What are you doing to fix your customer's pain ... and 9 other great questions from the great management thinkers

“Is the global planet in global disarray?” asked Richard Straub, the organiser and creative energy behind the Drucker Forum, in his opening address to the 8th Global Peter Drucker Forum. He argued that while there are a number of challenges before us, human ingenuity gives us hope for the future. “Our challenge,” he says “is to unleash unprecedented creative potential in every aspect of society for good.” This set the scene for an intense focus on innovation and entrepreneurialism in the context of building a better world for all.

Summary questions

If you don’t have time to read the whole article (which does not capture the entire event) here are the top 10 questions that emerged for me:

  1. What are you doing to resolve your customer’s pain?

  2. Do you start every conversation with the customer in mind?

  3. Is the wellbeing of people front and centre of your every action?

  4. What must you do if your industry is being disrupted?

  5. Who is your Chief Corporate Entrepreneur — and have you empowered them?

  6. Are you crystal clear about your value proposition?

  7. Do you spend sufficient time out of your office, your industry, and your world every year?

  8. What are you doing to accumulate knowledge and networks?

  9. How much creative capacity are you unleashing in your firm?

  10. Do you operate by sound moral principles?


The concept and question of disruption wove its way through many of the presentations. Roger Martin, former Dean of Rotman School of Management in Canada (and one of the best thinkers I have had the privilege of interviewing) argued that the best defence against being disrupted by someone else is to maintain a “relentless focus on delighting customers.” The key to success he said is to “focus on customer’s pain and make it go away.” Do you (and do I) really know how to resolve your customer’s pain?

Curt Carlson, the former CEO of SRI International (inventors of Siri, and many other inventions you are probably using right now), repeatedly emphasised starting every conversation with the customer in mind. If you are talking strategy, start with the customer. If you are talking revenue, start with the customer. If you are talking innovation, start with the customer.

Picking up on Roger’s comments about disruption, Clayton Christensen of Harvard, made the point that the only way to survive and thrive through disruption (i.e. when your model is being disrupted) is to establish an alternative business … to significantly change the way you operate. He pointed to the US Special Forces Command, which was established in response to the privatisation of war and the emergence of terrorist cells, as an example of such a change. While we take this for granted now it represented a major structural and strategic disruption.

Operating and creating at the same time

The tension between existing and emerging businesses arose a number of times. Roger Martin suggested you carve out a part of the business which intentionally seeks venture capital, offering the kind of returns that VC funds expect, and/or create your own internal kickstarter fund.

Alex Osterwalder, inventor of the Business Model Canvas, discussed the ‘ambidextrous organisation’ and made one of the standout suggestions in this regard. He suggested firms appoint both a CEO: Chief Executive Officer, who runs the existing business, and who should be innovating the existing business processes, products etc., and a CCE: Chief Corporate Entrepreneur who is given power and responsibility to innovate new business models, products, services, etc., operating these independently and in parallel. Both the CEO and CCE report to the Board, and are accountable according to the relevant KPI’s, whilst recognising that these are significantly different. While the former has, for example, to deliver financial outcomes, satisfy customers, and engage staff (among other things), the latter has to experiment, fail a few times, spend much time thinking and so forth. This struck me as a very practical way to establish and give authority to the alternative business concept proposed by Clay Christensen. Curt Carlson then delivered some very practical insights about how to make this happen, again emphasising knowing your customer and being crystal clear about your value proposition.

Accumulate knowledge and networks

Gary Hamel, another on the list of elite management thinkers, was his usual passionate self. Listening to Gary is like drinking from a firehose. You scarcely have time to draw breath and just hope that some of what is streaming forth is being absorbed. I first met Gary over 10 years ago, and coincidentally we crossed paths in Dubai enroute to Vienna for the Forum. I was able to thank Gary for his suggestion to ‘get out and see the future’, which accelerated the trajectory of my life. I continue to make this same suggestion to you: spend two to three weeks out of your office, out of your industry, out of your culture, every year. And if this is too long, start with one week. (And if you don’t know what to do, let me know if you want me to put together a ‘grand tour’ — a small group of leaders and meetings with some of the interesting people in the world.) Curt Carlson argued the key to your success in the twenty-first century would be in your ability to accumulate knowledge and to accumulate networks. Knowledge and networks. People and ideas … food for thought. What are you doing to accumulate these?

The best leaders ask the best questions

Tim Brown, founder of IDEO, suggested that “leadership is a dance not a role,” which I quite liked. He argued that the best leaders of the twenty-first century will be those who ask better questions to create better futures. i.e. it’s no longer about having the answers, but about being comfortable with not knowing, and having an inquiring mind which can generate a different set of questions. (and one way to do that is to get out of your world to find those different questions) He suggested that the new competitiveness was in the ability to create rather than operate, and hence the role of leaders is to unlock as much of the creative capacity in their organisations as possible. This is an interesting idea — perhaps ask yourself how much creative capacity you are unleashing.

Social pollution

Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford introduced the concept of ‘social pollution’, which he attributed to someone else (although I missed who). Social pollution occurs when a technology company is able to externalise risk and outsource responsibilities to (sometimes) low paid workers at the end of the chain, who attach themselves to the enterprise in the hope of generating additional income, building a business etc. The reality is often far from the dream however, and a form of social pollution is created as people who are not directly part of the firm are damaged by the practices of the firm. Whereas the profit maximisation factory of old polluted the environment, the profit maximisation model today pollutes society. He argued that wellbeing of people should be “front and centre” of every action.

Ethics and morality

Putting people and their wellbeing at the centre of thought and action requires some form of moral framework. Curt Carlson argued that ethics, judgement and empathy are the key metaskills for future relevance, stressing the importance of some form of guiding principle for difficult decisions. Clay Christensen, supported by Gary Hamel, confirmed this and issued a call for moral leadership.


Peter Drucker emphasised that ‘management is a liberal art’. This is a key point to close on. Management is not a scientific or technological pursuit but a human pursuit. The same is true for leadership. Picking up on Drucker’s point, I argue that ‘leadership is a liberal art’. It involves the heart and mind. It involves philosophy and morality. It involves care and concern for people and their wellbeing. The great leaders of tomorrow will be drawn from that school, from those men and women who seek out the great ideas, who ask the great questions, and who place people at the centre of all they do. And frankly, that’s why we do this work. Because we want to support people like you to be that kind of leader.