As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ed McMahon.
With over 20 years’ experience in executive management and senior consulting roles, Ed McMahon brings his highly collaborative and pragmatic approach to the work he does with clients. He has a broad range of consulting experience in a variety of industries including health care, telecommunications, technology, manufacturing and distribution, and professional services. Ed is a recognized expert in corporate leadership and team effectiveness, governance, corporate structure and performance management. He has taught Leadership, Teamwork and Human Resource Management and HR Strategy for the MBA Program at the DeGroote School of Business. He has an MBA from the Schulich School of Business, and a BA in Psychology from the University of Windsor.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started my career in the advertising agency business, and then technology trade publishing, with a stint in product management for a global technology company.
While I was working in publishing, I was introduced to “the internet” and was fascinated by the opportunities for reshaping business. That combined with my product management experience contributed to me making a career shift, and I entered the world of management consulting. I spent several years in global consulting firms, all of which were rapidly expanding their web-focused business transformation practices. In 2000 I wrote and published a book (Brick to Clicks, Stoddart) and helped a number of organizations figure out how to incorporate the internet into their business.
I eventually got to the point where I was in executive leadership roles in consulting, managing the business of consulting and overseeing large technology implementation teams, and not doing the work I love, which is helping people solve difficult issues. So, I left the big firms and started my own consultancy because I wanted to focus more closely on the real engines of success for any company — how it is organized and how it ensures everyone in the company has everything they need to be as successful and fulfilled as possible.
My big firm experience taught me that while implementing new technologies and fixing business processes are important, the real key to every successful business is people. You need to have the right people, in the right roles, doing the right work, at the right time.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I have always been a big fan of technology. I bought my first computer in 1977 — pre-DOS — and to this day I am continuously looking for ways to incorporate technology into the work that I do. In my early days as an independent, I invested in a few tools that I thought would leverage technology to my advantage. However, I soon learned that if we do not choose wisely, sometimes the tools can, unfortunately, make things more complicated.
I remember one executive leadership offsite I was setting up for with a colleague. We had carefully planned how the two days’ worth of session would go, and a lot of the work relied on technology I was bringing to the session. As I was setting up, I was sort of bragging to my colleague about all the technology we would be using. “Check this out, Ian. All these gizmos and gadgets to showcase our work… I feel like James Bond.” After several minutes of watching me wrestle with one particularly fussy device, my friend commented: “Um, Ed, James Bond would have been done 10 minutes ago…”
We both had a good laugh, but it was a valuable lesson for me.
Keep it simple. Simple is good.
Often, we make things more complicated than we need to. Our clients tell me that I have a way of explaining complex situations in simple and clear language. I take that as a huge compliment, and I strive to incorporate simplicity into my work.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Well, there were a lot of people who provided me with plenty of guidance along the way.
Perhaps oddly, my inspiration didn’t come from a businessperson but from my high school music teacher, Gil Grossutti.
I love music and played a number of instruments in various high school bands. I was sort of the fill-in guy in the brass section. I would be asked to play a part when there was a gap — like, “we have no coronet for this semester” … so I played coronet for a semester. This went on for several years.
Gil had a way of getting the best from everyone in the band. And what he was always going for was your personal best. He didn’t care if you were a virtuoso or a hack — he just wanted you to do your best. I remember a time vividly, when he stopped the session, looked at me, and said “oh, come on, Ed. Is that the best you’ve got? We both know you’re better than that. From the top…”
He didn’t get angry and he didn’t make me feel stupid. He just reminded me to put all my limited talent into what I was doing.
In todays terms I think, that was a lesson in mindfulness (be fully present and engage with what you are doing right now) as well as a reminder of what happens when you are on a team and you don’t do your best — everyone loses.
So that’s a lesson that has stuck with me through the years that I’ve found very helpful. And yes, I did write him a while back to say thanks — he was quite surprised!
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
People spend a lot of time at work, and sometimes work is not the most fulfilling or pleasant place to be. I started my company with a vision of making the workplace better for everyone in it.
A recent Gallup survey (State of the American Workplace) found that only 33% of employees state that they are “Engaged” at work. That’s a staggering number because it means that employees in most workplaces are either “Not Engaged” (51%) or “Actively Disengaged” (16%). Imagine you’re the team captain at a football game where most of the team — 67% — either doesn’t care whether you win or lose or leaves the field before the game starts. Unfortunately, most of us have experienced workplaces that don’t work so well.
At the same time however, many have also worked in organizations that are firing on all cylinders — organizations where everyone seems to know just what to do and when to do it. Organizations where the whole is more than the sum of the parts, like a great symphony orchestra.
Highly effective organizations are not an accident. Highly engaged employees are an outcome of well-designed organizations that are filled with people doing work that they find meaningful and fulfilling. As human beings, one of our core drivers is meaningful work. It’s a basic human need.
Our purpose is to work with leaders and managers to create great organizations. We want people to be fulfilled in their work, and at work.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
We help executive leaders on two fronts. We help them understand why their organizations aren’t firing on all cylinders, and we help them fix that by aligning people with purpose.
We also help the people in our client organizations by working with them to clarify exactly what they do, to resolve inconsistencies and overlaps with other roles, and to work with their managers to get to agreement on the work of every role holder.
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?
The availability of online collaboration platforms has made a real difference in how firms like ours work.
They enable us to collect data from a broader, distributed group of stakeholders, encourage candor and transparency, and provide us with a richer and deeper set of data from which we can draw to help our clients.
These tools (we use PowerNoodle) are disruptive because they get us beyond several issues — for instance, the need to have all the stakeholders in one place at the same time to conduct a workshop. Using these tools, stakeholders can engage with content and colleagues at a time that works for them.
What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
We had to rethink our processes, especially our processes around working with executive teams, distributed teams, and larger stakeholder groups. Our solution was primarily technological — we looked for a technology designed specifically to help large, geographically dispersed groups have important discussions and get to consensus.
But we also had to revisit our processes and very quickly learn how to translate our “in-person on-the-ground” facilitating skills to a new platform and a new reality.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
When COVID hit we started adapting by using meeting/streaming platforms like Zoom and Teams to do our work with clients and teams. We soon discovered some major shortcomings.
When you are in person in real time with a team, you can “read the room” — adapt, and go with the flow. Skilled facilitators are very adept at doing this and it is a key component to successfully generating consensus among a team that is making important decisions. On a Zoom call (or whatever technology is used) this process is more difficult, if not impossible. There are a lot of cues missing — facial expressions aren’t as clear, body language is muted, tone of voice is difficult to make out. These and other factors make it difficult to have a productive session and bring the group to a place of consensus.
So, we concluded that, while we had the “get the group together” component covered, the particular online tools are not a good replacement fort the “face-to-face” element of a live workshop. And there were other important things missing. Good group meetings are often a combination of synchronous and asynchronous activities. This is difficult to enable with online meeting streaming platforms. “Zoom fatigue” is a real thing, and it eats into productivity and effective group sessions.
Probably our biggest “Aha moment” was a meeting with the executive leadership of one of our clients, a major municipality.
We had worked with them to uncover several challenges to the current design of their organization. It simply was not set up to distribute work effectively and in a way that was clear to all the stakeholders in the organization. Consequently, the organization was experiencing excessive delays and escalations, and it was unclear to many stakeholders who got to make which decisions.
During our work with this client for instance, we discovered that many employees could not identify who was accountable for a specific body of work, or decision. As an example, when we asked: “If a road construction project is going over budget, who gets to decide what gets cut out — a bike lane or a right-turn lane?” The most common answer was “I’m not sure. Possibly me. But maybe my boss.” This type of uncertainty can paralyze an organization.
After working to clarify roles and decision-making and identifying a couple of alternative design propositions that would solve this and other issues, we set up a meeting with our client and his large executive team to present and talk through the design options.
Normally this is something we would do live and in person. The meeting usually generates a good deal of discussion and debate — rich and deep feedback that allows us to work with our client to sharpen and optimize the design and which at the same time, facilitates effective change within the organization. Of course, COVID does not allow us to do this.
We set up an online session to present and discuss the designs. The result? Crickets. Literally, almost no dialog and nothing of value. So, we didn’t get any additional input that would allow us to fine tune the designs, and more importantly, our client didn’t get what they needed to get the team aboard to facilitate change.
We realized coming out of that meeting that we had to change our processes and find a technology that would give our clients and us a better chance at success.
So, how are things going with this new direction?
Things are going very well.
The upside is that this has really caused us to think through our processes and adapt to the new reality, supported by better technology than we had used in the past. In addition, we are getting much richer data sets from broader stakeholder groups.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?
We’ve been working with a client to help them get a dispersed stakeholder group aligned around the organization’s mission and visions. Normally (again) this is something we would do with a smaller group of senior executives, in the same room.
Instead, we deployed our new processes and technology to a much broader stakeholder group than we would ever have been to schedule together.
The results have been a very healthy, candid debate — much better than real time, as conducting this work online avoids some of the classic pitfalls of “follow-the-leader’s-opinion”. Our client told us these sessions had generated “more data and more candour” than they had expected.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
Making decisions and setting direction for the team when information is scarce, or where there is uncertainty. It’s easy to make decisions and set direction in times of certainty. Great leaders earn their spurs, and the trust of the people they lead, by making decisions in uncertain times. They don’t always make great decisions, but they make the best decisions they can with the information they have. They recognize that leadership is an iterative process, much like agile methodology itself. Decide with the information you have, gather more data, assess, and review, revise, and decide again.
As Winston Churchill said: “if you’re going through hell, keep going”. I love that quote — I use it all the time.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Draw on the strength of the team and remind them of other tough roads that they have navigated. None of these obstacles are exactly the same but they have common elements. Emphasize the value of resiliency and remind them that together we can manage what we need to in order to prevail.
And remind people that in every time of uncertainty and transition, there are opportunities.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Perspective. There are always turbulent times. When I hear people say: “this is the worst”, I like to ask: “compared to what?”. I like to remind people that the best path forward is to not be distracted by what’s going on outside; focus on your work and how you can continue to contribute value to your organization and its customers. Even with disruptive technologies, change takes some time — it’s not an event, it’s a process. And until change is in place, there is still work to be done, customers to be served, products to manage. Stay focused.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Pretending it will go away, or trying to position it as a fad
In 1975 Sony introduced its Betamax player to the US market. Betamax was the original widely available consumer format for in-home video recording and viewing. It featured great specs, resolution, sound quality etc. and was positioned accordingly as a premium device for discerning consumers. It was also expensive. Two years later, JVC introduced its VHS format. Not as technologically advanced, but less expensive. Initially, Sony dismissed VHS as inferior and unsophisticated.
As it turned out, the consumer mass market wasn’t interested in sophisticated — it was more interested in affordable. In addition to its own manufacturing capacity, JVC negotiated licensing arrangements with several electronics manufacturers to flood the market with cheaper devices. By 1981 Sony’s market share had dwindled to about 25% of the market it had essentially invented, largely because they convinced themselves that the “technologically inferior” VHS format would never take off. In 2015, Sony ceased production of Beta-format tapes.
Meanwhile, the primarily US-based manufacturers of film cameras and projectors like Bell & Howell and KODAK convinced themselves that moving images would never shift formats from film to videotape. They too missed this market in large part because of their “just a fad” mindset.
2. Misreading its disruptive potential
Disruptive technologies are continually arising. In its earliest incarnation, Napster (the original peer-to-peer music sharing site) was very disruptive and had many people in the music industry worried about a collapse of the entire industry. There were concerted efforts (which were ultimately successful) to bring Napster down, primarily based on copyright and IP infringement lawsuits. In June of 2002 Napster did eventually close its doors, to the delight of the music industry in general. And so, the music industry went back to its ways, confident that it had stopped this particular disruptive technology from destroying their carefully constructed industry.
But Napster wasn’t an industry disruptor –it was a channel disruptor. What Napster did was provide a better channel for delivering music, allowing users to switch from bricks-and-mortar retailers to online music servers. And as a whole the music industry completely misread the potential of that channel disruption.
In June of 2015, Apple launched Apple Music, which coupled Napster’s channel-disrupting idea of on-line delivery with a revolutionary approach to content licensing and royalty payments that truly has redefined the industry. Apple Music, it turns out, is much more broadly disruptive.
3. Overanalysing and delaying adoption
In 1975, KODAK engineer Steve Sasson invented digital photography. The ensuing patents for making and storing digital images were filed by KODAK which undertook an analysis of the market potential for this new technology.
KODAK executives apparently could not see beyond the big, bulky prototype of the first digital camera (it weighed over 20 pounds and was hardwired to a desktop computer) and its grainy on-screen images, to envision a time when smaller devices would exist. Devices which would ultimately allow consumers to view their own pictures on a screen immediately after taking them, edit them, and select which pictures they wanted to turn into more permanent paper-based artifacts.
As legend has it there was a lot of analysis about the potential of this new technology — most of it inward-facing and focused on what digital photography meant to their own business (most of which was not good). KODAK failed to think and research deeply into issues like what digital photography would mean for their customers. They focused their research efforts on the implications for their existing film and camera business, thus delaying their own adoption of the technology they had invented.
KODAK later introduced the world’s first digital SLR camera in 1991 and struggled with balancing a product portfolio that included its traditional lines of cameras, film, and photographic paper along with newer digital formats in the ensuing years. Its star gradually faded.
In 2007 KODAK’s patent protection expired, leaving the field wide open for competitors. In 2012, KODAK filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, a victim of its own “paralysis by analysis” and denial about the implications that the technology it had invented posed for consumers.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Adopt the customer perspective
KODAK (as well as other pioneers like it) failed to think about their disruptive technology from the consumer perspective. They convinced themselves that their customers would stick with them no matter how superior any new technology turned out to be.
When thinking about the impact of a disruptive technology, are you taking the customer view and thinking about how to position yourself as a supplier of this technology to your customer base, or are you too concerned about protecting your existing products, channels, or technologies?
When it comes to disruptive technology, someone’s going to eat your lunch — it might as well be you.
2. Understand the adoption curve
The adoption of disruptive technology is not an event, it’s a process. It takes some time.
While adoption is unfolding, you might do well to spend some time looking at the adoption curve, and scenario planning the impact on your business. What is the impact of higher or lower adoption rates on your customers, products, and channels? Do adoption rates suggest this technology will become pervasive (e.g., internet) or niche, then more broadly mass market (e.g., VCRs)?
This may call for you to be brutally honest about your business and your customers — and it may also allow you to stay connected with the curve and bring the benefits of the new technology to your customers.
3. Carefully examine application(s) to your business
In today’s hyper-connected world, it is difficult to imagine a new disruptive technology emerging that doesn’t have implications for business and consumers.
Considering how disruptive technologies may affect your consumers and markets may require you to set aside some (or all) of your notions about “how things work”.
Does this technology have the potential to disrupt a part of an existing process or technology, or to replace it in its entirety? And does your position in the value chain have an impact on the level of disruption?
Microwave ovens for instance (when they first appeared) were definitely a disruptive technology.
For appliance manufacturers they posed both an opportunity and a threat. Would this new technology eat into sales of traditional stoves and ranges?
As the technology matured it became clear that microwaves were not going to replace traditional meal prep appliances entirely — so only part of the process was disrupted. Traditional oven and stove sales would continue, and microwave ovens would be added to the food prep mix.
But for the food and beverage companies that were prepared, the arrival of the microwave created a significant opportunity. They could (and did) pivot on their existing “frozen dinner meal” platforms to create a whole new category — prepared microwave dinners.
4. Challenge your assumptions
When you’re tempted to think “that will never happen” take a few minutes to examine your mindset. Why not? Because you don’t want it to? Because you can’t see it? Because it would be bad for you if it did? None of these are valid reasons why a technology won’t be disruptive for you and your business. But they are revealing of a mindset that is based on the current situation, and that might not be looking deeply and dispassionately enough into the future.
5. Get the right talent on board
One of the hallmarks of disruptive technologies is that it is, de facto, innovative. As you think about the implications for your business, take some time to consider whether you have the talent in your organization to effectively assess what the disruption means for your customers and you. It is entirely possible that the talent, experience, knowledge, and mindset to clearly assess and understand a disruptive technology does not exist in your organization. If that’s the case, you’ll need to find it and consider whether you need to make that talent part of your organization on a permanent basis.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
In the late 18th century Voltaire is credited with saying “the best is the enemy of the good”. This often shows up as “don’t let perfect be the enemy of good”.
I like this idea. It reminds me (constantly) not to spend too much time trying to make things perfect. Leaders need to be able to find the “good enough” solution and execute in a timely way. Delaying in the hopes of finding the “perfect” killer solution elevates risk and is a gift to your competitors; at some point, the law of diminishing returns kicks in — the price of the next iteration of improvement outweighs the returns.
In agile terms, this has been simplified further, I think, to “fail fast”.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Our work can be found on our website, www.coreinternational.com, where we also invite you to join our mailing list to receive the latest in organizational design and leadership.
We can also be reached on LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/company/coreinternational-inc/ or on my personal LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/edmcmahon/