Practically Radical

"The most powerful and instructive change manual you'll ever read."

- Daniel H. Pink, bestselling author of
A Whole New Mind and Drive
Wall Street Journal Bestseller!
#1 Bestseller! Inc./800CEORead
August 8th, 2012

When Bad Service Is Good Business

It’s hard not to be surprised by what you read in the newspapers these days, but a recent report in the New York Times left me downright floored. Richard X. Bove, a high-profile securities analyst who focuses on bank stocks, wrote a commentary that excoriated Wells Fargo for its lousy service—so much so that he announced he had moved his business to a competitor bank. But that same commentary praised Wells Fargo as a company and upgraded its stock to a buy.

Bove’s basic argument? Lousy service can be good business. “I’m struck by the fact that the service is so bad, and yet the company is so good,” he told the Times, which devoted an entire article to his conclusion. “Whatever it is that drives people to do business with a given bank, in my mind, now has to be rethought.”

Fair enough, let’s rethink. There are, I would submit, a few situations where bad service and good business go hand-in-hand. The first is when companies are explicit with customers that service is not part of what they’re signing up for—in fact, that what the company offers requires a rough-and-tumble relationship with customers. There’s a second category of companies for whom lousy service may be good business—companies whose offerings are so compelling, and whose reach is so vast, that making the investments required to deliver high-tough service would be making a big strategic mistake

But what strikes me about the situation that Richard Bove describes is that Wells Fargo (or any big bank, for that matter) does not conform to either of these two categories. When your company offers products that are pretty much indistinguishable from what your rivals offer, the only way to stand out from the crowd is to stand for something special. What do you offer than no one else offers? What do you deliver that no one else in your industry can deliver?  Those are the questions that most companies have to be able to answer—and so few ever do.

Over the long term, companies that aspire to be great at selling must first be great at service—to give customers, who have a vast array of decent products and prices from which to choose, a reason to come back and do more and feel good about the experience.

Here's my full take on the question of when bad service is good business, over at HBR.

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August 1st, 2012

Practically Radical, Now in Paperback!

I am very excited to announce that the paperback edition of Practically Radical has just been released by my friends at William Morrow. I've updated all of the case-study material for the paperback edition, and I've  added an all-new "Work Book" of questions and exercises designed to help individual leaders change the game in their organizations. I'm just as excited to announce that the original hardcover edition of Practically Radical has gone back to press for what I think is the book's fifth major print run. All I can say is wow—and thanks! It has been so gratifying to experience all the enthusiasm and support for the book over the last 18 months.

And speaking of the last 18 months...Since the publication of Practically Radical, I’ve had the chance to share its themes, advice, and case studies with audiences of executives, technologists, and entrepreneurs from around the world. What a long, strange, wonderful trip it’s been—from urging on hundreds of Russian entrepreneurs in a movie theater in Moscow, to swapping ideas and business plans with advertising hotshots and startup founders on a rooftop in Berlin, to addressing thousands of human-resource professionals in a vast convention center in Toronto, to being grilled by engineers and technologists from one of the world’s leading aerospace companies—literally an auditorium filled with rocket scientists.

Indeed, perhaps the greatest reward for having spent months and years honing the messages for this book is the chance to then spend months and years interacting with people who are interested in those messages. Over time, though, I’ve sensed a change in what these change agents want to hear about—or, more precisely, what they want to talk about. Increasingly, I’m being asked not just to present my ideas and themes, but also to help leaders at every level figure out how those ideas and themes apply to their problems—that is, how to put the ideas in Practically Radical to work inside their organizations and in their careers.

That's why, for the paperback, I assembled the Practically Radical Work Book—questions that define the core challenges of change for leaders in any field, along with exercises to meet those challenges and do the hard work of making long-lasting progress in fast-moving times. I’ve always thought that the value of a book aimed at leaders who want to make a difference has less to do with the precision of the arguments it makes than with the energy of the conversations it unleashes and the originality of the answers it inspires. Here’s hoping the book, in whatever form you encounter it, unleashes energy and inspire answers for you and your colleagues.

Thanks again for the support!

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May 31st, 2012

Please, Can We All Just Stop “Innovating”?

There’s something about the culture of business that tends toward excess—in financial markets, to be sure, but also in the “market” for new ideas and management techniques. The logic is always the same, whether the idea in question is reengineering, six-sigma quality, or lean production systems: A genuinely original strategy is born in one company or industry, consultants discover the practice and turn it into a marketable commodity, executives in all sorts of other companies race to “buy” the product—and then wonder why the technique didn’t work nearly as well in their organization as it did in the place that created it in the first place.

I fear that very dynamic is unfolding today with respect to a piece of language and a leadership aspiration that has become the Holy Grail for business thinkers like me.

That piece of language, that aspiration, is innovation.

Indeed, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, which did not get nearly the attention it deserved, basically made the case that the word “innovation” has outlived its usefulness. “Companies are touting chief innovation officers, innovation teams, innovations strategies and even innovation days,” the hard-hitting piece noted. “But that doesn’t mean the companies are actually doing any innovating. Instead they are using the word to convey monumental change when the progress they’re describing is quite ordinary.”

Ouch, that’s gonna leave a mark! But I have to admit, as someone who spends a huge amount of time thinking, writing, and lecturing about new ways to build and lead organizations, the Journal’s no-nonsense pushback deserves serious consideration. Maybe it’s time we all stopped “innovating” and set our sights on something more meaningful.

Over at HBR, I make just that case--and issue a plea spend less time with buzzwords and more time on creative breakthroughs. You can read the essay here.


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May 15th, 2012

Your Company’s “Obituary” Can Shape Its Future

If you’ve spent any amount of time in executive retreats or leadership offsites, you’ve probably been asked to participate in a familiar evaluation of your career and impact. “Take twenty minutes,” a facilitator will say, “and write your professional obituary. What legacy did you leave? What contribution did you make? What might colleagues remember about you?”

At one level, it’s a strange (and slightly morbid) exercise. At another level, it serves a worthwhile purpose—encouraging leaders to see themselves the way their colleagues see them, to evaluate their long-term impact from the perspective of the people who feel that impact. One of the most revealing ways to reflect on how you’re living your professional life is to reckon honestly with how you might be remembered when you are gone.

Well, what goes for individuals goes for organizations, too. That’s why I’ve begun to encourage senior leaders of companies, executives who run business units or departments, even mid-level managers who are responsible for a specific brand, to step back and take time (probably much longer than twenty minutes) and write their organization’s obituary. What legacy did your company leave in its industry? What contributions did your business unit make to your company? How did your brand move the needle in a market category? To clarify your company's future, it helps to step back and imagine a world in which it does not exist.

Here's my latest essay for HBR, on the value of writing your company's obituary.

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April 20th, 2012

To Win Big, It Helps To Be a Little “Nuts”

Here’s a simple question for all you students of business success and stock-market returns: What has been the best-performing stock in the United States since the “Black Monday” crash of 1987? If you said Apple or Microsoft or Walmart or Berkshire Hathaway, you’d get credit for a reasonable answer. But you’d be wrong. The best-performing stock in the United States over the last 25 years is a company that most of you, I’d be willing to guess, have never heard of—a company called Fastenal, based in the quiet town of Winona, Minnesota (population: 28,000), located on the banks of the Mississippi River 30 miles northwest of La Crosse, Wisconsin.

In what glamorous, high-margin, cutting-edge business has Fastenal made its mark? Not software, healthcare, or aerospace. Fastenal is the country’s dominant distributor of nuts and bolts. That’s right…If you’ve got the proverbial screw loose, if you’re a major construction company or a small contractor or individual homeowner desperate for an exotic nut or bolt to complete a job, Fastenal is where you turn.

According to a recent article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, the company has more than 11,000 sales people in 2,600 stores along with an online catalogue that extends for 10,700 pages. It also has more than 5,500 “fully customized and automated Fastenal stores” on job sites and at customer locations—essentially, vending machines for nuts and bolts. The result of this overwhelming reach is truly overwhelming business performance. According to BusinessWeek, the company’s share price is up 38,565 percent since October 1987. Microsoft, by contrast, is up less than 10,000 percent over that same period (still not bad!), and Apple is up by 5,500 percent.

What’s the lesson to draw from Fastenal’s growth and prosperity? I suppose you could wax rhapsodic about the virtues of low-tech components in a high-tech age, and remind yourself that not every growth company is based in Silicon Valley or some other Internet hotspot. But the real lesson is more universal than that. The Fastenal story reminds all of us of the power of making big bets and staking out an “extreme” position in the market—in this case, offering a wider variety of products through more channels at a greater number of physical and virtual locations than anyone else in the business.

Fastenal has thrived because it has carved out a truly one-of-a-kind presence in its field. As its founder, Bob Kierlin, told BusinessWeek, “It was the craziest thing to ask people to invest in a company selling nuts and bolts”—especially one that aspired to sell anything to anyone virtually anywhere. But as it turns out, if you want to win big, it helps to be a little nuts.

Here's my latest for HBR on the power of not-so-crazy ideas in business.

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April 4th, 2012

It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Believe

Adam Lashinsky’s new book Inside Apple offers lots of intriguing material about Steve Jobs and the strategic choices, design principles, and business tactics that created the most valuable company on earth. But for all of Lashinsky’s behind-the-scenes material about Apple’s legendary leader, it was a public story about Apple’s new leader, CEO Tim Cook, that most captured my attention—and offered a powerful insight for leaders everywhere looking to create value in their organizations.

The story goes back to January 21, 2009, during Cook’s inaugural conference call with investors after Jobs announced his medical leave of absence. The very first question, Lashinsky reports, was from an analyst who wanted to know whether Cook might replace Jobs permanently and how the company would be different if he did. Cook did not respond with a detailed review of the products Apple made or the retail environments in which it sold them. Instead, he offered an unscripted statement of what he and everyone at Apple believed—“as if reciting a creed he had learned as a child” in Sunday School.

“We believe that we are on the face of the earth to make great products, and that’s not changing…” Cook declared.

“We believe in the simple not the complex…We believe in saying no to thousands of products, so that we can really focus on the few that are truly important and meaningful to us,” he added.

“We believe in deep collaboration and cross-pollination of our groups, which allow us to innovate in ways other cannot…And I think that regardless of who is in what job those values are so embedded in this company that Apple will do extremely well,” he concluded.

It’s not what you sell, it’s what you believe. If there is one principle that I believe explains why some organizations—Apple, Southwest Airlines, USAA, Cirque du Soleil, the Marine Corps, Pixar—consistently and dramatically outperform their rivals, it is that every person in the organization, regardless of job title or function, understands what makes the organization tick and why what the organization does matters.

Over at my Harvard Business Review blog, I explore the three questions that every great company has to answer: What do you promise that nobody else in your industry can promise? What do you deliver that nobody else can deliver? What do you believe that only you believe?

You can read the essay here.

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April 2nd, 2012

See Me, Hear Me….

No, I'm not doing my version of The Who's Tommy. But over the last few weeks I've had a chance to do two Web-based events that are now available to the general public. I'd like to invite you to check out either or both events and let me know what you think.

The first was a video Webinar hosted by Capella University, the online teaching organization based in Minneapolis. I didn't think staring into a camera and talking would be so energizing, but I had fun--and really enjoyed getting to know the folks at Capella. You can find the video here.

The second was last week, an audio webinar hosted by my friends at Harvard Business Review and sponsored by UPS. For those of you who agree that I have a face for radio, the audio event my be the preferred option. Again, I had loads of fun. You can find the audio here.

Check out either or both and let me know what you think!!!

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February 21st, 2012

I’m Going Public!

I spend most of my time these days on the road, giving talks and leading discussions based on the ideas and lessons in Practically Radical. Most of these sessions, sadly, are not open to the public--either they are private events held by companies, or members-only events organized by associations. In two weeks, though, I'll be part of back-to-back events--one online, the other in-person--that are open to the public. I hope you'll consider attending one or the other.

The first is on Tuesday March 6, at 1 PM Eastern. It's being hosted by Capella University, and it's a one-hour Webinar in which I'll talk about leadership, innovation, and the power of culture, and take questions via Twitter. Capella is really good at these online sessions, and it promises to be loads of fun. You can register free here.

On Wednesday, March 7, I'll be part of an open-to-the-public event in Cambridge MA. It's the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council. Rather than do a talk, I'll be leading a "fireside chat" with the incomparable Bill Campbell, a legendary figure in Silicon Valley who has been a trusted adviser to everyone from Steve Jobs to the top guys at Google to John Doerr, Ben Horowitz, and other leading venture capitalists.  Bill Campbell has to be seen to be believed, and if you're in or around Cambridge on March 7 you should come see for yourself. Tickets are available here.

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February 14th, 2012

On Valentine’s Day, an Ode to Leadership and Love

Here it is Valentine’s Day, nine days after my beloved New York Giants defeated the New England Patriots to win Super Bowl XLVI, and there are two things about the game I still can’t shake. One is my general sense of euphoria, especially since I made the case in a pretty high-profile forum (The Washington Post) for why “Eli Manning Is a Better Leader than Tom Brady.” That was two days before Super Bowl Sunday—phew!

The second thing that sticks with me is the speech that Tom Coughlin, the gruff disciplinarian who coaches the Giants, made the night before the game. It was unapologetically emotional address that moved several players to tears and ended with the coach whispering to his team, “I love you.” After the game, with the players still buzzing about the speech, Coughlin’s wife Judy explained the coach’s sentimentality: “He loves this team,” she told the New York Daily News. “He found the right time to tell them.”

Now, it’s always risky to draw business lessons from the world of sports, and it’s even riskier to mix words like leadership and love, but if you can’t make sports analogies in the shadow of the Super Bowl, and you can’t talk about love on Valentine’s Day, then when can you? So allow me to do a little of both.

There’s a wonderful biography of Vince Lombardi by David Maraniss, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Washington Post. After the Green Bay Packers captured the first-ever Super Bowl, Maraniss writes, Coach Lombardi, as tough an SOB as there was on the American sporting scene, found himself in high demand as a speaker to executive audiences, who wanted him to translate his principles for victory on the gridiron to success in work and life. (His first business talk, Maraniss notes, was to a big American Management Association conference in New York City, and Lombardi “considered it a seminal moment in his emergence as a public figure known for more than winning football games.”)

In what became a recurring message to corporate America, he set out seven principles of competition and leadership, most of which you’d expect from the greatest football coach of all time. But his most important principle was also the most surprising: Love is more powerful than hate.

"The love I’m speaking of is loyalty, which is the greatest of loves,” Lombardi told his audiences. “Teamwork, the love that one man has for another and that he respects the dignity of another…I am not speaking of detraction. You show me a man who belittles another and I will show you a man who is not a leader…Heart power is the strength of your company.  Heart power is the strength of the Green Bay Packers. Heart power is the strength of America and hate power is the weakness of the world."

Business still has lots to learn from Vince Lombardi. Yes, the most successful organizations think differently from the competition—they build their strategies around a distinctive and disruptive set of ideas. But the most successful companies also care more than the competition—about customers, about colleagues, about how the entire organization conducts itself in a word with endless opportunities to cut corners and compromise on values.

In his heartfelt book Love is the Killer App (published several years ago, cleverly enough, on Valentine’s Day), Tim Sanders, then chief solutions officer at Yahoo, makes the case that as economic conditions get more turbulent, and corporate rivalries get more fierce, positive emotions get to be a defining element of success. “As the world becomes more competitive,” he writes, “we also compete for people’s emotions…It’s not completely important what people think about you—it is, however, totally important how they feel about you. People are hungry for compassion. And the tougher the times are, the more important it becomes.”

Here’s my message in a nutshell: As important as it is for companies and leaders to develop a clear value proposition, it’s even more important to present an authentic values proposition—an emotional and psychological connection that establishes you in the hearts and minds of your customers. Sustaining performance is as much about cultivating a spirit of grassroots energy, enthusiasm, and engagement as unleashing a set of game-changing ideas. Companies built around strong opinions are at their best when rank-and-file colleagues share and express strong emotions.

And if that message of love seems a little “soft” for these no-nonsense times, think about those football players who where in tears on Saturday night—and were then hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl champions on Sunday night.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

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February 3rd, 2012

Eli Manning, Leadership Giant

I live in Boston, but I was raised as a New York Giants fan and have remained True Blue for half a century. So what a thrill when the Washington Post asked me to write about the leadership qualities of Eli Manning.

It's all in good fun, of course, and I hope my neighbors and Pats fans in general don't get too upset. But when it comes to leadership, Eli is a real Giant. You can read the piece here. Go Blue!!!!

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