Talkback: Visionary, manager – or design thinker?


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So, the world has turned upside down as we see Microsoft unveiling the kind of beautiful and innovative product we’re used to see from Apple, while the Cupertino team rolls out incremental improvements (?) and years overdue also-ran products in the vein of classic Microsoft.

There’s a lot of debate at the product level, e.g. is this or that really better or not – but for a fuller and, arguably, more useful understanding of these goings-on, I would direct your attention to this article by Steve Blank, entitled “Why Tim Cook is Steve Ballmer” (the piece originally ran on Blank’s blog).

Blank details how Microsoft under Ballmer managed to miss the boat over and over – search, mobile, media, cloud. 

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He describes how his kind of CEO, the manager, the executor, the salesman, often follows the innovative leader, and how this tends to boost the short-term numbers at the cost of innovation and long-term business models. Hence the title of the piece: Cook is Apple’s Ballmer, albeit a soft-spoken version. The problem, as rightly laid out in the article, is that these CEOs are either visionaries – Jobs, Gates, Musk, Disney – or executive managers, the Ballmer/Cook-type, whose expertise lies in doubling down on current business (and doing well at it) at the expense of any long-term thinking. Nothing in between. Hence, value is lost, and the future of the company is jeopardized, even as the short-term numbers look great.

Blank concludes in a few harsh “lessons learned” but stops short of proposing a solution, so allow me to offer one: Design Thinking. I’m serious – the DT approach was specifically created for the purpose of identifying this kind of value and clarifying it, in order to be able to consistently create more of it, as explained by IDEO CEO Tim Brown in this video. Notice in particular his references to Design Thinking as a greater-scope view – a mindset of looking beyond the short term, and of thinking big. 

So how would that work in this case? Well, it might go something like this:

There’s often a tendency, when talking about leaders like Jobs, to sort-of imply and accept that he’s just, you know, right. It’s talent. Insight. Or, if you don’t like him, irrational fandom. Point being, it just kinda happens, and we’re lucky to be along for the ride. 

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This is not the case. First off, as many have pointed out, Apple didn’t invent most of the things it succeeded with, and weren’t first with basically any of them. Secondly, if you pay attention to the kind of reasoning Jobs would espouse and/or engender, and look around, you’ll realize his insights and agendas didn’t descend into him from on high – a lot of people were (and still are) knowledgeable and insightful about the very same things. 

The first step towards harnessing this potential is to dispassionately find out what the value creation really is. Thinking like scientists – because, like scientists, replicability is important to us – we search for corroboration, and indeed contradictions, go outside the mainstream to avoid interest bias etc., and home in on a productive understanding of it. This is something we can do whether we currently have one of those innovative CEOs or not – because it’s always possible for us to look closer at what we’re doing, and we can also still research these matters in, and outside of, our sector. 

Then, with a clearer understanding, we can turn around and compare: – could we be even better at what we’re good at? Are there adjacent value propositions we should care about? Can we spot holes or weaknesses, now that we’ve gotten the bias of passion and ego out of the way? Are there directions things might go in – or that we’d like to push them in? We can also look at what roles the various parts of our company play in this value chain, which in turn makes us able to perform another round of clarification: Do those people know these roles? – can the roles be clearer? – can we do it better? etc.

Crucially, this is not an academic exercise. All the finding-out takes place within the everyday reality of the business, and any consequential theories or ideas are tested and validated (or invalidated) against the actual reality – infrastructure, culture, employees, customers etc. All findings are intended to inform decisions which can be implemented, and the process can start all over again.

Also of note: The actual, practical way this happens has to be tailored to your specific situation – the work simply has to be in context. There is no “one size fits all” shortcut, and trying to apply an un-adapted approach or template can produce some wildly misleading results. 

As Blank writes, visionary CEOs are “product and business model centric and extremely customer focused” – those qualities don’t have to reside within one person in the company organisation, to be lost if he leaves or dies. It’s possible to make them an integrated part of the company culture, as an explicit strategic endeavor – and that’s what Design Thinking is for.

Hopefully you watched the video I linked to up there. You can find out a bit more about the mindset of Design Thinking here, and here. Don’t be confused by the term – what we’re talking about here is being visionary, being innovative, as a matter of course. What we’re talking about is deciding that “this is how we roll around here”, rather than simply hoping the right CEO just happens to come along.