Apr 30, 2023
Rita McGrath is a best-selling author, sought-after advisor and speaker, and longtime professor at Columbia Business School. Rita is one of the world’s top experts on strategy and innovation and is consistently ranked among the top 10 management thinkers in the world, including the #1 award for strategy by Thinkers50. McGrath’s recent book on strategic inflection points is Seeing Around Corners: How to Spot Inflection Points in Business Before They Happen (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019). Rita is the author of four other books, including the best-selling The End of Competitive Advantage (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013).
Since the onset of the pandemic, Rita has created workshops, strategy sessions and keynotes, applying her tools and frameworks to strategy under high levels of uncertainty to specific issues organizations are facing. As Rui Barbas, the Chief Strategy Officer for Nestle USA said, “You were incredibly insightful and, despite the virtual setting, there was lots of engagement and comments from leaders sharing eye-opening observations and building on your examples throughout. You delivered the inspiration and illustration desired and it was exactly the right focus and challenge for this team. Appreciate your time throughout the process to align on content and delivery. The future-focus theme was the perfect close to our leadership summit.”
Rita’s work is focused on creating unique insights. She has also founded Valize a companion company, dedicated to turning those insights into actionable capability. You can find out more about Valize at www.valize.com.
McGrath received her Ph.D. from the Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania) and has degrees with honors from Barnard College and the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs. She is active on all the main social media platforms, such as Twitter @rgmcgrath. For more information, visit RitaMcGrath.com.
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My guest today is Dr. Rita McGrath. She’s a best-selling author, a sought-after speaker and advisor and consistently ranked among the top 10 management thinkers in the world, including the #1 award for strategy by Thinkers50.
In this episode, Rita talked about the concept of inflection points from her book ‘Seeing Around Corners’ and how as leaders, we can train ourselves to spot these inflection points and act on the information we receive. She also talked about making complex things simple for the people we work with.
I learnt a lot speaking with Rita and I’m sure you will find this conversation insightful as well. Thank you again for watching!
It's an honor to have you on the show, Rita McGrath. Many, many thanks for joining us.
Well, thank you Ula. It's a pleasure to be here.
Great. Now, can you tell us about yourself? How did the Rita, Dr. Rita McGrath we know today evolve?
Well, it would have to start with my parents, of course. I mean, all great stories start with your parents.
And so, my parents were both scientists. My mother was a Microbiologist, and my father was an Organic Chemist. And so, I grew up in a house where, you know, (if) a question couldn't be answered, you went and got the reference book and figured it out. And both, (had) incredible respect for science and for diligence. And, you know, the house was always full of books and lots of emphasis on learning.
I wouldn't say we were, financially all that well-off – we weren’t poor by any means. But it was, you know, there wasn't like a lot of money to spare, but there was always money for books, and there was always money for, you know, educational experiences and that kind of thing. So, that's the household I grew up in.
So, my parents, when I was born, were both on the staff at the Yale Medical School. So, they were both researchers there. And then my dad in the late 60s, got an offer to go join this upstart, fledgling company that was at the cutting edge of all kinds of things in his field and that was Xerox Corporation. And he was very conflicted about leaving academia, but went off eventually to Xerox.
So, we moved the family to Rochester, New York. So that's where I did most of my growing up. And my mother at that time, decided to stay home, more or less. And then she started a scientific translation business. So, she moved into an entrepreneurial career more than her scientific career. And then when it came time to go to college, I went to Barnard College in the City of New York. I’d always thought New York was an amazing place and was accepted there. So, went off to New York, did my Bachelor's and my Master's in Political Science and Public Policy. I was very interested in public policy and matters of social contract and those kinds of things.
And then my first job was actually with the City of New York, I ran purchasing systems for government agencies. It doesn't sound very glamorous. But today, we would call it digital transformation. It was the very first wave of companies taking their operations in a digital form. And it was very exciting and I learned a lot.
Then I got to the end of… the thing about public service is when you start, there’s (this) unlimited sort of growth that can happen for a few years, and then it really just levels off. And you're never going to go beyond that. So, I kind of reached that headroom and decided to do something different.
Was it at that point that you decided to go for your PhD?
And that was one of the options I was considering. And my husband basically said, ‘look, if you get into a top five school, it's worth doing and if you don't, it's probably not.’
But you have to think in that time, MBA programs were just exploding, and there'd been a lot of pressure on the administrators of MBA programs, to put PhD accredited faculty in front of their students. The big knock against the MBA at the time was, oh, they're just trade schools. You know, we've got some guy who ran an entire company comes in and talks and that's not really academically suitable.
And so, there was a huge pressure for schools to find PhD accredited people- that still exists (but) the market pressures has changed a lot. But when I was doing my PhD, it was pretty sure I would get a job if I managed to complete the degree. So that that gave me that extra input to do that.
Did you already have like children when you started the PhD?
And how did you cope?
Our son was, how old was he? He would have been nine months old when I started my PhD program. Yeah.
Wow, 9 months old.
Oh, yeah, it was a real challenge. And I guess everybody manages those kinds of challenges in their own way. But yeah, it was a struggle because, you know, typical day would be you know, get up, get the baby to daycare or wherever and then do school or whatever I had to do that day. And then it was sort of pick them up.
By the time I had a second child it was pick them up, get them dinner, get them bedtime, get them story, and then I'll be back at my desk at nine o'clock at night, trying to do what I needed to do.
So, it was a new turn. It was tough. It was difficult years. I mean, joyful years though but it was just hard to fit everything in.
I can imagine. I mean, although I'm thinking of starting my PhD (studies), my children aren't that small but I do remember the time (they were), you know, I was still working full time.
So, the challenge is you'd go to work and then come back to work. I mean, to another type of work. And then when they go to bed, the work continues. Yeah, it's interesting.
You can say that. I'm so glad they're not in diapers anymore. So, it's baby steps, we are getting there.
So, can we go on to your book, “Seeing Around Corners, How to Spot Inflection Points in Business Before They Happen”. I'd like to start from an unusual place in the book.
I started from the dedication page, and you know, reading everything, and I noticed that, you referred to a conversation, one of the last conversations you had with your mother. Could you tell us about that?
Oh sure. She was well, at the time, she was quite ill, she had sarcoma in her lung, and she was quite ill. It's a horrible disease, and we haven't got any real treatments for it. So, the recommendation is you do chemo and that really knocks you out.
So, she was quite ill and sort of migrating between the chair and the couch and the chair and the couch. And in one of those conversations, she just said ‘I want you to know I'm proud of you. And I've had a good life and I'm prepared for whatever comes next.’
And I thought that was lovely of her to say and I thought in that moment to pass it on to all these other women. And you know you bring up motherhood and being a working woman and all those complicated emotions that come with that because there seems to be guilt around every corner you know, if you’re not at home full time, oh you’re a terrible mom. And if you’re not at work full time, you're a terrible worker. I just I think so many of those things are just designed to twist us up into little balls.
And when I look at my own mother's experience - she was a working woman… I grew up but I think I'm third or fourth generation working woman so it never even occurred to me that wouldn't be possible.
But I think what often is missing is this validation, you know that for women who are trying to you know make their way professionally and be great, responsible parents and do all these other things that often there's a sense of a lack of self-worth you know, ‘oh, I'm not doing enough.’ The more I hear that…
I feel like that some… most days I feel like that…
Believe me, you are doing enough
Sometimes I ask my children, am I a good mom?
Rita McGrath: I think part of it too is we, and when I say we, I mean baby boomer mothers and maybe a little younger. We got ourselves all tangled up in this if it's not like organic, hand-processed lima beans with you know, organic succotash, mixed in you know, it's not good baby food.
Honestly, Gerber's exists to provide perfectly nutritious food for really young babies and they've been doing it for decades and you can trust that and if it makes your life easier, go with it.
You know, I think we I think we get ourselves all tossed up in like, what does good mean? I mean, honestly, the kids don't mind you know? I mean, they’d celebrate if it was chicken finger night.
Let's go to the book. You know, because in your book you said you it's about how to spot inflections before they happen in business.
Can you give us examples of, you know, businesses that had these inflection points occur, and they failed to recognize it and what was the impact?
Sure, let's take one that is quite sad to me, which is Intel. And Intel built its, well, Intel went through a major inflection point, in fact, the originator of the concept was Andy Grove, who was their former CEO.
And he talked about his inflection points in his book, Only the Paranoid Survive, which is really a brilliant, brilliant book. And one of the reasons I wrote my book was that very little had been done since his book on that topic. And Grove built this incredible company, Intel. And they were making microprocessor chips. And they were very, very powerful, very fast chips.
And so, the assumptions inside Intel's business model was, what customers were going to pay for was faster, faster, faster, more computation power, more and more powerful. But what they didn't really think about was energy consumption. And as the world went more mobile… so the Intel product is the PC, and the PC, the desktop PC remains firmly plugged into the wall.
And then later, we make PC chips that maybe have slightly lower power consumption to power PCs, but it's still that notion of power, you know, and I think the inflection point that caught Intel by surprise, to some extent was, this movement towards mobile, where the vast majority of chips being made were these completely different architecture chips by companies like ARM and you know, and companies like that, which, from their inception, recognized that low power was the way to go. Then they weren't very powerful in the sense of speed, which is what Intel was driving its business towards. But they were powerful in the sense of ubiquitous low power, long battery life, that kind of thing.
And I think that's an example of the kind of assumption that can cause a company to get into trouble, when the underlying shift in the business environment says, ‘wait a minute, this thing you've been building all this time may not be what is needed by the marketplace.’
That's interesting. So, it brings me to the point of, the points you made about, you know, the indicators, the early warnings, and you mentioned the concept of you know lagging, current and leading indicators. And there was an emphasis in your book on, you know, leading indicators. Could you tell us a bit about that?
Sure. Well, so leading indicators are today's information about tomorrow's possibilities. And what we unfortunately rely on a lot in business is lagging indicators - so profits, performance, you know, ROI, all those things are lagging some kind of decision that you made a long time ago.
So, the concept of leading indicators is to try to get business leaders to think about what would have to be true, you know, before I was able to make a certain decision, what are the leading indicators?
So, an example would be back in the 90s, computer scientists all over the world realized that come the year 2000, from the turn of the millennium, that the way computer programs had been programmed, was only two digits for the year.
And so, when the year went to zero-zero, computers, were going to think it was 1900 and this was going to be terrible. Because they all get out of sync, you know, and planes would drop out of the sky. You're gonna become unstable, and you’ll all need to move to Montana and stuff … I don't know if you can remember this.
<Nodding> Yeah, the Y2K bug…
Oh my goodness…!
It was a big sensation. Yeah…
Apocalyptic – remember?! And yet, when the big moment came the year 2000. What happened? Well, nothing happened. Why did nothing happen? We looked at that early warning, and we said, whoa, if that happens, it's bad.
And then so companies, prodded by their accounting firms, prodded by other security considerations invested billions in correcting that flaw. And so, that's an example of an early warning. And there are a couple of things to understand about early warning.
So, the first important thing is, the measure of a good early warning is not, did it predict what happened. The measure of a good leading indicator is, did it help you prepare for what might happen?
And so, I think that's a really important distinction, because we oftentimes, oh, you that didn't predict this or that. But that's not the point. The point is, did it help you think more broadly about what might happen so that you could be prepared? So, I think that's the first thing.
The second thing to remember about leading indicators is they're often not quantitative in the way that we like to think about quantitative things. They're often qualitative. They often take the form of stories. And they often come from what are called unrepresentative parts of your mental ecosystem. So, you know, it's that person on the loading dock (saying to themselves), ‘this is, well, that's weird, a customer never asked for that before’, or the person answering the phone, you know, in headquarters going, ‘Well, I don't understand why they need that information…’ You know, it's those little anomalies or things that depart from business as usual, that are often the weak signals that you need to be paying attention to.
So, can you give us an example where you mean, I mean, of how we can go about choosing good leading indicators?
Well, in the book, I describe a technique that I use, which is you take a couple of uncertainties and juxtapose them on each other. And that gives you four or more you can do this for as many as you like, stories from the future, possibly a future that we could live in. And then depending on which one you want to think about, you say, ‘okay, I'm gonna write a headline as if it came from a newspaper story about that scenario. And I'm gonna work backwards and say, what has to be true for that headline to emerge.’
So, take an example that's playing out right now, chronic and accelerating decline in birth rates in the United States. People are just deciding not to enlarge their families or not to start their families at all.
And for very good reasons, you know, the level of social support for families is very low. Mostly women are bearing the burden. And very often women are the ones that make a large part of the decision about whether the family is going to grow or not. And so, we're facing a real baby bust.
Well, if that's true, and we follow that along, well, what are some things that would be early warnings or indicators of what that world will be like? Well, you'll see a decline of working people relative to retired people, or people needing assistance, you'll see, you know, fewer kids with more resources to support them.
So, the kind of baby Prince phenomena we saw in China. There are lots of things you can kind of work through. But once you say, ‘okay, I see a world with a million fewer children three years from now, than we would have expected well, okay, what now working backward? What does that tell us we need to be paying attention to today?
Yes, yes. That's a great example. And I wonder, though, so given all, you know, the research that has led to, and your experience as well, consulting with, you know, most of these large organizations, the case studies, you've come to witness and all that, what would you, what would be your advice to leaders of such organizations, you know, in terms of how they can better prepare themselves or equip themselves to recognize these inflection points, and lead effectively?
Well, I think the first principle is you have to be discovery driven. In other words, you have to be curious about what's going on. And if you're the kind of leader who (when) someone brings you a piece of information, and instead of treating it like a gift, you're like, oh no, you don't understand that's wrong. That's not the way the world works. If you're dismissive of information people are bringing you that's very dangerous.
Because the information you need is not going to come from your lieutenants at headquarters, it's going to come from that guy on the loading dock. So, I think you want to think about establishing some kind of information flows, that go directly from where the phenomena are happening to your desk.
So, as an example, a company I really admire is the German metal services company Klockner. And their CEO, Gisbert Ruehl was taking them through a digital transformation. And his big concern was not that they meant it, right? But that his lieutenants, his middle manager, cohort, would be so expert, and so experienced at the way business was, that they would just shut down these digital efforts. And he was very, very concerned about that. He said, well, I need some way of making my message heard directly to the people that are on the frontlines and I also need a way of hearing from them what's going on.
So, he implemented Yammer, called non-hierarchical communication. And the deal was anybody in the company that had something he needed to know should feel comfortable sending him a note. And I'm told, I don't know this for a fact that I'm told that at headquarters, he had his instance of Yammer set up so that the lower the hierarchical level of the person, the higher it came in his newsfeed.
Ula Ojiaku: Oh, wow.
Rita McGrath: So, you know, I can talk to my lieutenants, anytime. Information I need is in the, you know, 24-year-old person who's just joined us with an engineering degree, who's looking at our manufacturing process for screwdrivers and saying, ‘Why do you do it that way? There must be a better way of doing this…’ That's the information I really need and he set up a whole system to try to get that information to him, to himself.
Would you say there's a typical kind of leader with, you know, some certain characteristics that's best equipped to spot the inflection point, and you know, kind of lead the charge and get the organizations in line?
You know, I think it's more of the behavior, it's not the characteristics. So, I've seen charismatic, attractive, you know, movie star type CEOs be good at this. I've seen people you look at and you go ‘Really? He looks kind of like he slept in his clothes all night.’ I've seen those people be good at it.
So, you know, I think the differentiation is this, this hunger for new information, this curiosity, this relentless… ‘tell me again…’ and ‘why was that and why was that?’ It is this urgent need to really learn what's going on. And then and then putting yourself in the, in the context.
So, one of the people I'm working with right now is a brilliant retail CEO, and everything. And one of the things he would do before hiring anybody into his senior team, is he would spend a day or two walking the stores, you know, and in his explanation to me was, ‘I want to see how they react to the stores. I want to see how they treat the people working in stores. I want to see what they notice, you know, I want to see if they notice that there's a thing out of array and I want to see how they are with me, like if they spend their whole two days in store visits, sucking up to me - that's not somebody I need, you know.
And so, I think the best leaders along those lines are people who are relentlessly curious, bring people around them who are diverse, you know, you don't just want echo chambers of themselves.
True, true. You don't want ‘yes’ men if you really want to make an impact really. Yeah, and how can I, as a person, train myself to also recognize these inflection points.
Well, it depends what the inflection point is. So, if it's a question of, you've been making nice steady progress in your career, and now you've hit some kind of ceiling and you just feel you're not growing or developing any more, then that choice is really okay, I need to… the way Whitney Johnson would put this, she's written a great book on this, “Disrupt Yourself”, right?
You go up this S curve, then you need to make the decision if you're going to take on the J curve, right, which is the part below the S curve before you get into the next round of learning. So, that's a personal decision, really only you can make a decision like that.
Then there are the cases where inflection points are thrust upon you. So you lose a job, your spouse has some setback, a family member has an urgent need that makes whatever you were doing before impossible. I mean, there's all kinds of outside things that can happen to you.
Ula Ojiaku: Yeah…
Rita McGrath: And I think the best way to try to look at those is. ‘is this a slingshot to a better future, potentially?’
And you know, how many people have you talked to who got fired, and some years later say, ‘that was the best thing that ever happened to me, it shook me out of my complacency. It made me think differently.’
And so, I think a lot of times, you know, we, it's very comfortable (staying) stuck in our ruts. And sometimes it takes a bit of a jolt to get us out of that.
That's a great one. Can I just ask you about so it's not really about your book, Seeing Around Corners, but this one is about the Entrepreneurial Mindset? Just one quick question. Because there's a quote, in your book, that book that says, you know, “the huge part of becoming an entrepreneurial leader is learning to simplify complexity, so that your co-workers can act with self-confidence.”
That quote, it made me kind of be more conscious about, am I really making things simpler for my co-workers instead of, you know, rather than to enable us, you know, achieve the best that we could as a group? So why did you, make that quote and associate it with an Entrepreneurial Mindset?
Well, because if you make things complicated for people, there's maybe three responses, right? One is they'll start on whatever they start on, which is kind of random. And maybe they finish it, and maybe they don't, but it's really now you're leaving it to chance. Because if you give people more to digest than they can manage, you're going to get back some fraction of it. So that's one thing.
Second thing that happens is, if it's too complex, a lot of times people will pick what they want to do, not have anything to do with the agenda that you want to set for the organization.
And the third thing is there's just a laziness that comes from having things be complex. I know for myself, when I've had to do strategy statements for myself, or my business, it takes a long, long time to get it done into a few simple things. And each word has to mean something.
So, as an example, some years back, I started a sister company. It's called Valize. And the strategy really is to its mission, its purpose for me, is to help organizations create innovation and transformation capability as the basis for shared prosperity. And that sounds really simple. That sounds really kind of ‘duh, that’s not so grand, but I mean, the hours it took to get to that simplicity of statement.
And then once you've got something like that, you can go back and you could say, okay, well, here's the thing that I'm being asked to do or think I'm thinking of, does it build capability? Yes. No. Does it build shared prosperity? Yes, no. Does it help organizations to help themselves? Yes, no. And it sorts out a lot of stuff means a lot of stuff we could do. But there are only a few things that really fit into that sweet spot of shared capability.
So, having that simplification allows you to clear out a lot of the …, there are always wonderful options that you got to do things, right? And it's a question of abundance, you've usually got more great options than you could possibly exercise. So, picking the best ones is the challenge.
Wow, wow. I'm going to listen to this part again.
You've mentioned some books already, like Andy Grove’s, Only the Paranoid, I mean, Only the Paranoid survive. And you've mentioned the book, Disrupt Yourself… In addition to these books, and your wonderful suite of books, what other books would you recommend to the audience that you believe have influenced you that you'd recommend to the listeners that would help them you know, learn more about this topic?
Oh, that's hard, because there's so many. Well, I love Safi Bahcall’s Loonshots. I think that's a brilliant, brilliant book. And it really gets to the heart of how innovation actually happens rather than how we think it happens.
I rather like Gary Hamel’s and Michele Zanini’s book, Humanocracy which has the basic question, you know, if you look at Instagram, or Twitter or any of these social platforms, you see these people who are just brilliant. I mean, they're creating incredibly creative stuff. And then we put them inside companies. And we insist that they do things by the rule, and we block all the creativity out of them. So, why do we do that? You know, I think that's a really great one.
I'm very taken with Rebecca Henderson's, Re-imagining Capitalism in a World on Fire. Very, very brilliant. Roger Martin, When More is not Better. Just recently had a Julie Lythcott-Haims on my fireside chat program, which is and she's got a book called Your Turn, How to be an Adult”, which is, on a personal level, absolutely fascinating - really good book. I like Peter Sim’s, Little Bets. You know, they're just so many I mean, I wouldn't even know where to where to start. Those are the ones that are sort of top of mind at the moment.
Okay. scribbling away as you're talking, and yeah, these all these would be in the show notes with the links to them. So that's great. Now, how can the audience reach you? If they want to, you know follow your work.
The best place to start is my website, which is really ritamcgrath.com, that's easy. I have columns that I write for. They’re currently going up on substack and medium. If you just search my name and or medium, you'll find me there. I do weekly, LinkedIn post, which goes to subscribers on LinkedIn. Also, that's all sort of good places to start.
Okay. Are you on social media?
Oh, yes. So yes. I'm on Twitter @RGMcGrath. And I'm on LinkedIn. Okay. I'm not on Facebook so much. But I have put things I post there, but I'm not really on it very much.
Okay. All right. That's, I mean, thanks for those. Now, let's wrap up any ask of the audience first?
I think we're in a remarkable moment, right now, you know, we've had so many of our previous habits and assumptions disrupted, that I think it would be a shame to lose, to lose all that and just go back to the way things were.
So, I think it's an opportunity to reflect and to really think about, what kind of future do we want to build now that so many of our assumptions and institutions have been challenged, and we learned whole new tricks, we learned whole new ways to do things. Let's not just snap back to the way it was, let's think about inventing better.
Really, I think there's going to be great opportunity coming out of this current crisis and those who are thinking ahead will benefit from it.
Okay, great. Well, Rita, thank you so much for your time, and it's been a pleasure again, having you on the show.
Thank you very much.