Why Customer Gratitude Trumps Loyalty

Brands want loyal customers. They buy more, pay more, and refer more.  But research shows that loyalty is in decline. Consumers are considering more brands and switching providers more frequently than ever before.

So what can marketers do with their loyalty programs to earn greater trust, commitment and advocacy?  The answer isn’t more sweepstakes, coupons, points, promotions or emails.   It takes a rethinking of what loyalty really means in a digital age.

1. Loyalty needs to be reciprocal. Consumers today expect this allegiance to go in both directions. According to a study by Kitewheel, three-quarters of consumers believe loyalty programs are for brands to show their loyalty to consumers. But two-thirds of marketers think the reverse: that loyalty programs are a way for consumers to show their loyalty to brands.

You can see this disconnect in how brands talk about loyalty.  The phrases “brand loyalty” and “customer loyalty” often mean the same thing. What would the world look like if brands were loyal to their customers? Credit card companies would waive late fees for customers who were on vacation when the payment was due. Retailers would reward shoppers who don’t spend a lot, but are active on social media as brand advocates. Airlines and hotels would renew status levels for customers who took a hiatus from traveling when they had a baby or were between jobs.

2. Loyalty is about emotion first, behavior second. For most brands, the measure of brand loyalty is repeat purchase behavior. This metric puts the cart before the horse. Loyalty is powered by emotion; repeat purchases are the result.

The increasing popularity of promotions shows this flawed thinking in action. Low prices may be a way to drive more transactions, but it doesn’t necessarily earn loyalty, at least not in an emotional sense.  Ivan Wicksteed, CMO at Old Navy and architect of the brand’s recent transformation, has said, “It’s the emotional connections that a brand makes… that last the longest and go the deepest.”

Things get worse when carrots turn to sticks and brands start penalizing disloyal behavior.  Consider Amazon’s recent announcement that it would stop selling products that aren’t compatible with its video streaming service. Like other Amazon customers, I question how this serves its mission to be “Earth’s most customer-centric company.” Or consider phone companies like Verizon and AT&T that are always looking for ways to lock customers into another two-year contract.

3. Go for gratitude and loyalty will follow. How does one create a sense of loyalty that is reciprocal, authentic, and emotional?  The answer is to focus on fostering the emotional response that is most likely to drive loyal behavior—gratitude.

By definition, gratitude is “a readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.”  Note that gratitude is inherently reciprocal. It also combines both emotion and behavior. There is a feeling of appreciation and an expression of that appreciation through some kind of action.   Gratitude therefore can serve as the basis of a relationship beyond the transaction.

It’s tempting to think that gratitude can be generated by doing nice things for your customers. It’s a good start, as Starbucks has demonstrated with the success of its own loyalty program. Giving gifts, granting rewards, and doing other nice things can work in the short term, but customers can become conditioned or easily wooed by someone else with nicer gifts.

The strategy for generating sustained gratitude is to discover and foster a shared purpose with your customers, and to help them share that purpose with others.  Shared purpose is not something you do for your customer, but rather with your customer. Satisfied customers at T-shirt company Custom Ink, for example, receive a personalized communication when they complete a survey after their purchase:  “Your t-shirt design is an extension of yourself, a statement of your creativity! I’m so glad that we were able to help bring your idea to life. We love seeing our t-shirts out in the world, so check us out on Facebook. You can share your story, post a picture of your creation, and share it with your friends.”

All of the elements of a gratitude program are in these sentences.  CustomInk is going beyond the transaction to create a shared purpose around expressing creativity.  They are expressing their own gratitude, not for the transaction (“thanks for your purchase”), but for the opportunity to contribute to that purpose (“glad to help you bring your idea to life”).  They have created a personalized interaction to show loyalty to the customer.  And they have identified a social currency in the t-shirt itself (they call it “a creation”) with opportunities to share it with others.

GE is another company pursuing a gratitude strategy with its “Surprise and Delight” program.  It launched a “Healthymagination” program with a shared purpose of “creating better health for more people.” To deliver on that shared purpose, in 2012 the company created an outreach program designed to “create an emotional connection” around health.

GE monitored social media outlets and engaged people talking about health. They didn’t try to sell, but instead to express appreciation and support. In some cases they went even further, sending personalized gifts (like a yoga mat or water bottle) as a tangible expression of appreciation aligned to the shared purpose.

The spirit of gratitude is apparent in the interactions. For example, one of GE’s tweets said “@[name] Your blog post made us smile. We’re glad you share your healthy habits with your friends :-)”  This was followed by a personalized gift. The recipient responded with:  “@generalelectric Your lovely gift made me smile. So it’s smiles all around :-)  And yes, sharing fitness with friends is the best!”

The key to success for GE and CustomInk was the authenticity of the appreciation they showed to their customers. The interactions weren’t transparent attempts to drive another transaction. They were inspired by a well-articulated shared purpose, motivated by a heartful desire to “show appreciation for and to return kindness,” and organized with a well-planned program combining social media, personalization, and customer support. And there wasn’t a coupon or loyalty program point anywhere in sight.

If you are wondering how to generate more brand loyalty, consider implementing a gratitude program. Identify the shared purpose that you can work on together with your customer. See where you can express appreciation for their accomplishments toward that shared purpose. Cultivate gratitude and loyalty will naturally follow.


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.

Focus on Keeping Up with Your Customers, Not Your Competitors

Every company these days seems to be either contemplating or pursuing digital transformation. Most cite the need to keep up with disruptive and well-established competitors. But perhaps this focus is too narrow. We believe the greatest challenge to companies today is not keeping up with their competitors, but with their own customers.

One reason is that individuals are transforming to digital faster than organizations. Think for a moment about people as tiny enterprises. They’ve redesigned their core processes in the area of procurement (online shopping), talent acquisition (marketplaces), collaboration (social networking), market research (peer reviews), finance (mobile payments) and travel (room and ride sharing). Have you reinvented your core processes to the same degree?

Customers’ expectations are also more liquid and no longer based on industry boundaries. Customers – whether consumers or business buyers – don’t compare your customer service to that of your competitors, but to the best customer service they receive from anywhere. The same is true for their expectations of your web site, mobile app, loyalty program, branding, and even social responsibility.

So how can you keep up with your customers? You have to start thinking like them.

Customers don’t think in or; they think in and. You have to transcend trade-offs.

The adage used to be that you could pick any two combinations of “cheap, good, or fast.” But today’s customer doesn’t want to make tradeoffs. They want it cheap, good, and fast. As leaders, we are accustomed to thinking of business being about making tough decisions between competing objectives. But we need to think more like our customers. Instead of focusing on how to make tradeoffs, we need to focus on how to transcendthem.

Some of the tradeoffs that are most suited to digital transcendence are:

  • Big and small: Combine the speed, agility and creativity of being small with the scope, scale and influence associated with being big.
  • Complex and simple: Manage the systems and processes to run a global business while creating simple and elegant experiences for customers.
  • Global and personal: Achieve universal consistency and reach around the world while delivering relevant, tailored interactions to every customer.

Customers want to be empowered, not controlled. You have to act with empathy.

Business used to be about getting customers to do what you wanted them to do. But customers don’t accept this any more. They don’t like to be told what to do. They want relationships based on reciprocity, transparency and authenticity. If you want to keep up with your customer, you can’t be focused on getting them to do what you want, but instead on helping them do what they want.

This evolution from control to empowerment means a change in the basic building blocks of customer engagement.

  • Funnels used to be linear processes that moved customers from one stage to the next. There was no going back until a sale was either won or lost. Now these funnels have become Escherian journeys, fluid, customer-led and multi-dimensional. It’s not about capturing and converting towards a transaction, but connecting and collaborating around a shared purpose.
  • Channels used to be pipes connecting you with your customer, carrying carefully crafted messages to passive audiences. Now they are experiences connecting customers to their own desires, and communities connecting customers to each other. It’s not about promoting the features and benefits of your product, but building empathy and understanding of each customer’s intent – and helping them achieve it – as part of an ongoing relationship.

Customers don’t think in straight lines. You need to be non-linear.

To keep up with your customer, you have to let go of linear thinking. Customers today expect you to be where they are, deliver what they want, when they want it, and how they want it. If they’re browsing your website on their laptop, they will expect that when they next come to your site from their mobile device or tablet, or talk to a sales person in your store, branch or call center, you will pick up right where they left off. Business has become like that old game of Twister. You have to be flexible if you are going to win.

This requires rethinking and redesigning core disciplines:

  • Strategy has to go beyond analyzing markets, making plans, and forecasting the future. Strategy also has to build capabilities, transform culture and architect for constant change.
  • Campaigns have to be more than one-way communications for one-time responses. They need to initiate and expedite personalized journeys as part of ongoing conversations.
  • Personalization needs to go deeper than looking simply at what someone buys. It needs to be based on the subconscious motivations of why someone buys, revealed through real-time analysis of a wide variety of data sources.
  • Social can’t be treated merely as a channel for distributing messages. Done right, it’s a context for building genuine relationships that demonstrate how much they really matter.
  • Loyalty needs to be more than accumulating points for rewards. To be genuine and enduring, loyalty needs to be reciprocal. If you want their loyalty, you have to be loyal in return.
  • Operations need to go beyond the efficiency of the company to the efficiency of the customer. How can you optimize to help customers get more for their time and effort, not just their money?

It’s a significant shift in mindset and practice to reorient from keeping up with competitors to keeping up with customers.

We suggest getting started by assessing where you are.

  • How does your transformation compare to your customers? In what areas are they moving faster or slower than you are?
  • Who is setting your customers’ expectations? It’s probably coming from outside your industry.
  • What kind of relationship do you want to have with your customer? Are you trying to get them to do what you want? Or figuring out how to help them do what they want?

Next, look at where to focus your attention.

  • Which tradeoffs do you need to transcend? We mentioned a few above. Others include speed and scale, consistent and nimble, high-tech and high-touch.
  • Where is linear thinking getting in the way? Review the disciplines outlined above and see which ones will have the most impact on your customer experience.

Creating sustainable advantage is more elusive than ever. The new game is designing customer-driven journeys across touch points to help them achieve their intent, and to create more multidimensional relationships. To win this game, stop thinking about just keeping up with your competitors, and start thinking about keeping up with your customers.


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.

Gene Cornfield is Managing Director at Accenture Interactive, where he helps global organizations transform their customer experiences, organizations, and business outcomes.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.

The Age of Social Products

We are moving from a world in which physical products are separate to one in which they are connected.  Computers were just the beginning.  Appliances and engines now send alerts when they need to be serviced.  Cameras upload their photos automatically.  Vending machines trigger their own restocking.  Crops feed and water themselves.

This shift has many monikers:  “The Internet of Things” and “The Internet of Everything” are two of the most popular. But the history of the Internet suggests that this is just the beginning.  The real change will happen when products aren’t just connected, but social.  Instead of the Internet of Things, we should be thinking about the Social Network of Things. To take advantage of this shift, you need to start thinking about the social life of your products.

What makes the Internet of Things possible is the confluence of multiple technologies:  inexpensive sensors, wireless networks, and cloud computing.   The ability to access data and computing resources from anywhere means that products don’t need to have computers and memory built into them.  They can just use the cloud.  Put sensors, a simple processor, and a wireless connection together and you have the makings of an intelligent and connected product.

The Internet of Things is already expected to transform customer servicebusiness models, and advertising.  But we should remember the evolution of the Internet.  The early days (Web 1.0) was about computers talking to computers.  A few years later (Web 2.0), people started talking to people.  The Internet was disruptive as a connected infrastructure, but it became explosive when it got social.

Today, most of the discussion about the Internet of Things is about products being connected.  But just because your product is connected doesn’t make it social.  For products, the real revolution will come when objects aren’t just passing information back and forth, but collaborating around a shared purpose.

This insight is behind Google’s recent acquisition of Waze for $1.1 billion.  Google already has the best map and traffic program, so why would they want another one?  Was it just to keep it out of the hands of Apple or Facebook?  We think not.

Among other things, Waze cracked the code on social products.  Google Maps is a data network, while Waze is a social network, in this case of cars, phones and people.  Waze creates a constantly updating repository of traffic information, much like Wikipedia creates a dynamic repository of encyclopedic information.  However, in this case, it is cars, phones and people who are collaborating to create the body of knowledge.  Waze provides a glimpse of how the car can become a social device by using the little data created by each individual car and driver.  According to the head of Google Maps, the goal is “to harness the power of Google technology and the passion of the Waze community to make it easier to navigate your daily life.”

Waze shows us how the cars of the future will not only connect to each other but also leverage the collective intelligence of that community of connected cars. We can see this in other areas as well.  Connected e-readers already help every individual reader benefit from the actions of the community. Nike is betting on a future with connected shoes, where each individual shoe learns from the data aggregated from a network of connected shoes. Social products leverage the power of the community to learn from other products.

So how do you create a social product?

First, you need a product that is smart and connected.  You can build your own (like the thermostats and home alarms from Nest) or use someone else’s device.  It might be a smartphone (think Waze), a consumer device with open APIs (like Nike’s FuelBand), or a commercial device with a strategic alliance (likeOpower and electric utilities).

Second, you need to make the product social.  This requires a platform where people and products are connected in a collaborative network.  Each individual product and each user benefits from being part of a community of fellow products and users. For example, Nest’s thermostat and smoke detector work together.  When the alarm detects carbon monoxide, it tells the thermostat to turn off the furnace.

In the case of Waze, each car and driver benefits from the information gleaned and aggregated from the community of cars and drivers.   That’s not all.   A Department of Transportation study demonstrates how cars of the future will talk to each other.  Cars within 1,000 feet of one another will send out their speed and location to the others, which will then notify the driver as needed.  Google’s driverless cars will be able to make adjustments automatically.  In this future state, is it the cars that are driving, or the social networks?

If you are considering building a strategy around social products, you have a few choices.   You need a connected product, a social network of people, a social network of products, and a collaborative platform for interaction, data exchange, and analytics.  The good news is that you don’t have to do all of this yourself.

  • Instagram leveraged an existing connected product (smartphone camera) and an existing collaborative platform (Facebook) to create a social network of connected camera-phones.
  • Qualcomm Life is creating a new collaborative platform to transform existing connected devices (for mobile health and fitness) into social products.  Recognizing they also needed a social network of people, they recently purchased HealthyCircles to help physicians, patients, and families coordinate care and support.
  • Nike is creating an entire ecosystem of connected products (Hyperdunk+ shoes), social network of products (FuelBand), social network of people (Nike+), and collaborative platform (Digital Sports).

The Age of Social Products will change the basis of competitive advantage.  Companies have traditionally focused on product supremacy, outdoing their competitors with better features and attributes.  In an age of social products, competitive advantage comes not from product features but from network effects.  Companies succeed by having products that better leverage the intelligence of the network of other connected products. This is a shift in mindset from standalone-product thinking to connected-platform thinking.

The Age of Social Products is dawning.  Companies that create products that are smart, connected, and, most importantly, social, will not only survive, but thrive.


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.

Sangeet Paul Choudary is a C-level advisor to executives globally on platform business models, an entrepreneur-in-residence at INSEAD and the co-chair of the MIT Platform Strategy Summit. He has been ranked among the top 30 emerging business thinkers globally by Thinkers50. He is also a co-author of Platform Revolution (W.W. Norton & Company, 2016) and the April 2016 HBR article Pipelines, Platforms, and the New Rules of Strategy.” Follow him on Twitter at @sanguit.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.

The Coming Branded-Currency Revolution

Coupons. Gift cards. Loyalty points. These tried-and-true tools of the retail trade might not be as sexy as other forms of marketing. But together they account for more than $165 billion in purchasing power ($110 billion in gift cards purchased, $48 billion in loyalty points earned, and more than $5 billion in product coupons redeemed). That’s almost as much as total e-commerce sales.

These instruments share a common objective: to influence purchase decisions by equipping consumers with incremental spending power for specific brands and retailers. But consumers use them independently and individually (combining their value, when possible, takes a lot of manual effort), and store them in different places — often in drawers or folders where they lay forgotten and unused.

This is changing as coupons, gift cards, and loyalty points all become digital — and, more important, mobile. Mobile enables all of this purchasing power to converge in one place, and potentially be used interchangeably and collectively, always within easy reach for consumers.

What does this mean for retailers and brands? The mistake would be to think that they can keep doing what they have always done, but just add a little digital to it. Instead, retailers need to think about coupons, gift cards, and loyalty points not only as three separate tools, but as different forms of Branded Currency.

Economists define currency as a store of value and a medium of exchange. All of these instruments are stores of value, and by going digital and mobile, they become far more effective mediums of exchange.

The first wave of this convergence has made it easier for consumers to use their coupons or points for payment. Card-linked offers enable consumers to load coupons to their credit cards or loyalty accounts in advance of purchase. Valid offers are automatically applied as a credit when consumers’ cards are scanned at the point of sale. Consumers like it because they don’t need to remember or present individual coupons. Another approach is Shop-with-Points. As an example, Amazon enables consumers to use their credit card loyalty points as a way to pay for purchases on the site. Shoppers can see their balance and apply their points as easily as using a gift card or credit card.

Where the first wave made possible convertibility, the second wave introduces much greater convenience. Mobile wallets, like Apple’s Passbook, bring coupons, gift cards, and loyalty cards together in one place without the constraints of a physical wallet. This innovation is good, but it’s a bit of a horseless carriage, still tied to the mental model of a wallet. Consumers still need to manually figure out which instruments can be combined and which cannot, prioritize them based on expirations, calculate the math on their own, and then present them at point-of-sale one at a time.

The third wave will be the mobile portfolio manager, the automobile to the mobile wallet’s horseless carriage, which marries the convertibility of the first wave with the convenience of the second. When you treat coupons, cards, and points as convertible instruments, fully leverage the power of digital and mobile technology, and add intelligence into the system, you get an entirely new possibility: calculating and comparing purchasing power, converting currencies, prioritizing usage, and dynamically creating scannable barcodes or other methods for combined payment. Soon consumers will be managing their Branded Currency the way they use Mint to manage their bank, credit, investment, and other financial accounts.

There is a lot of talk these days about brands as publishers. But the successive waves of Branded Currency suggest that retailers will also need to think like bankers who mint their own currencies. Market leaders will be those who best help consumers manage and spend Branded Currency from their portfolios, offer the best exchange rates, create the most liquidity, and make the most efficient markets. Retailers who adopt and execute smart Branded Currency strategies will gain relative share of wallet and have deeper, more enduring relationships with consumers.

Starbucks is perhaps the most advanced retailer in the area of Branded Currency. Most retailers treat their gift card program as an afterthought. Starbucks, on the other hand, has turned it into a hub for competitive advantage. In fact, CEO Howard Schultz considered the combination of mobile payments and social networking as central to the company’s “blueprint for growth.”

In 2011, Starbucks launched Android and iPhone apps that enabled customers to mobilize and easily reload their plastic cards or purchase new digital gift cards. Most Starbucks customers use the gift card not as a present for others, but as an easy way to pay for purchases, redeem offers, and earn rewards. In effect, they transformed their gift card into a mobile payment/loyalty card and their mobile app into a wallet for their Branded Currency. Over 7 million people now use Starbucks’ mobile app to make 4.5 million payments a week, accounting for at least 10% of Starbucks total U.S. revenue. Over 10 million Starbucks eGifts, the digital version of a gift card, have been sent just since 2012.

The strength of Starbucks strategy is not in any single program or promotion. It is the way that the entire Branded Currency system works together to provide an integrated and seamless experience for the customer. They knit together a variety of technologies and platforms from Apple, American Express, CashStar, Facebook, Square, and daily deal providers to promote and execute their deals, offers, and payments across digital, mobile, and social channels. But most importantly, by having its own Branded Currency system, Starbucks maintains control over the customer experience, relationships, and data.

Many technology companies including Apple, Google, eBay and Square are hoping brands will rely on their platforms to integrate and manage coupons, offers, gift cards, payments, and rewards.

Apple has been quietly creating a platform for managing branded currency in the form of its Passbook app and a newly filed patent. If brands aren’t careful, they will be as beholden to Apple for digital and mobile coupons, payments, and loyalty as record companies are for digital music, book publishers are to Amazon for digital books, and social game publishers are to Facebook.

As the market for Branded Currency converges and grows, brands will fall into three categories.

(1) Losers: Some brands will continue to operate their coupons, deals, offers, gift cards and loyalty programs the way they always have, as separate standalone programs, and will adopt mobile technology reluctantly. These brands will steadily lose their competitive edge and share of consumer spending.

(2) Laggards: Some brands will play catch up, adopting best practices after they are widely accepted, and rely on the platforms developed by technology and financial services companies. They will stay in the game, but will be in the middle of the pack, either unable to control the customer experience, lacking full access to their data, and losing margin to the platform provider.

(3) Leaders: A few brands will set the pace by creating an integrated approach to using Branded Currency as a vehicle for customer engagement. They will aggregate deals, offers, payments, and loyalty; unify online and offline; and put mobile at the center. They will work with other third-party platforms and wallets, but not be beholden to them. As a result, they will use their data to create value for their customers and bring a unique brand experience to every touchpoint. They will enjoy increased frequency and spend, forge stickier relationships, and greater and more sustainable profitability.

Will you be a loser, laggard, or leader? History, current trends, and the billions of dollars at stake would suggest it’s time to start building your Branded Currency strategy and system now.


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.

Gene Cornfield is Vice President of Marketing at CashStar, a provider of digital gifting and mobile payments solutions. Follow him on Twitter @genecornfield.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.

What if a Company Maximized Jobs Over Profits?

All over Silicon Valley, venture capitalists are asking entrepreneurs “How scalable is your business model?” What they really mean is, “Can you grow without having to hire people?”

In our digital economy, value creation and job creation don’t always go together.  Consider that Whatsapp just sold for $19 billion with only 55 employees.  It used to be that business growth led to job growth.  But as machines get smarter, labor becomes a reluctant necessity.  Companies only hire as a last resort.

But what if the purpose of a company was to employ people?  Instead of hiring enough people to make the greatest profit, it would make enough profit to hire the greatest number of people.

Put simply, these “job entrepreneurs” maximize jobs instead of profits.  There is a precedent in this. “Social entrepreneurs” seek to maximize purpose over profits.  They take a social problem, like health, poverty, or the environment, then work on finding a business model that can remedy the problem. They seek to make enough profit to make the greatest social impact.

Job entrepreneurs take a similar approach. They start with a group of people they seek to employ, then work on finding a sustainable business model that leverages their talent and experience. This isn’t about job placement. There are many organizations that help people find jobs in other companies. Job entrepreneurs bring people directly onto their own payroll.

One pioneer in the “job entrepreneur” movement is Dave Friedman. Two years ago, Friedman left his position as a Fortune 100 executive to start a new venture.  His goal was to employ people on the autism spectrum – individuals who have traditionally been unemployable.

Friedman considered creating a traditional startup, but he realized that his goal was different. He didn’t want to maximize profits but rather employment.  Many advised him to setup a non-profit. But Friedman didn’t want to rely on grants and donations. He believed the business needed to generate a sustainable profit to foster discipline and efficiency. He also wanted his employees to know that their jobs weren’t just charity, bringing a source of authentic empowerment.

Some advised Friedman to create a social enterprise, but the models didn’t really apply.  Friedman wasn’t changing how the product was made (e.g. organic or sustainable) or where it was sold (e.g. low-income buyers).  He was focused on changing who gets hired.  Like social entrepreneurs, WHY mattered more than HOW MUCH.  But in this case WHO mattered more than HOW or WHERE.

Without an existing model to guide him, Friedman set out to make his own.  He had a powerful belief that people on the autism spectrum represent an exceptional yet hidden workforce.  But he needed a business model that would turn what others saw as a deficit into a source of competitive advantage.

Friedman found his answer in what he calls “Process Execution” jobs.  These are labor-intensive activities such as website maintenance, data entry, and software testing. Many companies struggle to fill these positions. But the repetitiveness and attention to detail are well-suited to the talents and abilities of people with autism.

As much as possible, Friedman downplays the fact that his employees have autism.  He is not looking for charity.  He wants to compete on the same playing field as other companies providing similar services.  But on the inside, AutonomyWorks is unlike any of its competitors.  Friedman has redesigned the way work is structured, organized, and managed to suit his employees.

With these changes, Friedman has found that not only can AutonomyWorks match traditional competitors, but it can produce better quality at a lower price.  By generating profits, he is able to hire more people and fulfill his mission.  In the process, he has empowered an overlooked workforce and relieved families of the costs of supporting autistic relatives.

Another company following a similar model is Shinola, a Detroit-based manufacturer originally known for its shoe polish.  Shinola has recently reinvented itself to create jobs for unemployed auto workers.  Like AutonomyWorks, Shinola started with jobs and worked backward to the business model.  In this case, auto workers have unique skills in light manufacturing and upholstery.  So Shinola produces watches, leather goods, and handcrafted bicycles.  A traditional entrepreneur wouldn’t set out to make this combination of products.  But for a job entrepreneur in Detroit, it makes all the sense in the world.

So what does it take to be a job maximizer?

  1. Choose Your Talent. Who do you want to employ? AutonomyWorks focuses on people with autism. Shinola focuses on former auto workers. There are many other segments of the labor force who are underemployed or underutilized.
  2. Find Your Market. What products or services can these workers best make or provide?  This is where the entrepreneurial magic comes into play.  You need to find something that suits your people and also generates a sustainable profit.  Friedman recommends looking for markets where work has been off-shored or automated, and that have low capital requirements.
  3. Design Your System. What innovations do you need to meet the unique needs and bring out the best in your workers?  This might involve rethinking hiring, process design, management, or organizational culture.  The key is turning people’s disadvantage in society into your company’s competitive advantage in the marketplace.

Over the last twenty years, we have successfully created an entirely new economic sector in which social entrepreneurs maximize purpose over profit.  It’s time to turn this entrepreneurial spirit on a new goal:  job creation.  We need more people like Dave Friedman and more companies like Shinola — job maximizers and employment entrepreneurs.


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.

Can Bigger Be Faster?

In nature, there’s a tradeoff between size and speed. Whales are slow. Birds are fast. But organizations today need to be big and fast. Is it possible? Can organizations be both agile and scalable?

There’s some good news. Science is revealing that biology doesn’t have to rule the marketplace. And new models of leadership are emerging from some unlikely places.

First, the science. Professor Geoffrey West from the Sante Fe Institute has shown that in biology, bigger does have its advantages. Whales are more efficient and live longer than birds. But they are also slower and less adaptive. Economies of scale give efficiency, but not speed or resilience.

Cities, by contrast, get better and faster as they get bigger. Large cities have higher income, lower crime rates, and more rapid innovation. People even walk faster in bigger cities.

The reason is networks. Bio-mechanical systems get more efficient as they get bigger, but they also slow down and become less adaptive. Networks, on the other hand, become more versatile and creative. The brain has this characteristic. So do social systems like cities and communities. And virtual communities like Facebook or Twitter.

But what about organizations? Are they more like cities or whales? Communities or machines? In his research, West found that companies today behave more like whales and machines. The pursuit of economies of scale has led to efficiencies, but also a loss of speed and agility.

The good news is that there’s no reason companies can’t be more like communities. After all, companies are social networks too. It’s just that we haven’t been running them that way.

To get bigger and faster, organizations need to be reconceived as networks. But how? The appeal of the status quo is overwhelming for many. The hierarchical models of the 20th Century are safe, dependable, and comfortable for leaders and investors alike. Networks sound unpredictable — good for creating social groups, but bad for large organizations that need to make disciplined decisions.

Outside of startups and tech firms in Silicon Valley, are there any role models to emulate?

One answer comes from an unlikely place: the U.S military. Perhaps the most whale-like organization in the world. There is no greater hierarchy in the world than within the five sides of the Pentagon. Yet inside this massive structure is a surprising amount of innovation in the area of organizational design and decision-making.

As we have written previously, the events of 9/11 led the U.S. military to realize that “it takes a network to defeat a network.” The new enemy was a light, agile, and rapidly evolving network. The hierarchical models of post-cold war design were no longer sufficient. Our military was big, and now it had to be fast.

The thought-leaders of this change within the military reconceived the organizational relationships as network-based, versus the traditional hierarchies of the past. They developed a new model that enabled the military to use its size — and its extended network of relationships — as an advantage rather than an impediment.

Four strategies were at the core of this transformation: build relationships, establish shared purpose, create shared consciousness, and foster diversity.

(1) Build relationships
In network terms, relationships are connections between nodes. When viewed as a network, hierarchies have a relatively sparse number of connections. Each individual only has relationships with his or her boss, peers, and direct reports. So the first step is to build more relationships and connections. This change first developed inside the special operations community whose leaders faced the reality of being out-paced by a new type of networked challenger in Al Qaeda, and therefore focused on building the density and diversity of their own friendly network. They orchestrated an unprecedented level of interagency collaboration across organizations that previously had never worked together — a model often referred to as the “team of teams.”

(2) Establish shared purpose
To build relationships, it’s not enough to hold offsites and call bigger meetings. People need a reason to work together — a reason that simultaneously addresses the interests of all stakeholders: customers, community, investors, and employees. In Iraq, the shared purpose was rebuilding a nation on principles of freedom and self-determination. As General Stan McChrystal, one of the leaders of the military’s move to networks, said in a recent TED Talk: “Instead of giving orders, you’re now building consensus and you’re building a sense of shared purpose.”

(3) Create shared consciousness
To get where you are going, you first have to know where you are. Shared consciousness ensures that everyone across the network has a sense of where they are and is acting on the best available information. The formation of “intelligence fusion teams” created unprecedented levels of collaboration between a broad array of military units and many civilian organizations, accelerating the flow of information across the network. These globally dispersed teams were constantly connected and became the epicenter for creating shared consciousness. They gathered data from across the network, then pushed out the information to whomever was best positioned to take swift and effective action.

(4) Encourage dissent
In a hierarchy, obedience is a virtue. In a network, it is a vice. Conformity creates groupthink, stifling innovation and organizational resilience. The antidote is cultural diversity in all its forms: experience, gender, age, ethnicity, geography, profession, etc. The new military-interagency collaboration created an environment in which dissent was not only tolerated, but encouraged. Instead of being chastised for expressing a contrary or unpopular view, team members were reprimanded for withholding it. Individuals were incentivized to present counterpoints, and leaders worked diligently to ensure the environment was safe for the free exchange of ideas.

This new approach turned traditional war-fighting upside down and inside out. Instead of centralizing command and control at the top, information and autonomy was aggressively pushed to decision-makers in the field. Decentralize to the edge of discomfort became the mantra of many of these organizations — setting the conditions for rapid and focused action.

Motivated by a shared purpose and aligned by shared consciousness, the network became denser, more diverse, and more intelligent. The result was unprecedented speed, resilience, and effectiveness — even while surrounded by the chaos of war. Bigger no longer meant slower, and network no longer meant unpredictable.

If the Pentagon could turn itself from a whale into a city, so too can a large corporation. Most companies embody leadership and organizational models created at the turn of the 20th century. Back then, the goal was size not speed, and the challenge was coordination not complexity. We live in a different time and we need new models to enable us to get bigger and faster. We need our leaders to be more like mayors than generals, building relationships instead of issuing orders. If our generals can make the change, so too can our business leaders.


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.

Chris Fussell is a director at McChrystal Group. Follow him on Twitter at @mcchrystalgroup.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.

How Leaders Can Let Go Without Losing Control

Massive flocks of starlings, known as murmurations, exhibit a rare combination of speed and scale. The birds coordinate themselves with remarkable agility to find food and avoid attacks. Schools of fish do the same.

What’s noteworthy in these murmurations is the lack of a leader. Instead, each bird follows three simple rules: (1) move to the center, (2) follow your neighbor, and (3) don’t collide. The rules enable each bird to act independently while ensuring the group acts cohesively.

Every organization today wants to achieve both alignment and autonomy. Can what works for birds and fish also work for people? The answer comes from a surprising place: the battlefield.

Over centuries, the military has developed an approach to managing “the fog of war.” Generals need to ensure alignment to the strategy, while soldiers need autonomy to respond to changing conditions. The military’s solution has two parts:

  • Commander’s Intent declares the purpose of an operation and the conditions for success.
  • Doctrine determines how soldiers make decisions towards the fulfillment of that purpose.

The formal definition of doctrine is important: “Fundamental principles by which the military forces guide their actions in support of objectives. It is authoritative but requires judgment in application.”

For a flock of birds, the intent is to reach their breeding grounds. This means finding food, staying on course, and staying alive. The three simple rules are the doctrine for the flock. They don’t tell the bird which way to go, but rather guide them on what action to take (move to the center, follow one’s neighbor). In terms of doctrine they are the “principles [that] guide actions in support of objectives.”

We can find doctrine in other places besides the battlefield, namely constitutional democracies. For example, in the U.S., the Declaration of Independence describes an intent of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” There are also numerous laws, rules, and regulations that specify what citizens can and can’t do. In between, the Constitution serves as doctrine. It is “authoritative but requires judgment in application.” In fact, an entire branch of government is tasked with its interpretation and application.

Turning to business, we find doctrine to be noticeably missing. Every organization has its mission, goals, and strategies to tell people where to go. They also have rules, policies, and procedures that tell people what to do. But few organizations have comprehensive, communicated, and contextualized doctrine to empower decision-making across the organization.

Without doctrine, it’s impossible for managers to let go without losing control. Instead, leaders must rely on active oversight and supervision. The opportunity is to replace processes that control behavior with principles that empower decision-making.

Although rare, there are companies that have made the shift from process to principles-based management. Wikipedia has its five pillars. Red Hat has embraced open source principles. Visa was designed to achieve both chaos and order. Google has its nine principles of innovation. And Amazon has its own leadership principles.

Amazon says of its leadership principles: “Our Leadership Principles aren’t just a pretty inspirational wall hanging. These Principles work hard, just like we do. Amazonians use them, every day, whether they’re discussing ideas for new projects, deciding on the best solution for a customer’s problem, or interviewing candidates.” Good decision principles help people make everyday decisions in diverse settings.

It’s important to know the difference between values, goals, and decision principles: Values are what’s important to you. Goals are what you want to see in the world. Principles are what help you make decisions. So “Frugality” is a value. “Saving money” is a goal. “Spend others’ money like your own” is a principle.

One difference between values and principles is their specificity. Principles can “nest” inside other principles, like Russian dolls. Amazon has a fundamental principle of “Customer Obsession” and working backwards from the customer. This means different things for product development, marketing, and customer service. Wikipedia has specific principles for authors that nest inside the more general five pillars. The Agile Software movement has general principles that apply universally, and specific principles for practices like Kanban and scrum.

Be aware that the shift to doctrine and principles-based management is more than a tactic. It’s a new way of thinking about management. Instead of making decisions forothers, or delegating those decisions to others, it’s creating principles with others that enable them to make decisions for themselves. It’s a distributed governance model for networked organizations.

Current, a digital power service from GE, is on this journey. Like many other companies, Current saw the need to evolve its company culture. They defined their values, put them in behavioral terms, and built them into systems & structures. But as Bethany Napoli, global head of HR for Current says, “the action rested on the shoulders of leadership to implement. We were left with a system that measured what leadership defined as the ‘right’ way to behave.”

Current wanted a culture that could move faster and support exponential growth. So they shifted their focus from values and behaviors to cultural tenets and decision principles. According to Bethany, “The very act of creating the tenets and associated decision principles is what creates the promise of real and organic culture change. We are on a path to change from the typical pattern of creating culture by defining attributes and managing them through systems and structures to organically building it through dialog, empowerment, and engagement.”

To get started on the journey, take these steps:

  1. Purpose: Re-examine your mission. Is it truly a shared purpose? Do you have a narrative that explains how that purpose will be fulfilled?
  2. Principles: Start with your existing values. Transform them into decision principles. Then find real-world decisions and reverse engineer the most effective principles.
  3. Catalysts: Find internal catalysts who can help evolve the principles and help people apply them to daily decisions. Connect the catalysts to learn together.

Keep in mind that this is an iterative process. When decisions are made that don’t align with the mission or strategy, take a look at the situation. It might be that the person is responsible. But chances are you are simply missing the right principles and need to create some new doctrine. The goal is to manage principles more than people.

By creating the missing layer of decision principles, leaders have an opportunity to let go without losing control, and to add structure without losing speed. It’s a way to transcend the tradeoff between alignment and autonomy and to create a culture based on principles over process. It works for birds, fish, and soldiers. Maybe it’s time to give it a try for companies too.


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.

Use Doctrine to Pierce the Fog of Business

The “fog of war” describes the uncertainty faced by soldiers in the field of battle. In today’s markets, business leaders face a similar challenge: how to pierce through the “the fog of business.”

The traditional tools of management — strategy and planning — are no longer sufficient. Strategy and planning are like high beams on a car; they just bounce off the fog. Strategy doesn’t give employees enough guidance to know how to take action, and plans are too rigid to adapt to changing circumstances. In rapidly changing environments, you need fog lights to get closer to the ground.

Business leaders recognize the importance of pushing decision-making down the organization and out to the front line. But delegation can lead to invisibility, inconsistency and even chaos. When driving, fog lights work best when there are lines on the road to follow. Similarly, leaders must create mechanisms that keep everyone aligned to the mission and coordinated in the field.

Doctrine is the military’s mechanism for managing the fog of war, pushing decision-making closer to the ground while providing the lines to guide decision-making and action. Doctrine creates the common framework of understanding inside of which individuals can make rapid decisions that are right for their circumstances. We believe doctrine offers a powerful model for executives looking to pierce the fog of business and find new ways of exerting influence without centralized control.

NATO defines doctrine as “Fundamental principles by which the military forces guide their actions in support of objectives. It is authoritative but requires judgment in application.” If strategy defines objectives, and plans prescribe behavior, then doctrine guides decisions.

Consider one example from U.S. Special Operations teams trying to get the most use out of their helicopters, assets with high demand and limited supply. One approach would be to centralize all of these decisions, but that would be too slow. Another would be to have a computer automate the process, but there would be no way to feed enough data into the system in real time. So Special Operations went with a third option … let the human network figure it out and create solutions.

This network became the fog lights, pushing decision-making closer to the ground. But how to ensure the human network made the right decisions? What were the lines to paint on the road?

Military leadership created a common doctrine to frame the organization’s understanding of how helicopters would and wouldn’t be employed, their range, their maximum load capacity, their refueling requirements, etc. With these principles and shared understanding, the network could quickly coordinate across silos and create collaborative solutions.

One of the most powerful qualities of doctrine is its scalability. Like a Russian matryoshka doll, doctrine can be nested inside other doctrine. For example, the doctrine related to helicopters is nested inside doctrine related to the military’s network-centric approach to warfighting. This higher-level doctrine has four core tenets:

 A robustly networked force improves information sharing;
 Information sharing enhances the quality of information and shared situational awareness;
 Shared situational awareness enables collaboration and self-synchronization, and enhances sustainability and speed of command; and
 These, in turn, dramatically increase mission effectiveness.

One can see how the distributed approach to managing helicopters flowed from this higher level doctrine, especially in how to achieve self-synchronization. Doctrine provided the many units spread around the battlefield with a shared framework in which they could operate. Units were free to move and take action within that framework. In turn, results were fed back to leaders, who evolved the doctrine to improve performance, enabling a true learning organization.

The media company TED would seem to have little in common with Special Forces units in Iraq. But in fact, TED’s approach to scalable growth echoes the same doctrine-based approach.

Founded in 1984 by Richard Saul Wurman, TED became famous for its exclusive conferences and compelling talks. The world discovered TED when Chris Anderson posted videos of the talks online. But how to give more people the experience of TED events, not just the content? The solution was TEDx, which launched in 2008 to extend the TED mission of “ideas worth spreading.” In only a few years, TEDx has grown to 1,300 events in 134 countries with only a handful of employees.

What most people don’t know is that TED has no direct control over TEDx events. Instead, TED authorizes and empowers local organizers to create TED-like events in their own communities. How does TED ensure consistency instead of chaos? With what amounts to doctrine.

On its web site, TED publishes clear guidelines for organizers on how to run a TEDx event:

1. RULES, e.g. “Your event must maintain the spirit of TED itself: multidisciplinary, focused on the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world.”
2. RESPONSIBILITIES, e.g. “Early on, you’ll need to decide who your event is for: Work colleagues? Friends? Kids? This decision will help guide all the decisions that follow.”
3. RESOURCES: Best practices from the community on designing, promoting, and sponsoring TEDx events

These guidelines are consistent with the definition of doctrine: “Fundamental principles by which [TEDx organizers] guide their actions in support of objectives.” These principles are “authoritative but require judgment in application.” As another sign of the doctrine-based approach, TED recently had a problem with some of the TEDx events. Rather than step in to micromanage, they clarified and reinforced the doctrine.

How can you apply doctrine to your company?

1. See where you might already have some elements of doctrine. Do you have principles that guide decision-making throughout the organization? Sometimes these are informal precepts that are passed along as part of the culture. Other times they get codified, as Reed Hastings did for Netflix.

2. Identify areas conducive to doctrine-based approaches. It might be where the front line is calling for more authority, but where you are afraid to give up control. Or where centralized operations can’t keep up with the amount of information or the variety of local conditions (as in the case of the helicopters.)

3. Involve your broader team in creating the doctrine. When the military rewrote its doctrine on counter-insurgency, it brought together a cross-functional team of soldiers, civilians, experts and leaders while gathering feedback from hundreds of front-line personnel. When IBM rewrote its values, it engaged 50,000 employees around the world.

4. When developing doctrine, focus on principles not policies. Don’t be too specific in telling people what to do, but also not so broad that it doesn’t help them make the right decision. What information do you need from them, and what information do they need from you, in order to create rapid, independent, and effective action?

One way to put these steps into practice is to convene a “Constitutional Convention.”

After all, a constitution is essentially doctrine for democracy, providing the enduring principles by which to govern a nation. The Agile software movement started with such a gathering.

Ultimately, good doctrine becomes embedded in the culture. Touring a command post in Baghdad, a general came across this sign: “In the absence of guidance or orders, determine what they should have been and execute aggressively.” Good doctrine provides the empowerment, autonomy, and direction to make this not only possible, but effective. For business leaders operating in fast-moving and uncertain environments, doctrine dispels the fog of business.


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.

Chris Fussell is a director at McChrystal Group. Follow him on Twitter at @mcchrystalgroup.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.

How to Stop Worrying About Becoming Obsolete at Work

In case you missed it, FOMO is now an official word in the English language. The “Fear of Missing Out” is now in the Oxford Dictionary, which has described it as the “anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website.”

Perhaps FOMO has become a contemporary problem because things are moving so much faster. But I believe there is a deeper fear — a fear of becoming obsolete. We’re afraid of being left out because we’re afraid of being left behind.

As individuals, we’re afraid of being left behind in our careers. A recent survey by Oxford Economics found employees’ top concern is that their position might change or become obsolete. Half believe their current skills won’t be needed in three years. And the fear has spread to the C-suite: a study by Adobe found that 40% of marketing executives feel the need to reinvent themselves but only 14% feel they know how.

As organizations, we’re afraid that our industries will be disrupted or that our companies are no longer competitive. Business leaders surveyed by IMD believe 40% of the incumbents in each industry will be displaced by digital disruption in the next five years.

Perhaps we should use a variation on FOMO when it comes to our companies and careers: FOBO, the Fear of Becoming Obsolete. The dictionary definition might be “anxiety that the world is changing so rapidly that your career and company will be left behind.”

There are good reasons to be concerned. The lifespan of a company on the S&P 500 has decreased from 61 years in 1958 to 18 years today. Gartner predicts that one-third of jobs will be replaced by software, robots, and smart machines by 2025. Productivity is rising but jobs and income haven’t kept up.

We’ve been through transformative change before, but the rate of change was much more gradual. A century ago, it took generations for the economy to transform from agriculture to industry. These days, a career or business strategy can become obsolete in a matter of years.

So what should you do to prevent obsolescence? It’s a trick question. You don’t fix FOBO by updating what you do. You first have to update how you think. If you change what you do without changing how you think, you will get more of the same. But change how you think, and you will naturally change what you do. So the real question is how should you think to prevent obsolescence?

In times of transformative change, it is not just our skills, tools, and practices that become obsolete. More fundamentally, our mental models become outdated, rendering them ineffective, misleading, or outright dangerous.

Mental models are the (largely unconscious) ways we make sense of the world around us. They determine what we see or don’t see and connect cause with effect. For example, the typical mental model for how to solve a problem has us looking for what to do instead of how to think.

Our mental models are like maps in a GPS that tell us how to reach our desired destination. When things are stable, we just punch in new coordinates to get where we need to go. But when the landscape changes, our mental maps become outdated. We find ourselves making wrong turns and getting lost or confused.

Unfortunately, we can’t update the maps in our heads as easily as the maps on our phones. These models are like mental habits. And habits don’t change overnight. Change requires both learning and unlearning. The process is less like a teenager learning to drive, and more like a tourist in London trying to drive on the opposite side of the road.

Research on habit design tells us that the key to learning any new behavior is setting the right triggers and taking small steps. The same principles apply to mental habits. Here are a few to get you started.

  1. When someone raises a problem, notice the tendency to immediately ask “What should we do?” Instead of that question, try asking “How should we think?” Are you trying to solve the problem with the same thinking that created it? Is someone describing a car and you’re thinking, “Oh, sounds like a horseless carriage”?
  2. When you’re organizing an activity, check that everyone is aligned in their thinking before getting everyone aligned in their action. Just because they are using the same words doesn’t mean they are using the same mental models. When someone says “brand,” do they mean your logo, reputation, or experience?
  3. When you read about a successful company, catch yourself merely seeking to imitate what they’re doing. Instead, look deeper into how they are thinking. The key to becoming the “Uber” of something is not creating another app-enabled delivery service but instead applying platform thinking.
  4. When you’re making decisions, beware relying on “best practices.” By definition, a best practice is a tool or approach derived from an old mental model. Instead, look for “next practices.” Deconstruct the thinking behind their success and apply the principles to your situation.

The Fear of Becoming Obsolete is both real and warranted. Fortunately, we are not destined to be digital dodos. It is not we who have become obsolete; it is our mental models. The dodo couldn’t learn to fly, but we can learn to shift our thinking and create new mental habits. With an update in our mental models, we can be more resilient, more relaxed, and more relevant. All of which gives more time for checking social media and ensuring we’re not missing out on anything.


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.

Don’t Sell a Product, Sell a Whole New Way of Thinking

We all know the story.  A team creates a groundbreaking new innovation only to see it mired in internal debates. When it is eventually launched in the market, there is an initial flurry of sales to early adopters, but then sales cycles become sluggish. Pilot customers are enthusiastic, but broader adoption is slow even with customer support and training. All the pieces are in place to create “disruptive innovation” and to “cross the chasm,” but the results are disappointing. What’s missing?

The problem is that data, information, and value propositions are not enough to sell innovative products. We all know the saying, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” But when it comes to innovation, the truth is often “I’ll see it when I believe it.” To sell your idea to executives, buyers, and users, you have to change not only what they think, but how they think. Without the right mental model, they won’t see the problem, understand the benefits, or make the change.

Mental models are how the brain makes sense of the vast amount of information to be processed every moment of every day. They are the lens through which we see the world. The filter that separates the signal from noise. The framework for attributing cause and effect. The “sorting hat” to decide what makes it into our conscious awareness.

To understand the power of mental models, consider Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, a physician working in Vienna in the 1840s. He observed that the death rate for puerperal fever fell tenfold when doctors washed their hands before treating patients. He shared his findings with his colleagues to introduce handwashing as a standard practice. Despite the data, his fellow doctors dismissed his findings. In fact, his colleagues and even his own wife thought he was losing his mind. They had him committed to a mental institution where he died shortly thereafter.

Why couldn’t Semmelweis persuade people of his innovation? In the 1840s, the mental model of disease was an imbalance of four “humours” in the body such as phlegm, bile, and blood. Every disease was entirely internal and unique. With this mental model, Semmelweis’ colleagues couldn’t see how handwashing could affect a person’s health. It didn’t matter what the data said.

A few decades later, Louis Pasteur proved that germs, not humours, were the primary cause of disease. With this new mental model, doctors could understand how handwashing would affect health. Personal hygiene became a new standard of care. Unfortunately, this was too late for Dr. Semmelweis. He had failed to shift his colleagues’ thinking, and thus failed to shift their behavior.

Innovators change the lens through which we see the world. Companies that successfully market and sell innovation are able to shift how people think not only about their product, but about themselves, the market, and the world. Steve Jobs was one of the great mindshifters of our time. He championed the mantra “think different” and shifted the way people think about technology to be more personal and human.

Shifts in mental models go deeper than traditional thought leadership. Most thought leadership tries to establish a company as an expert within the existing mental model. Shifts in thinking challenge the prevailing model.

Over the last ten years, Salesforce.com has grown from an upstart to a market leader in enterprise software. From the beginning, Salesforce.com has focused on shifting the paradigm of computing as much as shifting customers over to its product.

For years, the company’s marketing strategy has focused on the idea of “No Software,” reflecting the shift from packaged, installed software to cloud computing and software-as-a-service. Salesforce.com recognized that only after buyers understood the mental model of cloud computing could they understand the benefits of Salesforce.com as a product.

To put the power of mental models to work in your business, start with three steps:

A. Identify the shift

The first step is identifying the underlying shift in thinking. This is different than your value proposition. It’s an assumption (usually unconscious) about how the world works.

To find the shift, ask yourself a few questions. What was the original insight that led to the innovation? Where do you feel people “don’t get it” about your solution? What is the “aha” moment when someone turns from disinterested to enthusiastic?

Try to frame it as a From and a To. This is not about bad to good, just better for the current context. As an example, consider companies selling software and services related to “big data.” The shift is not about “simple to intelligent” or “smaller to bigger.” In the area of data, the “aha” might relate to a shift in thinking about decision-making (from intuition to analytics), in data models (from spreadsheets to algorithms), or how the data is used (from target to empower)

B. Find the sticking point

Next, determine how mental models are getting in the way of your success. The sticking points are usually in one of three areas. You can tell which one by the associated symptom.

  • PRESENT: The model of how things work today. Do people fail to see a problem that seems obvious to you? If so, they are operating with a different model of the current state. This is often because they don’t see how things are related. As an example, the movie An Inconvenient Truth was successful in shifting many people’s mental model of the relationship between greenhouse gases and global warming. If you are trying to get people to see a problem or opportunity, focus on disrupting their existing mental model.
  • FUTURE: The model of how things could be in the future. Do people recognize the problem, but fail to see how your solution could solve their problem? This was the situation faced by Dr. Semmelweis in his Vienna hospital. People agreed that mortality was a problem, but they couldn’t see how handwashing could make a difference. If you are trying to get people to understand the benefits of your solution, focus on shifting their thinking in a way that reveals why your solution would be effective.
  • TRANSITION: The model for how to bring a new future into being. Do people recognize the problem, and the value of your solution, but fail to make the change? Sometimes people recognize the need to jump from the trapeze bar they are on, and can see the merits of the new bar you are offering them, but feel they can’t make the jump. In this case, focus on a mental model related to the transition. Define a roadmap that explains to them how to get from where they are to where they want to go.

C. Build the program

Shifts in thinking don’t happen overnight, any more than going to a weekend yoga workshop makes you flexible. Think of it like learning a second language or building a new habit – in this case a mental habit. People need to see how the new way of thinking plays out in different contexts and situations.

“The really good innovations – the ones that change the world – need to be explained before they’re accepted,” Beth Comstock, the Chief Marketing Officer of GE, recently wrote. One of GE’s mantras is therefore “mindshare before market share.” GE’s strategy focuses on being a “content factory” to disseminate powerful stories. Interestingly, GE is also the home of Crotonville, one of the world’s top corporate universities. Perhaps in the future we will see corporate universities expand beyond employees to serve customers and clients as well.

Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Companies that help customers shift their thinking will be more effective at solving problems and ultimately selling products.


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.

The Best Digital Strategists Don’t Think in Terms of Either/Or

It has become an axiom that “strategy is about making hard choices,” as we have been advised for over 20 years by leading thinkers including Michael Porter and Roger Martin. But our work with a community of senior executives in the Bay Area suggests that today’s market leaders are following the advice of Yogi Berra: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Faced with hard choices, innovators find ways to transcend the tradeoffs. While their competitors make the hard choice between one or the other path, these businesses reap the benefit of both.

Transactions and relationships. When it comes to digital engagement, many companies feel they have to choose either transactions or relationships. Social media evangelists tell CEOs they need to stop focusing so much on driving sales and “connect instead of promote.” A focus on the transaction, they say, jeopardizes the relationship. Meanwhile, sales strategists suggest that social media is often more “hype” than “reality.” Focus on the relationship and forget the transaction, and you waste the company’s resources. The hard choice, it would seem, is between transactions or relationships.

Sephora has become a leader in the cosmetics market by transcending this tradeoff, finding ways to achieve transactions and relationships. It has a vibrant e-commerce business and a highly engaged customer community. What is particularly impressive is how Sephora is bringing transactions and relationships together in the same experience. On the Sephora Beauty Board, community members can upload photos of their favorite “looks” with the makeup products that made it possible. Click on a photo and you can see someone’s profile or posts. Click on a product and you can make a purchase.

High-tech and high-touch. There is concern these days about how technology is replacing our jobs and estranging our connections. As our communications become more digital, our customer relationships become less personal. The only hope seems to be make our technology appear more human.

In the apparel industry, companies choose one path or the other between high-tech and high touch. Shopping services like StyleSeek take the road marked “algorithm,” while Nordstrom’s Trunk Club takes the road marked “personal service.” Approaching the same fork in the road, Stitch Fix chose to go in both directions. New customers fill out a survey about their style and lifestyle. Ever-evolving algorithms then generate recommendations for Stitch Fix stylists, who select the final assortment for their customers based on personal knowledge and relationships. It’s no coincidence that the Chief Algorithms Officer at Stitch Fix was formerly head of data science for Netflix, and its Chief Operating Officer, Julie Bornstein, was formerly CMO at Sephora. Together, they are transcending the tradeoff between high-tech and high-touch.

Size and speed. There is an African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Most large companies excel at going far and going together. But these days every company has to go fast. Is it possible to be both bigger and faster? The recent experience of Visa provides some lessons in how to transcend the tradeoff between size and speed.

The market for cardless payments is growing rapidly, posing a threat to Visa’s core business. Four years ago, Visa launched V.me, but failed to gain ground against its nimble new entrants. For the recent launch of Visa Checkout, Visa took a different approach. One option was to focus purely on speed, and either acquire a smaller company or create a separate skunkworks. But this would have lost the advantage of size.

The solution was to go for size and speed. Lara Balazs, SVP of North America Marketing, leveraged Visa’s brand and market position to recruit a team of top talent, forge strategic alliances with market leaders, and create widespread awareness in the market. Although size was an advantage externally, it was a disadvantage internally. To leapfrog the competition, she had to move fast, but she also needed the involvement of twelve different departments. She had to go fast and go together. Her solution was to rip up the org chart, creating a “team of teams” with a new kind of culture for Visa that emphasized agility and experimentation over consistency and compliance.

Profit and purpose. Purpose has become popular for many reasons. It helps to re-energize leadersengage millennialsinvigorate brands, and demonstrate corporate social responsibility. But purpose still seems like a “nice to have” or something done on the side. Corporate boards still focus on quarterly earnings.

Faced with the choice between profit and purpose, some executives are making the move to social enterprises where profit and purpose are more intertwined. However, the evidence indicates that for-profit companies with a strong sense of purpose have better financial performance. So how can companies in traditional industries achieve both?

For most financial institutions, profit is the purpose. But Wells Fargo has a purpose behind profits.  According to CMO Jamie Moldafsky, “every employee at Wells Fargo is focused on helping our customers succeed financially.”  This approach is reflected in initiatives such as “Untold Stories” which fulfill this purpose in local communities. Echoing their logo, Wells Fargo promises to “never put the stagecoach ahead of the horses.” Proving that they have successfully transcended the tradeoff, Wells Fargo consistently outperforms it’s less purposeful peers.

Toymaker Goldieblox shows that purpose can fuel market disruption. Their mission to increase the number of women engineers led to an entirely new kind of product that combines storytelling and building. According to Lindsey Shepard, VP of Sales and Marketing, GoldieBlox is about encouraging girls to “think about themselves as innovators that can build their own future.” The result is a disruption in the proverbial “pink aisle.”

Airbnb is also fusing profit and purpose, disrupting (at least initially) the hospitality industry. Just a couple of years ago, people considered it strange to stay in a stranger’s home instead of a hotel. But according to their Chief Marketing Officer, Jonathan Mildenhall, Airbnb is on a mission to change both “behavior and perception” so that people can “belong anywhere.”

For each of these companies, purpose isn’t something on which they spend their profits, or a strategy they devise to make more money. Instead, profit and purpose are intertwined proving that money and meaning can indeed work together.

There is no doubt that these companies have all made hard choices in executing their strategies. But the nature of “the hard choice of strategy” has changed in today’s marketplace. It’s no longer about giving up something that is important to you or your customer. In many cases, it’s about finding a way to take both paths at once. For that is truly the road less traveled.


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.

Cara France is CEO of The Sage Group, a firm providing marketing and consulting talent to San Francisco Bay area companies, and founder of Marketers that Matter. Follow her on Twitter @SageCEO.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.

Design How Your Team Thinks

Every day, we sit in meetings in which someone presents a problem or opportunity. The response is always a version of “What are we going to do about it?” When’s the last time someone said, “How are we going to think about it?”

Design thinking is popular these days. We design products, experiences, and even business models. But something is missing. We’ve embraced design thinking, but we’ve failed to design our thinking.

To design our thinking, we have to become adept at working with mental models and managing thinking styles. This requires both learning and unlearning.

We normally aren’t conscious of our mental models. They are the proverbial “water to the fish,” shaping how we see the world, make distinctions and connect cause and effect. It’s hard to see our own mental models. But we can see their reflections, like the shadows in Plato’s Cave, through our language.

For example, consider the way we think and talk about an organization. It is a body when we talk about the head of a department. (The word corporation comes from the Latin corporare, to combine in one body). It’s a machine when we talk about high-performance. It’s a species when we talk about ecosystems. It’s a brain when we talk about a learning organization. And it’s a computer when we talk about everyone being in sync.

Once we see the mental models that already exist, we can begin to design new ones. There is a saying that the map is not the territory. The design of mental models is the design of better maps to fit a changing landscape.

For example, social media has changed the nature of marketing. The old models — whether segments, funnels or campaigns — were linear, intermittent and asymmetrical. We need new models that are more continuous, multi-dimensional, and peer-to-peer.

The design of thinking is more how we think as individuals and what happens inside our heads. But we also have to design how we think as teams and what happens in our relationships.

Normally we think about building teams based on what people do. We select for skills and assign tasks and responsibilities. It’s a mental model that comes from teams. We put everyone in the right position. But we can also design teams based on how people think.

The first step is to understand what kind of thinker you are. I’ve outlined this simple process in an earlier article. Next, identify how everyone else on your team thinks. Now you’ve got the building blocks to begin designing the thinking of your team.

As an alternative mental model, think about your team as a portfolio of thinking styles. Just as you construct an investment portfolio differently for different investment objectives, you want construct your thinking portfolio.

Most teams need every kind of thinking style at one point or another. So just as geese tend to take turns leading the flock, different thinking styles should also take turns. In the beginning of the project, Explorers and Planners are helpful to set the strategy and structure the work effort. Then Connectors and Energizers take the lead to create the vision, access resources, and enroll the stakeholders.

As strategy and planning give way to execution and operations, those with a more micro orientation take the lead. Experts and Optimizers work together to work out the details and find the efficiencies. Meanwhile, Producers execute the plan and cross things off the list, while Coaches keep everyone engaged and performing at their best.

The shift from doing to thinking has consequences for the role of the team leader. First, the leader is responsible for maintaining the effectiveness and alignment of the team’s mental model. This is more than keeping the team informed. Information gets filtered in or out depending on the mental model. So team leaders are responsible for setting the context more than the content of people’s thinking.

Second, the leader is responsible for creating the right mix of thinking styles. Then, like an orchestra conductor, the leader chooses which thinking style comes to the fore at a particular point in time to carry the tune. Put too much focus on big picture thinking and the details won’t get done. Give too much emphasis on action and process thinking, and you will lose the vision or drop out trust and connection.

Thinking styles can also be helpful in making hiring and staffing decisions. Consider not just the experience and personality of the candidate, but also their thinking styles.

As an example, say you are hiring new sales team or adding to an existing team. What kind of thinking styles are most important? Do the salespeople need to come up with creative ideas? Look for an Explorer style. To structure effective solutions — Planner. To answer technical questions — Expert. To improve existing systems — Optimizer. To form coalitions — Connector. To build deep relationships — Coach. To push the pipeline — Producer. To close the deal— Energizer.

When hiring, also consider more than what they know and how fast they learn. You want people who are able to unlearn and shift their thinking. Do they have not only mental ability, but mental agility. In some roles, it’s also critical that they have an ability to the shift the thinking of others. Great leaders today are able to persuade by creating and shaping the mental models of their organizations and communities.

In this time of rapid change, it’s not enough to do new things. We have to think in new ways. This takes more than “getting out of the box.” We have to design a new box and, like a hermit crab, find a way to get from the old to the new. We can start by becoming conscious of our mental models, understanding our thinking styles, and conducting our teams as orchestras of diverse and complementary thinkers.


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.

A Good Digital Strategy Creates a Gravitational Pull

Thanks to social media, businesses need to change how they think about influence. You can control what you say in an ad, sales meeting, or company memo, but when people connect peer-to-peer, you lose direct control over what is said or done. The new challenge is how to have influence from a distance.

Our mental models — such as those that come from the battlefield or biology — are ill-suited for this challenge. To understand influence from a distance, we must look to a different kind of force: not mechanical or biological, but gravitational.

By definition, gravity is a force that attracts any object with mass. Every object is pulling on every other object in the universe, a fact that is known as Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation. Objects with greater mass exert more pull, and the strength of the force increases exponentially as objects move closer together.

Gravity has four attributes that are relevant to thinking about strategy in a digital age.

First, gravity is a force of attraction. As John Hagel and John Seely Brown have observed, business models are shifting from push to pull. Instead of pushing resources to meet expected demand, companies such as Uber and Zara enable customers to mobilize resources by pulling them in as need arises. A similar change is happening in marketing, as ad spend shifts from push strategies that broadcast a message to pull strategies that respond to or even predict customer interest. Gravity gives us a way of comparing the relative strength of a pull strategy, whether as a business platform or a method of engagement.

Second, gravity exerts influence at a distance. In a networked world, things are more interconnected but also more fragmented. As a result, there is a greater chance of events happening outside our field of view: In politics we have seen Brexit and the surprise result of the recent U.S. presidential election, while in business we see customer insurgencies like the one against New Balance. In addition, brands are recognizing the limited effectiveness of branded content they can control. Real influence comes from catalyzing trends and ideologies happening in the broader culture.

Third, gravity is ubiquitous. It’s no longer possible to control everything about your product. We need to assume that everything can and will be seen by anyone. Amazon plans its product launches on the assumption that the news will be leaked. Companies need to find ways to be everywhere, all the time. The media landscape has become too fragmented to only target individual audiences. People are now the new channel. Gravity gives us a way of thinking about reaching anyone at any time.

Fourth, gravity is exponential. The ability to harness exponential growth is a common element of disruptive business models and a key to successful platform strategies. The problem is that traditional ways of thinking about strategy are mechanical, and therefore incremental. Gravity gives us a way of thinking about strategy that is exponential. As gravity pulls an object closer, the gravitational effect increases exponentially.

Physics tells us that gravity is more complex than two objects pulling on each other like magnets. Einstein revealed that gravity warps space and time. Gravity puts curvature into the universe, like a bowling ball dropped in the center of a trampoline, altering the path that objects travel along. In a similar way, companies that use the gravity model to compete can warp the marketspace, altering the dynamics of their industry. They do more than hit their targets and push them through the sales funnel: They create an ongoing relationship that alters the trajectory of customers’ lives and companies’ operations.

To compete with gravity, your strategy needs to generate a force of attraction, pull people into its orbit, and help them pull others in, too. Here’s what you need:

  • Gravity Generators. To create a force of attraction, you have to go beyond thinking about value propositions and target audiences. Gravity originates in a shared purpose that is created with your stakeholders as cocreators, not just to or for them as consumers. Sephora, for example, creates gravity with a mission to “Beauty Together,” and relates to their customers as artists. Nike creates gravity with a mission to inspire the athlete in all of us, and relates to everyone as an athlete. Its saying is: “If you have a body, you are an athlete.”
  • Experiential Orbits. To turn purpose into profit, companies design orbits that keep customers (and other stakeholders) in an ongoing relationship beyond individual transactions, or orbit. Instead of using relationships to drive transactions, gravity companies embed transactions in relationships. Amazon’s Prime program is a sophisticated orbit, attracting members with a wide range of experiences, from shopping to ebooks to streaming media. Google and Apple have designed different kinds of orbits. Google’s orbit includes search, email, and maps; Apple’s has iTunes, Facetime, and the Genius Bar.
  • Force Multipliers. Companies competing on gravity create the equivalent of solar systems, with a shared purpose at the center and stakeholders in orbit around that purpose, like planets. But planets generate their own gravity. Your stakeholders’ networks are like moons around a planet. By helping them generate their own gravity, you attract others into your orbit. Vail Resorts does this with its EpicMix program, turning skiing into a social experience. Topgolf has done the same with its driving ranges. When you help people attract others, you become an even greater force of attraction.

The following questions are helpful for understanding how well you are generating gravity and warping marketspace to your advantage:

  • Is your narrative more about your products or your purpose? Is there a reason for people to want you to succeed in your mission even if they never buy anything from you?
  • What proportion of interactions with your company are not directly related to a transaction, either as sales or service? Do you create value for people beyond the products you sell?
  • What proportion of interactions about your brand or product happen without your direct involvement? How well do you support those interactions (without being in control of them)?

What does all this look like when you put it together? Imagine your industry as a galaxy. Each competitor has its own solar system. Your prospective customers are floating through space. Your job is to create enough gravity to pull them into your orbit. Your job is also to dislodge those on the outer edges of your competitors’ systems and bring them into yours.

Once they’re in orbit, you need to keep bringing them closer, increasing their loyalty and advocacy and attracting peers from their networks into yours. As the mass of your solar (or social) system grows, so does the gravity you generate. If your gravity weakens, a competitor will come along and attract customers away.

Competitive advantage has traditionally been about higher barriers to entry. Now it’s increasingly about generating a greater force of attraction.


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.

Little Data Makes Big Data More Powerful

You may not know this, but Big Data has a little brother. And together, Big and Little Data are far more powerful than Big Data alone.

Big Data is what organizations know about people — be they customers, citizens, employees, or voters. Data is aggregated from a large number of sources, assembled into a massive data store, and analyzed for patterns. The results are more accurate predictions, more targeted communications, and more personalized services. Big Data is what enables banks to predict credit card fraud by analyzing billions of transactions, marketers to understand customer sentiment by analyzing millions of interactions on social media, and retailers to target promotions and offers by analyzing millions of purchases.

In contrast, Little Data is what we know about ourselves. What we buy. Who we know. Where we go. How we spend our time. We’ve always had a sense for these things — after all, it’s our lives. But thanks to the combination of mobile, social, and cloud technologies, it’s easier than ever to gain insight into our own behavior.

As an example, consider the emerging field of mobile health. Portable devices like the FitBit or Nike FuelBand measure your activity level and sync with your smartphone. The associated mobile app gives feedback, encouragement, and rewards as you reach your goals. New research shows that people who use tracking technologies are more likely to be successful in losing weight and getting in shape.

A similar trend is underway in energy conservation. The company Opower partners with utilities to give customers visibility into how their electricity consumption compares with the average of their neighborhood.

Big and Little Data differ in three primary ways:

  • Focus: The focus of Big Data is to advance organizational goals, while Little Data helps individuals achieve personal goals.
  • Visibility: Individuals can’t see Big Data; Little Data helps them see better.
  • Control: Big Data is controlled by organizations, while Little Data is controlled by individuals. Companies grant permission for individuals to access Big Data, while individuals grant permission to organizations to access Little Data.

Without Little Data, Big Data has a tendency to become Big Brother. We’ve all experienced that unsettling feeling when ads follow us on the web, a practice marketers call retargeting. And retailers have gotten into trouble when Big Data predicts things about people they don’t even know themselves.

On the other hand, Little Data without Big Data is incomplete. One complaint about portable fitness devices is that they aren’t sufficiently prescriptive. They don’t tell you what to do based on your behavior. How much activity should I be getting? If I’m not sleeping well, what can I do to sleep better? This requires a partnership with individuals and health care providers to combine tracking with advice and treatment.

Or consider the experience of grocery shopping. We are all familiar with the coupons we get when we checkout at the register. In the time it takes for you to sign your credit card slip, a massive database analyzes what you bought today, what you bought in the past, and what people like you tend to buy, then matches it to the available offers and prints out a personalized set of coupons. A classic case of Big Data.

But what does this scenario look like with Little Data? Start by applying the three steps:

  • Shift Focus: How can we help individuals achieve their goals?
  • Make it Visible: How can we give people visibility into their own data?
  • Share Control: How can the relationship be more reciprocal?

Putting these together, we can imagine a different kind of shopping experience. The Little Data alone could be used to create a personal shopping assistant that lets you:

  • Generate shopping lists automatically based on what you’ve purchased in the past. This feature could be used to send a reminder while you are right in the store, e.g. “Don’t forget the milk!”
  • Bring promotions to you based on your interests. For example, instead of paging through the entire circular, you could find out if there are specials on any of your favorite brands.
  • Provide useful information to guide purchasing decisions. For example, the assistant could alert you to foods with ingredients that might trigger food allergies.

Things get really interesting when we combine the power of Big Data with Little Data. For example, as a shopper, I’m interested to know which brands have the highest loyalty or what else people might have on their Thanksgiving shopping list. There might even be patterns that could predict which foods I am most likely to enjoy based on what others buy who share similar purchase histories. (Think of this as the Netflix of food.)

This connection between Big and Little Data applies in other areas as well. Consider the smart thermostat made by Nest, which automatically adjusts itself to your preferences and behavior. A utility company could connect the Little Data from Nest devices to the Big Data from its power grid. Nest customers could then benchmark their energy usage against others in the community. Furthermore, the sense of shared purpose and the greater transparency and control give individuals greater incentive to share information and participate in energy saving initiatives.

This partnership between Big and Little Data can apply to almost any industry, from travel and financial services to health care and government. While companies build up their business intelligence teams and hire (Big) Data scientists, companies should also look to create services based on Little Data that empower their customers. These services would enable customers to pull information towards them when they need it, instead of just trying to figure out what message to send and when to send it. They would enable customers to make better decisions themselves, instead of trying to figure it out for them. This is a new way of thinking, and a new way of engaging customers. Perhaps we need a new generation of (Little) Data scientists to figure it out.

There is no doubt that Big Data will transform business. But in an age of connected and empowered individuals, precision targeting must be balanced with personal value. If you want to build loyalty, spend less time using data to tell customers about you, and spend more time telling them something about themselves.


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.

Three Steps to Generating Social Gravity

In a social age, people don’t like to be pushed. As described in my last post, top brands like Apple, Google, and Nike are using a new model based on pulling rather than pushing. They create a gravitational field that attracts customers into orbit around their brand.

This kind of social gravity isn’t just about how many likes you can get on Facebook. This is about enduring, meaningful, and authentic relationships with your customers and the people in their lives.

How can you shift from push to pull and create your own social gravity? With three basic steps: Purpose provides the Why; Platforms the What; and Partners the How.

1. Shared Purpose
The objective of Push marketing is to convince a customer to make a purchase. In contrast, the objective of Pull marketing is to achieve a shared purpose. At Sears Holdings, where I work, the Craftsman brand of tools and equipment has an orbit strategy for do-it-yourselfers. The Craftsman Experience studio in Chicago creates live experiences and professionally produced content to help members of the Craftsman community create and accomplish their DIY projects. The focus isn’t on the immediate purchase, but on achieving the shared purpose of creativity, craftsmanship and accomplishment. This shared purpose attracts existing Craftsman customers, and leads them to bring along their DIY friends as well.

2. Engagement Platforms
While Push marketers focus on products, Pull marketers focus on engagement platforms. These platforms are what engage customers outside the purchase process and deliver value beyond the products being sold. Some of the most well known engagement platforms are Google’s search engine, Apple’s iTunes music manager, and the Nike+ running community. Google, Apple and Nike don’t charge people for using these platforms. But they keep their customers in frequent orbit around the brand, and make it easy for customers to purchase a product, whether an ad, song, or shoe.

Engagement platforms are built from multiple layers working together. The identity layer recognizes the customer. The data layer exchanges information to personalize the experience. The relationship layer enables connection among the brand and community members. Finally, the value layer delivers benefits to the users.

One of the reasons why orbit strategies are becoming so popular is that social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Google provide ready-made identity, data, and relationship layers. All you have to do is figure out the right engagement strategy for the value layer.

There are five types of engagement strategies that are particularly common.

a. Content, e.g. Huffington Post
b. Conversation, e.g. Facebook
c. Collaboration, e.g. Quora
d. Contribution, e.g. Kickstarter
e. Commerce, e.g. Groupon

These aren’t the only strategies. Pinterest, for example, has popularized a new category around curation. And don’t think you have to be a startup or media company. Kraft Foods has built a very effective orbit strategy around recipes, combining content, conversation, and commerce. And innovation firm PSFK uses curated content to generate gravity for its research and consulting business.

3. Collaborative Partners
Partners are a powerful way of amplifying your gravitational field. By combining forces, you can multiply the value of your service and bring in new constituencies. In addition, partners can add credibility. They reinforce that you are seeking to create value and build relationships beyond pushing products.

Apple’s platforms are integrally connected with partners, whether music companies for iTunes or developers for the App store. When IBM sought to engage mid-market companies, it partnered with GOOD to launch the GOOD Co. project. And Kraft Foods recently partnered with HSN to bring commerce to its recipe community.

Keep in mind that your own customers should be collaborative partners. Threadless sources designs for its t-shirts from its customers, and lets the community pick which ones to produce. And P&G sources new innovation ideas from outside the company through its Connect+Develop program.

There are many ways to create customer gravity. Start with a purpose both you and your customer care about, and for which you have something to bring to the table. Then create an engagement platform that creates value using one of the types of value mentioned here, or create your own. Finally, look for partners who can bring expertise, resources, credibility, and reach.

With purpose, platforms, and partners, you are ready to build social gravity. So stop pushing and start pulling!


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.

You Are What You Read: Creating an Information Diet for Thought Partnership

You Are What You Read: Creating an Information Diet for Thought Partnership

To keep your world view up to date and your brand relevant, one of the most important things you can do is to find, share, and create thought-provoking content. And, in the social media age, you need to make sure that content you’re sending out invites response and dialog too. In order to generate a steady flow of high-quality content you’ll need a plan to keep it both manageable and compelling.