Monday, August 20, 2018

Complexity is a Crude State, Simplicity Marks the End of a Process of Refinement

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

This one’s like gravity – not just a good idea, it’s the law

It’s my privilege to help leaders develop strategies for complex organizations.

A recurrent refrain is ‘our business strategy is too complicated to explain simply.’ If so, do we really understand our strategy?

Don’t want to be misunderstood. I am all for deep dives into complexity armed with the latest analytical methods.

Doing so helps us understand our key gaps with respect to technology, customer experience, capability, culture and management systems.

With one proviso: we come out of the deep dive with 1) a clear purpose/destination, and 2) clear logic as to how we’re going to get there.

By clear logic, I mean something like: ‘To achieve our aspiration, the following things have to be true: 1) ..., 2) ..., 3) …..’

(Here’s another caveat: if our business strategy is truly too complicated to explain simply, maybe we’re too big… But that’s another blog.)

Simplicity reflects refinement in many other endeavors besides strategy. The great masters in art and music tend to refine, condense, concentrate, and consolidate as they develop.

Picasso famously evoked the figure of a massive bull with a single line. Count Basie’s piano solos are famous for their brevity, often no more than a few notes.

Ditto B.B. King, whose blues guitar solos are so ‘simple’ that ‘anybody’ can play them. (Guitarists can attest to how hard it is to play so ‘simply.)

Why then do we like complexity in strategy?

To a great degree, that’s how we’ve been trained. Business schools love complex analytical tools and equally complex case studies. You can fill a semester nicely thereby.

And students, usually perfectionist & driven (like yours truly), gobble them up. “I know something now!”

As I said, that’s all fine, provided we come out the other side with clarity & simplicity.

Another reason is that complexity in strategy can reduce accountability, and therefore individual risk. It’s hard to be wrong if nobody understands what you’re proposing.

There is no objective test. By contrast, defining a clear Purpose, and the logic as to how we’ll get there is testable, and therefore puts you on the spot.

Therein lies another important misunderstanding. We’ve been taught, wrongly, that the purpose of strategy is to be ‘right’.

And that’s wrong – and the topic of our next blog.

Best regards,


Monday, August 6, 2018

The Function of Leaders is to Produce More Leaders

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

In an era of breath-taking innovation, is there anything more important?

The ‘Essential Eight Technologies’ – Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Drones, 3-D Printing, Big Data Analytics, and Distributed Ledger Technology (‘Blockchain’) – make disruption almost inevitable.

Prosperity, and in some industries, survival, depends on an organization’s ability to continuously solve complex problems.

And that entails leadership at each level. The internet, our era’s central metaphor, is in my view, an appropriate model of the successful organization.

There is no ‘center’ directing the actions of the myriad nodes. Instead, there is intelligence everywhere solving the relevant problems.

To be sure, Strategy development and deployment, remain core responsibilities of senior leaders. The core questions have to be answered:

Where are we going? How do we get there? What’s preventing us? And the deeper questions: Who are we? What do we believe in?

What is the purpose of the Human Resources function?
  1. To grow more leaders
  2. To create flexible, capable team members always looking for a better way
Let me suggest that core HR processes – Recruitment, Training & Development, Compensation, Performance and Succession Planning – must evolve accordingly. And so must corresponding methods.

It has to be easy, for example, to measure capability, so we can answer the core problem solving questions: What should be happening? What is actually happening?

A big challenge, given the secondary role HR plays in many organizations!

Deepening & extending the mindset of senior leaders is another big challenge. Most have grown up in a very different world, where developing more leaders was rarely recognized or rewarded.

Much of our LPI practice entails coaching senior leaders. The very best are those who have internalized these ideas. A salient quote: “My job is to develop capability – of people, processes and machinery.”

So what to do? A good start would be to explicitly include ‘Growing Other Leaders’ in performance contracts, and succession planning. (If I may suggest, providing capable coaches also makes sense.)

At our old Toyota plant, if you hadn’t ‘left a footprint’, promotion was out of the question. And so, we focused on creating capability – of people, processes and machinery. It’s how you got promoted.

Toyota’s superb internal senseis helped immeasurably. As did Toyota’s HR processes and policies. It was easy, for example, to measure capability of people, processes and machinery.

Thus, we could apply the Plan-Do-Check-Adjust cycle and practice root cause problem solving. We could run experiments and learn what worked and what did not.

Building the capability of people, interestingly, is not that different from building process capability.

All for now. More to come on this juicy topic.

Best regards,


Monday, July 23, 2018

Value in an Age of Endless Innovation

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

Enterprise, in all its glorious variety, cacophony & unpredictability begins and ends with value.

We seek to create products, services, experiences…that elevates our fellow human beings, that make their lives easier or more enjoyable, that reduce hassle and free up their time & energy.

Otherwise, why bother? We are human to the degree we are connected, and Value is an excellent measure of connectivity, no?

In John Donne’s timeless words:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…

So what is Value? You all know the standard definitions:

  1. What the customer is willing to pay for
  2. Quality/Cost

I’m partial to Kano’s model.

I grew up professionally at Toyota manufacturing at the superb TMMC site in Cambridge Ontario. Value was our guiding light, our North Star.

Value was expressed in Toyota’s famous logo, the intertwined ovals representing:

  • Something for the customer
  • Something for the team member
  • Something for the company

Moreover, we further translated Value into our four strategic focus areas: People, Quality, Delivery and Cost. To be sure, our targets changed year by year, as we changed models and customer desires changed. Nonetheless, Value was more or less constant.

Fast forward a couple of decades to 2018. Today Value is an endlessly moving target. Digital is indeed eating the world, and neither we, nor our customers can always define Value.

Indeed, in industries like Banking and Insurance, we can say with some confidence that there’s a good chance we do not understand value.

What to do?

For a start, let’s recognize that Value is no longer a fixed star, but a constantly moving & evolving entity.

Secondly, let’s accept that we have to iterate ourselves to value through continuous experimentation.

Thirdly, let’s commit to radical collaboration, across silos, and partnering with customers & stakeholders.

Lastly, let’s recognize the qualities that will help us untangle the Gordian Knot: humility, openness, humor and a big-picture consciousness.

It all adds up to a bracing challenge and new way of working.

Best regards,


Monday, July 9, 2018

Soccer Ethics

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

A fish rots from the head – Sicilian proverb

While Nelson Mandela was reading, reflecting and seeking to understand his Robben Island jailors (making lasting friends and supporters in the process), Jacob Zuma was playing soccer.

You know the rest of the story. Mandela grew into one of the 20th century’s great heroes and senseis, the father of modern South Africa, the rainbow nation, widely beloved and respected round the world.

Jacob Zuma, by contrast, has brought South Africa to ruin and disgrace, selling it to the sordid Gupta family for thirty pieces of silver.

My South African friends say that Zuma practices ‘soccer ethics’ – lie, cheat, steal and get away with whatever you can. Soccer ethics dissolves standards – there is no right and wrong. There is only, ‘what can I get away with’.

We see soccer ethics on display in this year’s World Cup, no? Neymar, Brazil’s star, and his ilk are cheaters, are they not? They fake injuries brazenly with the hope of drawing unjustified fouls.

[I hope my Brazilian friends and colleagues will forgive me for singling out Neymar. He is simply the most obvious example, and certainly not alone.]

Video replays are exposing the cheaters, and the world is heaping derision on them.

Soccer ethics creates a peculiar mindset: I have no responsibility to anybody but myself. The cheaters’ worst excesses are deserving of a Yellow or Red card – a penalty that would seriously damage their team’s chances.

Moreover, their behavior brings dishonor to their sport. Does they reflect on this? Does it at all hinder their conduct?

A fish rots from the head. Let me suggest, the cheaters on the pitch reflect the cheaters in FIFA management. Sepp Blatter, disgraced former FIFA-head, has more in common with Tony Soprano than he does with Nelson Mandela.

And like Jacob Zuma, Blatter thinks he has done nothing wrong.

I can’t help contrast soccer ethics with ethical codes in say, golf or rugby. [Football can Learn Lessons from Rugby] [Ten Golf lessons for your Company]

Of course, golfers and rugby players sometimes violate the standards, drawing quick & decisive countermeasures from each sport’s ruling body. And censure from fans, other players and often one’s self.

Phil Mickelson is still apologizing for hitting a moving ball on the putting surface in this year’s US Open.

Soccer ethics shame the beautiful game. How do such standards evolve? That’s a blog for another time.

But the leadership lessons are clear: What you do is what you get – so do the right thing.

Who do you want to emulate - Nelson Mandela or Jacob Zuma?

Best regards,