The Fastest Companies

Greetings. As a strategy and innovation consultant, I always look forward to Fast Company’s annual issue on “The World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies.” It is a quick read and a great chance to be inspired by some of the most creative and disruptive businesses and organizations on the planet. And I would think that it should be required reading for all of us as we try to keep up in our super-fast changing economy.

Fast Company 2016

This year’s issue shows just how diverse and remarkable the practice of innovation has become as new technology companies like Buzzfeed, Airbnb, Uber, Spotify, Robinhood and others continue to re-imagine existing industries while more traditional companies like CVS Health, Universal Studios, GE, and even Taco Bell reinvent themselves in ways that bring greater value to their customers. In the case of 53-year-old CVS, a company that gained a lot of very positive publicity when it decided to stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products, it is not-so-quietly morphing from a huge ($153 billion in annual revenues) drugstore chain into a one-stop retail healthcare business with its Minute Clinics, optical and hearing exams, a new focus on wellness offerings, and a new “predictive medicine” partnership with IBM.

Buzzfeed, this year’s top innovator is continuing to transform the media landscape of video, news and information, and advertising through its culture of constant learning and embracing change, a sharp focus on data-driven metrics, and a deep understanding of what made companies like Paramount Pictures and CNN connect with audiences in the past.

I often talk about the power of learning from strangers and getting outside our offices and our comfort zones to discover new insights and new business models. And while the physical and psychological act of getting up and out is a powerful part of what it takes to stretch our thinking, a quick or slow read of this issue is bound to inspire anyone with a commitment to being faster in a world that demands that we pick up the pace.

We win in business and in life when we pay attention to brilliance all around us, and when we recognize the need for speed.

Cheers!

Notes From Malaysia

Greetings. Back from Malaysia just in time for the latest big DC snowstorm. Quite a contrast with the nearly consistent 92 degree temperatures for eleven straight days in Kuala Lumpur. And just like the weather, I went on my first visit to “KL” with a sense that many things would be very different from home only to discover a lot of very interesting similarities. I guess this shouldn’t be a big surprise. After all, people are people and we have a lot more in common with the residents of a Muslim and developing country halfway around the world than most of us ever choose to imagine.

So here are a few impressions from my trip to Malaysia with more ideas (and hopefully a few insights) to follow. And given that I am a geographer by training, I will begin with an old map to give you a bit of context for its location in southeast Asia…

Malaysia Map

KL is a very modern and fast-growing city which means that the roads are great but the traffic is crazy. To give you a sense of the pace of growth, think about this… In 2010 the city had a population of about 4.5 million people. Today the number is roughly 7.5 million. And the projection for 2020 is over 10.0 million. And it seems everyone (or practically everyone) in KL has a car or a motorcycle that they drive really quickly on increasingly congested roads. Their cars of choice are Protons and Peroduas, especially the nearly ubiquitous and modestly adorable Myvi, which are manufactured in Malaysia and not subject to the high taxes imposed on imported vehicles. Not that there aren’t a lot of Toyotas, Hondas, VWs, Audis, Mercedes, BMWs, minivans, and occasional Bentleys and Ferraris on the road, but local cars are everywhere. And for those of us who think that traffic in Washington, L.A., New York, Chicago, or San Francisco is impossible, KL’s complex network of highways, toll roads, and daring motorcyclists all driving on the wrong side of the road is a sight to behold.

Malaysia Myvi 3

Walking is not the most popular way to get around even though it is typically much faster than being in a car. Granted, it is very hot and humid in KL and the weather can change from sunny to pouring rain in a matter of moments. But almost every time I asked someone for walking directions I was quickly asked if I “really wanted to walk there.” “Oh, I think it’s only about a mile away” I would reply. “Exactly. Wouldn’t you prefer to take a taxi?” And when I asked the concierge at my hotel for the best walking directions to the National Museum (a distance of about four miles), he shared that he had never known anyone who had walked there citing the distance, heat, and the danger of crossing several major roads in a place where pedestrians don’t exactly have the right of way. It is also interesting to note that people in KL seem to walk very slowly.

There are about a zillion shopping malls in KL and almost everyone loves going to them. Okay, there aren’t really a “zillion” shopping malls, but there are more shopping malls in KL than any other place I have visited and they are very popular. And they even include pyramids and concert halls. I’m not sure if most of the locals actually go to the malls to buy things, given that the nicest ones are filled with very expensive designer stores, but they certainly enjoy the experience of looking in all of the stores, being in air conditioning, and walking slowly.

The food in Malaysia is absolutely delicious…assuming you enjoy Asian food. Malaysia, and KL in particular, is a real melting pot of many cultures with the three biggest groups being Malay, Chinese, and Indian. As a result it is easy to find great Malaysian, Chinese, and Indian food along with some delightful fusions among them. My favorite dish, recommended by many of the locals, was fish head curry…an addictive blend of fish heads, eggplant, okra, peppers, tamarind, laksa leaves, sugar, mint, and a bunch of other stuff that was awesome on blue rice. But I also enjoyed other wonderful coconut-based curries, chapatis filled with the most amazing cauliflower, spinach, cabbage, chickpeas, beans, and lentils, dim sum, Cantonese specialties, and lots of spicy and not-so spicy noodle dishes. And while I found the local food to be remarkable, I must also share that McDonald’s, Burger King, Starbuck’s, Subway, and especially KFC are super popular with Malaysians who seem to have a real passion for fast food and fried chicken.

Malaysia Fish Head Curry

People are really friendly. Not in a super outgoing way, but I consistently found that people in KL were courteous and eager to be helpful whenever I approached them. And most were quite curious about me, where I came from, and why I was there. Granted, I have almost always found that people are nice when we are nice to them. But that should be obvious to anyone who travels far from home. And while most people in Malaysia speak English, even folks who didn’t speak English were glad to help. On one of my many walks through the city I happened to get lost or should I say very lost…which is something that is difficult for a man, and especially a man trained as a geographer to admit. (If I have an excuse, or rather an explanation, it is that I kept discovering fascinating places that took me farther from my destination and my map). In any event, I found myself in a place that very few tourists have ever found themselves in only to be aided by a very kind shopkeeper who motioned me to his car in a crowded back alley and eagerly drove me several miles across town to my intended destination.

Malaysia Friendly

You can actually get a fish massage. You can also get a blind massage and a “super blind” massage. But I will have to try those on my next visit. Though my 15-minute foot massage, done in a pool filled with overly-enthusiastic fish, was definitely a unique and ticklish experience. I will spare you the pictures here as some readers might already be “grossed out” by the fish head curry, but feel free to email if you would like to see the video.

Malaysia Street Scene

I never cease to be amazed and inspired by the privilege of travel. And by the chance to see the similarities and differences in people who live around the corner and around the world. As I have come to understand more clearly all the time, our similarities are the glue that connects us and our differences are the raw materials that allow us to stretch, grow, and innovate together.

Cheers!

To a New Year of Curiosity and Growth

Greetings. While it is hard to believe that 2016 is already here, the start of the New Year provides a great opportunity to reconnect with all of our friends, colleagues, customers, business partners, and blog readers, and to thank you for being part of the life of our company in 2015.

It also seems like the perfect time to start a new conversation about the importance, or rather the “necessity,” of curiosity in the year ahead—a year that will be filled with remarkable possibilities if we are willing to stretch our thinking about the best ways to innovate and grow our businesses and organizations. Always remember that curiosity is a gift you were born with and it is your most useful tool in making great things happen! And while it might take a bit of practice to retrain your curious self, it is a lot easier than you think.

Curiosity-Quotes-30

In a world in which new ideas and business models are quickly changing almost all of our industries, we will all need to step out of our comfort zones in order to re-imagine how we can deliver even greater value to the customers, employees, and shareholders we have the privilege to serve. And the best ways to do this are by being humble about what we know and don’t know, paying closer attention to the world around us, asking our share of thoughtful questions, and being more open to connecting with and learning from people with very different ideas, insights, and points of view.

So here’s hoping that you and your colleagues will take the time to explore and connect with even more new people, new ideas, and new opportunities in 2016. And if you could use a little help, or simply a few words of encouragement, please don’t hesitate to give me a call or send me a quick note. In the meantime, I will try to be even more diligent about sharing ideas and insights from around the corner and across the globe that you can use to spark your best thinking yet.

But, most importantly, great thanks again to all of you who have shared your genius and taught me so much during the past twelve months.

Keep those cards, letters, calls, and emails coming, and best wishes for your most curious and successful year yet!

Cheers!

The Real Lesson of Thanksgiving

Greetings. Another Thanksgiving has arrived here in the U.S. and with it another chance to slow down for a day or a long weekend, take stock of the year that is winding to a close, and count our blessings. And as most of the leaves have fallen and the weather has turned quite a bit colder, we can almost imagine what it must have been like on that first Thanksgiving back in 1621. But most of us will have to do a bit of re-imagining, because the story that we were taught as kids is not exactly what happened when the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts almost 400 years ago. And the friendship that blossomed between the new immigrants and the native people they encountered upon their arrival was not quite as idyllic and enduring as we have been led to believe.

The First Thanksgiving

Yes, these strangers did end up sharing a meal to celebrate the Pilgrims’ first harvest. And their actual “celebration” seems to have lasted for not one but three days…during which time they ate deer, shellfish, corn, and other roasted meat. No, there wasn’t a turkey (or sweet potatoes covered with mini-marshmallows) to be found on their dining table, and it is not likely that members of the Wampanoag tribe were actually invited to break bread with the immigrants in the first place. More likely the locals, skilled in hunting, fishing, farming, and living in the place now known as New England after being there for over 12,000 years, came to the rescue of their new neighbors by sharing their knowledge of how to survive, hunt, fish, grow crops, live in harmony with the earth and sea, and even prosper…albeit with a significantly different definition of what it meant to be prosperous.

And we have a pretty clear idea that their definition of prospering would shortly fall victim to the cultures and ambitions of a growing number of Europeans who would come to call North America home.

While we can’t change this period in history, we can at least try to learn from this meeting of strangers by thinking about the lost possibilities of their encounter and all of the opportunities that most of us miss to connect with and learn from people who are very different than us. People who know different things than we know and whose ideas, insights, and perspectives might challenge us to think in new ways about our lives, workplaces, communities, and the world we share. But to do this, we will have to be more curious and open-minded about the world around us, more humble about our own knowledge and its limitations, more respectful of other people from all different places and walks of life, and more committed to working together to address a set of shared challenges and opportunities that really matter.

Needless to say, Americans (other than native peoples) trace our histories here to immigrants. Folks who came to this land by choice or by force, but who were determined to make a difference and to live lives of meaning. Folks who became part of the fabric of an America that, at its best, has always been open to new people and new possibilities.

During this Thanksgiving and holiday season, as we enjoy family, friends, food, and for some of us football, most of us will pause to count our many blessings. But how many of us will also pause to think about the world’s latest wave of immigrants and how open we are to having them arrive at our shores? And how many of us will pause to think about how similar they are to our own ancestors who fled wars, persecution, and a lack of opportunity?

New Immigrants

We win in business and in life when, with a bit of caution, we make our tent bigger. And when we realize that strangers are, with a very few exceptions, something to be thankful for.

Cheers!

Get Lost. Become Famous.

Greetings. We should all be as lucky as Christopher Columbus. First, Spain’s king and queen gave him three super awesome ships, a trained crew, a bunch of stuff that could be traded, and what he thought was a totally accurate map of how to get to India. Second, he got lost, landed in a far off land that he was given credit for discovering even though it had been inhabited for over 15,000 years. Third, he is so famous that he had a holiday, the capital of Ohio, and the world’s largest Catholic fraternal service organization named after him.

Columbus_Really_Discover_America_SF_still_624x352

Nailed it!!!

And while it might take a bit of skill and more than a bit of luck to replicate his accomplishments, there are a few basic lessons that we can all learn from Chris and his exploits…

A.  It is important to have a compelling story.

B.  It is essential to not be crushed by initial rejections.

C.  It helps to eventually find really rich investors.

D.  It is wise to view maps and GPS directions with some skepticism.

E.  We often make our greatest discoveries when we get lost.

F.  All of the above.

 

Columbus Map

(His actual map. Seems pretty straightforward to me.)

In fact, most great discoveries occur when we decide to take the road less traveled. Or when we simply get lost and have the wisdom and courage to pay attention to what we find.

And that is why Columbus Day is way more important than most of us imagine. Sure it’s a day off for some of us that recalls an interesting chapter in the history of the western hemisphere. But it is also a day to pause and think about our own potential to set out in search of what we already know and end up in a place we never envisioned filled with new ideas, insights, people, perspectives, and opportunities.

We win in business and in life when we set sail with an imperfect map and a very open mind.

Cheers!