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Episode 19: Geoffrey Moore’s Tech Industry Playbook for Thought Leadership

Disruptive innovation expert and former academic Geoffrey Moore has made a career of rethinking how companies adapt technology: the subject of his magnum opus, “Crossing the Chasm,” which has printed over one million copies worldwide.

An advisor for revered firms such as Google, Splunk, Microsoft, and Salesforce, Moore has garnered ample respect and renown for his breakthrough thought leadership. He believes it’s time for companies to stop explaining why they embrace disruptive innovation, but rather how they embrace it.

Moore got his start in marketing consulting with Regis McKenna before going on to found three successful consulting firms on market development: Chasm Institute, The Chasm Group, and TCG Advisors. He is a LinkedIn Top Voice and an author of several books, including “Crossing the Chasm,” “Zone to Win,” and “The Infinite Staircase.”

He recently joined Alan Alper on Everything Thought Leadership to discuss how he evolved from an academic into a tech marketing guru, how he communicates big ideas, the role of thought leadership in marketing, and how tech companies can improve their thought leadership.

Transcript: Geoffrey Moore and Alan Alper

Alan Alper: Geoff, you started your career as a professor of English and a renaissance scholar. How and why did you make the transition from academic to PR strategy consultant and later, to marketing messaging positioning tech strategy, and early stage capital formation thought leader?

Geoffrey Moore: My intention was to become a professor of English and get tenure and write books on Medieval and Renaissance literature for the rest of my career. But we were teaching in Michigan, and we realized our family needed to be in California, so we pulled up stakes and went back to the Bay Area. There were no jobs in academics, so I figured I’d get a job somewhere else. I heard about something called Silicon Valley, and thought I’d find a job there. I ended up getting a job in the software firm, originally as an HR person and eventually in sales, only to find out I was very good at opening and not very good at closing. That got me out of sales into marketing, which I was good at.  When I joined Regis McKenna in 1986, it was transformative for me, because at that time most of the great high-tech companies came through those doors so you got to see a whole lot. 

Alan: So did those early failures, or challenges, prompt you to really think through what you needed to do and to be, and to become successful and to meet your standards?

Geoffrey: Many of the companies back then were failures and went out of existence. This wasn’t a blip; the venture track record at that time was still pretty spotty, because people were dying in the chasm. At first I thought we just made mistakes, but there were far too many of them. And so I wanted to figure why this wasn’t working. I’m really interested in problem solving, particularly unsolved problems that are on the efficient frontier of what it would be good to solve. That’s kind of where I’ve spent my life.

The Power of Metaphor

Alan: Your books have always contained a lot of clever and thought-provoking metaphors like chasms and bowling alleys and zones and staircases. How do you do this? And why? I mean, it’s a very effective mechanism, it triggers a lot of thoughts.

Geoffrey: When metaphor first came into the English language during the Renaissance, it was thought of as a decoration — the “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” kind of stuff. But somewhere along the Romantic movement, people realized that metaphor could be a problem-solving tool, like comparing A to B, where B is something I don’t understand and A is something you do understand. So the strategy you use in bowling could apply to market segment development; the strategy that you use for getting across the English Channel could apply to penetrating a mainstream market.  The metaphor gives us a way to capture the strategy in something familiar, and then see if we can apply it to something unfamiliar.

Alan:  And that drives a lot of creative thinking on your part, and spurs a lot of interest from your audience — people who really want to understand your imagery and incorporate it into their own professional experiences.

Geoffrey: I think I think it’s important for listeners and readers to always critique the metaphor. In most problem-solving statements, there’s a hidden or explicit metaphor. As yourself: Do I buy into this metaphor or not? I mean, is there really a chasm? Or is it really like bowling? Because if it isn’t, then we should throw that metaphor away and find a better one. And if it is, then then follow the logic of the metaphor to get you through a tough situation. 

Thought Leadership as a Reality Check

Alan: This is really all about big idea creation, and dissemination…really sharing your expertise and knowledge with the marketplace so that they can better their lot. We believe when thought leadership is done well, it brings recognition and drives revenue. It’s really fundamental to business.

Geoff: I think so much of business is spent close to the present: making the quarterly goals, or launching a new product, with a big focus on the here and now and the tactical stuff. I think that thought leadership can be a balancing, corrective thing; a way to step back for a minute, and see what the heck is going on. A lot of times you’re plowing the wrong field, or you’re sailing in the wrong direction.

You and I have this huge advantage, which is we don’t have anybody reporting to us. Nobody is yammering at us, or sending out five gazillion emails. That means we have the luxury of being able to stand apart, and see stuff that other people don’t see. You need to contribute that perspective to the people who are executing — because at the end of the day, if you don’t execute what was the point? 

Alan: So how do you reality check your big ideas? 

Geoff: You might write a book that’s considered a bible for something. That’s when you get invited to give speeches. Somebody at that speech might come up to you and say, “That sounds pretty interesting. You should come in and give that talk to my team.” After that, the company may want to apply your idea and ask you to spend some time with them. Well, when you start applying the idea you find out it needs some work. You learn that you shouldn’t immediately impose your framework on the world – You should bring your framework to the problem, and then dig in with the client.

Focusing on Client Impact

Alan: You once said that you should surround your disruptive core product — the thing that got you to the dance — with a whole product that solves for the target customer’s problem end-to-end, and that will keep you on the dance floor for a long time to come. That is so spot-on. Both of us have known companies that just created architecture — aspirational things that never came to light. But, I think you are saying that you’ve got to think end-to-end about the client impact and the potential outcome that you can deliver, and that you’ve got to think it through holistically and systematically and not let it go before its time is gone. 

Geoffrey: This is where the chasm thing actually got started. We saw that there’s actually a group of customers in what we call the early market, who don’t need you to build the whole product. You just bring your sort of magic to the dance, and they say, “Well, ChatGPT is magical; I’m gonna take this, and figure out what to do with it.” But most people say, “Well, I’m not that imaginative; I don’t have that kind of time; I don’t have that kind of expertise; I need you to bring me something about my business, not about your business.” People may have heard about a technology and may be kind of interested in it. But that’s not what they’re buying. If this new technology thing can’t solve their problem, they won’t want to talk about it or watch a demo. 

Alan: So can the real story be told without real customer examples of the impact that your ideas are having in the marketplace?

Geoffrey: In the early market, yes. Here’s an example: Apple’s Knowledge Navigator ad was a great story about a horrible product. And ultimately, that story would become the iPhone, but it was about 15 to 20 years too early. But the point is, it was there. If visionaries and technology enthusiasts believe what you believe, and your story is coherent and plausible and has some basis in technological reality, then you’ve got something. Only a very small portion of the market is willing to do that, but it can put you on the map and make you famous. For example, machine learning didn’t become hot until Amazon started using it to make better customer recommendations, Google used it to place ads in a more effective way, and cybersecurity people used it to catch fraud and bad guys. At that point everybody realized they needed machine learning.

ChatGPT and the Chasm

Alan: I’m glad you mentioned machine learning. Where do you think generative AI is in the chasm right now and what do you think is going to occur?

Geoffrey: The Gartner Group had this thing called the hype cycle, which was very similar to the technology adoption lifecycle. ChatGPT is at a higher point in the hype cycle than anything I’ve ever seen, but it’s still pre-chasm. People think it’s going cross more quickly. Back when you and I started our careers, if there was a disruptive technology, it took a long, long time to sort of normalize, internalize, and institutionalize it. Because we’ve now had 40 years of digital absorption, we have a much richer, thicker sort of substrate base to work from. I think that initially, we’ll see some very non-disruptive uses of ChatGPT, like what people are doing with it right now…you know, they’re just asking ChatGPT stuff. I think it’ll cross the chasm when people design it into a business process as a core capability and use it at scale. This  hasn’t happened yet.

Alan: One last question on that topic. Does it scare you?

Geoffrey: What does scare me is human beings, and fake news. What scares me is the is the lack of critical thinking in the public discourse, as well as the lack of civility and integrity. The Fox/Dominion lawsuit is symbolic of a serious disease in the culture that we have to deal with culturally. This is where our educational system has got to step up. A bunch of these educational systems are getting politicized and actually exacerbating the problem. We have to find a way to correct for that, because otherwise we’re just going to be super vulnerable to all kinds of bad influences.

Building a Thought Leadership Culture

Alan: This is a nice segue to my next question. We believe that companies really can’t excel at a thought leadership unless they’ve established a strong culture of thought leadership. This means looking at yourself and your company from the outside in, as you would like your clients and prospects to perceive you. And key to conveying this is adopting core values, behaviors, and beliefs that support big idea creation, and that demonstrate your unique expertise in solving the market’s biggest business challenges. What’s your take on culture and thought leadership and how you can grow and make it so that it really can help to express your key differentiators?

Geoffrey: In the 80s, and 90s, competitiveness was the norm. Cisco, Intel, Microsoft and Sun were very competitive companies. Their game was beating the other guy. The Oracle salesforce was famous for taking no prisoners; it was gladiatorial. I called this the competition culture. But another culture has come into vogue in this century, a more empathetic one, exemplified by people like Satya Nadella at Microsoft and Marc Benioff at Salesforce. In a collaboration culture, thought leadership focuses on what really connects the company to the world. Why are we here? What are we in service to? And if we use that as our true north, what are our values? Vision and values are pretty abstract, especially in a complex and confusing environment, and thought leadership can help you look past your headlights a little bit. 

Alan: Where do you think thought leadership should report within an organization? Some say strategy, some say marketing, some say C-level because it’s key to the strategy. 

Geoffrey: First of all, I think reporting is the wrong word because it’s only relevant in a hierarchical organization, and thought leadership is typically earlier than that, in emergent situations. In many cases the thought leader is a free agent. It could be some bright person in your world, or maybe even from outside your company. If you try to package thought leadership into a departmental function, you’ll end up having stuff that’s too precious. You’ll be like the statistical analysis people who do incredible work that is way too sophisticated and takes way too long. It’s really not useful.

Exemplars in Thought Leadership

Alan: Are there any examples in the marketplace of thought leadership you think really has worked? That really has changed minds and opened pocketbooks and hearts?

Geoffrey: Back in 1989, Marc Benioff was saying “no software.” The reaction was, “What are you talking about? Nobody will put their software in the cloud, or give their credit card over the Internet to some other person.” When some Google guy said, “We’re gonna save every search argument,” people thought that we couldn’t possibly afford to do that. What I love about this world is that periodically, somebody will come up with a vision and my first reaction is always, no way. But then: Wait a minute. Well, what are they saying? 

Alan: I think Salesforce does a wonderful job getting his thought leadership out there. There are other companies in cloud services that do a great job with thought leadership, but that they’re the exception rather than the rule. Why do you think tech companies in particular struggle to codify, share, and maybe even compete on thought leadership?

Geoffrey: Thought leadership is a critical strategic weapon early in the development of a category. Thought leadership becomes less important the longer the category has been around. It’s at the front end of problem solving, where it really matters. The tech companies are playing a different game, called fast follow. I would argue that Microsoft for many years was never a thought leader. It didn’t invent anything. But it continually took over a share of everything that was invented. It was a competition culture, not a collaboration culture. But it was really powerful.

Alan: I follow the VCs fairly closely, and I don’t see a lot of them doing great thought leadership. Kleiner-Perkins and Bessemer Venture Partners are exceptions. What are your thoughts on this?

Geoffrey: I think Martin Casado at Andreessen Horowitz is as good as anybody on thought leadership. He has said something that I think relates to thought leadership and the investment community: as technology begins to permeate every sector — not just the tech sector — more and more investment decisions are based on putting bigger and bigger amounts of capital to work under more and more conventional return on investment scenarios. And so it’s not about thought leadership. Increasingly it’s about market dominance.

The Pitfalls of Publishing

Alan: Last summer we talked about where thought leadership should be published and where it’s taken seriously. When I mentioned Harvard Business Review, MIT Management Review and Technology Review, you told me that the West Coast technology people and the VC elite don’t really see them as harbingers of good thinking. Is this new or has it always been a bias? 

Geoffrey: I see two issues. One is academic research doesn’t lend itself to the front end of emergent things. Think about how it’s done.  You might get permission to interview the executive team at a top company, and end up doing 15 or 20 interviews with people a few levels below the executive suite, then putting it together. But it’s nothing like the conversations that happen with a small group of co-CEOs or allies. Another factor is that conventional academic, publishing, and research standards emphasize data. I don’t have any data, except from all the reports that my clients give me, or that McKinsey or another consulting firm did for them. Data is valuable and you should get any data you can find. But this kind of social science approach works at scale, but not in the emergent phase on the front end of anything. 

Alan: I agree with you that if people are just going to recite the data, that’s not helpful to anybody. I think you’ve got to figure out a way to look at it through a social science lens, through qualitative interviews that bring your data to life through real stories and real insights that come from the marketplace, where the rubber meets the road. 

Geoffrey: Data without stories doesn’t work. Narratives are what matter. They give people a sense of purpose and get them aligned and motivated. Think about how a venture capital pitch works. Somebody walks into an office and tells a story. And then the investors listen to the story, then maybe there’s some due diligence afterwards. And then they either invest or not invest in a story. The story is really important.

Hits and Misses

Alan: So one last question. You can write your own story here. What would you have done differently in your career? What mistakes should you have avoided? And what decisions might you have made that took your career path in a different direction?

Geoffrey: Moving from Michigan to California was just blind luck. As far as mistakes go, I spent a long time assuming that I’d eventually be president or CEO of something. It took me 10 years to realize I am not a manager, or a salesperson. I like people and I’ve loved the people who have been on my team. But it wasn’t until I worked for Regis that finally one of them said to me, “Geoffrey, you’re no fun to work for…You never delegate; you just always intervene.” I realized, oh, shoot, she’s right. So I went to my boss at that time and told her I probably shouldn’t be a manager — I should be an individual contributor. Her face told me, “He finally got it.” Then, around the time I wrote “Crossing the Chasm,” I realized that I’m really an advisor. That was my game from then on.

Alan: Geoff, thank you so much for spending your time with us and sharing your ideas, thoughts and context on how thought leadership could and should be used, how it can be improved, and when and where it shouldn’t be applied. I appreciate your time.

Geoffrey: Thanks, Alan. 

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