Let’s commit a thoughtcrime

August 21st, 2009 by Patrick Stähler

In formulated strategy we use a lot of words like innovative, based on core competencies, market driven, customer centric, operational excellence, best-in-class, top quality, leveraging existing brand, etc…. You named it and of course business model and business model innovation are now part of these buzz words. Are they still meaningful or did we forget the deeper concepts behind the words? Do we use the technocratic jargon to signal others that we are the experts?

doublethink by duncan

As I have argued in my last post, I think we use in strategy and in management in general too many generic and meaningless words. And I think we use also too many meaningless graphs and pictures to say nothing as a matter of fact. Visualization does not help you if your strategy is bad. Sorry, Alex for this 😉 .

Every decent firm claims in restructuring that it is concentrating on its core competencies when divesting or closing parts of its firm. Well, and often it is the same firm that argued some time ago that it was necessary to buy this now divested firm since it wanted to offer full service to its customers. We have so many words for “Sorry, it did not work. We just could not make it work”. Why are we so afraid about the truth?

Management Newspeak

In management we have invented Newspeak. Original, Newspeak is a fictional language in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. The basic idea behind Newspeak is to remove all shades of meaning from language. While in Orwell’s novel the government tries to introduce Newspeak to the people in order to make the people more compliant to its will, in the case of management it is our own fault. We managers use our own Newspeak and we have taken all meaning out of it.

Newspeak is all about saying almost nothing with great sounding words. Every bank had its risk management system in place, used sophisticated mathematical simulations, had dozens of compliance officers, trusted well-paid analyst in their triple A ratings. And what was the result? They did not see that a mortgage given to somebody with inadequate income will always be a bad loan regardless how often you mix it with other subprime loans and regardless how much financial modeling you apply.

And I will hear now all my friends from investment banking that you can decrease the risk by pooling loans. Well, this pooling works well with uncorrelated loans but if they are all bad loans in the same market, well, then bad stays and bad regardless of how much you diversify.

For a great overview of financial Newspeak,  click here for a pdf file. It is “The [now defunct] Lehman Brothers Guide to Exotic Credit Derivatives”. You will learn everything about Credit Default Swaps (CDS), Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO) and their modeling. The basic ideas were great at the beginning but when the bankers believed that they could escape the laws of gravity the products turned into bombs to the world economy.

And this is typical for Newspeak, at the beginning the words had a meaning but when they became popular, the meaning was diluted and lost.

Please be politically incorrect in your firm!

In Nineteen Eighty-Four the government calls a thought that is against the common way of thinking a thoughtcrime. Thoughtcrimes are thoughts that are unorthodox and outside the dominant logic.

I want you to commit these thoughtcrimes in your firms. I want you to dig deeper when people use Newspeak. I want you to fight conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom might be shared by the masses but is not necessarily true. Use your own sense and reason.

So if somebody uses the term core competencies ask him what competence he really means, ask him what consumer benefits the competence provides, ask him why competitors cannot easily imitate the competency and ask him if the competency can be leveraged widely across many products and markets. If he can answer all these questions clearly, well than the competency is really a core competence that is valuable and that should be nurtured and protected.

Our world of business model innovation is also full of words that many of us use meaninglessly. Business model in itself is such a word. We argue in strategies that we offer a great value proposition to our customers. And, of course, we are so unique. But is that the reality? Are the customers well acquainted with our unique business model or is it a great strategy plan we want to execute or is it just fiction with no support from reality?

Be cruel to yourself, the market is much harder!

Get real! Do not mix marketing talk with strategy!

Please, do not mix marketing talk with strategy. Marketing can be about pretending. Strategy and business modeling is not about pretending or self-denial. Strategy must be clear in language and free of Newspeak. The best is not to use words that are prone to Newspeak. The best way of getting a great business model is to answer simple questions with honesty and modesty:

  • What job do you solve for your customers? What value or benefit do you offer to your customers? What excites your customers?
  • How do you create the benefit/ value/ excitement for your customers?
  • And how do you earn money with your business?

So the first question is about the value proposition (great example here), the second is the value architecture and the third is the revenue model. Simple! So simple is the definition of a business model. And below you find the business model canvas to describe your own business.

The business model canvas by Patrick Stähler

The business model canvas by Patrick Stähler

If you want to print the canvas, you find the pdf of the Business Model Canvas here.

And if you answer e.g. that your value proposition is to offer the best service in the industry, you have to be honest about your core competencies. Do they really support the best service? And don’t forget the culture. Do you have the right values and corporate culture to support the value proposition?

And please, do not claim that you are the lowest cost-provider with the best service. I won’t believe you unless you have a great value architecture to support that claim, but even then I would be skeptical because that would be a real disruptive business model innovation and they happen to happen rather seldom.

And please remember a great strategy is not something what looks great on a piece of paper. A great strategy what works in reality!

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/duncan/ / CC BY-NC 2.0)

3 Responses to “Let’s commit a thoughtcrime”

  1. Christian Says:

    Dear Patrick,

    I do agree with you that a lot of the language which is used in managerial context just serves the cause of being interesting and so much of an expert.
    The underlying topic to me is something that you state in the middle – it is about being honest within the organization and to the stakeholder (attention: newspeak!). I do believe that it is important to know what really is the case with a faulty business unit. I actually doubt that it is the best way to be totally honest to your investors for example. Even if it is morally correct, I believe that an investor will judge an honest CEO different from a NEWSPEAK-CEO. That leads to a dilemma of telling the truth or hiding it behind shiny phrases…
    Peter Guber wrote an interesting article concerning the honesty-topic in HBR (Dec. 2007) with the title ‘The Four Truths of the Storyteller’.
    Finally, I need to admit that you’re correct when you demand honesty and the careful use of these nice words. The backing of such honest behavior has to come from the board and the CEO and therefore from the investors. Perhaps no one tried to be honest and it is worth a try…
    Kind regards, Christian

  2. Patrick Stähler Says:

    @Christian
    Thanks for mentioning the article by Peter Guber. You raised an interesting question about truth and honesty in management. I think there are different layers of communication and of what you tell.
    For yourself, you should be honest to yourself and accept the the unvarnished truth about your business. That does not mean that you become a worrywart or pessimist. You just have to be frank.

    In the business plan you hand over to an investor you should show a realistic, but optimistic view of your venture and the risk included. The investor will “grill” you and your business plan sufficiently so that it is good that you prepared yourself with the first layer.

    The third layer is the communication with your customers. You focus on the value proposition, on the utility you provide. Here, you do not communicate what you cannot do or where your disadvantages are. You communicate the positive aspects.

    Best regards to Hamburg! Patrick

  3. Using the business model canvas is art. Here is how you use it | Business Model Innovation Says:

    […] write about best-in-class, social something, customer-centric. All empty words (See post on the horror of Newspeak). Start with precisely describing who your customers are. Do not write business customers but […]

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