As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark W. Johnson.
Mark W. Johnson was born in Boston, MA and raised in Hollywood, Florida. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he served as a nuclear-powered trained surface warfare officer. After leaving the Navy, he received his MBA from the Harvard Business School, spent three years at the management consulting firm Booz, Allen, and Hamilton, and then co-founded the Strategy and Innovation consulting firm Innosight with Harvard Business School’s Clayton M. Christensen in 2000. Innosight became a part of the Huron Consulting Group in 2017.
A strategic advisor to both Global 1000 and start-up companies in a wide range of industries, Mark focuses on helping companies envision and create new growth, manage transformation, and achieve renewal through business model innovation. A frequent writer and speaker on these topics, he is author or co-author of numerous articles in the Wall Street Journal, Sloan Management Review, BusinessWeek, Advertising Age, National Defense, The Washington Post, and The Harvard Business Review, the author of the book Reinvent Your Business Model, now in its second, revised edition, and a coauthor of Dual Transformation. His latest book, co-written with Josh Suskewicz, is Lead from the Future: How to Turn Visionary Thinking into Breakthrough Growth. A manifesto for “Future Back” thinking, it is also a hands-on guide to long-term planning, strategy development, and execution within established organizations.
Mark lives in Belmont, MA, with his wife Jane Clayson Johnson. They are the proud parents of five children and three grandchildren.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. 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 was born to parents, who each had distinct and fascinating backgrounds. My mom was an opera singer and my dad an engineer and pilot. I majored in Aerospace Engineering at Annapolis with the intent to follow in my father’s footsteps and become a carrier-based fighter pilot, but then my vision deteriorated and I no longer qualified as a military pilot, so I decided to go into the Navy’s nuclear power program for surface ships. It wasn’t long before I realized I was as interested in the leadership and management responsibilities on board ship as I was in engineering.
After eight years, I decided to make a career transition and went to Harvard Business School, where I took Clay Christensen’s inaugural innovation course in 1995. That was when my engineering side that I got from my father really converged with my mother’s creative and artistic strengths; I was deeply attracted to the world of business innovation. Clay’s book Innovator’s Dilemma came out in 1997 and in 1999, I approached him and suggested we start a company together to help businesses implement its key innovation principles. Innosight opened its doors in January 2000, and the rest is history.
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?
The funniest mistake I made, although I’m not sure how funny it was at the time, was to think that we could take Clay’s innovation brain and turn it into an Internet application that anyone could access. It was mid 2000, we had only been in business for six months, and like many others, we thought anything and everything could be done if you just “put it on line.” In fact, we were so excited about the dot com movement, we almost changed our company name to “Innosight.com.” The biggest lesson I learned from this is to never blindly assume a key technology and a societal trend must also be right for your company and business model. Trying to “productize” in the world of academia and consulting is really difficult. It’s critical that you begin by deeply understanding what your customer is trying to get done, and that you do some experimentation to see how a new value proposition might work before you sink too much into it. We knew that in the abstract — we were an innovation advisory firm after all — but we badly needed to take a dose of our own medicine.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Perhaps the most influential book for me that I go back to over and over again is High Flyers by Morgan McCall. It’s a study of Bell Labs in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. McCall realized that its most successful scientists and engineers were not necessarily the smartest. Everyone who worked at Bell Labs was very smart. But what differentiated the real star performers or “High Flyers” was that they proactively communicated and networked with their peers and seniors. They displayed real humility in their willingness to learn from others as they worked to solve key problems of science and technology. They also took more initiative than their less successful peers, going above and beyond to collect information and form fruitful collaborations. McCall’s insights about the importance of communications and initiative have been critical principles I’ve relied upon throughout my whole professional and personal life
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Our vision was to help companies navigate disruptive change. By leveraging the principles of disruptive innovation in a proactive way, we showed them, they could create new market growth. But beyond developing breakthrough products, we hoped we could help them create the next version of themselves, by transforming their core business, if that was what they needed to do, as well as creating “new and different” initiatives.
As for the importance of having a deep purpose, in 2019, we identified the 20 global companies that had achieved the highest impact transformations of the decade. We found that a newly strengthened sense of purpose was the common denominator for all of them. Siemens had embraced an explicit mission of service to society. China’s Tencent announced a quest to create “tech for social good.” Denmark’s Ørsted transformed itself from a struggling natural gas business to a cutting-edge wind energy company, increasing its net profits by some $3 billion per year. It makes sense: you can’t do great things unless you inspire your people, your investors, and your customers. Having a powerful purpose is by definition inspiring.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I have three Number One principles: (1) Don’t run out of cash; (2) Keep the long view, and (3) Develop deep relationships with your people and clients and never stop working at them. I don’t think I need to say more, except maybe to add that one principle is never enough!
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The hardest thing for me personally has been the cabin fever. I love being with my family, but I miss our extended family. I travel less at this phase of my career than I did in earlier years, but I still averaged a couple of nights away every week and we traveled a lot as a family too. There’s a habit and even an affinity to being on the road, the expectation that I will have that time to myself in the hotel, that has been abruptly taken away. To depressurize, we try to get outside as much as we can, as a family and as individuals. We take walks together; I play as much golf as I can fit in.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I’m in a very relationship-driven occupation, and I miss the face-to-face component of that. Living in a two-dimensional Zoom and WebEx-driven world all the time is taxing for me; I find it fatiguing. I expect that I will go back to business traveling as soon as I safely can, though I suspect we will be doing less of it as a company in the future — all of us will think harder about whether we need the trip or we can accomplish the same thing virtually.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I don’t want to suggest that I’m immune to fear and anxiety — these are terrible times, on both a human and an economic level and I have my sleepless nights, just like anyone does. But as the depths of the crisis really began to sink in — and some of this was sheer adrenalin, I’m sure — my mind focused in a way that it hadn’t since the early days of Innosight, when we were building the company from nothing.
As it happened, the crisis coincided with the publication of my new book, LEAD FROM THE FUTURE: HOW TO TURN VISIONARY THINKING INTO BREAKTHROUGH GROWTH, which I had been looking forward to promoting with personal appearances all over the world. But its lessons — that it is important to look further out than the short-term and develop a narrative of hope by envisioning a better future — could not be more relevant to what we are all living through, and I have tried to take them to heart. Just as I show businesses how to turn challenges into opportunities, I hope we as a society can derive something positive from this catastrophe. Perhaps it will catalyze a sense of responsibility and stewardship — the recognition that as individuals, as companies, and as a nation, we need to work together and take better care of each other, and that we need to build a stronger, more resilient and sustainable world for our children and grandchildren.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
The huge opportunity is virtual and remote conferencing — not just for businesses, but for medicine. We’ve barely scratched the surface of telemedicine. Going forward, we will need to be much less reactive and much more proactive when it comes to long-term planning. Pandemics were always worst-case scenarios; the stuff of scary movies, rather than real life. Now that we know better, we need to start paying serious attention to other threats, like global climate change.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I think there will be a lot more people working remotely, at least for a few days a week, than there used to be. The Covid-19 crisis might bring about a real crisis in higher education — a lot of Tier 2 schools may struggle to survive. Some sectors of the economy — retail, hospitality, tourism, live entertainment — may never be the same.
As a society, we put too much faith in wishful thinking — there are times, and this is one of them, where we need to make hard choices, sacrificing opportunities for present growth to maintain our future viability. I hope that we as a society will rise to the responsibility of taking better care of our essential workers, and eliminating the racial and economic disparities in health outcomes.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We’re going to double down on the same advice we give to our clients. Our mantra is to envision the future so vividly, and then to build a strategy that is so intentional, that you effectively lead from it rather than to it. Even as we do all that we can to keep our lights on during the worst of the crisis and to hit the ground running when we come out on the other side of it in a year or two, we want to be certain that the North Star we are following will ultimately lead us to our best possible selves.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
The same thing. If you don’t have a hopeful vision, you need to develop one. Especially during a crisis.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Socrates’ “the unexamined life is not worth living.” The most dangerous people are the ones who are so sure that they’re right that they trample over anyone who gets in their way — and sometimes lead their whole company over a cliff. I believe that life — and indeed business — is a continuous learning process, in which you build a vision, test it in the real world, and then revise it and refine it as you move forward.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can find more information about my firm Innosight at Innosight.com. And more understanding about my work on visionary leadership and future-back thinking by reading by new book “Lead From the Future”, available at Amazon.com. You can also find more background on the book and the approach at www.futurebackleadership.com. Finally, I can be reached directly on Twitter or on LinkedIn.