My colleague Ben Gilad posted a terrific essay on the shortcomings of “data-driven” decision-making.

I love data. I spent 15 years playing with the PIMS database alongside luminaries such as Michael Porter, Sidney Schoeffler, Robert Buzzell, and more. Many years later, I can run a few hundred million simulations before breakfast and tell you what they mean before the coffee’s temperature drops to 80 degrees F. I told you, I love data.

But data isn’t learning, and learning isn’t just about the amount of data. Is one data point enough for learning? How about a trillion?

When smart people fail, their failures are often (not always) because what they think they know is wrong. There’s often a deeper failure, a failure of knowledge, learning, and framing, rather than a failure of execution or data.

To see why, let’s look at rats.1

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If you were to see a newspaper headline such as “Breathing Jumps in Beijing, Even with Pollution,” you’d think it awfully odd. After all, Beijing’s population is rising, and everyone breathes as long as they can. More people, more breathing. Pollution doesn’t diminish breathing’s popularity.

You’d be right that such a headline would be odd, even if the headline appeared in one of the world’s great newspapers; say, the New York Times. Yet exactly that oddity appeared, in the Times, when 2015 was still crisp and new: “2014 Auto Sales Jump in U.S., Even With Recalls.”

Don’t worry. This essay isn’t about illogic in journalism. It’s about illogic that pollutes business, too. It’s about a dragon I thought I slew not long ago in Success Is In a Word. (Another headline: “World Doesn’t Heed Indignant Strategist.”)

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Have you seen the recent commercial by Weight Watchers, dubbed My Butt? It’s a beauty. I admit, when I read about it in the USA Today article “Weight Watchers: Butts are in for 2015”, I was male-curious. Sorry, evolution gave my brain an instinctive admiration for the female derriere. But when you watch the ad and read about the strategy behind it, you realize there is much more than meets the eye behind the behinds.

The story of how Weight Watchers came about to run the ad featuring female butts through a woman’s life is instructive of how strategy changes take effect in real life. Weight Watchers was founded on the premise that people who want to diet will find a structured program both convenient and supportive and will therefore be less price-sensitive. That has been true for many years as WW became a successful giant. On the way it used celebrities as the face of diet. That marketing mindset comes naturally to consumer-oriented companies in this field. Nutrisystem did the same with Marie Osmond, and who among baby boomers doesn’t remember Jenny Craig’s Valerie Bertinelli with great fondness?

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“Modular economy”? What, the economy now comes in easy-to-assemble pieces from Ikea?

Yes, except for the Ikea part. And it makes a difference in strategy for everyone from entrepreneurs to investors to competitors.

There was a time when vertical integration was in vogue. Ford, for example, could transform raw materials out of the ground into finished vehicles at its gargantuan (1½ square miles!) River Rouge Complex.1 Vertical integration is attractive because you control everything and it’s hard for competitors to duplicate. The downside is that it can be hugely expensive, difficult to modify or update, and hard to manage. Ford found it so. Other than a 3,000-place parking lot for a nearby Ford facility, the old Rouge was gone as of 2008.

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Behind every strategy there is competition for something: votes, power, profit, fame, etc.

Behind every strategy there is also a rationale, a reason why someone thinks it will work better than the alternatives.

People succeed (and fail) with wildly different strategies. But some strategies go further. They don’t make you think wow, that’s out of the box. They make you think yikes, you’re out of your mind.

Here is our end-of-year, politically incorrect review of absurd strategies. Remember: you don’t have to agree with us. We don’t even agree with each other, except maybe on a couple.

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USA Today, MotorWeek, Cars.com, and an actual family tested and ranked family-sized, moderately priced sedans. The resulting article, originally published with the suspense-ruining headline “Winner is Hyundai Sonata Sport,” compared the Hyundai Sonata (who knew?), Chevrolet Malibu, Chrysler 200, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Mazda 6, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry, and Volkswagen Passat.

I rate the results merely semi-interesting. The real story, though, is not about the cars. The real story is about the manufacturers and consumers. So here is what I learned from that riveting story investigating back-seat space and “giant grilles,” among other things of cosmic significance.

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No one adopts a strategy expecting it to fail, yet strategies fail. That doesn’t happen on purpose but it also doesn’t happen by accident.

Christele Canard, founder of Switched On Leadership, interviewed Competing.com co-founder Mark Chussil for the cover-story subject why strategies fail. You can read and download their wide-ranging discussion here.

Christele and Mark talk about:

  • Why smart strategists believe their strategy will work and what happens when they find out in business war games that it won’t.
  • What happened when Mark built a strategy decision test technology (patent pending) and his own strategies didn’t work so well. (Hint: first, he looked for a bug in the software. There was no bug.)
  • Why people are so comfortable thinking inside the box and what it takes to get them to go outside.
  • What’s wrong with “I did this and the result was that” reasoning.
  • How people can expand their strategic thinking with a simple question.
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