Simply Brilliant

Summary Written by Peter Taylor
“The problem with most organizations today is not that they are broken, it’s that they are boring. And boring organizations don’t lend themselves to runaway success.”

- Simply Brilliant, page 5

The Big Idea

Eight Questions

"Far and away the best prize that life offers, is the chance to work hard at work worth doing."- Simply Brilliant, page 221

The above quote from Theodore Roosevelt remains relevant today: work worth doing means increasing the level of impact and enriching our levels of achievement. Taylor intends to motivate us with this in mind and as he suggests the stories are only useful if they contribute to your success. His core messages can be collated with the following eight questions, the answers to which may give current struggling business owners collective brilliance.

1: Can you develop a definition of success that allows you to stand apart from the competition and inspires others to stand with you?

What struck a consistent chord among “Brilliant” businesses was the single minded purpose that they believed to be uniquely theirs, and equally are uniquely important. They have a highly developed sense of perspective on how they see the world, they offer an intense projection of everything they do, they are highly intrusive and built on rock; a lighthouse. Some companies describe themselves as operating at the lunatic fringe, and that is why these companies are noticed. They operate as missionaries as opposed to mercenaries, striving not just for profit but also significance.

2: Can you explain, clearly and compellingly, why what you do matters and how you expect to win?

Brilliant leaders move beyond simple leadership rhetoric and boring acronyms to a unique conversational mode of precision, provocation and passion. They communicate that what they do is unique and compelling to the outside world.

3: Are you prepared to rethink the conventions of success in your field and the logic of success as a leader?

The analogy, “It is difficult to see the forest because of the trees,” makes change difficult for people who have been in the same field for a long time. Taylor describes the practice of “provocative competence” as a common thread of “Brilliant” leaders. Simply stated, it is the ability to challenge your assumptions of your career, think about the future, and recognize that your current mindset may be holding you back. How do you make sure that what you know doesn’t limit your imagination.

4: Are you as determined to stay interested as to be interesting?

The most influential and leaders have figured out how to remain interested, in the serendipity of life, in the enduring purpose of their enterprise and new ways of bringing that mission to life. They have a unique quality to also instill this quality in their people. Their organizations are viewed as leadership and learning laboratories for business. “Ancora Imparo”; forever learning.

5: Do you pay as much attention to psychology and emotion as you do technology and efficiency?

What really stands out in successful business are the small gestures of kindness that make us feel empathy and compassion. As Mother Teresa said, “Not all of us can do great things but we can do small things with love.”

6: Do the values that define how your organization works reflect the values proposition around which it competes?

You can’t be exceptional in your marketplace creating something special and distinctive without programming your culture. Be provocative enough to change what people do everyday.

7: Are you as humble as you are hungry?

Simply stated, your job as a leader/manager is to set the stage, not to perform on it. Be humble enough to allow cross pollination of ideas within your within organization and outside it.

8: Are you prepared to share the rewards of success with all those who had a hand in achieving it?

The winner takes all approach is a non sustainable way of conducting business. The businesses that allow members a seat at the table and a share of the pie are able to generate a deep sense of loyalty and engagement with their employees.

Insight #1

Allies are Ubiquitous

"In businesses (and social movements built on ideas), responsibility for generating and evaluating ideas has to become everybody's business."- Simply Brilliant, page 178

A Canadian gold miner by the name of Rob McEwen was in financial distress: he had acquired a property which left him with a dilemma. Where should they set up the mine and where should they dig, based on geological data? Undertaking their own expensive exploration and information analysis could bankrupt the company. The solution? With the current ethos of open source software, he invited the whole world to advise him on where to drill after posting geological data online and requesting help. For a fraction of the possibly prohibitive costs, the subsequent analysis generated were way ahead of anything his team could generate and the information turned the mining company’s fortunes around completely. McEwen was humble enough to admit that his team did not have the smarts to generate the ideas based on the information they had. He recruited an army of willing and motivated engineers and scientists by creating a stage for them to perform.

How could you generate help in your industry?

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Insight #2

Kindness Matters

"What is it about business that makes it so hard to be kind? What kind of leaders have we become when small acts of connection feel so uncommon?"- Simply Brilliant, page 138

A young man was visiting his terminally ill grandmother in hospital about to undergo another bout of treatment. She was desperate for a bowl of clam chowder from Panera bread. The trouble was that they only sell clam chowder on Fridays. The young man explained the situation to the on duty manager—not only did they get the soup but also a box of cookies and a get well card. With the current younger generation, Facebook of course became involved and Panera Bread received an unbelievable amount of free publicity, resulting in 81000 likes and more than 35000 comments. A simple act of kindness brought more positive publicity than any advertising could have generated.

A similar company, Pret A Manger, allows their employees to give away free food for repeat customers (within limits of course), as well as only employing friendly and lively employees and extensive training, which creates loyal and bonded clients.

Act on any opportunities for acts of kindness within your industry—you may be surprised at the response.

Simply Brilliant gives struggling business owners no excuses for not moving away from conventional wisdom, they must open themselves up to new ideas and try new approaches: stop being boring, and start being brilliant.

Read the book

Get Simply Brilliant on Amazon.

William Taylor

Bill Taylor is a cofounder of Fast Company and coauthor of Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win (with Polly LaBarre). He has published numerous essays and CEO interviews in the Harvard Business Review, and hosts a blog on being “Practically Radical” on HarvardBusiness Online. He’s written columns for the Sunday Business section of the New York Times and for The Guardian ( London). A graduate of Princeton University and the MIT Sloan School of Management, he lives in Wellesley, MA, with his wife and two daughters.

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