As part of my series about “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Karla Raines.
Karla Raines is an accomplished strategist serving purpose-driven organizations in dynamically competitive industries. Her commitment to mastering the art of strategy led her to a career-defining eureka moment in 2018. Her book Differentiated shares the story of her inventive strategy process, Differentiation Zone®, through real-life vignettes and powerful lessons pulled from over two decades of consulting experience. Karla recognizes that creativity and imagination are crucial to the strategy process and would not have discovered Differentiation Zone without both. Her “aha” moment in 2018 occurred when she saw something she had never seen before. The experience crystallized her intuitive process and inspired her to reverse engineer what she had taught herself to do over years of hands-on practice.
With a unique ability to see beyond what is, Karla leads her clients to discover authentic differentiation and craft plans to realize their competitive advantage. Abstract painting propels Karla’s professional creativity and risk-taking as it fuels her soul. Artists look at the world differently, and creativity opens a new portal. Years of painting have taught Karla to get out of her way, not to tell herself no, and be open to the power of flow. She wouldn’t have discovered Differentiation Zone without it.
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 began my career as an industrial engineer in the defense industry, supporting the production of U.S. Air Force radar communications systems and the F-16 fighter jet. Engineering taught me a lot about processes and problem solving, and relating to people from diverse backgrounds. There is nothing like being on a mile-long factory floor filled with F-16s nearing completion and flight testing. I was one of a handful of female engineers, which taught me a lot about navigating the workplace. Engineering led to my MBA, and business school led me to today’s career as a small business owner and strategy innovator.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I joined my husband’s start-up in 2000 after many years working in the social sector. Small business was new for me, and I was not as busy initially as my husband. Our offices are across from each other, and I couldn’t help but overhear his calls and client meetings. Then I would find myself in his office giving unsolicited advice as only a spouse might do. As you can imagine, that didn’t go over very well, and I learned to stay in my swim lane. We celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary this year.
None of us can 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?
Susan Kenny Stevens, author of Nonprofit Lifecycles: Stage-based Wisdom for Nonprofit Capacity, had a tremendous influence on my consulting career. We met when Susan was leading a consulting engagement with a group of nonprofits in my community. We worked closely together for six years. Susan was a role model during the formative years of my consulting practice. Her feedback, mentoring, and encouragement gave me the confidence to create my novel approach to strategy and, eventually, write a book.
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?
Differentiation Zone brings my mission to life. I inspire leaders to bold action. Executives tell me that I show them how to see beyond what is and give them the confidence to be brave. Those stories make me happy. Plus, I enjoy seeing my clients thrive as their differentiation strategies take flight.
Purpose-driven businesses have numerous advantages. First, our teams are the lifeblood of our companies. Staff satisfaction, engagement, and retention are enhanced when there is a bigger “why” than profit. Second, professional reputation and brand equity increase when your purpose is at the core of everything you do. People gravitate to companies that share their values. That’s essential in a community like Denver with fewer than six degrees of separation. Reputation and community commitment mean everything here. Purpose builds a virtuous cycle of attraction — staff, clients, reputation — that sustains a purposeful business and a successful career.
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?
I create transformational strategic plans for purpose-driven organizations in competitive fields like higher education and the arts. Each engagement balances empathy with data; both are so important today. My clients face increasing competition, expanding customer expectations, and shifting trends. I help them make sense of it all as we set the future direction. Their strategic plans lead them to achieve notable successes such as launching new initiatives, updating facilities, and expanding mission impact. Their success is my success.
For example, I assisted a college in identifying an innovative way for faculty to teach and connect with the community. This college launched a theater program in prisons, and prisoners perform on stage in the community. It is the first program of its kind in the nation. My job was to help create a platform for that work to flourish. Their strategic plan raised significant funding for that initiative, and it has grown substantially since then.
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?
The significant disruption has been the shift to D-I-Y in consulting and professional services. Google has disrupted professional services for more than a decade, commoditizing fields like mine. Prospective clients assume my services as essentially equivalent to those of a consultant without my unique set of skills, and they expect to pay the same fees too. It is increasingly important to stand out in one’s profession as we commit to a deeper purpose.
What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
First, I created a distinctive approach to strategy, which led me to win more exciting projects. Each client’s success fueled the successive win. Those experiences led to a career-defining eureka moment in 2018 and the creation of trademarked intellectual property called Differentiation Zone®. Now I have a branded suite of services built around my intellectual property.
Second, I became a disruptor. I am launching a digital learning experience for purpose-driven strategists called Strategy Studio. Available via subscription (free and paid), the studio delivers high-value content to professionals eagerly upskilling for the next normal. Professionals engage with my book Differentiated through the digital studio. Offerings include author-led book discussions, a Creatives-In-Residence program, exemplar showcases, proprietary tools, and more.
Members enjoy on-demand access to breakthrough tools, a mentor, and relatable content to create superlative strategy processes (and results) for their organizations. Our target markets are 1) purpose-driven executives leading companies and nonprofits and 2) consultants advising purpose-driven organizations, including strategic planning, branding, and marketing consultants.
Differentiation Zone’s Strategy Studio will evolve to serve as the creative space for Differentiation Zone-based strategy processes. Members will enjoy a digital studio to call their own — a creative workspace to explore, learn, engage, and store their Differentiation Zone tools and resources. Trained and certified consultants will use the digital platform to facilitate a Differentiation Zone process for their clients using Differentiated as their guide.
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.
Yes. My “aha moment” occurred in 2018 as I was conducting a competitive analysis. My team analyzed competitors in search of differentiating characteristics for our client. We sifted and sorted through the data in search of actionable insights. My go-to tool of over a decade, the Strategic Sweet Spot, was in full view when the eureka moment happened. I came to an original insight that I’d never experienced before. IDEO, the international design firm, defines an insight as something that makes you sit up and take notice. This experience certainly grabbed my attention.
As a creative-intuitive with analytical skills, I knew we’d discovered something special. That insight led me to turn the Strategic Sweet Spot inside-out and create the Differentiation Zone.
So, how are things going in this new direction?
So far, so good. In essence, I’m running a start-up with angel investors, myself included, as we convert Differentiation Zone tools and my book, Differentiated, into a suite of relevant assets. In early 2021, we launched a working prototype of the digital platform. A beta group of purpose-driven strategists engages with me as we bring the concept to reality.
My days are filled with digital buildouts, social media flurries, book sales, writing, and consulting. This is the most satisfying and exciting year of my career, and I’m so grateful to have this opportunity to share what I’ve learned.
Can you share the most exciting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?
Publishing my book has been an exciting event in 2021. Differentiated is my first book. Every book is a labor of love, filled with moments of excitement, and fear of course, as the manuscript becomes a book. That process came together for me in January. Differentiated is a stunning full-color book thanks to our excellent designer. Readers describe it as “thought-provoking and beautiful” with a writing style “bursting with personality.” One reader noted they were “blown away by the book’s visual appeal.”
So many people have made this journey possible. Each has brought tremendous creative talent, passion, and commitment to my vision. When someone tells me what they love about the book, I smile from an “aha moment” that stuck with them, or they comment on the book’s strong narration or eye-catching design.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
When you are disrupting, you are creating something novel and unexpected. There is no actual comparator. You are skating to where the puck is going to be, to quote hockey player Wayne Gretzky. That requires courage and steadfast commitment to your vision every day. I feel inspired as I rally my team. I remind them of how much we’ve achieved together and what is within our grasp.
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?
First, I endeavor to stay hopeful. My March 31, 2020 blog was titled “Because I Love You.” It stated, “because I love you, I’m nudging you to be more strategic than feels comfortable today.” I knew that one of the most significant gifts I could give was an ability to see a new way forward.
As a strategist who monitors trends, I like to share information on the trends that support our dreams for the future. I call them “shapers” and “drivers.” For example, the broad appeal of subscription-based business models gives me the courage to pursue one in my field.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Maintain a time horizon of two to three years. During the pandemic, I nudged my purpose-driven executives to set a strategy for 2022. A two to three-year period provides enough runway to envision something bold with accountability to start now. We can constantly adjust. That timeframe keeps one from getting lost in vision and getting stuck in the day-to-day.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Recognize the disruption’s potential. It’s easy to excuse something as not being suitable for your business, customer, or industry. Disruptions have a way of spreading from one industry to another, impacting our customers in other facets of their lives. Once the customer adopts a new behavior, thanks to a disruptor, it’s time to prepare for change. That new norm will impact your business too.
- Invest sufficient time and resources. It isn’t easy to anticipate everything you’ll need at the beginning. Be prepared to write another check (or several) and extend your deadline while staying true to your strategy and vision.
- Surround yourself with committed talent. We can reach a global workforce more efficiently. When you stand for something, and your people grasp that sense of mission quickly, it’s easier to attract and retain talent.
- Have a strategy and stay true to it until you change it. Don’t confuse a tactic with a strategy. Don’t under-estimate the value of a longer-term game plan and the straightforward tactics to achieve it.
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 a customer mindset. It isn’t enough to understand your customer or their journey. Embrace their head and heart and consider choice from their perspective. For example, a family with young children looking for something fun might consider their local children’s museum or park or new offerings from around the globe.
- Recognize that competition is morphing all the time. Your competitors aren’t bound by industry or market. To my example above, a children’s museum competes with parks, recreation centers, streaming services, and a host of other offerings that families might enjoy.
- Look for the shapers and drivers. I’m referring to the forces and trends with the power to shape your customer’s choices and drive their decisions. For example, will the K-shaped economic recovery go or shape your future? It depends on your mission and your customer. If you are a community college and your students cannot afford to attend college at all, then the economy is a driver. If your customer is a knowledge worker able to work from home, the economy is likely shaping their decisions but may not determine them with the same force.
- Embrace differentiation. Our companies need to stand out and stand for something. When a company is differentiated, it pursues a strategy based on being distinctive. Think of Patagonia or Apple, for example.
- Remain loyal to your brand. Today’s consumer expects to engage with brands that authentically deliver. That’s true across industries and verticals. Increasingly we see companies double-down on brand and strategic differentiation as they find ways to solve the significant issues of our day. Cotopaxi, an outdoor company, is taking bold steps to address global warming throughout its supply chain and retail operation.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Don’t tell yourself no.” It’s easy to dissuade ourselves before we start something new. We can also abandon something bold, risky, or innovative when we allow uncertainty to undermine our determination.
I could have told myself “no” at any step along the path of publishing my book, including investing in a beautiful design. I also could have told myself “no” when launching the digital strategy community. “Yes,’ is my answer.
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