model, but also to big unanswered questions – ambiguity you need to be comfortable with.
  • Then huge slugs of IMAGINATION to plait it all together so it:
    • makes sense to all and
    • can be embedded within and executed by the organisation you actually are, not the theoretical one you might want to be!
  • It will require change, but be careful about vesting the solution in the recent past’s love of CHANGE MANAGEMENT set pieces… they are an Emperor’s new clothes slice of self abuse!

In a world where change rarely works we will need to really lock down what change actually means in this context.  This means less ‘big C’, more ‘small c’ and better defining your ‘point of change’ before jumping. This creates even more discomfort for leaders brought up to launch their tenure with a BIG C statement (usually denigrating the recent past) and a psychotic need to get on with it long before they usually know what ‘it’ actually is. ‘The let’s get going and if I’m half right we’ll be ok’ approach which might have worked in the past for new leaders probably won’t work anymore!

If you doubt the overall need look at the data. Wherever you look it points to large tranches of companies – often BLUE CHIP ones – not really delivering anything like high performance. This MUST prompt a re-evaluation of what and how… let alone why! It just seems to me that much of this must be behaviourally and structurally based before we get to execution and tactical evolution… this is what the new ESSENTIALS for future success are about, so…

Take 3 steps to HEAVEN!

As a starter… think:

  1. How do I EMBRACE and feel COMFORTABLE with the AMBIGUITY of my world. This is easy, a simple exercise will create a long list of important things we part know, or for which there are 2 decent responses.
  2. How do I start to think IMAGINATIVELY about the STRATEGIC FRAMEWORKS that will drive my future activity? Harder, but simply start by mapping a potential world different from today. Look at your profit pools and consider how a new entrant – digital or different – might take your low hanging fruit away? Your easy, high margin business. Start to think what your business would need to look like to cut them off at the pass? Look at your last 5 big ideas – ones you thought had legs – and imagine how a different organisation might have done it; a start-up or a respected player from a parallel or different category.
  3. How do I build my EXPLOITATION capability to deliver the opportunistic potential that lies fortuitously in my path more effectively without derailing my world view [STRATEGY]. Proactively review your near term for exploitation opportunities that can provide moral boosting and ruthless focus for the business. I guarantee there is at least one in view…

Or call Muzeable to discuss any of the above in the context of your business. [Apologies for the cheap plug, but I don’t write all this for my health!]

And then remember, these are such exciting times…


*Volatility Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity


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