Publishers need to move from performance mode to power mode

Publishers need to move from performance mode to power mode

'Moore’s Law’ was established by Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, back in 1965. It states that computing power will double every year.  Fifty-two years on, Moore has been more or less right in his prediction - and his law has become shorthand for the sustained, dizzying pace of technological change.

More recently, another guy called Moore - Geoffrey Moore - has been publishing books about how to deal with that change. Moore is a prolific consultant and west coast venture capitalist who works with all of the tech industry’s best - Microsoft and Salesforce, for example. He’s a mainstay of the modern canon of ‘change management’ and ‘disruption’ literature and thinking. Lately, I’ve become obsessed with his Escape Velocity and Zone to Win.

Here at Squiz, we borrow his ideas most days of the week to help our clients get a better grip on the dynamics of their business - especially when they’re stuck in the middle of a storm. Publishers, universities, government agencies: the types of large, established organisations that are being asked to reconcile a great past with a demanding and uncertain future; and who often feel compelled to escape from the pull of their past by spitting out new, half-baked strategies, products and services faster than you can say Snapchat.

These are all tough gigs.

What Moore says in his books, however, is hugely relevant to every publisher on the planet. Let me run a couple of key points past you.  

He says…

1. Organisations that rely on yesterday’s delivery platforms (and marketplaces, and offerings) to drive revenue and profitability will soon be heading for trouble. Competitors and new upstarts are already speeding ahead on the back of a new set of operating principles. (Like Amazon did for book retailing; like Facebook is doing for news media; and like machine learning and algorithms might do for large chunks of the book publishing trade and their authors.)

2. Organisations that don’t effectively evolve to new ways of doing things tend to rely more and more on rinsing the life out of the good products, services and systems that they have - sending them into a tailspin of activity that reduces the value of their assets in amongst a sea of strong competition. (Like two-for-one deals at Waterstones, paid-for retail product placement, and nasty pricing wars with Amazon.)

Sound familiar?

At this point I should state that I believe very strongly in books. As I’ve written elsewhere for Futurebook, books can be the perfect technology for entertainment and learning. Great battery life. Rugged. Tactile. Perfectly honed for the task, with no app notifications pinging in from the side. Books are a back-to-the-future, inside-your-head virtual reality that inspire the broadest possible spectrum of people. They are extremely cool.

But I worry about how the publishing industry is developing this value and I’m fairly sure I know why things are stuck. In Escape Velocity, Moore talks about the two operating modes that every organisation runs upon, concurrently - the ying and yang of corporate life, if you like.  

He calls the first one the ‘performance’ mode:  whereby most things that happen within our teams, divisions and inside the heads of our staff are driven by concepts like ‘making the quarter,’ ‘executing the plan’ and ‘doing the same again next year, only with double digit growth.’ If you’re reading this on a Monday, then welcome to your week. It’s how we all operate, most of the time - and we do so because it works brilliantly, by and large. Vision setting is easier, goals are clearer, winning and losing is manifest. Just so long as you’re not in the business of rinsing the life out of your products whilst the rest of your market is moving in a different direction.

The second mode he describes is ‘power’: whereby some companies, influential teams and individuals play by a different set of rules and regularly execute against them in powerful ways. These folks constantly ask difficult questions like ‘can we compete effectively in the marketplace we’re in?’; ‘should we stop doing some things, even though they make us decent money now?’; ‘are we realising the true value of our assets or are we leaving money on the table?’; and ‘what new things do we need to do three years from now to kick us up another level?’ Steve Jobs did this a lot: Apple is on a decade-long streak of asking big questions, taking big risks and redefining whole markets. Whoever would have pegged them as an entertainment company back when they were shipping boring grey PC-clone boxes that kept crashing? (Although his Jobs-ness and all his Pixar buddies mght have tipped you off.)

The majority of us are not Jobs-like. But that’s not to say we’re idiots. Far from it. The major problem for the publishing business is that, as Moore so eloquently states, it’s the power mode that fuels the performance mode and the performance mode that consumes power. Meaning, if you’re not focused on regenerating yourself via regular work in the power side of the equation then sooner or later you’re going to run out of gas. Plus it’s extremely difficult to move effectively from ‘performance’ mode into a zen-like ‘power’ mode, and then flip modes back again so you can start making new money.

Think about it. I’m fairly sure everyone is busting at the seams with innovation. Apps to support the reading experience? Tick. Kick ass social media strategies? Tick. Augmented reality pop-up adult colouring books? Hell yeah! The challenge is that not much innovation is particularly aligned to the core of the business. I see this stuff as pot shots. Easy-to-budget pilot schemes. Marketing campaigns at best. Why? Because in order to deal with all of the difficult ‘power’ questions - to figure out good answers to them, and then to do something radical with all of the great, innovative ideas that follow - well, this takes a tonne of time, money and commitment. And, further, it takes a tonne of time, money and commitment that sits squarely outside of our ‘performance’ concerns. You know, the concerns that pay all of our salaries.

In other words, it takes a brave business to double down on real, sustained innovation initiatives when their market share is under threat, shareholders are expecting good news this quarter and the fruits of that innovation effort are unlikely to pay the bills this year.

Moore’s advice is simple on this point. Just opt in or out.

Opt in to innovation and take a leap of faith. Embrace the risk. Put proper teams and resources against innovation plans that are core to the business and be prepared to run long with them - set new expectations and then deal with all of that pesky change management stuff. And, you know, fail fast.

Opt out can be a great route too. Forget the apps and widgets for now and drill down into the existing business and make that more valuable. There’s no question that we can all be smarter, more efficient, more connected and automated. Digital innovation lies here too. Internal process innovation. Supply chain innovation. Marketing innovation. That kind of thing.

In publishing, the trick is to not kid yourself that innovation is a second order activity that can be delegated to the cool kids in the social media team. Those of you who work in fast moving environments that are driven by ‘performance' but pay lip service to ‘power’ know that it simply doesn’t work.

But don’t take my word for it. Check out Mr Moore in action below.