Pollsters and major media groups that had forecast a narrow victory for veteran politician Hillary Clinton unhappily found themselves on the wrong side of the US presidential election outcome. Despite a well-organized field campaign, seemingly impenetrable firewalls of brain power, heavy ad spending, and mountains of data, post-election analysis suggests the Clinton campaign’s own models were built on an array of flawed assumptions. Conversely, Donald Trump’s campaign wriggled through most of the pollster’s algorithms by using tactics with none of the markers of a “standard run” for the White House. Trump’s heavily emotional appeal to a broad spectrum of the electorate surfaced core threads the Democrats missed, tapping deep economic and cultural anxieties.
It appears the Democrats’ own blind spots cost Hillary Clinton the White House. And though it’s likely Trump himself did not expect to win, the failures of the Democratic machine offer key insights for every business leader believing they have their strategies “all wrapped up” and working just fine. Lessons from the positive approach used by two CEOs – Satya Nadella of Microsoft and Kati Levoranta of Rovio (pioneer of Angry Birds) – remind us of the power in advocating “for” questions, and actually cultivating questioners. Rooting out blind spots can save you and your company the leadership perch you worked years – perhaps even decades – to achieve.
Here are two ways to generate conversations and behaviors in your teams to reduce blind spots that stall innovation, and stifle an ability to pivot away from the competition.
Proactively question your favorite narrative of the future. During a recent trip to Finland I spoke at an innovation conference held at Microsoft. Seven years ago I’d visited the identical building, which in 2009 belonged to Nokia – the famed Finnish company that rose to dominate the mobile phone industry in the early 2000’s. In fact, the building had once been known as Nokia House – a grand testament to the once-thriving telecom giant.
But on this occasion, still whispered in the hallways were the failures of Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, who despite flagging sales remained convinced that the company’s mobile software was still world class. Signing a $7.2 billion partnership deal with Microsoft in 2013, Nokia’s dominance narrative was upheld by Steve Ballmer and his Microsoft leadership team, all convinced that together they could rebuild Nokia’s declining market share to form a “third ecosystem” to compete with Apple and Android on the global stage. That investment officially went sour in May 2016, after Microsoft ultimately acquired Nokia, wrote off billions and laid off over 18,000 employees starting last year.
Internal attempts to shift Ballmer away from his “Microsoft will be a dominant mobile phone player” narrative – or at least have him constructively question it – failed. The same fate met Elop’s troops inside Nokia. In fact, questions about the strategic posture of Nokia were given no quarter, even during a much-touted 2013 trip by Elop to visit mapping maverick Navteq (now Here) at its Chicago headquarters. Recognized as the author of some of the world’s best mapping technology, Navteq – a company Nokia had purchased years earlier – was not handed over as part of the Microsoft deal. Yet when Elop spoke to several key Chicago R&D team members working on next generation mapping technology, Elop not only failed to consider Navteq’s ground-breaking work as a template for Nokia’s mobile phone future, he dismissed any in-depth conversations or question sessions with this elite team. Elop’s blind spots won the day, Nokia lost its independence, and Steve Ballmer’s command and control style led to a very visible failure for Microsoft’s mobile phone bid.
Enter Satya Nadella. As noted in my July 2014 Forbes post , Microsoft’s Nadella has consistently displayed a more collaborative, inclusive style than his bombastic predecessor. Not only has Nadella shifted away from a “here are the answers, now go execute them” approach, he’s emphasizing the value of a growth mindset within the employee base. This means leveraging the power of learning and cultivating the power of discovery versus raw “knowing.” Named a business leader of the year by Fortune just weeks ego for returning the company to a growth path, Nadella in fact emphasizes “listening to learn” through questions. Consciously seeking out questions and questioners as part of his strategy to optimize Microsoft’s cloud computing thrust, Nadella is also eliminating blind spots that plagued the early years of its Surface computer. By remapping his schedule to consciously speak to diverse Microsoft constituents every week, Nadella is rebuilding employee and investor confidence, intentionally encouraging provocative, constructive questions about Microsoft’s future narrative.