Muzeable Thinking

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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


Muzeable’s Essential Guide to Growth No. 347: Skills for the Modern Age 2 – Exploitation

Posted by on Jul 24th, 2013 in muzeable thinking | 0 comments

Muzeable Thinking No. 10 – posted by Tim Brooks 31st May 2013

Imagination recap – jump to next sub-head if read it!

Recently I wrote about IMAGINATION – not ‘vision’ or ‘creativity’ but the ability to imagine how new things might actually create opportunity or impact (even change) for the business. I concluded that it was all too often a leadership gap, not least because it seems even woollier than creativity in a corporate world that values psychotic levels of certainty and ruthless decisiveness. It’s a world that values DOING more than THINKING and THINKING more than IMAGINING. Mulling is lost somewhere on the shared server and deep reflection is kept in a bag, in a box and most people don’t even know of its existence anymore. A corporate unicorn.


Imagination – at least superficially – appears brave and high risk versus structured analysis and ‘planning’. I would counter that given a world of complexity and uncertainty the more traditional and dare I say it parochial planning and future forecasting approaches we have grown up with only give the impression of being less fraught with challenge and doubt. Blindfolding yourself and sticking a pin on the tail of donkey is still a lottery even when you have a carefully crafted ’92-step process’ designed for the task. Further I was describing ‘corporate imagination’ and that can legitimately call on, and use, data as an input. Einstein imagined, but usually not in a data vacuum.


The key difference between creativity and imagination is that creativity is primarily an executional enabler or improvement tool – you can ‘buy it in’ or nurture it below the leadership level – CEOs don’t absolutely have to be creative – they just have to recognise and value it. Imagination is a creator, enabler and driver of strategy and growth understanding and it has to live in the C-Suite, the hot-seat even!


In search of ‘clean’ exploitation!

Today, I want to touch on another core competence essential for our difficult times – ruthless exploitation!


The ability to make the most of a short term or one off opportunity when it presents itself. The key point is in the stories we tell ourselves – knowing, better still totally acknowledging, that it might be a brief moment of lucky circumstance – a chance to fill your boots – is the success factor; the point of salience.  NB in no way is this a plea for unethical or poor behaviour. This is ‘nice’ or what I call – ‘clean’ exploitation!


A confession of mediocrity!

Let’s back up a bit. In our business lives we have probably all had one of those opportunities where the moons align and you get on a roll. As gamblers say – it’s best not to over-analyse a streak, but… my best example was as a Marketing Director in a year where one of my big competitors acquired another of my big competitors. As they merged, lost people, lost focus and lost continuity… we had one of our best years in living memory. Much to my shame… I just went with it and took too much credit. It was my great team [partly true], the plan, the ads, the digital activity etc. To be fair the team did do a good job, but the results went beyond that. Honestly, hands up if you’ve been there too?


Why is it important to own up and tell it how it is? On two levels, one is deeply strategic, one less so.


Strategically. Growth is a febrile difficult to understand thingamajig. Perhaps creating it is akin to the task of herding cats. Sustainable growth has added bells on – herding cats along the Oregon Trail! So if you aren’t brutally honest about the conditions of its occasional arrival what chance have you got of repeating or sustaining it? Understanding ‘why’ is a key to getting your GROWTH MECHANICS™ in place. This means you have discount any one-offs from your strategic thinking. The mindset must be that if you can’t repeat it [or something like it] then it ain’t going to be part of any STRATEGY or GROWTH FRAMEWORK™ that matters. Period.

On a more tactical level [and quite properly] we try to repeat stuff that works [remember you’ve sold everyone the idea that you did a great job when the ball fortuitously bounced your way!], So because some of this stuff mainly or only worked because of the lucky circumstances of your situation [merging competitors, whatever.] you are likely to hard wire mediocrity into your next 2 or 3 years of executional planning. The received wisdom – the legend in your own lunchtime, the Emperor’s new clothes moment – will be defended and abused to deliver different and inferior results. Sadly, my observation is that sometimes this is just about internal PR and personal career management.


The So What!

So whichever way you look at it – strategically or executionally – it is likely you are not doing right by the business.


If you totally acknowledge the moment and make it’s exploitation into a public ‘thing’ – a project mindset – then I would argue you will:

  • Get better results in the short term – because you give yourself permission to be ruthlessly tactical – exploitative
  • Build better long term morale and better behaviours – truth is deeply cleansing and the career BS will lessen.
  • Not create short or mid-term residual plans/activities/effects that are not beneficial to real aim of sustainable long term growth.


I know most of you would say you are already good at exploiting opportunities when they come your way and you might well be. But… this is about making exploitation a core STRATEGIC COMPETENCE and hard wiring it into analysis and thinking. Yes, we need to be able to play what’s in front of us in the current époque, but the new skill is having a really deep understanding of the context; the GROWTH MECHANICS™ of your market [this requires deep, reflective, strategic thinking] so that when EXPLOITATION is on offer you can act fast without damaging your long term growth through a random zig. Then, you need to know when the exploitation opportunity is over so you can get back to core.


Example – Apple and the billion dollar self-delusion?

It isn’t always about the small stuff either. I would – perhaps naïvely – suggest that even Apple have fallen foul of mixing up an [brilliant] exploitation opportunity  with a market position. The i-Phone was a truly gargantuan innovation breakthrough – whilst RIM slept… they created it and slotted it into the infrastructure of their greatest innovation – the i-Tunes Store business model and trail-blazed a new, premium category. But, despite the great innovation [which is clearly strategic] there was – if you did your analysis properly – a window of exploitation opportunity that went alongside it.
Only a naïve fool would have hard wired the initial hegemony into the business/growth plan with quite such confidence. The disruption would inevitably create a new category and a brutal, intensively competitive environment. Apple just had a few years start – their exploitation window. Apple is Apple, it’s why it’s so brilliant. But it is also polarising, arrogant, not quite mainstream and believes far too much of its own press. So, my view is that they didn’t really look at the future GROWTH FRAMEWORK™ honestly or brutally enough. Some of their current problems of overly-ambitious i-Phone forecasts vs current product/market realities are founded on this mis-analysis of their real situation.


An exploitation mind-set would have tempered this – if they had fessed up and said… this is a breakthrough for our business, but the next few years must be treated as a gravy train of exploitation whilst the competitors catch up and the category achieves some state of balance… I would argue that they might not be flapping around looking for sales numbers that might not be there; waiting a little too desperately for a killer innovation; watching Verizon etc. worrying about i-Phone purchasing commitments – all of which which might impact future margins etc. It would have created a GROWTH FRAMEWORK™ that would have delivered cohesion vs the current frenetic Q-by-Q rollercoaster ride. This difference between reality and self-deception is a key component of any long term strategy that will work!


So this remains short enough for a blog not an article I’ll stop there. I’d wanted to mention Games Workshop and Lord of the Rings… which is my best e.g. of hard wiring one-off exploitative growth into the plan… it always ends in a dip. But more importantly deflects even the best strategy/thinking into a potentially lucrative back street that turns into a cul-de-sac!

Next time: Skills for the Modern Age 3. The love of ambiguity.

Muzeable’s Essential Guide to Growth No. 269: Skills for the modern age 1 – the IMAGINATION

Posted by on May 31st, 2013 in muzeable thinking | 0 comments

Muzeable Thinking No. 9 – posted by Tim Brooks 31st May 2013

The next few outpourings from my young [ha!]and restless heart will explore a small number of  ‘competencies’ that I think are modern age GROWTH ESSENTIALS. Our observation is that these skills are rather lacking, or at least all too rare, in business. First… IMAGINATION.

Start point: What most companies and leaders really lack is not the creativity to generate ideas, but:

  • The [commercial] imagination to work out which disruptions will [or could] matter to their longer term growth agenda in the face of intense complexity.
  • The [commercial] imagination to picture how to actually make the change happen within the realities of the current organisation i.e. change it without destroying it.

For years there has been much talk (often very passionately delivered) about the ‘creativity’ gap in big corporations. We need more and better ideas, so let’s employ more creative people – mavericks even – we can train and encourage them; empower them to be more creative as part of the day job then things will soon change around here. Whether it’s a bad idea or it’s been badly executed it doesn’t seem to have worked very consistently?

Then, some of the rhetoric – and let’s face it most business writing is founded on pithy rhetoric trying to make the shades of grey [muddy brown?] appear as black and white – moved to other failings. Or at least other failings were added to explain the febrile nature of success. First among equals was the notion that it was not the paucity or quality of the ideas that was holding us back, but our collective inability to execute consistently, quickly and effectively. Execute, execute, execute was a new mantra, let strategy take care of itself and just do it!

Now we have a new generation of [mainly digital] champions telling us to miss out planning and carefully crafted innovation and just punt stuff out into the ether and develop it as we go. Speed trumps all of the above. The world is too complex and changing too fast to allow us to chart our journey in the old style with any confidence of success.

Actually, it’s all true. Or not. Or probably in part, depending on the situation. Our view – which is based on long experience and not extensive data [yet], we admit – is that there are group of other behaviours and challenges at heart of the problem that contribute to the success or failure of all of the above approaches. The first is worthy of real analysis and consideration – the corporate  IMAGINATION. It is this, or a consistent lack of it, that holds back leadership and businesses from winning more often. Imagination is not the same as creativity. It is also not an attribute that gets much nurturing, because in more junior roles it can actually hold your thrusting career back at a point when it’s best to just to be a ‘good soldier’ and get on with stuff.

Sir Ken Robinson in his book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything  talks about this, making a point perhaps intended at the expense of ‘imagination’, but my point is that it explains that IMAGINATION is like strategy… creativity is like execution:

‘Imagination is not the same as creativity.  Creativity takes the process of imagination to another level [gap]. Imagination can be entirely internal.  You could be imaginative all day long without anyone noticing [gap]. To be creative you actually have to do something. You can think of creativity as applied imagination.’

A dictionary definition expands this:

  1. The faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses: “a vivid  imagination”.
  2. The ability of the mind to be creative or resourceful.

So, if creativity is a doing word… imagination is its foundation and driving force. It is more than a vision, it is a reflective and flexible approach that can and should be applied to every new thought or opportunity we find. Leadership is more about the latter than the former – it should make sure we are ‘doing’ the right things – then get other people to ‘do it’.

Much strong tea and conversation later we concluded that there is rarely a lack of ideas in most serious big companies. Their best execs might not be left field mavericks, but they know their businesses and anyway they are not stupid so they employ people like us to supplement and support them if they want an IV injection of sparky thinking. True they are often better/best at linear ideas, the improvement not the breakthrough, but great [big] ideas and thoughts pass across their collective desks on a regular basis.
The execution criticism is also true. More often when you sift through the ashes of failure you find the germ of an idea or strategy that ‘could’ have worked and has been dragged down by poor delivery or because it is the ‘wrong’ idea for that organisation to deliver. Our mantra – useful useable used – is a key state of mind in fighting this. Strategic thinking is often useful, sometimes – shock – it is even useable, but is it actually used [and embedded] in anger at the sharp end? Rarely.

That said, the failure to execute is often a strategic issue. The ideas are the wrong ideas for that company or leadership has not embedded the strategy in the far reaches of the corporate body just the shiny HQ building. This leads to the existence of local agendas that are disconnected and/or working diligently from a set of competing objectives and metrics that haven’t been sufficiently re calibrated against the new approach. Sales departments often end up here, being beaten up on short term sales or driving volume which makes them prioritise the old, easy stuff over the new harder sell. Or with a crack-head relationship with promotion that ultimately prevents retailers taking the new stuff seriously or rapidly devaluing it – so smothering it at birth. All of this requires IMAGINATION and IMAGINATIVE approaches to overcome the fundamental, entrenched or infrastructural barriers to success.

We see bridging the imagination gap as one piece in this growth jigsaw – not a panacea or another fundamentalist input. It can be a key input to help companies and leadership to more effectively contextualise their future success and the ideas that might get them there into a framework that allows an increase in intelligent risk and the speed with which we can exploit opportunities.

Imagination links to the execution gap because one of the main issues with change or disruptive thinking is our ability to plan the unknown. Imagination is the skill we need to paint a plausible view of the future we can move towards – levels of complexity mean it cannot be a rigid plan. This is key, because the more credible this picture is the better our chance of success. It is not like corporate vision in the corporate leadership sense. It is not a ‘destination’ but a way to help business see how specific concepts or ideas can be realised/how they would actually work – despite or within what the organisation is today or in the near term. It scopes out real changes to the modus operandi versus making ‘change’ into a ‘project’ or end in itself. It actually doesn’t want too much creative input… it should be rigorous and pragmatic.

This is scary as it usually involves imagining a world in which we’ll be uncomfortable, or even obsolete! Only the very best managers we’ve met or worked with do this naturally! It involves considering convergence, technology and adjacencies that are currently seen are irrelevant or marginal to the current world view. None of this is pure play creativity – the ‘idea’ is probably – even if half-baked – on the table already. It’s about the ability to see:  a) how it might work (THE CONTEXT) and b) how WE might be best able to do it (THE NATURE of the CHANGE). Both these will start to shape our strategy AND the execution plan. Not enough ideas are ‘killed off’ due to an understanding of the nature of the change e.g. we aren’t the right people to do this or because we haven’t  envisaged the reality with enough imagination.

Examples abound… Blockbuster and Netflix, Music/Book/DVD retailers and Online in all cases there were points where IMAGINATION would have mattered. This is not about crystal ball gazing… we’re not talking about being able to see the future. In all these cases there were points of change where IF the incumbents had acted and changed their model whilst they still had brand strength and scale, some might have found a future. Future examples abound; big Pharma’s tortoise like move from transactional product marketing towards service/big data/CRM + effective product solutions; the need to see the specific ways your supply chain will be about more than ‘operational excellence’ and increasingly a key driver of reputation and difference [Fairtrade, CSR, audit etc.]; the imagination to understand that your current business model is going to change, die even, the only variable being when.

So, leaders need to cultivate their imagination. It is their ability to see the kernel of the idea or disruption, the technology or the imminent change that will drive the better results we all seek. It will enable them to zig whilst the category zags. Given that the data demonstrates that 90% of businesses are at the very best doing ‘OK’ then it’s clear that we need to zig, because following the category will deliver at best, only ‘OK’ results.

We see IMAGINATION as a missing component in many organisations. They are locked into a view of their business and how it works. [Note e.g.s above.] Innovation is held back not by a paucity of ideas but by the inability to see how to make them reality – to give execution half a chance of succeeding. NB a honed imagination does not remove the need for strategy, having the imagination to see how things might work and actually building the framework to deliver them are different things. But, the imagination will shape and influence your strategic priorities and the growth agenda. Future planning is also not the same thing… imagination sits outside of a project plan.

Great leaders DO this naturally. Most of us try to manage or project plan or research our way around its lack. This is not enough and is a linear ‘project managed’ road to disappointment. Cultivate an imagination. Ask different questions in different ways. Incorporate different stimuli into your approach. Create some rules of thumb for imagining the future world and where you – and the idea on the table – will fit into it. Think about how other people would do it – not just your head to head competitors, but the potential new kids on the block and adjacencies. We all do this sometimes… but our experience of big blue chips is that ‘sometimes’ ain’t very often. It isn’t part of the core.

The worry is that whilst you might be able to train people to be more creative can you train people to be more imaginative?  Hope so, or if not we need to  develop better approaches [FOR HEAVENS SAKE NOT MORE *^?*ing TOOLS, THEY WON’T EVER BE FLEXIBLE ENOUGH!!!!] or ways of looking at the world to support  leaders and companies to make the leaps of imagination – without mortgaging the core of the business – that will ultimately drive more sustainable growth. Perhaps it is as much a ‘mind-set’ as a ‘skill’? In which case it is perhaps as much about acknowledging the gap and forcing ourselves to challenge our own status quo… RECOMMENDATION: have a small imagination focused project on the go at all times to keep yourselves honest and uncomfortable!

As with all things there are as many questions as answers!! But we see IMAGINATION and its conscious development as one small key to a growth led future. Next we will be discussing another rare, uncomfortable, modern age business essential… EXPLOITATION.

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