Category Archives: strategy

The 3-Question Framework

I had a recent exchange reflecting on positive and negative CEO-Board of Director interactions.  So I mechanically responded with the “3-Question Framework” recommended by Priiva co-founder Gerry Sullivan.  As a board director, I use this framework before, during, and after every board meeting.  And I advise CEO’s to use this framework as well as they prep for board meetings and steer their board discussion for optimal impact.

3-Question Framework…
  1. Do we have the right CEO?
  2. Do we have the right strategy?
  3. Do we have the right governance?
In our exchange, we went deeper into a specific example.  A director was harping on the CEO about using a metric/KPI as part of their eCommerce initiative.  My assessment was that the director, based on the phrasing of the question, was behaving like the CEO’s operational adviser and not a director.  Specifically, the question was asked in this form…
  • Why don’t you use XYZ metric to measure our e-Commerce performance?
That form suggests the director is favorably predisposed to the XYZ metric and if the director were the CEO, that would be their choice.  A discussion involving two operators would be triggered during the board meeting while other board members tune out and check their phones.
Alternatively, a good director, in my opinion would rephrase as…
  • Why have you chosen to use ABC to measure e-Commerce performance, over XYZ or any other metric?

The rephrasing drives a higher order conversation which better informs each of the 3 questions in the framework…

  • can the CEO articulate a compelling answer or agree to revisit if there isn’t one?   That is, do we have the right CEO?
  • can the CEO articulate the metric’s link to overall strategy?  Or can the CEO contrast metrics that would be most important in alternative strategies?  That is, the CEO has thought about alternate strategies sufficiently.  And do we have the right strategy?
  • can the CEO describe the process that derives the data and its tie to standard reporting systems?  That is, do we have the right governance and oversight on processes and reporting?
There is a time and place for board directors to provide operating advise to CEOs.  But in board meetings proper, directors should be more thoughtful phrasing questions that will shine light on the “3-Question Framework”.

On my hate affair

A week ago, Open Text announced it was acquiring the Documentum business from Dell EMC (I’ll just refer to them by their old ticker symbol DCTM).  I’ve read most of the pundit opinions that have included descriptors like “graveyard”, “predictable”, “sad”, “smart move”, and more.

My hate affair with DCTM dates back over 20 years. In the early 1990’s while at Information Dimensions, we competed against DCTM around complex publishing applications based on SGML.  And speaking honestly, they beat us.  They kicked our ass.  I recall feeling a death nail reading that they hired Jay Leno to speak at their user conference.  They had achieved a level of scale we couldn’t duplicate without help.   My hate-o-meter redlined because they were that good.  So in 1998, Information Dimensions was acquired by Open Text.  That was a big deal at the time.  We brought forward years of experience and great enterprise customers.  Open Text brought forward a versatile collaboration and document management product.  We both believed in the web and SGML.  We both hated DCTM.

Upon arriving at Open Text in 1998, I was surprised that our product positioning could be summarized as “we’re different and unlike any other vendor”.   That meant publicly, we were in denial about competing with DCTM and consequently never used the term ECM.  Hating DCTM wasn’t nearly as much fun as before.  Time and change rolled forward and with that DCTM’s and Open Text’s products both converged.  Around 2002, Open Text joined the foray of squarely positioning itself in Enterprise Content Management (ECM) and the hate affair with DCTM was back on.  Rejoice!

In 2003, EMC came along and acquired DCTM with the promise of managing and archiving content using both hardware and software.  Open Text remained independent growing organically and by acquisition.   I’ll leave it to others to comment on how hard it must be to get hardware and software product and sales teams aligned.

Last week upon hearing the news of Open Text acquiring DCTM, I re-watched the movie Rush.  Its a must-see for anyone who cares about competitive strategy.  The two lead characters were bitter F1 drivers and had a hate affair for one another.  And it was that hate affair that made each of them great.

I am still an OTEX shareholder and cheer for their success from the sidelines everyday.  So to all my good friends still at OTEX, you now need to play nice with your DCTM brethren.  And just as importantly, launch a new hate affair with one competitor so you can continue being great.

Coming Up for Air in 2014

It is time to come up for air after having put my blog on sabbatical the last two years.  A sabbatical wasn’t really planned…it started out as a case of blogstipation which was followed by the all-consuming task of launching a new company RealWeld Systems, Inc.

Fast forward to today and I’m excited to join the board of Sitrion as the company executes on its multi-ecosystem strategy.  For over a decade while I was at Open Text, the company evolved from being entirely independent with no integration or major partnerships to having compelling integration and partnerships with SAP, Microsoft, and Oracle.   During that time, our sales and product evolved from the paraphrased positioning “we are the greatest” to “we are the greatest working with systems you’ve already bought”.

Creating win-win scenarios for the customer and partner, decision trade-offs on depth versus quantity of integration, and properly positioning added-value for all parties in a language familiar to the customer are just some of the strategic multi-ecosystem issues worth wrestling about.

In 2014, I will spend most of my time continuing to grow RealWeld, which has the opportunity to revolutionize manual welding training, credentialing, and quality assurance.  In addition to Sitrion, I’ll also spend board member time for Seen Digital Media, Inc who provides an application for visual marketing campaigns for leading brands.  Every time I’m in a deep discussion about one of these companies, I find myself writing an “ah-ha” reminder or action for one of the others.  Being a startup operator, I can relate better to Daniel and Brian as the CEO’s of Sitrion and Seen respectively.  And being a board member makes me a better operator of RealWeld.  It’s an awesome cycle of filtering on the best business ideas, practices, and people from a diverse set of companies.  It has already been a fun year!

Startup Weekend: Ten Lessons Learned

I’ve never been in town for a Columbus Startup Weekend and participating has been on my bucket-list since hearing of its inception.  It’s a great program underwritten nationally by the Kaufmann Foundation and carried out locally by sponsors, individual organizers, and participants who care about developing a startup culture and eco-system.   I finally got my chance last weekend February 17:19th hosted by TechColumbus.

Friday Night:  5pm to 11pm

Andy Sparks and Dan Rockwell kicked off the weekend and schooled everyone on the format.  Lesson One: F-bombs are culturally acceptable at this event!  Roughly half the audience were rookies like me but I was definitely the oldest of roughly 100 participants.  Seventy startup business ideas were pitched in one minute speeches without slides.  I didn’t attend to pitch an idea…rather, I wanted to contribute to the idea I was most intrigued by.  Some pitches were very amusing – like SwearWordsWithFriends.  Others wanted to advance healthcare using technology.  After the seventy pitches, an extremely low tech but very effective voting process ensued and the top eighteen ideas were deemed to be the startup projects for the weekend, and each of those individuals that pitched were suddenly cast as the team lead for their idea.  Lesson Two: Understand that if your idea is picked, you just became a Founder & CEO.   The CEO’s first task was to figure out who they needed and wanted on their team.   Instead of speed dating – its speed hiring.  And just like real life, not everyone gets hired.  I was most intrigued by “ShowShopper” and  found the CEO, an Ohio State senior, who had pitched that idea.  He asked about my skills. “Well, er ah, I’m sort of a technology guy and marketing guy”.  Lesson Three:  First impressions are imprinted in five seconds.  With that stellar interview performance, I didn’t think I was going to be picked and was reminded of a life of being the shortest person on the court when fifteen people vie to be chosen for two five-person pickup basketball teams.   Then suddenly, someone bailed for another team and I made the cut.  Lesson Four:  Its all about people – knowing the skills needed to build out your idea is more important than the idea itself.   Our team of three Ohio State students and the “old guy” adjourned to our assigned conference room and we immediately started a spirited discussion on the feature set of our solution.  Massive confusion ensued as everyone was using different terminology.  Lesson Five:  Never underestimate the power of naming to support higher bandwidth conversations.

Saturday:  9am – 11pm

We made progress defining the end user experience and hand sketching what that would look like.  Our solution had some technical complexity but was fraught with commercial complexity as our solution required interfaces to three large and established stakeholder groups:  product placement advertisers like Old Spice, television and movie producers like Modern Family, and streaming media delivery channels like Netflix.

We got a handle on the end user experience but we really didn’t yet understand who our (economic) customer was, how we would charge, how much to charge, and how a startup company could credibly get to market with such large and established companies.   No one on our team had advertising experience and we struggled to understand if our solution was more about enabling product placement advertising or ad-serving technology.  Lesson Six:  The product is the business, not the product features.

We needed to quickly get smarter  about the market so we gravitated to using Mindmeister to capture initial research nuggets.  Mindmeister is an awesome browser-based mind map tool where multiple users author a common mind map.   Lesson Seven: Use tools like Mindmeister that are super easy to consume – you don’t have time to learn a new tool and do the job.

Sunday:  10am – 9pm

We arrived to a revised schedule.  Presentations by each of the eighteen teams would start at 6pm and each would last only five minutes (instead of seven) followed by two minutes of Q&A from a distinguished panel.  Judging criteria was reiterated.  Presentations were due at 4pm.  At the start of the day, we had nothing in presentation format nor had we developed any positioning language that was crisp.  Lesson Eight:  As Mark Twain and other greats have said, if I had more time I would have written a shorter story.

One of the team members was a wiz in Adobe InDesign and mocked up very realistic visualizations of the end user experience.  Another team mate was a wiz in Prezi, which is like PowerPoint with animation on steroids.   The judging criteria aligned to Lean Canvass methodology so we used an lean canvass tool by Dan Khan to structure our current thinking, understand remaining unanswered questions, and develop experiments to test our assumptions.  We dress rehearsed.  We role played hard questions from panelists.  Our presentation and business plan started to gel!

Just before the judging finale, we made that proverbial one last change and inadvertently dropped two slides from our presentation which wasn’t discovered until onstage presenting.  My team mate recovered nicely.  Lesson Nine: Dancing on your feet is a lifelong skill…get used to it.

We didn’t win but we were proud of our work product.  During the finale, the energy level in the room was a mix of exhaustion, exhilaration, and accomplishment.  Startup Weekend is an amazing vehicle to develop business skills and build relationships and was a great opportunity to be reminded of these important lessons.  Lesson Ten:  There is no substitute for experience.

Deadlocks and Dominoes

 Deadlocks and Dominoes are two very common attributes of markets I often help clients understand.   Both are periods of time in the development of the market.  Deadlocks are time periods where the status quo prevails for a long time without major changes by any players.  Dominoes, on the other hand, is a period bursting of intensive change by many stakeholders.  This post explores both.


Consider this chart that was developed for a Priiva client whose products are dependent on overall market adoption of a new technology.  The analysis concluded that the market has stalled because most players are waiting on the other, for something, before acting.  If you studied computer science, this is called a deadlock or a deadly embrace .  In everyday language, this is the “chicken or the egg” paradox.  That market structure was visually depicted in the graph below.


Each bubble in this deadlock picture is a market stakeholder, or “player”.  The arrows indicate who is waiting on who.   The green shaded aggressive players will act unconditionally without waiting. The yellow-shaded players are “Hesitant” and will act conditionally.  The blue-shaded players are “Followers” as they also act conditionally, but unlike the yellows, few others are conditional on them.

Deadlocks mean the market will develop slowly.  Deadlocks can be broken if parties are willing to coordinate and make decisions concurrently.  In this market example, a success by any early adopter is actually the key to breaking the deadlock for everyone.  This is a “rising tide” game structure whereby the success of one is the success of everyone.

In traditional markets, we’re taught to beat, punish, or kill competitors.  However, in a “rising tide” market,  all stakeholders should engage in short-term coordination and cooperation, as that is vital to long-term market viability.  Said differently, a market must first be viable for customers to buy and competitors to compete.


Dominoes is a period of time of cascading change where most players don’t like the status quo.  All players believe making their next move, either offensively or defensively, is better than the status quo.   This can be triggered by a big strategic move by an influential player that causes all other players to react.  It can also be the result of new technology, with all players hedging to get some toehold should that technology prove to be successful.

Consider the world of mobile payments.  We are on the threshold of dramatic change and rapid adoption of mobile payment technology.  Increasingly, consumers will start making payments with their digital wallet (i.e., their smartphone) instead of a plastic credit card in their wallet.  Printed receipts will stop being the norm and be over-taken by electronically assessable receipts stored in a secure and organized cloud service.

As that consumer adoption occurs, supply chain players in payments will be fearful of being left behind and will act aggressively and quickly to get a toehold in the new world order of payment processing originating from smartphones.  And all the while trying to leverage and protect their current position.  I expect to see a frenzy of chessboard moves by banks, merchants, credit card issuers, and giant and regional merchant acquirers that sit behind those credit cards and settle all those payments

Playing to Your Advantage

Strategy leaders must understand if they are in a period of Deadlock or Dominoes, play to their advantage, and sense when that market phase concludes.  Your positioning, partner strategy, new product introductions, and many other operational initiatives depend on it.

On Playing Chess Blind-Folded

I often ask prospective clients, “what tools and processes do you use for strategy development?”.

Their verbal and non-verbal response to that question is a good indicator if they are a qualified prospect for my consulting services.  A good response acknowledges the need for tools and processes in an overall strategy framework that might include one or more of Vision, Mission, Values, SWOT, Key Differentiators, Key Performance Indicators, Operating Model, and more.

Do You Play Chess Blind-Folded?

Ever Play Chess Blindfolded?

Next, I ask “Do you play chess”? The answer doesn’t matter since everyone generally understands what chess is all about.  I then ask, “Do you play chess blind-folded”? 

That’s a ridiculous thought.  If you played chess blind-folded, you couldn’t see each move of your opponent, interpret their strategy, and react either offensively or defensively.  EXACTLY!

A Case for “Events”

“Events” are the chessboard moves in your market.  So without a tool or process to evaluate events and interpret the strategies of others, you’re company is playing in your market blind-folded.

Yet events are rarely part of any company’s strategic framework.   But they should be, because events are the unit of change in your market.  How can you possibly not measure and evaluate events?

Events can be easily measured.  Events are discrete and well defined.  Events are both retrospective and speculative.  There are material and immaterial events.  Events have either favorable or unfavorable impact on your business.  Events are known, and good competitive intelligence programs can make them known to you earlier.  Events can be codified with few or many attributes.  Events can conceptualize market share, competitors, wins, losses, partnerships, alliances, joint ventures, regulatory affairs, mergers, and acquisitions.

Event Management in Your Strategic Framework

Just as you evaluate your opponents moves in chess, evaluation of events in your market should answer questions such as “Is my offense going to work”?  “Do I need to change strategy”?  “Do I need to temporarily interrupt my offense and react defensively”?  “Is my overall position strengthen or eroding over time”?

Jot down a list of some big events (both favorable and unfavorable) that have occurred recently in your market.  Such a list might look like the following actual and fictional events….

  • Borders To Liquidate
  • RIM Losing Market Share to Apple and Droid Devices
  • Mobile Devices Make Micro Payment Markets Affordable
  • Tsunami Hits Japan
  • USA Economic Uncertainty Over Debt Ceiling
  • Your Key Partner was Just Acquired by a Competitor
  • Your Key Competitor Just Acquired a Company Outside Your Traditional Market
  • A New Startup in Your Market Gets Traction with a Freemium Business Model

To avoid operating blind-folded, you need a simple (but not simplistic) “Strategic Lens” to evaluate events.  For our clients, that lens is based on the results of mathematical (game-theory) models.  But any company, large or small, can get started with measuring events in a strategic framework.  It is easiest to get started by using your key differentiators as your “Strategic Lens”.  Just systematically ask yourself the question, “for each event on your list, is the impact on each of your top three key differentiators favorable or unfavorable?  High, medium, or low?

Once you do that for about two quarters worth of events, you’ll start to sense trends.  It’s a great and easy addition to your strategic framework, and involves a small amount of executive time commitment.  Evaluating events will create a rich dialogue amongst your leadership team.  And instead of operating blind-folded, your strategic framework is now answering the strategic question, “Are my key differentiators strengthening or eroding over time”?

Forward Opaque and Backward Transparent


Forward Opaque and Backward Transparent is a term we use at Priiva that describes our methodology, and game theory methodology more generally.

“Forward Opaque” is the reason we can eliminate personal bias from decision making.  This type of bias can be lethal – McKinsey wrote a nice article guarding against this kind of bias.  Great advice, but game theory methodology actually helps avoid even having to be on guard – it avoids the bias altogether.

As you debate most topics in your organization, like budgets, role assignments, or strategic directions, the opinions expressed by those involved are likely to be biased by the eventual impact they believe the issue will have on them personally, or for a good manager, perhaps the staff they represent.

These debates are “Forward Transparent”, meaning that the opinions taken during the debate are susceptible to personal bias because those involved can speculate which side of the issue has a more favorable impact on them personally.

When you apply game theory to your strategy and decision making, the essence of the debate changes.  You don’t debate the merits of known outcomes A vs. B.  Rather, you debate what is most important to each of the stakeholders (or players) involved in that issue.  The entire debate shifts to be “Forward Opaque” because you don’t really know how importance for one specific player might impact the overall predicted outcome from the entire simulation.

Once you have settled all your debates on importance, the mathematics behind game theory determines your best possible outcomes.  Those outcomes are “Backward Transparent”! That is, the mathematics can be reverse engineered from the predicted best possible outcomes back to the importance assumptions made about each of the players.

Using this technique, you take away the ability to “game the system” – bad pun.  Intrigued?  Here are some more thoughts on my experiences applying game theory to decision making.

Priiva and iFridge Co-Developed CEO Strategy Workshop

I’m excited to be putting on the finishing touches of a new CEO workshop co-developed with Stefanie Lightman of iFridge & Company.  Stefanie is a former co-worker, world-class marketer, and passionate Red Sox fan, so the joint efforts are fun and lively.  Stefanie and I will deliver that workshop over the coming weeks to Vistage CEO groups on the east coast.  Each of us have been independently conducting CEO workshops this past year, but this is our first attempt to integrate our respective work.  You can learn more of Stefanie’s perspectives on our joint work in her blog.

We’ve developed a very nice pairing of strategy development and execution with pragmatic take-away tools for the participants.  First, is a scorecard developed by ifridge & Company for evaluating the sustainability of differentiation, and scoring an organization’s ability to articulate that differentiation in the marketplace.   This is always a continuous improvement project, reaching to all corners of the organization, and a great way to reconfirm sustainability, and then prioritize sales enablement and marketing programs.

The second take-away is the development of a Strategic Events Heat Map, a tool often recommended by Priiva to its clients.  While not a full-blown market model based on game theory, the development of this heat map forces a similar rigorous and structured codification of outside-in strategic thinking.   The heat map features a strategic lens, which includes the sustainable differentiators referenced above, to evaluate the impact of various world, market, and internal events as they occur.  Over time, the heat map provides a visual picture of the major stakeholders in your market.

Participants will leave the workshop with the ability to conduct quarterly strategic reviews using both of these tools.  We’re looking forward to the interactions and an excited set of CEO participants.



I had an amusing encounter recently while working on strategy planning for two different clients (yes, I am easily amused).   One client was focused on their SWOT.  The other was focused on SWAT.

A SWOT is a common planning framework – a 2×2 grid that identifies Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.  Its a popular framework because its easy to understand.  But at the same time, it on its own usually doesn’t produce useful insights.  I follow a LinkedIn discussion group on strategy planning and there was a recent vigorous debate on the merits of SWOT as a planning tool.  The conclusion in this thread, like many things, is that a SWOT exercise can be a valuable and worthwhile exercise, but is not a panacea for strategy planning.

A SWAT strategy is something different.  SWAT stands for “Sell Whats Available Today”.  All to often, we get excited about selling that next great thing and forget that we’ve already got lots of great things to sell.  Its an interesting exercise to do growth planning using the constraint of no new innovations or product development.  That constraint forces your growth strategy to focus on the market, customers, pricing, and competition.  Suddenly your debating target segments, value propositions, under-served markets, new pricing models, geographical expansion, competitive positioning, etc.

So both SWOT and SWAT are interesting strategic framework tools.   I’m guessing most organizations have spent too much energy on their SWOT and not enough energy on a SWAT.

The Anatomy of a Game Model

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts on game theory.  Hopefully, you’ve read those posts and understand game theory has great potential in business and decision making, and that it is different from game studies, the science behind Farmville, Foursquare, and video games.

If you attempt to learn game theory using the excellent textbooks available, you’ll probably get a headache.   I usually recommend “Games Strategies Decision Making Book CoverGames, Strategies, and Decision Making” by Harrington because it presumes no knowledge of math, econ, psychology, etc.  Yet I still get a headache reading it.  My headache sets in when values are assigned to all the possible outcomes in the game.  This is called the payoff table or payoff matrix.

Without payoff tables, applying game theory stops dead in its tracks.  Payoff tables in simple 2×2 games like the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma, are manageable.  But in more complex games of market strategy, they are unwieldy.  Payoff tables are, in my opinion, the biggest obstacle holding back game theory as a management discipline.  Firms like Priiva Consulting provide services that hide the complexity of payoff tables so that a client gets all the benefits but without getting bogged down in the mathematical science and its complexity.

The Three Inputs to a Game Model

Recall the reason for constructing a game model is to predict behaviors and optimize your outcome.  Formulating a game model requires three inputs:  Players, Options, and Preferences.

  • Players. Players are the stakeholders in the issue who act in their own self-interest.  Not every conceivable player needs to be included.  Shortcuts are available to eliminate weak players, or construct composite player definitions.
  • Options. Options are the set of options available to each player.  Think – “how many prongs exist on the proverbial fork-in-the-road?”  Note that players may, but don’t necessarily have the same options.
  • Preferences. And finally preferences.  For each player, what are the most important options, of all options available to all players, expressed either as fear (meaning the player doesn’t want an option to occur) or desire (meaning the player wants the option to occur).

ACDC Fly on the Boardroom Wall This process of identifying players, constructing their options, and role playing their preferences forces a level of discussion and insight about your market that few organizations ever achieve.   Its like being a fly on the boardroom wall of each of your current and future competitors.

The Analysis

For example, lets say your game model has ten players and (for simplicity), three options per player.  That is thirty total options – each of which are binary – each one either happens or not.  So there are just over one billion (2**3oth) possible outcomes to be analyzed.  That’s a big payoff table even though the vast majority of these billion outcomes are unstable, meaning they will never occur.

Priiva has developed proprietary software to crunch through the billions of possibilities, eliminate the unstable outcomes, analyze the stable ones, and calculate the payoff tables.  There are three primary outcomes of interest – the Natural Outcome, meaning the outcome that occurs naturally; the Best Achievable Outcome, meaning the best possible outcome for our client; and the Worst Achievable Outcome, meaning the worst possible outcome for our client.

Ah Ha!  Outcomes are an Output

In traditional strategy or decision-making, an outcome is a selected goal and an input to the overall strategy process.  All your energy is about the tactics to achieve the selected goal.  When you apply game theory to strategic decision-making, the process is reversed.  That is, the outcome is an output of the process!

Your energy is first spent debating importance, not tactics.  Once you have settled on importance, the mathematics behind game theory will determine your best possible outcome.  Then all of your energy is spent on the execution and tactics to make that occur.  This is all leads to a more repeatable, structured, and accurate decision making process.

Intrigued?  Here are some more thoughts on my experiences applying game theory to decision making.