25 Apr

Celebrating with the Twins for the Win!

Our team gathered this week to celebrate our 20 years in business. We kicked it off watching the Twins win in a 10th inning walk-off. Go Buxton! Thank you to our partners at Comintelli for joining us!

Next up: SCIP Intellicon conference. Visit us at booth 308! https://www.scip.org/page/SCIP-IntelliCon2022-Competitive-Intelligence-Conference

26 Jan

Our 20th Anniversary: Reflecting back

It seems like yesterday when I started Line of Sight…how quickly 20 years have gone! As I sit here and reflect, I can’t help but think “wow do I have a lot to be thankful for!” From the people with whom I crossed paths early on and came with me on this journey, to those who joined in partnership later I am so thankful.

How it all began.

When I was working for Optum I was constantly fighting the push and pull of staying with the security of a large, dynamic organization or jumping off full time into my own gig. During this time, I had several former colleagues and contacts requesting my consultation on various market intelligence projects. Most notable, and when I really got serious about hanging out my shingle, was the frequent requests from Rick E, a former colleague at Deluxe who had moved to another company as CFO. His new company was losing deals they had previously won, and he needed help setting up the capability to objectively monitor and analyze the company’s external environment to make better strategic decisions.

The opportunity to partner with past colleagues and a breadth of great companies was really enticing. But most important, my wife Linda was on board. Without her support and good job with a financial services firm and an excellent health insurance plan, Line of Sight would have never happened. (Which speaks to our antiquated employer-based health care system, but I’ll keep my opinions to myself). 

Everything was aligning! Even Paul K, my manager at Optum, reluctantly but kindly supported me when I ultimately decided to make the jump.

The name.

It came together one early morning on a walk with my dog Pita, a black and white spotted German Shorthair Pointer with amazing energy who kept me in shape and cleared my mind during long walks. On this particular walk I recalled a moment from a few years earlier, where I had been invited to participate in a process innovation project for Deluxe. A small team went offsite to dream up ways to improve a critical sales process. The amazing group facilitator, Joe P, had used the phrase “line of sight” so often in his conversation and instructions to us, that it stuck with me. One process step must always have “line of sight” to the next, he would say. The process should be designed so that the people involved would always have “line of sight” to its purpose and objectives. On that late winter morning, the phrase came back into my head, and after some quick research, that was that and Line of Sight Group was born.

The product.

Early on, the focal point of our offering was a market intelligence software. This was early in the development of cloud computing, but I wanted nothing to do with on-premises applications. Paul E, a former Cray Computer guy, was my guru and introduced me to IT people who could make it happen. Selling a cloud solution to large corporations in the early 2000s was not easy. It was new and raised many concerns for the IT folks, but the business leaders saw the many advantages and helped to push those early sales through.

The service side of our business doing market/competitive/industry intelligence and analysis was also growing and would eventually overtake the software side. I needed help!

The team.

Jennifer Loehr, a trained journalist, came on board early on and has developed into a strong project manager, leading our longest running client engagement. She celebrates 15 years with Line of Sight this year.

Sara Bartholomew joined shortly after. Sara and I had worked together in a market research/corporate strategy group at Deluxe several years earlier and my call to her was timely as she said, “my kids are getting older, and I need something to do!” She brought journalism and MBA degrees and 15 years later she is the voice of reason that keeps us on keel.

With Jen and Sara as anchors, we enlisted several people over the years.

Jennifer Waffensmith had strong experience in mystery shopping and leveraged that experience with the ability to fearlessly interview almost any subject matter expert. After five years of working with our clients, one client calls her “an amazing sleuth.”

Erin Andersland joined us from Target Corp. five years ago and leveraged her MLIS degree and corporate research experience to lead several ongoing client programs and is our ‘go-to’ for hard-to-find secondary research.

Kristi Dale brought her journalism degree, marketing communications and medical journal editing experience to lead several of our health care programs for the last five years.

Teresa Muckala was a long-time friend, having co-managed the local SCIP chapter with me for several years. She also brought a journalism degree and rich experience in medical devices and health care and celebrates four years with Line of Sight Group this year.

(In case you are counting, that is a combined total of 69 years of service to our clients, including me, not counting previous or related experience.)

Wayne Lund joined us as CFO through a referral from Roy O. Roy is the former CEO of a mid-sized organization who graciously acts as a mentor for me over quarterly breakfasts and was referred by Paul E (see above). Our healthy balance sheet is due to Wayne’s oversight and guidance. I worked with Kim Geiser at Optum and am grateful that she agreed to lead our marketing efforts. Several others including Keisha, Sonal, Vivian, Jane and others step in as needed. Still others have joined us and since moved on to other opportunities but have had such a positive impact on our business.

Partnerships with other research organizations have also been an important part of Line of Sight. Doug at the Hedlund Group helps us when clients need help turning the insights we deliver into executable strategy steps. Christen B and David E worked with us to transition our clients to the Intelligence2day market intelligence platform when the opportunity presented itself to provide more features and value to our clients.        

Our growth and gratitude.

I had learned early on in my career from Karen K, my boss when I was with the Deluxe Sales force, to never burn bridges. Besides Deluxe and UnitedHealth/Optum, I had also worked at Jostens doing similar work in market research/competitive intelligence/strategy, and those relationships were vital to getting the business off the ground. From there we grew mainly through referrals and word of mouth. Bill P, former Optum CEO, graciously made several introductions. Cynthia B connected us with several business leaders. Others brought us along with them when they transitioned to new employers. Through the years, our clients, some of whom are among the most respected brands in the world, have trusted us with their deepest vulnerabilities and some of their most sensitive and strategic challenges. And they have given us the opportunity to do very interesting and creative work, and partner with them to solve their challenges. But most importantly it is the individuals, the amazing people within the organizations who have made it all worthwhile.

In the end, while we have in place the right skills, processes, tools and culture to be successful, 20 years in business with Line of Sight is about people – the people who have influenced me and leant their advice, those who have worked with me to serve our clients or with whom I’ve partnered, and those who have trusted us with their business. For all of them, and many not mentioned here, I am truly grateful.

02 Dec

Grateful for You!

As we celebrate 20 years in business this holiday season, our thoughts turn to those who helped shape our business over the years.

We have accomplished amazing things together and we are incredibly thankful for your partnership – either now or in the past. Attached is a card to say thank you!

In the spirit of giving, Line of Sight Group is making a donation in your company’s name to Urban Roots, a Saint Paul organization whose mission is to cultivate and empower youth through nature, healthy food and community.

Sincerely, Steve, Sara, Jen, Jennifer, Erin, Kristi, Teresa, Wayne and all of our associates including Kim, Keisha, Jane, Sonal, Vivian, Allie, Jordan, Emma, and others.

Line of Sight Group

steves@lineofsightgroup.com

888-723-6188

www.lineofsightgroup.com

Celebrating 20 years of business in 2022!

03 Nov

Exploring the Breadth of Intelligence Program Applications

One of the changes we’ve observed since 2020 and the emergence of the COVID pandemic has been an increase in demand from business organizations for ways to systematically monitor and act on changes in their external environment (i.e. markets, competition and change drivers).

While the onslaught of the pandemic was, of course, an extreme disruptor, it seems that it has helped organizations realize that many aspects of their world are outside of their control. For example, customer and competitor behavior can be both un-knowable and un-controllable. Instead, successful organizations manage this risk category by systematically monitoring important changes, evaluating leading indicators, and adjusting their strategies as necessary.

Our ‘Strategic Intelligence Program’ solution has three primary elements: 1) monitoring of open sources such as industry press, websites, business filings, etc. 2) a shared, cloud-based repository where market and industry ‘observations’ are compiled, organized and analyzed, and 3) a variety of reporting options such as alerts and summaries to disseminate objective insight.  

Conceptually, the business organizations we work with apply this capability in a similar way. Starting with how they want to define their market landscape, they watch for data points that represent indicators of potential change that would impact their business and then prioritize those for deeper investigation leading to potential strategic shifts. However, while the basic concept is the same, we see it applied in many different and creative ways to get the most out of their programs.

Here’s just a peek at some of that range of application:

  • Competitor tracking. Some companies focus very narrowly on a small set of competitors with an interest in a deep understanding of their competing businesses. They might be interested in specific operations or product details, or sales and marketing capabilities, or key personnel and have a very specific plan for how they will act on the information. 
  • General competitor and industry tracking. This application involves watching broadly across the entire industry for competitive and change drivers that may impact the business. Because the scope is so broad, usually these companies prioritize the competition using different levels (e.g. A, B and C competitors) and identify other priorities as ‘key topics’ to best allocate time and resources.
  • Defensive intelligence to maintain a leadership position. Some companies are already the market leader but face new competition from market entrants. They wish to maintain that leadership position and use the intelligence findings to develop advertising campaigns or new product enhancements that will disrupt the competition and erect mobility barriers to maintain their lead.
  • Growth related intelligence to enable partnerships or M&A. These companies have chosen partnerships or mergers and acquisitions as their primary growth vehicles and apply their intelligence resources toward scouting for acquisition targets, keeping an eye on similar activity by their competitors and industry change opportunities that open new opportunities.  
  • Innovation. These businesses are in industries where growth is achieved through innovation related to products, customer experience, services and even business models. In the case of one of our clients, changes in information technology are enabling an entirely new set of competitors with different business and operating models to gain a foothold. We closely watch both the legacy space and the emerging competition to help the company identify and prioritize innovation opportunities that will maintain its market leading position. Another client is 3+ years out from product launch. We help them understand where the future industry, technologies and markets will be as they develop out the product.
  • Growth though sales support. Some programs are focused on supporting their B-to-B sales teams. They can be focused on competitors, on customers and markets or on both.
  • Competitive pricing intelligence. In this industry, consumer pricing and terms change constantly. We assist this company to systematically capture those changes in price so that they can arm their sales force and target channel intermediaries to gain new business.
  • COVID intelligence. This company in the health services industry is highly impacted by the COVID pandemic. It uses our intelligence to understand the effects of the pandemic on its customer base, making marketing and operations decisions based on it.  
  • New market development. This U.S. based company was looking at international markets as its primary arena for growth. Looking broadly at selected Asian and European markets, our intelligence enabled them to identify underserved segments and market entry points.       
  • Account management intelligence. This company offers its services to large and mid-sized businesses in selected industries and maintains ongoing relationships with them. In this case, our intelligence is used by account managers to stay abreast of strategic changes in their clients to provide communication and outreach opportunities and to identify sales opportunities and deepen sales relationships. 
  • Ad Tracking. This large banking company wants to understand the positioning messages of its competition when advertising to business customers. We compile banner, video and other ad types from various sources, and then use AI and text analytics to tell the story for the client’s marketing and advertising teams.
  • Advisory board intelligence. Another company maintains several advisory boards consisting of industry thought leaders and entrepreneurs. Our intelligence efforts here provide insight into the activities of these leaders to help our client prepare for board meetings and maintain communications.
  • Alumni intelligence. This higher education company asks us to track a set of high-net worth individuals, and uses the insights to deepen relationships for fund raising purposes.     

Over the 20 years that we’ve been doing it, market and competitive intelligence has evolved from a little-known and little-understood back-office secret into a nuts-and-bolts discipline that helps form the foundation of every agile and successful business from small to large. These examples illustrate how firms are becoming more mature in their application of market intelligence capabilities by focusing them in ways that directly impact their business model and provide maximum ROI.

Line of Sight Group can help you build an intelligence program unique to your business needs. Contact us for more information!

1-888-723-6188

info@lineofsightgroup.com

17 Aug

Utilizing Planned Opportunism to Prepare for the Future

With the U.S. and global society beginning to open up following the pandemic, the idea of ‘Planned Opportunism’ is a concept that organizations can use to quickly take advantage of new opportunities and jump ahead of their competition.

As defined by Vijay Govindarajan, Coxe Distinguished Professor at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, “Planned Opportunism” is the term for responding to an unpredictable future by paying attention to weak signals.

“Early evidence of emerging trends from which it is possible to deduce important changes in demography, technology, customer tastes and needs, and economic, environmental, regulatory, and political forces. That attention gives rise to fresh perspectives and nonlinear thinking, which help an organization imagine and plan for various plausible futures. Planned Opportunism is a discipline that creates a “circulatory system” for new ideas; develops the capacity to prioritize, investigate, and act on those ideas; and builds an adaptive culture that embraces continual change.” [1]

Planned Opportunism requires organizations to understand that the future is unpredictable and uncontrollable – especially the environment outside an organization’s four walls involving customers, competitors and trends such as technological changes or economic cycles. However, the ability to diverge from linear thinking and identify weak signals and emerging trends, prioritize them and then test and learn these, is the best way to control and plan for the future. 

While the competition may be stuck focusing on current successes, existing structure and the status quo, those with the ability to lean forward and grab subtle daily cues into the future can leapfrog the competition. These daily cues should be gathered beyond leadership and strategic insight teams. Organizations can benefit from cross-functional brainstorming sessions or idea submission processes to funnel in a large breadth of ideas to test.

Using Planned Opportunism will shift perspectives and reveal new business opportunities by challenging the current visions, beliefs and values of an organization.

How can Line of Sight Group help organizations achieve Planned Opportunism?

When we work with our clients to help them plan for, and take advantage of, future changes in their business environment, our approach is to help them create that ‘circulatory system’ through our Strategic Intelligence Program. The idea is simple. We cast a wide net over the entire business landscape in which our client operates and systematically use those weak signals to power strategic decisions and innovation. Working closely with the management team, we pay close attention to the changes that might result in opportunities or risks to their business. We then identify the kinds of market and industry signals that will indicate those changes and set up “listening posts” in the environment to capture the signal data and send it to a central repository. Then we analyze it using machine learning to identify and report on significant activity and trends.

Of course, these market and industry signals can be interpreted as opportunities, as risks, or as both. Once identified, the signals can be prioritized by analyzing them to understand size, industry and market consequences and implications for the organization itself.

For the highest priorities, we work with our clients to develop hypotheses about the future. Deep research aims to clarify the opportunity or risk and assess its future impact so that the management team has a high level of confidence and can have meaningful dialogue. Here we dissect the signals through a combination of secondary and primary research that works to understand the drivers and gain multiple perspectives through executive interviews.   

With the confidence gained through the research steps, the management team can now make judgements and decisions on small investments. Those that are promising are often moved into short, low-cost, low-risk experiments that further validate the opportunity or risk and give the management team the ability to begin making necessary resource allocation decisions. It is important to keep in mind that the future is not some far-off point. Instead, it arrives in daily doses. Successful organizations understand that the future is unpredictable, but they develop capabilities that enable them to identify weak signals and emerging trends and use them to better prepare for the future. Planned Opportunism starts with assembling the necessary tools, processes and expertise and then engaging in a systematic approach that will process and make sense of those daily doses of the future. The result is an adaptive culture that minimizes ‘fire drills’, embraces change and is prepared to move quickly and continuously to provide better value for their customers than the competition.     


[1] Govindarajan, 2016, https://hbr.org/2016/05/planned-opportunism)

17 Jun

Adapting your business to the post pandemic world

The return to normal is imminent. Vaccines are rolling out. Roadways, parks, stores and office buildings are bustling with activity. As we leap back to “normal,” it’s important to not simply dust off old strategies or programs designed for the pre-pandemic world. Rather, your time will be well spent evaluating the changed landscape around you to ensure your strategy is aligned with the needs of your target market.

What’s happened over the past year? In some respects, time stood still. Many corporate office desks remained untouched and long planned business strategies were put on hold in favor of quickly developed war plans to adapt to a world in pandemonium.  

But what has changed? Your industry. The environment, Your competition. There may be new competitors and forces that you didn’t think about before. Your competition may have built up new strengths that bring new risks to you. Or new growth opportunities may be emerging based on the “new normal.” Regardless, all have evolved to a point where you can no longer fully rely on the old intelligence you had on them.

And so has the customer journey changed. Consumers may choose or respond to products and services differently than they did in the past. They expect more flexibility but at the same time may have more patience or understanding. Brand loyalty and spend has changed either for the good or bad depending on the industry. What they value most in a company or its products has shifted. How and what they will ultimately choose to spend their resources on may be much different.

This profound change has created new needs for businesses and a fresh look on how they approach their market.

How can you best adapt to the new post pandemic world so you can RE-FOCUS, GROW AND PROTECT your business?

  1. Re-evaluate the macro external forces that drive your industry. How have societal forces changed and how might those changes affect your industry and your business? What new technologies have emerged? How have economic forces changed customer perceptions? Your business may be affected by changes in regulatory, legal and environmental forces. How will you respond? 
  2. Re-commit to a systematic and ongoing market and competitive intelligence program. Define clear responsibilities, objectives and outcomes. Build a small internal team or leverage a dedicated partner to identify and report on emerging opportunities and threats. 
  3. Re-prioritize growth opportunities that may have been on hold for the past year and a half. Do a ‘deep dive’ analysis. Where should we play? How will we differentiate? How can we get there? Without announcing your plans to the industry (ie: through a partner) talk to customers, competitors, supply-chain players and others. Is now the time to make those growth investments?
  4. Re-assess your value proposition with your current customer base by conducting win/loss analysis. How have customer needs changed? Do they still buy from you for the same reasons? How have the perceptions of your brand changed? How do customers perceive your brand relative to the competition?
  5. Re-evaluate your strategic plan for 2022. Re-visit the pre-pandemic assumptions made about the external environment and determine how those assumptions need to change. Then update and adjust your plans using the market and competitive intelligence from the steps above.

Changes in the external environment – customers, competition and driving forces – can often represent both a threat and an opportunity. However, it is only those organizations that dedicate adequate attention and resources to understanding those changes through ongoing intelligence, analysis, action and feedback that are able to ‘outsmart’ their competition and turn threats into opportunities – and successfully take advantage of them.

17 Nov

With Gratitude from Line of Sight Group

Gratitude is emerging as a dominant change adults want, once the pandemic and other major changes of 2020 are over, according to an ongoing study from Ignite360. The emergence of the gratitude sentiment is an example of a societal change driver. Author Volpe insists that it’s time for action and companies must be proactive, rather than reactive. What opportunities and threats does it represent for your organization? How will your business respond? How will your marketing messages change?

Market and competitive intelligence capabilities, therefore, are more critical than ever. The Line of Sight Group team is thankful to work with customers who understand the power of data and insights! We are always ready to help! 

https://www.ignite-360.com/blog/gratitude-the-change-people-really-want

22 Oct

Adaptive Strategy – How to Understand and Respond to Industry Changes that can Grow (or Ruin) Your Business

When I guest lecture with the MBA students at the University of St. Thomas, I often begin with a question: “What do the following have in common?”

“They are all extinct!” comes the response quickly.

“Why?” I say. “Why are they extinct?”

“Because they failed to adapt.”

“Adapt to what?” I tease.

With a bit of exasperation, they respond with something like this: “CHANGE!! THEY WERE UNABLE TO ADAPT TO CHANGES IN THIER ENVIRONMENT.”

“EXTERNAL,” I add. “Unable to adapt to changes in their EXTERNAL ENVIRONMENT.”

In order to adapt to changes in your industry, you first have to understand what industry change is. Next you have to know what to look for. Then, when a change is recognized, you have to know whether or not it is important, and if so, only then should you make plans to act on it.  

Understanding Industry Change

Industry change is EXTERNAL. It originates from outside the organization rather than internally. Market demographics, technology, customers and competition are examples. These external factors, called ‘change drivers’, are less controllable, harder to forecast and can be more disruptive than changes that originate internally in an organization. Just think about the dramatic effects that the Coronavirus has had on our economy and entire way of life in 2020!  

Industry change is also RELATIVE. All organizations have several fundamental relationships. In fact, a business organization is defined by relationships with its customers, employees, suppliers, investors, lenders, government regulators, communities in which they operate and other stakeholders. And while firms may not have relationships with direct competitors, they are perceived relative to competitors and substitutes by customers and others.

As industry stakeholders respond to external changes, these relationships change, and it is the changes in these relationships, within the context of the external change drivers, that are important in understanding adaptive change.

  • The dinosaurs lived in an environment that allowed them to flourish until, of course, climate change would eventually wipe them out.

Monitoring Industry Changes

Start at the end. The first step is to know what to look for. It is well known that data volumes are exploding. In 2016, it was written that more data had been created in the past two years than in the entire previous history of the human race. [1] Luckily, only a small fraction of that data would ever be relevant to your organization.

By starting at the end, and determining what the data would be used for, it is possible to focus your efforts. For example, when considering how to not become extinct, the data that would represent a threat to our existence is most important. Best practice organizations start by defining a set of ‘key topics’ based on the assumptions in their current strategic plan or potential opportunities and threats, and are used to guide their change monitoring activity.

  • In 2000, when Reed Hastings, the founder of a fledgling company called Netflix, flew to Dallas to propose a partnership to Blockbuster CEO John Antioco and his team, Hastings got laughed out of the room. While Blockbuster had paid attention to its retail competitors, it did not recognize a business model that relied on sending DVDs through the mail as a threat. [2]

‘Movie’ versus ‘snapshot’. Change, of course, happens over time. Changes in the external forces and stakeholder relationships can only be recognized using a longitudinal approach, which compares data points in time. Most organizations today find themselves in a world where the pace of change is fast and accelerating. Best practice companies do constant surveillance and continuous updating by an individual, group or outside partner with this responsibility. The U.S. military may have the world’s best capabilities for this, as designated intelligence officers constantly gather intel from the front lines.  

  • The demise of pay phones was a predictable result of the adoption of cell phones. It was easy to see the adoption curve and predict when the large carriers would exit. Sprint left the business in 2006. AT&T exited two years later, and Verizon got out in 2011. [3]

So What? Just because change is occurring and relevant to an opportunity or threat, doesn’t mean it is important. To understand if the change is significant, it is necessary to apply relevancy filters such as: Is the data real or is it only an outlier? Is it outside of expectations? What is the size of the change? What market segments are being impacted? What are the possible consequences and implications of the change?  This is where human analysts with knowledge of your business, aided by text analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) tools, apply their experience and raise red flags where appropriate. These red flags are called out in the regular updates and summary reports routinely circulated to managers and executive teams.

  • In BlackBerry’s downfall, managers didn’t take seriously the idea that the market was changing. BlackBerry’s leadership was based on enterprise and government markets, and never took the consumer market, and Apple’s iPhone, as a serious threat to its business. At least not until it was too late.

“BlackBerry proves that Andrew Grove really did have it right when he said, ‘only the paranoid survive.’ That’s probably the best lesson CEOs can take away from BlackBerry’s fall.”

— Craig Hanson, General Partner, Next World Capital [4]

What Now? Once recognized as important and relevant, executives can begin making plans for appropriate response. The first step in the response planning is a ‘deep dive’ analysis that is focused on the specific opportunity or threat to check assumptions, manage risks and develop a set of strategic options. Those options can further be played out in scenarios or war gaming exercises.

Acting on Intelligence

Ultimately, adaptive change means that executives must make investments and allocate resources to address the opportunity or threat. These are the ‘bets’ that executives make and are at the core of business strategy. Developing and utilizing a systematic process for gathering industry, market and competitive intelligence enables executive teams to make those bets swiftly, efficiently and confidently.


[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2015/09/30/big-data-20-mind-boggling-facts-everyone-must-read/#32a007d817b1

[2] https://www.forbes.com/sites/gregsatell/2014/09/05/a-look-back-at-why-blockbuster-really-failed-and-why-it-didnt-have-to/#222daa451d64

[3] https://money.cnn.com/2018/03/19/news/companies/pay-phones/index.html

[4] https://www.forbes.com/sites/tomtaulli/2013/09/23/lessons-from-the-fall-of-blackberry/#3674057d544d

18 Sep

Line of Sight Client Wins Award

Last week, one of Line of Sight’s clients won an award for her contributions to her company’s market insights and competitive strategy initiatives. Melissa works at a large, multinational organization in our healthcare vertical market, and leads the market research efforts at one of their main divisions. We assist her in collection, analysis and reporting on competitive and industry change drivers, and managing that content on our cloud-based intelligence platform – Intelligence2Day. 

Congratulations to Melissa and her entire team!


Hello,

I just wanted to let you both know that yesterday I won a team award for CI in Marketing, and a big reason is because of all the hard work that LoSG has done and the partnership you’ve had with us. I just wanted to thank you and let you know how appreciated you are!!! You’re the best Kristi – you do such fantastic work!!!

Sincerely,

Market Research Analyst | Strategy and Marketing Analytics

22 Jul

Hope is Not a Strategy

In mid -March of this year, when the coronavirus began shutting down schools, businesses and our normal way of life, the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran an interview with Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. In it, Osterholm discussed some of the frustrations of being the voice of impending change, which policy makers really didn’t want to hear, and why the message was ignored until too late.[1] 

An Early Warning

In his 2017 book “Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs,” Osterholm sounded the alarm on coronavirus diseases’ disturbing combination — they have a relatively high mortality rate and can spread rapidly in humans. In the last 20 years, outbreaks of SARS and MERS (in the same viral family now fueling the COVID-19 pandemic) did not go global, but they were “harbingers of things to come.”

In January he said, to a group of organizations he advises, “I now am absolutely convinced this is going to be a pandemic. This will be a worldwide epidemic. We will see major transmission around the world. And, what has happened in Wuhan will happen in other places.”

“This to me was the equivalent of someone standing on a beach, a beautiful sand beach on the Gulf, beautiful blue skies, not a cloud in the sky — but 500 miles south of there is the biggest low-pressure system we’ve ever seen. We should have been telling people back then, this is going to be like a Category 5 hurricane.”

Resistance to the Message

Osterholm cites key reasons why policy makers were so slow to respond.

  • A sense of invincibility. Osterholm says, “We had almost this sense of invincibility that we had a border that would not allow such infectious-disease agents to penetrate …. We, of course, know that is folly.”
  • Little understanding of vulnerability. “[There has been] no real understanding of the vulnerability of this country outsourcing all of its drug supply manufacturing to places like China. And, when you don’t understand all that, or elect to neglect it, it’s easy to say another day went by and nothing happened.”
  • Lack of creative imagination for possible scenarios. “People who knew health care knew [it had been] carved down to the bone for which there was no resiliency of any substantial nature, no excess capacity, no monies to stockpile large volumes of protective equipment.”
  • Perceived distance. A common response was, “Well, that’s in China.” Osterholm explains that people didn’t understand these viruses don’t adhere to political boundaries — geographic areas are just another place for them to go
  • Resistance to objective evaluation of risk. People were wanting to believe this was a low-risk situation, but Osterholm and others were saying, “No, no, no.”

Leadership and Strategy

Osterholm states that changing behavior in response to the pandemic requires addressing both the “heads and hearts” of people. While factual data appeals to the ‘head,’ leadership appeals to the ‘heart.’

“How are we going to start dealing with both the hearts and the heads of the citizens of this country, and for that matter the world? And, we have to understand it’s going to be more than just giving them factual data or information. This is where leadership is really key. It’s important we don’t forget this piece.”   

The interview closes with this Q and A: 

Q. “Are you hopeful about new potential treatments for COVID-19, such as chloroquine, that are being studied right now?”

A. “I am hopeful, but hope is not a strategy.”

For leaders of organizations, the lessons are clear. Paying attention to the external environment can be both difficult and uncomfortable. It might require reconsideration of earlier strategies or acknowledging that some things are beyond your control. You may not want to hear it.

Whether it is unprecedented environmental change, like a global pandemic, or subtle change in your industries or markets, it is important for leaders to use unbiased data in their decision-making process, assess the magnitude of change and the associated risks, evaluate the needed capabilities to respond, and muster the courage to confidently communicate and lead.

In other words, ‘hope’ is not a strategy. 


[1] https://www.startribune.com/coronavirus-pandemic-what-s-normal-now-what-s-next-an-interview-with-michael-osterholm/568978932/?refresh=true