How to Change Culture When Culture is Entrenched
Posted on Wednesday, Jul 19, 2017 by Michael Canic

Cultural change is hard. Especially so in a massive organization where that culture is deeply entrenched. Yet that was Mary Barra’s task when she took over the helm of GM three years ago.

GM was known for being slow to decide and slow to act. For years they had tolerated numerous money-losing operations all in the name of sales volume and market share. And the culture was one of blaming and avoiding blame.

Yet Barra has made significant strides in turning the ship. How has she done it?

1) Messaging

Under Barra, new and oft-repeated messages such as “good stewards of our owners’ money”, “customer first”, and “transformational leadership” reflect the shifting priorities of the company.

2) Walking the Talk

Of course, messaging without action is hollow. So in support of the good stewards message, Barra has either shutdown or sold off unprofitable operations in a number of countries. The priority has shifted from growing sales volume and market share to selling fewer vehicles and making more money.

In support of transformational leadership, Barra has insisted that senior executives participate in a yearlong development program, and that her top reports attend a quarterly, two-day session that she leads designed to improve how they interact. Her belief is that changing top managers’ behaviors will lead to positive role modeling and will give permission to their managers to adopt the new behaviors. Behaviors such as raising issues early, and recognizing, not blaming, those who do.

3) Managing Moments of Truth

The customer first message was tested early on in Barra’s tenure. A 2014 report was released investigating GM’s faulty ignition switch issue. The fault had led to numerous accidents and deaths. The report ripped GM’s management for a lack of urgency, not taking responsibility, and not being accountable.

This was a moment of truth. Would GM fight every claim to the bitter end or would it embody “customer first”? Barra made sure the company accepted responsibility, explicitly apologized, and authorized the lawyer in charge of the claims process to determine how much compensation should be awarded, without imposing a cap. The total: $600 million.

It’s too early to declare victory in the cultural transformation of GM. After all, this is a huge organization with a deeply entrenched cultural legacy. But Barra has made impressive changes that are visible to people both within and outside of GM.

Get clear on your messaging. Make sure you walk the talk, and insist that every leader does. And know that how you respond in those rare moments of truth will go a long way to determining your impact and defining your legacy.

Make it happen.


Why You May NOT Want to Attract More Customers
Posted on Monday, Jul 10, 2017 by Michael Canic

“How do we get more customers?”

It’s a question every business asks. The answer for many: Create more product and service options that attract customers.

Like toothpaste. I no longer simply buy toothpaste. I buy cavity-preventing, tartar-fighting, teeth-whitening toothpaste that leaves my breath minty fresh (and I prefer spearmint to peppermint).

Yet is more choice always better? One study found that more shoppers were attracted to a display of 24 jams than to a display of 6 jams (60% vs. 40% stopped to look). So far, so good. But … in the first case, only 3% of those who stopped went on to purchase. In the second instance, 30% of those who stopped went on to purchase.

Well, things aren’t so simple, are they? The factors that attract customers may not be the same as the factors that lead them to buy. So answer this: Is the goal to attract more customers or to convert more customers (to buying)?

The answer, when presented as an either-or: neither. Attracting more customers can be a costly exercise and, if your conversion rate is low, the cost-of-acquisition-per-customer may be excessive. You keep filling the funnel but little spits out the other end.

On the other hand, attracting only customers who are very likely to buy may unnecessarily limit your potential market. You’ve got great flow through the funnel but you just don’t have enough intake.

The goal is to optimize the combination of attraction-and-conversion. Effectiveness and efficiency. The sweet spot where you attract a significant number of potential customers and efficiently convert them into real customers. The place that balances the volume of acquisition and the cost of acquisition.

Final point: Why would providing more options, and attracting more customers, lead to a lower conversion rate? Because more options can make it harder for the customer to decide. Too many choices can be bewildering. They can cause the customer to overthink things and second-guess themselves.

Don’t attract potential customers only to make life difficult for them. Attract them and make it easy for them to decide, and to buy.

Find the sweet spot.

Make it happen.


Why You Shouldn’t Pursue a Sustainable Competitive Advantage
Posted on Monday, Jul 3, 2017 by Michael Canic

It’s one of the most accepted truisms of business strategy: You should pursue a sustainable competitive advantage. It could take the form of a unique business model, a proprietary process, special skills, or any number of things that allow you to dominate your competitive space. That’s the gold standard of strategy.

And it’s a lie.

There’s no such thing as a sustainable competitive advantage. Blackberry didn’t have it. Blockbuster didn’t have it. Kodak didn’t have it. Borders didn’t have it. Yahoo didn’t have it. Do I need to go on?

Help me out here. Exactly which companies do have a sustainable competitive advantage?

There is no such thing. And how could there be? Societal factors change, technology evolves, markets are in flux. The entire context within which any business operates is always subject to change.

And if you think you have a sustainable competitive advantage you get complacent. You take your foot off the gas. You become vulnerable.

If you’re pursuing a sustainable competitive advantage you overlook the very thing that strategy is truly about: continually creating temporary competitive advantages. Because the one assumption you can make in business is that any advantage you have will be copied, leap-frogged or made obsolete. That’s why smart companies constantly experiment. So they can create new competitive advantages. Sure, they won’t last forever, but they don’t have to.

Some people are uncomfortable with all of this. As a last gasp they’ll say that ongoing innovation is the one true sustainable competitive advantage. Sorry to disappoint you: No. Your innovations might be met with a collective shrug by the marketplace. No advantage in that. Or they might prove to be too costly. Or too dependent on factors outside of your control. So what we’re left with is that ongoing innovation provides a sustainable competitive advantage only if it can be translated into a sustainable competitive advantage. Hmmm, not much help.

Forget sustainable. Embrace temporary. Let your competitors live the lie. You keep experimenting.

Make it happen.


Why Doing Less Allows You to Accomplish More
Posted on Monday, Jun 26, 2017 by Michael Canic

If there’s one thing I’m relentless about when it comes to strategy, it’s do less.

Every company I have ever consulted with, regardless of size, sophistication or sector, tries to take on too much. Too many objectives, too many strategies, too many projects.

Which is why I love a book I recently came across, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown. The premise is that when you discern what is absolutely essential, and then eliminate everything that is not, you make “the highest possible contribution toward the things that really matter.”

When your organization takes on too many initiatives, it’s inevitable that some, and likely many, will fail. Over time, you create a track record of failure. You create an expectation of failure. You create an acceptance of failure. And you create a culture of failure. Failure becomes the norm.

The tragedy of taking on too much is how it becomes so easy for people – starting with you – to rationalize anything other than success. And how it becomes so hard to get your people to believe in and support the next initiative. The culture of failure becomes self-perpetuating.

As an antidote to this, McKeown describes how Essentialists commit to, “the disciplined pursuit of less”, not, “the undisciplined pursuit of more”. How they believe, “almost everything is nonessential”, not “almost everything is essential”. And how they are comfortable thinking, “less but better”, not “all things to all people”.

When you focus on less, concentrate your energy and resources, and accept no excuses, you accomplish more. And you build an expectation that when your organization commits to something, it gets done. Now you’re creating a culture of success.

Everything is a choice. Choose to do less.

Make it happen.


How to Have “FUN” with Failure
Posted on Monday, Jun 19, 2017 by Michael Canic

You’re going to love this. (But, first, a disclaimer: if you’re easily offended by harsh language then you may not want to read this post …)

Okay, you’re in. Remember how I’ve been making the case that failure in business can actually be a gift ( Well, one organization is taking it to a whole new level.

FUN – which is an acronym for FuckUp Nights (yes, really) – is a global movement founded in Mexico with the purpose of publicly sharing stories of business failures for the benefit of others. At FUN events, each speaker is given 7 minutes and can use up to 10 images to tell their story of failure. After each story, the audience, which can range from dozens to hundreds, is invited to take part in a Q&A session. Think of it like a Ted Talk for failure but with the added benefit of interaction with the speaker. Cap it all off with time for networking and drinks, and you can see how this would be one fucked up evening (sorry, I had to).

Check out their website ( and you’ll see that this is a much bigger deal than you realize.

So here’s the question: How could you adapt this concept inside your organization to promote the collective learning that can come from failure? How might this create a safe environment for your team members to come clean on the failures that all of us experience? And, as a collateral benefit, what do think it would do for openness and trust?

Are you seeing the possibilities? Why not have some FUN?

Make it happen.


Why Leaders, Now More Than Ever, Should Rise Above
Posted on Monday, Jun 12, 2017 by Michael Canic

Incivility is becoming a dangerous norm. We have politicians acting with blatant disrespect. We have media attacking other media for what gets reported and how. We have events at which people shout down speakers whose views they disagree with. And we have protests (and counter-protests) the tone of which has shifted from peaceful expression to aggressive provocation. Little wonder that many feel we are in the midst of an Uncivil War.

But there’s more.

We have allowed truth to be redefined. Now, if we disagree with or simply don’t like a point-of-view, we label it as fake. We attack the information, attack the source, attack the channel … we attack everything except our own beliefs. Being right, regardless of how little knowledge or expertise we have, is more important than learning. It seems we are entering an Age of Unenlightenment.

What does this have to do with business? Simply this: I believe we need more role models of civility. I believe that as a society we would benefit from, and should recommit to, civil behavior and the pursuit of truth. And I believe organizational leaders can play a critical role in achieving this.

If you share these beliefs, here are two simple principles you can adopt:

  1. Be an Ambassador of Civility. Respect each person, first, as a person. Acknowledge people when you see them. Make polite requests. Explicitly thank people. Demonstrate respect at all times, not just even if you disagree but especially if you disagree. Demonstrating respect is not a commentary on them; it’s a commentary on you.
  2. Value being curious more than being right. Lease your beliefs; don’t own them. When presented with an opposing view, say: “Help me understand why you believe that.” “Do you know of evidence which supports that view?” “What do you think I might be overlooking?” Just make sure you’re asking with the intent to learn, not to counterattack.

We don’t have to lower ourselves to the emerging standards of conduct. It’s a choice. Choose to rise above.

Make it happen.


How Teamwork Benefits Individual Performance
Posted on Monday, Jun 5, 2017 by Michael Canic

Winning the Indy 500 is one of the great achievements of motorsport. The winner, who must outduel 32 other competitors on race day, epitomizes the synthesis of courage, skill and judgment. The names of iconic individuals – Andretti, Foyt, Unser – are etched in the minds of racing fans far and wide.

Which is why it’s so easy to overlook the importance of teamwork in auto racing.

One of the competitors in this year’s Indy 500 was a rookie from Spain. He had never raced at Indy before. He had never raced on any oval track before. If fact he had never even driven an Indy car before. Yet with the race winding down he was in the thick of the battle to win it.

Two-time Formula 1 World Champion, Fernando Alonso, decided to skip the Monaco Grand Prix (Monaco, of all races!) and commit to an intensive effort to win the Indy 500 – one of his long-time goals. He joined forces with Team Andretti (owned by Michael, son of the legendary Mario) and became one of their six drivers for the race.

It’s important to know that in the world of auto racing, teammates are also fierce competitors. Their desire to assert themselves as the unquestioned alpha of the pack has led many of them to push beyond the edge resulting in calamity both on and off the track.

Yet Team Andretti insists that everyone, including drivers, engineers and technical staff, shares all information and insights related to car set-up, car performance, driver preferences, and driver performance. The clear intention is that the more intelligence the team has access to, the more each driver will benefit, and the more likely it is that one of the team’s drivers will win. Are the drivers still fiercely competitive on the track? Absolutely. Does the environment dictate that that competitiveness is subordinate to the interests of the team? Absolutely.

In the weeks leading up to the race, Alonso benefitted greatly from information, coaching, and on-track practice, mock-racing his teammates. The complete openness and willingness to help was unlike anything he had ever experienced.

In the closing stages of the race, Alonso, who already had led many laps but had dropped back due to race strategy, was again bearing down on the frontrunners. Could it happen, could he actually win it?!

And then his engine blew.

The driver immediately in front of him, teammate Takuma Sato, went on to win. And who was there cheering on Sato at the very end? Fernando Alonso.

How do you fan the competitive flames while ensuring they don’t overwhelm the interests of the big team? Do your processes, policies, measures and rewards reinforce the right balance of competitiveness and teamwork? Are you clear about what winning looks like?

Make it happen.



How One Company Reflects its Values in Business Practices
Posted on Monday, May 29, 2017 by Michael Canic

While in the UK recently, whenever I had the urge for fresh and tasty take-away food I would seek out a Pret a Manger. Pret (as it is commonly known) is an international, ready-to-eat food chain. With a creative selection of sandwiches, salads, soups and wraps, you could easily fall in love with this chain for the food alone.

Yet what also struck me were their values. No, not simply values that reside in the world of concepts and ideals. But values that reside in the world of business practices.

Like Food Waste. Pret claims that every night they donate their fresh food to charities to help the hungry (instead of selling it the next day). And what made me believe they really give away all their food at the end of each day? One evening, after I picked up and paid for my late night snack, the cashier handed me a scrumptious looking fruit, seeds and oats bar, and said, “Why not take this? We’ve got lots of extra food today.”

Like Sourcing. Pret sources only from companies that are committed to higher animal welfare standards (for example, chickens that are ethically-raised), and sustainable farming practices (like pole & line caught tuna).

People don’t care so much about your company’s values. They care about how you bring those values to life. The behaviors, the practices that reflect those values.

I can conceptualize values, but I can visualize behaviors and practices. And visualization evokes emotion far more powerfully than conceptualization.

What do you want your customers to visualize?

Make it happen.


The Mindset of Those who are Intensely Committed
Posted on Monday, May 22, 2017 by Michael Canic

How committed are you to winning?

It's a question I've asked thousands of business leaders. The overwhelming response – unsurprisingly – is "100% committed", "totally committed", "all in".

I'll let you in on a secret: most leaders aren’t as committed as they think they are.

Yuichiro Miura is commitment. Back in the 1970's he famously became "The Man Who Skied Down Everest” and had a film made about his exploit. Not content to bask in his success, Miura looked for a new challenge and, at the age of 70, became the oldest person to summit Mt. Everest.

Then, two heart operations followed by a shattered pelvis from a ski accident. It was time to wind things down.

But not for Miura. In 2013, at the age of 80, he summitted Everest again!

So what makes him so committed?

“The key to living life to the fullest is to have a big challenge. The bigger your goals and dreams are, the more you will be filled with what in Japan we call ikigai, or purpose in life.”

Now 84, Miura is finally ready to rest and look back at his accomplishments.

You weren’t going to buy that, were you? Here’s Miura's new goal: to become the first person to summit Everest at the age of 90. Ninety!

What artificial limits have you placed on yourself? What excuses have you allowed yourself? One more time: How committed are you to winning?

Answer: Not as committed as you thought you were. But you need to be.

If an 80-year-old man can summit Mt. Everest, then what’s your excuse?

Make it happen.


Why There is No “Hope” for Your Business
Posted on Monday, May 15, 2017 by Michael Canic

I always cringe when I hear statements like:

“I hope our digital media campaign drives sales.”

“I hope we can find a solid replacement for our VP of HR.”

“I hope the new software will improve our productivity.”

Hope. Even if it isn’t meant literally, it conveys a mindset. That you’re not taking full responsibility for the outcome. That somehow it’s in the hands of the fates.

I don’t want to hear about your hopes. I want to hear about your intentions. And what actions you’re going to take to make sure those intentions get translated into outcomes. Hope implies it’s out of your control. It provides an easy excuse for when the desired outcomes aren’t achieved.

Rarely will you have total control in business. Fortunately, the game isn’t about having total control. It’s about maximizing influence, especially when you don’t have total control. How you tilt the odds in your favor. How you anticipate what could go well, and plan to exploit it. How you anticipate what might not go well, and plan to prevent or mitigate it.

Intentions, not hope. Influence, not control.

Language shapes mindset. Hope is not a management strategy. My intention is that now you’ll understand the difference.

Make it happen.



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