B2B Strategy, Thinking, Doing, and Solitude

Ed Marsh | May 4, 2021

Tl;dr (Too long, didn't read - an executive summary you can use to decide if you want to read the whole article) - Talking strategy as a bullet point in weekly meetings isn't enough. Research indicates that our environments impair our cognition, and I'm increasingly encountering really smart, capable, successful business people who not only don't spend enough time on strategy but can't even free up enough time to ingest ideas, cogitate and formulate their own business thesis. That's a problem.

We Keep the Routine Going

Bill deresiewicz writes on thought and the impact of solitude on leadership decisions and B2B StrategyIn a speech delivered to the plebe (freshmen) class at West Point in 2009, William Deresiewicz offered no quarter. (h/t to Shane Parrish and his Farnam Street Blog.) Here's what he said.

We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place. What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of exper­tise. What we don’t have are leaders.

What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army—a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.

Think about it. 

When something deviates from the plan operationally, we talk RCCA (root cause corrective action) - how to get it back to routine.

When we talk about competitors, we get reflexive answers listing the 3-10 direct competitors without regard for other ways buyers solve the problem - we focus on the routine.

When we budget for next year, we follow a routine in which we start with this year as a baseline and adjust up or down from there.

When we consider acquisitions we stay comfortably within our routine by limiting our search to the inane extensions of what we already do, rather than strategic forays into what we should do.

Even most "innovators" actually follow the same linear formulation that's so prevalent.

This is the habit that is pervasive.

It's not that people aren't capable of brilliant and creative thought. Rather we're fighting two trends that limit it.

First, the technocratic trends noted by Deresiewicz above which constrain thought reflexively based on training and corporate expectations.

Second, as he continues;

Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.

Remember, he was talking to college freshmen - so the 20 seconds examples he uses might not resonate as much as email, zoom meetings, phone calls, etc.

Therefore Companies "Experience" Events Rather Than Navigate Them

Recently I've chatted with various executives in capital equipment companies about inflation trends that will impact their customers, and even the rising cost of lumber (machine crating), steel (machine building), and shortages of semiconductors (machine controllers) and even rubber.

To a person, they've been aware of most of the issues by absorbing general information from periodic news coverage. And, to a person, none had paused to consider the implications to their business.

Again, this isn't a criticism. These are capable, intelligent, "open-minded" and successful business people.

But they are prisoners of the hyper-kinetic business management culture which is task obsesses, meeting heavy and email overwhelmed.

None that I know take even an afternoon or morning every week for a Julia Cameron type "artist's date" to allow themselves solitude and thoughtful inspiration to let ideas gestate. Deresiewicz continues:

I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.

Instead, as Deresiewicz says, they are "continuously bombarding (themselves) with a stream of other people’s thoughts. (They) are marinating (themselves) in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for (themselves.) (They) are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear (their) own voice, whether it’s (themselves) (they)’re thinking about or anything else."

Perhaps the saddest manifestation is when business leaders eschew the grind and block time for a meeting on a big topic - but not time before to focus their thoughts or time after to cogitate. When the discussion is sandwiched betwixt zoom calls and emails, the ideas never really get careful consideration to determine which are worthwhile, which are junk, and which would lead to a combination or other ideas.

And no doubt many are silly, and would divert attention from the limited number of areas on which a business can reasonably focus. But in the long term, the process of thinking is as important as the outcomes. With attention to the former, the latter will improve.

Is There a Solution?

Of course, the answer is yes.

And, of course, it's not easy.

There are two parts.

First, recognizing the limiting habits - addressing the business issues and culture. It's easy to talk about blocking time without email, limiting meetings, delegating, etc. It's much harder to actually do it and to assiduously hold others accountable.

Second, building good habits - cultivating reading, thinking, and discovering. This requires:

  • cultivating a manageable but aggressive and very diverse set of sources that cover economics, politics, decision making, learning, management, society, and industry specifics
  • building a mastermind network (formal or informal) of interesting, thoughtful business leaders from various industries
  • blocking out time on a daily and weekly basis for book reading, newsletter reading, podcast listening, consumption of arts, and solitude/thinking
  • finding a tool/methodology to discipline oneself in this process, capture notes and reflections, and facilitate that emergence and recognition of ideas. (Roam Research may be the thing - you can create your own personal knowledge graph.)
  • taking key executives (and investors) on the journey with you so that you foster a team that's capable of the thought necessary to navigate the dramatic and rapid change we experience

You will encounter limitations.

  • You've probably created cultural expectations around email and meetings. Those will take time and relentless discipline to reshape.
  • It's likely that you've enabled mediocre performance from mid-level managers who aren't fully reliable or accountable in execution or judgment. You might have hired poorly, or failed to develop. Either way, there will be challenges to reset expectations.
  • Investors will challenge you. Be prepared to manage upwards as you undertake the work that's important to deliver long-term value to them. You might include them in the journey.
  • Standing meetings will eventually have to be disrupted.

And you'll be questioned - by others who won't understand what you're doing or why it's important - and by yourself when you have moments of pain and discomfort breaking comfortable routines to spend time on pursuits without an immediate or clear payoff.

In those moments of solitude, information harvest, and cogitation you'll experience moments of clarity, peace, and confidence as well as moments of deep worry and disquiet. And you may even discover that your current investors/partners are so constrained in their own thinking that you can't flourish in that environment.

The B2B Strategy Payoff

The result will be exciting and energizing.

You'll achieve a degree of clarity and vision that you'll likely realize in retrospect you never experienced as you tirelessly pursued a rigorous daily routine full of meetings and emails, and focused on running your business.

And your business strategy - not a detailed five-year plan, but an informed set of themes and approaches which will reflect your broader understanding of forces that will act on your business directly and indirectly - will be vastly improved.

You'll still have regular operational, execution, HR, and client challenges. But you'll see and manage them in a bigger context.

And of course, you'll "fail" because you'll reach incorrect conclusions which you'll have to amend. 

By doing so, you'll still be well ahead of competitors challenged by constrained thinking.

Get a Coach & Find Your Mastermind

This might be the perfect trigger to engage an executive coach to help you navigate the change and hold you accountable.

It's also probably the right time to find (or create) a good mastermind group for yourself. You'll need to find people with similar philosophies, but widely different backgrounds and professions. (Think data scientist, medical ethicist, 3D printing engineer, battery physicist, regulatory attorney, customer representative, etc.)

Or, Just Keep Doing the Same Thing

It's up to you....NOT your circumstances.