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 Board at Patagonia 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 intelligence — changing how we engage in work, and creating both threats and opportunities to the environment.
“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.
Tom Idle: I love this idea of imperfection, which as you say in the book has intellectual roots. Voltaire once said, ‘Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.’ Where did this idea for the book come from?
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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 spheres.
Give us an example of how imperfection can help brands navigate these choppy waters.
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.
What are the other things companies need to think about when it comes to being imperfect?
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 Nature Conservancy.
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.
I guess part of the problem is that business schools have yet to evolve the way they teach our future business leaders.
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.
So, why is imperfection so important to brands that are trying to solve the big sustainability challenges of our time?
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 way forward.
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 cotton. We transitioned from virgin polyester fibers to recycled polyester fibers.
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.
I think people forget that businesses are essentially a bunch of people making decisions. But getting people to shift their mindsets is really tough. What’s the secret to getting people to change how they go about doing what they do?
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 right.’
What’s it like being a part of the Patagonia journey? Do you feel the pressure because you’ve been leading the charge for sustainability for so long?
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 not.