Thought Sparks Wrap Up — July 2021

Dear Colleagues, 

Welcome to the monthly wrap-up of my weekly Thought Sparks newsletters. I’ll summarize here – for greater depth, check out my channel on Substack and consider subscribing.  

A no-nonsense guide to measuring innovation mastery (July 6, 2021)

What is it like to work in an organization that has attained high levels of innovation mastery?  It’s growth-oriented, future-focused and unrelentingly positive.  And by taking small steps, the place you work can be more like that, too.

Forget ‘best practices’ - every firm tackles the innovation challenge in its own way.  What you can measure is the presence, or absence, of factors that suggest higher or lower levels of mastery.  This prompted us at Valize to develop a simple, but powerful survey instrument which you can use to trace indicators of innovation mastery at your own organization.  For more information and to watch a video explainer, head over to

3 Ways to Completely Mess Up Customer Surveys (July 13, 2021)

Customer surveys are everywhere – and most of them aren’t going to offer one ounce of insight. Instead, learn to use them properly and for the right reasons

Customer surveys are inescapable these days.  They include pop ups that ask how you are enjoying using the product while you are trying to get something entirely else done.  Then there are the ones that beg you to hang out in your on-line session to ‘answer a few questions about our service’.  Or, my latest all-time favorite, a bank whose employees make sure to tell you when your business is complete that you’re going to get a survey about them and “anything less than a perfect 10 will be problematic for me.” Not kidding, that happened to me just this past week.  Here’s the problem – most of these things aren’t worth the digital ink that’s spilled on them.  So, how to do better? 

  • Use relative, not absolute, measures 

  • Include a dependent variable 

  • Remember the “zone of indifference” 

The Lesson of the Direct to Consumer Revolution: Strategy 101 still matters (July 20)

Every so often a new business model, often enabled by technology, takes the world by storm, attracts a lot of hype, eventually proves unable to live up to the headlines and disappears or becomes a shadow of its former self.  The latest entries in this category? Direct to consumer companies.

A fundamental law of strategy is that absent barriers to entry of some kind, others are likely to copy or match whatever you do, if it's working.  DTC companies are really easy to set up.  Guess what, that applies to their competitors, too. By the time Casper tried for its IPO, there were reportedly something like 175 other mattress-in-a-box companies.   

This massive amount of potential new entry showed up just where it could hurt the DTC firms.  Sure, you didn’t have to advertise on television. But hundreds of DTC companies flooded Facebook and other platforms looking to attract eyeballs with paid advertising.  The price of said advertising and the availability of said eyeballs got out of whack.  

It’s back to strategy reality for many of these brands. 

Key Ingredients of a Killer Prototype  (July 27)

We often think of prototyping as something only a gifted designer or developer can do. But there are lots of examples in the real world of how ordinary people can pull it off.  If you can draw a stick figure, you can prototype!

Prototypes played a part in the launches of some really big ideas.  Dropbox, used a 2009 video to illustrate the usefulness of having one file that would provide access to documents across multiple devices.  Amazon’s Jeff Bezos bought books and mailed them himself from conventional bookstores before building out his warehousing infrastructure.  Netflix tested whether DVD’s could be mailed by…well, mailing one!  Google’s popular adwords product reportedly used frantically typing students to test the concept before building out the automated version of the product. In 1999 Nick Swinmurn, a software engineer, couldn’t find the shoes he was looking for in a local store.  That gave him the idea of selling a wide selection of shoes on-line. But, nobody knew if people would actually buy shoes online.  So, similar to Bezos, he took photos of shoes from conventional sellers and advertised them on his website. When people clicked to buy, he bought them and sent them off.  That was the beginning of Zappos!  The key idea here is to get real reactions to your business from real customers before you invest in building out the product.   

Get in Touch, Keep in Touch.

For lots of content and free downloads check the web site of my sister company Valize or email us at

In the Press 

Upcoming Events 

August 6:  Friday Fireside Chat - Rita McGrath  & Jayshree Seth

Jayshree Seth, Ph.D., is a corporate scientist and chief science advocate for 3M Company, where she has worked for over 27 years to advance science and develop new technologies and environmentally sustainable industrial products. She has over 70 patents to her name (with more on the way), received the incredibly prestigious Society for Women Engineers Achievement Award and is one of the few top performing scientists to be inducted into the 3M Carlton Society. We're going to be talking about her book "The Heart of Science," what its like to be among the pioneering women in STEM and whatever else she'd like to discuss!

August 13:  Friday Fireside Chat - Rita McGrath  &  Rob Siegel

When I learned that Rob Siegel had been the lead researcher for Andy Grove's book "Only the Paranoid Survive," I knew I just had to meet him! Today, he is a lecturer in management at Stanford, is a partner in a venture investment fund, sits on a bunch of boards and is generally very plugged in to the Stanford / Silicon Valley ecosystem. I'm excited to learn his views on where things go from here with tech and beyond as we move through whatever this is.

August 20: Friday Fireside Chat - Rita McGrath & Jeff Saviano

Quick: When I say "tax guy" at a Big Four accounting firm, my guess is your pulse doesn't start to quicken. But in the case of Jeff Saviano, you'll find a delightful departure from that stereotype. Jeff hosts a podcast called "Better Innovation," is the EY Tax Innovation Leader for the firm and has just been appointed to the U.S. Department of Commerce Trade Finance Advisory Council (TFAC) (that's a big deal). I'm thrilled to be chatting to Jeff about how he sees the big changes in the world of tech and trade and what he's working on now. Oh, and we might talk taxes too.

August 26: Lou Carter Show with Louis Carter & Rita McGrath

The thing about inflection points is that steady-state is not an option. You’re either going to seize the moment and thrive or miss it and suffer a setback. The good news is that using the tools built for high-uncertainty environments, you can move forward into the future with more confidence. Rita McGrath will share her insights about how you can take a disciplined approach to planning your next steps.

August 27: Friday Fireside Chat - Rita McGrath & Zachary Karabell

I first met Zachary Karabell when he was enrolled in my Columbia Executive Education program "Leading Strategic Growth and Change" and he made a big impression on me all those years ago. I'm delighted to catch up with him to talk about his rich collection of activities - he has a brand new book out about Brown Brothers Harriman and the way capitalism used to work. He is an author and columnist, the founder of the Progress Network at New America, and president of River Twice Research and River Twice Capital. He's written many other books and is a regular columnist and commentator. An all around fascinating person I'm looking forward to chatting with.

Events Calendar

Replay Past Events 

Friday Fireside Chat - Rita McGrath  &  George Stalk

Friday Fireside Chat - Rita McGrath  &  Dessa

The Davos of Human Capital with Duke CE

Friday Fireside Chat - Rita McGrath  & David Bornstein

July at Valize

As you may know, I founded a company, Valize, with the intention of turning great thoughts into great actions.  We help companies with changing their thinking, solving thorny strategy and innovation problems and with simple point solutions such as assessing team effectiveness and evaluating your organization’s level of innovation mastery.  This month, we launched an Innovation Maturity Scale assessment and team effectiveness assessment offerings, completed the build of Phase 1 of our on-demand learning system and hosted ShopTalk @ Valize, a behind-the-scenes look at what really goes on in business.  The July edition featured Valize partner Ron Boire sharing the story of the doomed Mini-disc player, Sony’s ultimately futile effort to hold back the digital revolution in music.  It was a fascinating conversation! 

If you’re feeling stuck or wondering what the next best strategic move is, drop me a note at and let’s see what we can do.