Larry Page, chief executive of Alphabet, the parent company of Google, likes to talk about the company’s “moonshots”, the high-risk and potentially highly lucrative bets on concepts such as the self-driving car or a cure for ageing. “If you’re not doing some things that are crazy,” Page has said, “then you’re doing the wrong things.”
Alphabet’s moonshots are undoubtedly bold. The description is, however, a misnomer, in one critical regard. John F Kennedy’s 1961 speech calling for the US to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade is often held out as an example of visionary ambition. Yet as Richard Rumelt, a former Nasa engineer turned strategy professor, points out in his book Good Strategy Bad Strategy, while the moonshot seemed “audacious to the layman”, Kennedy was setting a “proximate objective”. Engineers and advisers had made clear to him that the US had a good chance of beating the Soviet Union to a lunar landing, and had explained why.
Defining boldness by the vision alone is almost always a mistake. None of the Boldness in Business winners would have made it this far if they had not successfully executed plans they laid out years earlier. Linking vision to execution is the essence of good strategy and it involves an assessment not only of what ought to be achieved but whether it can be realised at all.
Take the 30% Club, co-founded in 2010 by Helena Morrissey, this year’s Boldness Person of the Year. The initial goal of raising the proportion of women on UK boards to 30 per cent was open to criticism. If the aim was gender equity, why not go for 50 per cent? Why not achieve it through legislated quotas, rather than voluntary targets?
However, 30 per cent was not only the point at which the club’s founders believed a minority of female directors would start to be heard in their own right, but also a target to which board chairmen — they were, and still are, mostly men — could realistically commit, when the proportion of women on FTSE 100 boards was only 12.5 per cent. The number of women on UK blue-chip company boards has doubled since 2010.
Speaking last year at the FT’s Women at the Top summit, Helen Alexander, deputy chair of a UK government review aimed at advancing women in business by setting new targets, said it was important to “make sure that people felt it [was] feasible: it [was] very stretching, very ambitious, but it could be done”.
“Ambitious but doable” is a first requirement for a realistic vision. A second is to strive for simplicity and pragmatism. If the goal is inherently complex — as placing a man on the moon clearly was — what is needed is to break it down into smaller, closer steps, while resisting the temptation to add complications as the strategy develops.
Nandan Nilekani, one of the founders of Infosys, the information technology outsourcing group, described last year how he pushed through the establishment of the Aadhaar biometric identification system. More than 1bn Indians are on the platform, which can be used to verify their identity for the opening of bank accounts, among other services. While the Aadhaar team wanted a “thin” system that would provide a single piece of information — a person’s identity, based on fingerprint and iris recognition — other ministries wanted the system to collect more information, such as blood type, which would have slowed down and perhaps derailed the project. “Anything you do extra is multiplied by a billion times,” Nilekani points out. “Everybody said, ‘Oh, you’re going around collecting data on a billion — why not collect the blood group? Why don’t you collect the caste or whatever?’ We said, ‘No, no, no, no, no’.”
In its own domain, Dollar Shave Club, the winner of the Entrepreneurship category, was bold enough at the outset to offer only a limited selection of razor options, while incumbents such as Gillette and Wilkinson Sword were fighting it out with multiple products. Founder Michael Dubin’s mantra was “stay focused on what’s important, stay narrow”.
A third key to achieving bold objectives is to frame your goal for the customer, or audience, you need to convince. The 30% Club’s focused appeal to dyed-in-the-wool chairmen of big British companies was one example. Steve Sasson, who invented a digital camera for his employer, Eastman Kodak, in the 1970s, tells a cautionary tale about what happens when you do not present your idea convincingly. Kodak did eventually develop digital photography, though too slowly to save the company from bankruptcy.
Kennedy was already clear the US had a good chance of beating the Soviets
But Sasson at first invited colleagues to demonstrations of “filmless photography”. He has admitted this was, to say the least, a “bad choice” of words to try to win the support of executives whose careers depended on continuing sales of Kodak’s roll-film.
Finally, do not assume that boldness requires an entirely new product or approach. Sometimes innovative new paths branch off from existing ways of doing things. Cyril Bouquet, strategy professor at IMD, the Lausanne-based business school, is working on a book called Think Like an Alien, based on the idea that looking at old ways of doing things with new eyes often yields unexpected innovation. For instance, he says much can be achieved by seeking answers to the question: “How do I build on the past, but at the same time challenge the things that don’t need to be there any more?”
In that vein, Boldness laureate Dong Energy started its transformation by selling fossil-fuel assets to fund expansion into gas and wind-based energy, ultimately laying plans last year to quit the oil and gas business altogether and concentrate on renewables. It is a bold project. If it comes off, it will provide further proof that to succeed, you do not always have to aim for the stars. Sometimes, you simply have to come up with a different way of using what is right there under your feet.