The Art of Change: The Path To Perfect

Towards the end of last year I wrote a series of pieces on the practical steps companies can take to unlock the economic value of their creativity. A process I called the Art of Change.

The Art of Change, I believe, is the series of steps by which a company transforms itself from what made it successful into what will.

Today, I want to place those steps into broader context and see what you think about a piece of thinking I’m developing.

The greatest challenge we face when building a business is to create an organizational model that possesses a limitless ability to re-imagine the future, and a tireless capacity to make that future come true. This ability separates the fashionable from the formidable. The temporary from the timeless. 

It is a challenge that most creative companies fail. 

Which has created an industry largely divided between a small set of very large, old businesses, struggling to re-define and restructure themselves - at enormous cost to employees, clients, suppliers and shareholders alike. 

And a large set of small, fragile ones. Those who are essentially doing what they have always done. And for whom the world has not yet made that irrelevant.

This is not an industry model designed to create long term value. The choice being to invest in the big and slow. Or the small and frail. 

Better by far, would be an industry in which the ability to see a different future and then to turn that into the practical was not just what it sold its clients but how it ran its businesses. 

Which would produce fluid companies of all sizes and shapes. The long term value of which would depend on their owners’ appetites for growth. Not their reactive willingness to sell the same services for less, or accept lousy business terms as a fundamental business strategy.

There are many reasons for the inability of creative companies to unlock the power of their own talents when it comes to building more agile, fluid businesses. But most significant among them is that they set the bar too high when it comes to turning theory into reality.

This, I have come to realize, is because they ignore a foundational discipline on which, as humans, we base our personal evolution.


As children, we fill pages of exercise books with practice signatures long before we unveil our personal mark on the world.

When we take up a musical instrument, try out for a new sport, get a part in the school play, prepare for exams or learn to drive, we practice. In some cases we practice how our breathing affects our performance. Which means that essentially we're practicing living. 

We practice because we understand that there is risk in new things and we want to limit the damage - to our ego or to our safety - until we are confident we can produce a minimum standard. Or decide that this is an endeavor worth pursuing.

This openness to trial and refinement is embedded into the public presentation of most forms of creative expression. We expect the orchestra to rehearse. The writer to edit. The painter and sculptor and photographer to curate. The director to try it multiple ways but show us the best one. 

This is true of software development and product development, which design practice into the cycles by which new offerings are brought to market. For what is prototyping but trial, error, refinement and retrial? Practice by another name.

And this is true in professional sports. The pitcher who throws a new pitch for the first time on a full count with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, is not likely to be making his living in baseball for long. And in American Football, the Hail Mary is in fact practiced desperation.

But when it comes to building a creative business, we seem to be guided by a rule that says there can be no preparation. There can be no trial. We do what we've always done. Or we do something different. Tomorrow.

An all or nothing strategy that creates a threshold for change which is too high for all but the most desperate, or the most risk taking, or the most wealthy. And a start date that it always too soon.

And so faced by a choice between the status quo and the unknown, most creative companies choose neither. Until the status quo looks like Lakeshore Drive last Wednesday morning, and the unknown is no longer a careful journey along side streets, but a white-out blizzard in 60 mph winds.

For creative businesses, the Art of Change is unlocked when you build an organizational model that perfectly delivers what your clients expect today, while you practice tomorrow.

A model that allows you to explore new possibilities and practice new skills off to the side, out of sight of the public eye, until you're confident they should be brought into the open. Or discarded without regret. 

A model that reduces risk and increases confidence, and allows change to be fluid and evolutionary. One that shows progress only through time-lapse photography because the degree of difference between what you did yesterday and what you did today is almost imperceptible to the naked eye. But over time turns a seed into a flower, and dirt into a garden.

I’m curious whether this idea of embedding practice into your business resonates with you? And how you think it can be best applied? Feel free to post as comments here. Or via email if you’d rather practice your public discourse privately first.

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll share some of your observations and add my own insights about where I’ve seen practice work, and where it does not.

How To Rule The World

Around 5pm EST this coming Sunday, Germany will win the World Cup. 

It will happen because six years ago, having been unceremoniously dumped out of the European Championships - during which the team failed to win a single game - the German football authorities decided to rebuild.

The did not undertake this mission lightly. They didn’t embark on a conversation-heavy, action-light series of meetings and investigations. 

They hired a man and asked him for a plan.

Fortunately for them, and for the rest of us waiting for our respective countries to demonstrate there is a reason beyond passport issuance to believe that next time will be our time, they hired a man capable of giving them a plan.

They hired a man called Jurgen Klinsmann. 

Klinsmann had won the World Cup with Germany. He had played at the highest domestic levels of German, Italian, French and English football. He had moved to California, thereby removing himself from the day-to-day petty politics of European football and ensuring he retained objectivity.

Klinsmann did three things that are a model for anyone re-building a business.

One. He solicited opinions. From players and managers alike. Everyone who would have some influence over how his German players would play. Then he empowered them to make a contribution.

Two. He defined the characteristics of how his Germany would play. Characteristics that were based on well-established German traits. Being dynamic. Aggressive. And decisive. Traits that Klinsmann readily admits were the cause of two World Wars. But which he believed could be better Purposed on the football pitch.

Three. He built an organization capable of surviving his departure, in the knowledge that the emotional effort required to build the foundations would quickly create friction between him and the German Board.

It was not an easy transition. Early results were poor. And he almost lost his job after 18 months. Only a decisive win over the U.S. in 2006 keeping him in place for the World Cup that year.

His team came third. And was celebrated throughout Germany. Then Kilinsmann resigned and handed over the model to his young assistant, Joachim Loew.

Two years later, Germany were runners up in the European Championship.

This afternoon, they play in their second consecutive World Cup semi final. 

It is a case study in organizational re-structuring.

Vision. Execution. Evolution.

And built, not around an irreplaceable individual or a single skill. 

But around a Purpose and a set of timeless characteristics.

Klinsmann’s work has changed the face of world football. Created a template that others will follow. And will bring hundreds of millions of Euros worth of value to the German economy.

As an Englishman, praising German anything is hard.

But between now and Sunday evening I'll be doing something for the first time in my life.

Hoping for a German victory. 

Change indeed.

The Path of Least Resistance

I had dinner with my friend Jerry Solomon last night. We stopped by a party that mourned the end of an iconic New York advertising agency, Cliff Freeman and Partners.  And then went to dinner at a restaurant Jerry’s sister the Gotham Gal recommended on her blog. Breslin.

Cliff Freeman was known, among other things, for Where’s the Beef. Though I don’t think I ever consciously decided to eat at Wendy’s because of Clara Peller.

The Gotham Gal’s blog, however, has become a trusted source. Except for the wait, Breslin delivered as promised. A testament to the power of earned versus bought media.

During dinner we talked about why companies like Cliff Freeman fail. Companies that for years appear successful and often aspirational. Companies that know they need to change and talk passionately about change even as they do nothing to change.

In every company we work with, the reasons some successfully evolve and some don’t are many and varied.

The ones that do have four things in common:

  1. A conviction that change is necessary

  2. A willingness by the owners and senior managers to see themselves differently

  3. A vision for what they want the company to become

  4. A means to get from today to tomorrow through a process

They do not look for the path of least resistance.

Because, as Jerry observed last night, the path of least resistance is not, in fact, a path.

It’s a self-deception.

Designed to offer the illusion of progress.

While keeping you firmly in the same place.

Never Again

In our travels we come across two kinds of people. The optimist. And the pessimist.

The pessimists are more certain about their perspective. An ironic display of confidence.

I used to believe there was merit to either view.

I used to believe some things can be done. And some things can’t.

I used to believe.

I was wrong.

Evidence comes in small ways. And proof takes time. But it is all around us.

In 1961, JFK challenged us to go the moon. A challenge of epic proportions. We went six times. The last was 38 years ago. If you watch the clip, you’ll hear Kennedy reference another achievement that took place 35 years earlier.  Listen. You won't believe it.

In 2002, Minority Report showed us a new way to manipulate images. A way that every one of us talked about afterwards. Today, a 2 year old throws any toy to the floor that doesn’t work that way.

In 2007, Apple invented the iPhone. Today, it unlocks my car, remotely controls my computer, finds my dog. It does 100,000 things beside. And we’re hoping the Droid finally gets it right.

Last year those that defended the publishing industry said it would survive because some people wanted to be able to hold what they read, not look at it on a screen.

This weekend, Chris showed me this on the web. 

The drawback? They’re a couple of months away.

And finally, last week a client sent me a link to a video. This morning, my friend Dennis Ryan blogged about it. Which made me finally watch it.

Watch the video. Any part of it. As Dennis says, do so in HD. And then tell me there is anything that is not possible.


It’s not possible?

Never again.

Why We Don't Get Hired

There is one group of people that never hire us.

Those looking for the silver bullet.

I meet one or two every month. People who hear about us from clients, or come across our website. They call and ask how soon we can have a conversation. When can we meet. How does it work. When can we start.

It normally takes thirty minutes to discover that what they're looking for is an instant remedy to problems that have been built in to their business since they began. A vision that was too narrow. A perspective that was too short-term. A strategy that was too reactive. A failure to understand what they were really selling. A passion for being essential to their business.

These situations have three things in common.

  1. All companies face some of them. And some companies face all of them.

  2. There are answers to each of them. Most of which take less than a month to define.

  3. The solutions come through exploration and understanding. Not from the business equivalent of a pill.


What I Learned From Jon Miller

I’ve been in LA for a week, working with our remarkable associate Jamie Gutfreund. We’ve met a lot of people and created a lot of work. Powerful signs of optimism in an environment that will be difficult until well into 2010, and evidence of why entrepreneurs are such drivers of the economy.

We’ve met with business owners, venture capitalists, professional service providers, lenders, and corporate leaders.

The best known of these was Jonathan Miller, the CEO of Digital Media for News Corp which owns Fox, Sky, the Wall Street Journal and MySpace, among others.

Jon talked about the explosion of mobile web access. In China, 350 million people will be on the web in two years. More than the entire population of the U.S. Most will access it exclusively through a mobile device.

As he said, it’s not the next big thing. It’s the big thing.

He talked about the difference between My Space and Facebook, and thinks the reason the former is struggling and the latter exploding is that MySpace was built for the short term, and Facebook for the long haul.

And he talked about Rupert Murdoch’s relentless energy to figure out what’s next. Of everything he discussed, this struck me as the most enduring.

Entrepreneurs big and small share Mr Murdoch’s limitless curiosity.

The thing that separates the successes from the failures is not money or hard-work.

It’s a plan that makes every action meaningful.

Not successful. Because even the best business owners only get it right slightly more than half the time.

But until you know what you’re trying to achieve, there’s no way to measure whether you are.