Published 9 months ago.
About a 7 minute read.
Author Charles Conn digs into some of his disruptive advice for brands that make up his new book, "The Imperfectionists: Strategic Mindsets for Uncertain Times."
Charles Conn is on a
mission to help us all navigate the crazy, fast-changing times we’re living in —
underpinned by war, pandemics, supply chain disruptions, and an ever-changing
climate. The London-based tech entrepreneur and current Chairman of the
has come up with what he believes are the “reinforcing mindsets” business
leaders need right now as we navigate high uncertainty.
The former CEO of Match.com, Citysearch and Ticketmaster shares his
wisdom in a new book called The Imperfectionists: Strategic Mindsets for Uncertain Times,
co-authored with Rob
McLean. It’s a follow up
to their 2019 bestseller, Bulletproof Problem Solving; but this time, they offer a
more fluid approach with ideas modeled on strategies and approaches commonly
adopted by progressive companies, Patagonia included.
Speaking from his base in Chelsea, West London, Conn spoke to Sustainable
Brands® about the four years in between writing his two books, a period
which has seen an even faster acceleration of change, particularly in technology
— from programmable biology and automation to artificial
— changing how we engage in work, and creating both threats and opportunities to
“Overlaid by a pandemic and increasing international conflict, 2023 feels quite
different from 2018, doesn’t it? With Rob, I wanted to write a book for today to
help us solve difficult strategic problems,” he said.
Join us for a transformational experience at SB Brand-Led Culture Change — May 8-10 in Minneapolis. This event brings together hundreds of brand leaders eager to delve into radical lifestyle shifts and sustainable consumer behavior change at scale. The trends driving cultural acceleration are already underway, and you can be at the forefront of this transformative movement.
CC: Well, there’s a business model that everyone learned in graduate school,
which says a strategy is like linear programming. You look at the structure of
an industry or the structure of a problem, and at the conduct of individuals —
the players — and then you develop a strategy as if you were on a chess board.
But that’s not how life is at all. And that model of strategy that we were all
taught may have been at a time when industries were very stable, and you knew
all the players and how they behaved. That hasn’t been true since the 1990s.
The world we’re in today is much more like a game of rugby. Think about the rise
of super-competitors like Apple, Google, Netflix or Amazon. They
can compete in any segment. I mean, Amazon is now a bank, a vendor finance
company, a healthcare company. Apple will soon have an automobile. Google’s
involved in delivering medical care. The company that disrupts you is just as
likely to come outside your industry as to be a known competitor. So, disruption
can come from anywhere, and there’s no longer any obvious boundaries between
CC: Take the Nature Conservancy — it’s a conservation organization; and
one of its jobs is to protect fisheries around the world. They were trying to
find a way to reduce bycatch of sensitive, non-target tuna species on fishing
vessel, and they didn’t have the capability in-house. So, they used
crowdsourcing to find an artificial intelligence technology that did image
recognition using onboard cameras. Right now, they can instantly flag if the
tuna that just landed on the deck is one that’s protected or not.
That’s very much what the book is about. It argues that when you are thinking
about strategy, don’t wait for some perfect moment where everything is steady.
You’re gonna have to deal with the fact that everything’s changing all the time.
CC: Well, the first thing is you need to be curious. You need to see things
through multiple lenses. You need to gather new data, not just rely on old data
sets. You need to try stuff.
And this is the imperfection bit: You need to go ahead and implement strategy,
even when you don’t know everything based on the information you gathered. And
just step out into it where you can make small steps that don’t cost very much,
and then reverse if you find out they were wrong.
Each step that you make brings in additional knowledge about the game you’re
playing — new skillsets and new assets, like a bit of IP in the case of the
Basically, forget about old strategic frameworks that everyone was taught. The
world’s moving too quickly for that to make sense. You need to develop an
imperfection or experimentalist approach to strategy, and you need to build it
like a staircase of initiatives without knowing exactly the end point.
CC: Yes, it’s a huge part of the problem. We have a 19th-century model of
education. It says we should learn a body of knowledge; and then, apply that
body of knowledge over the next 40 years; and then, you get a gold watch and go
sit on the couch and die. But that’s not how your job works today. Our kids
won’t have single jobs. They’ll have to learn new skills and capabilities for
different jobs they pick up along the way. And they’re gonna have to be
imperfectionists and experimentalists.
CC: In sustainability, sometimes it’s easy to aim for an ivory tower on the
hill. We all hope that we get there; but the truth is — especially for legacy
businesses — we need to step into that world without perfection, and to feel our
A few years ago, we said organic agriculture was the answer. That’s what we did
at Patagonia — transitioning from using non-organic cotton to organic
We transitioned from virgin polyester fibers to recycled polyester
But then you realize that organic is actually not good enough. And just
switching to recycled polyesters isn’t good enough, either. So at Patagonia, we
said we need to go beyond organic.
A few years ago, business said, ‘We’re not just gonna do profits; we’re gonna do
ESG.’ But that’s not good enough, either. I’m not saying there’s something wrong
with ESG — it’s just the first step on the staircase moving someplace better.
CC: You have to sort of work in a kind of permanent revolution. I know that
sounds scary; but the way we do it is to push decisions, wherever we can, as
close to the frontline as possible. You gotta have a flat organization hierarchy
— the flatter you make your organization, the better. The more you push
decision-making to the people who are actually in the field, the better.
Have senior people speak last, not first — because junior people are not baked
into whatever the existing culture is. They see things through fresh eyes. It’s
annoying, but true — like when your kids say, ‘Hey dad, why do you do it like
that?’ and you’re like, ‘Oh, shut up.’ And then you think, ‘Ah, you’re probably
CC: Yes, of course, we feel that way all the time. Yvon Chouinard, our
founder, is still very engaged in the company at 84 years old. And he’s the kind
of guy if you do something really great, he’ll say, ‘Good, good. But not good
enough, we can do better.’ That’s the warmest praise you can get.
So, there’s an internal culture that recognizes that whatever we’ve achieved
today, we’re gonna overthrow it tomorrow. In the 20+ years that I’ve been
involved, we have created three different systems for measuring our footprint
and the impact of our products. Each time, we overthrew the old system and
replaced it with something better.
It’s an attitude and it’s a recognition that you’re never done. It’s one of the
reasons why in Patagonia, we don’t actually say that we’re sustainable. We’re
Published May 8, 2023 7am EDT / 4am PDT / 12pm BST / 1pm CEST
Tom is founder of storytelling strategy firm Narrative Matters — which helps organizations develop content that truly engages audiences around issues of global social, environmental and economic importance. He also provides strategic editorial insight and support to help organisations – from large corporates, to NGOs – build content strategies that focus on editorial that is accessible, shareable, intelligent and conversation-driving.