Disruption Personified

Disruption Personified

Hello Strategy Studio. CEOWorld Magazine asked me to share my tips for navigating and maximizing disruptions.  

What are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.  

  1. Adopt a customer mindset. It isn’t enough to understand your customer or their journey. Embrace their head and heart and consider choice from their perspective. For example, a family with young children looking for something fun might consider their local children’s museum or park or new offerings from around the globe.


  2. Recognize that competition is morphing all the time. Your competitors aren’t bound by industry or market. To my example above, a children’s museum competes with parks, recreation centers, streaming services, and a host of other offerings that families might enjoy.


  3. Look for the shapers and drivers. I’m referring to the forces and trends with the power to shape your customer’s choices and drive their decisions. For example, will the K-shaped economic recovery go or shape your future? It depends on your mission and your customer. If you are a community college and your students cannot afford to attend college at all, then the economy is a driver. If your customer is a knowledge worker able to work from home, the economy is likely shaping their decisions but may not determine them with the same force.


  4. Embrace differentiation. Our companies need to stand out and stand for something. When a company is differentiated, it pursues a strategy based on being distinctive. Think of Patagonia or Apple, for example.


  5. Remain loyal to your brand. Today’s consumer expects to engage with brands that authentically deliver. That’s true across industries and verticals. Increasingly we see companies double down on brand and strategic differentiation as they find ways to solve the significant issues of our day. Cotopaxi, an outdoor company, is taking bold steps to address global warming throughout its supply chain and retail operation. 
Invitation to My Creative Salon and August News

Invitation to My Creative Salon and August News

As a creative strategist, I’m compelled to feed the artist within. When I get too busy to paint, I feel that my professional work starts to suffer. Painting fuels me. Releasing my creative drive leads me to new ideas and frees me from outdated modes of thinking. That’s why I’ve set aside even more time to create this summer. I encourage you to make space for your creativity, too.

In celebration of art and creativity, I invite you to a Creative Salon. Like the French salons of centuries past, this will be an evening of conversation, creativity, and cocktails. Leave inspired to lead more boldly and strategically.

The Creative Salon will be hosted at my home in Denver (pictured below). Please email me your interest so I can set a date that works for everyone.


I spend my days tracking trends with the power to shape or drive an organization’s future. Purpose-driven organizations looking to stand out in the marketplace are navigating several notable shifts, courtesy of the customer zeitgeist and pandemic. Here are four field-tested insights to achieve strategic success. Keep these handy as your plan your retreat and set your sights on 2022 and beyond.

My Work in Progress

Get to know James Holmes and Cherokee Ranch & Castle Foundation on September 16. James is committed to making bold decisions in service to mission and community. Cherokee Ranch & Castle Foundation is a historic Colorado landmark offering stunning views alongside a powerful mission to enhance cultural life throughout the state.

James and Karla discuss your customer’s desire for strong leadership. Plus, abstract painting fuels James’s soul.


Adrian Miller, our recent Creative in Residence, is on fire! His Instagram following exploded to 28,600 based on his recent book, Black Smoke, and his appearance on Netflix’s High on the Hog. Whet your appetite with his five creative tips by visiting the link below as a Strategy Studio member.

The Passion-Driven Pivot

The Passion-Driven Pivot

“What? You’re a Stanford-educated man. You should do something more noteworthy!” That’s the reaction I got from someone whom I told about my pivot to becoming a self-described “Soul Food Scholar.” Many others reacted similarly, especially women that I tried to date. Up until that time, I was a pretty risk-averse person. No longer. After a decade in Colorado politics, I cashed in my modest retirement savings, and lived on that sum to write a book on the history of soul food. I had no idea if the book would be well-received and what kind of job I would get afterwards. Here’s why that financially unsound choice was one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made.

My interest in the subject was piqued in 2001 when I read a sentence that the late John Egerton wrote in his classic book Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History: “But the comprehensive history of black achievement in American cookery still waits to be written.” With no prior experience writing a book, but extensive experience eating soul food, I said to myself, “I can do that.” That’s what launched my wondrous journey! Researching African American culinary history is a passion, but it’s always been a side hustle. I could never figure out how to make it lucrative enough to support me.

Once my stint in the Clinton White House was over, I moved back to Colorado with a plan to run for office and eventually represent Colorado in the U.S. Senate. Sticking with my career goals, I worked at the Bell Policy Center for six years, and then another four years for Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, Jr. Like an earnest graduate student, I spent hours online and at libraries finding out everything that I could about food and African Americans. I read more than 3,500 oral histories of formerly enslaved people, thousands of digitized magazine and newspaper articles, spoke to hundreds of people about culinary traditions, and then ate my way through the country for the sake of “research.” What drives me is a desire to tell untold stories, and revive previously told stories, about the contributions that African Americans have made to our nation’s cuisine. Fortunately, and unfortunately in a sense, there’s plenty of these stories to tell because mainstream media has continually overlooked African Americans.

Things have turned out pretty well thus far. My first book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time won the 2014 James Beard Award for Outstanding Scholarship and Reference. My second book, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families from the Washingtons to the Obamas was nominated for several awards. My third and latest book, Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue, is off to a roaring start. The books led to more financial opportunities. I get many opportunities to speak and write freelance articles for a decent amount of pay. Oh, and that person who was critical of my creative pivot. She now holds me up as an example to her children of how anything is possible if you pursue your passion!

Adrian Miller is a critically-acclaimed food writer, former politico, attorney, and certified barbecue judge who lives in Denver, Colorado.

Stronger Together: Celebrate the Strategy

Stronger Together: Celebrate the Strategy

Corporate strategy can seem a bit esoteric or heady. It’s time to make it real by connecting the dots between corporate strategy and your team’s day-to-day work. In my experience, executives underestimate the importance of strategy storytelling, crafting a powerful narrative about the organization’s future direction, and staying true to that message in big moments and everyday conversations.  

When we tie strategy to the mission and values, we reinforce their importance and create unending opportunities to align heads and hearts. Human resources directors know how valuable messaging is to building and sustaining a vibrant culture. In my experience, consistent strategy storytelling yields substantial gains for organizations. First, consistent messaging fosters comfort in times of ambiguity and helps a team navigate uncertainty. Second, strategy storytelling motivates people to lead, whatever their role.  

The Logan School’s mission and beliefs statements augment its strategy story. A deep belief in children’s innate capabilities propels this one-of-a-kind school to deliver a custom education for each child. The differentiation is in plain sight. 

In many organizations, exposure to mission and values clarification doesn’t occur until executive management—likewise, setting strategy. Organizations have an opportunity to optimize people management by creating opportunities for middle managers to develop their skills in mission, values, and strategy formulation.   

My recommendations: 

  • Craft a suite of messages to connect mission and values to strategy. 
  • Encourage managers and executives to use the messages consistently in day-to-day communications.  
  • Inspire your executive team to tie mission and values to your organization’s success measures.  
  • Build a leadership pipeline with hands-on experience in mission, values, and strategy.  
  • Lead by example in human resources. 

    Tying It All Together 

    A mission statement and core values ground us in who we are, while a strategy sets the future direction. All are essential to motivating, inspiring, and coalescing teams to achieve significant results. Human resources directors can serve as vigorous advocates for this robust suite of organizational statements.  

    Stronger Together: Optimize People Management through Mission, Values, and Strategy

    Stronger Together: Optimize People Management through Mission, Values, and Strategy

    Lessons from The Logan School 

    My work as a strategy consultant provides a unique vantage point on organizations and people management. I frequently find myself a keeper of secrets and a vessel for insights on topics spanning organizational design, culture, and communications.  

    Lets begin with a true story from my book Differentiated. Join me in The Logan School for Creative Learning lunchroom as I prepare to share the schools core ethos—the defining characteristics at the core of its mission, values, and strategy. Logan serves highly gifted students from kindergarten through the eighth grade.  

    I walked to the front of the lunchroom at The Logan School for Creative Learning and took my place next to the projectors image. I could see the skepticism and hopefulness, too, on those seventy-five faces. Some stood with crossed arms; others sat in kid-sized chairs, with elbows on their knees, listening with intention. The teachers and staff were as ready as they were going to be, justifiably worried that wed done nothing more than write a bit of lingo to sell the school.  

    By then, Id absorbed it all—the school tours, meetings with the board, stakeholder interviews, parent focus groups, visioning exercises, and EXPO. Those myriad experiences brought together head and heart, the intellectual and the emotional. Id intuited their feelings, heard their stories, witnessed their mission in action, and read the research reports. I trusted my iterative process to surface early ideas and potential insights and then test and reassess as additional information emerged until the insights were inescapable. 

    The Logan model had proven that these kids were capable of driving their education from a young age. Creative thinking affirmed the realization. Logan was clearly differentiated. 

    Faculty and staff erupted in applause at the end of our presentation, and some gave us a standing ovation. The heartfelt reaction was all the affirmation required. Logans mission, values, and strategy shared a powerful connection. 

    Amplify the Mission and Values 

    As you consider your organizations mission, it is essential to reflect on the core values. Exemplars like Johnson & Johnsons Credo, written in 1943, illustrate how a foundational statement brings continuity to organizational life and solidifies its promises. Heres an example from The Logan School. Its mission is to cultivate the curiosities of gifted children. It aligns with the schools core beliefs.

    Logan believes:

    • Students drive the learning experience.
    • Children are infinitely curious. Their learning experience should be similarly boundless.
    • The joy of learning is infectious and strengthens the power of community. 

    Recall that a mission is a statement of purpose. It answers the question, “What difference do we make in the lives of those we serve?” That question is compelling as your staff and customers seek to engage with purpose-driven organizations, and both expect accountability for mission impact. An organization’s values are statements of its ideals and beliefs. These are your organizational truths. 

    My recommendations:

    • Embed the mission and values into onboarding, hiring, and promoting. 
    • Ask your team for suggestions on how to bring the mission and values to life every day.
    • Incorporate the mission and values statements into job descriptions, quarterly check-ins, and performance reviews.
    • Add them to meeting agendas and group process guidelines. 

    A lot of purpose-driven leaders I talk to feel a disconnect between their mission statements and the day-to-day tasks of running an organization. The focus on changing the world gets lost in the meetings, finances, and bureaucracy. What happened to that burst of inspiration you felt while writing your mission statement?

    If you feel this way, you need Strategy Studio. A free membership will introduce you to the tools that helped The Logan School rediscover its unique passion for early education. Get started with your Explore Membership.     

    Cast Yourself in the Role of Your Customer

    Cast Yourself in the Role of Your Customer

    When you were a child, what was your favorite game of pretend? Did you pretend you were a dinosaur? Or an astronaut? Or maybe an adventurer on a magical quest?

    Whatever your favorite game of pretend was, you surely spent time immersing yourself in a world different from your own. All children do.  We do it because play and pretend are one of the main ways that humans learn about themselves and each other. They are crucial tools for developing insight and empathy.

    They are also tools that we need to bring back into our lives as adults and business professionals.

    To find exciting new options for our organizations, we need to understand our customers and our marketplaces in a new way. And we need to get beyond the same-old analysis that leads to tiny variations on the same old “insights.”

    We need to stop thinking about our customers and instead teach ourselves to think like our customers.

    One fun and high-impact way to do that is to return to the world of pretend. Specifically, we can use the tools that actors use to portray a character on stage.

    The discipline that trained actors use to create a character for the stage calls on both creativity and extreme focus. It is a remarkably useful process for deepening our understanding of our customer.

    The process starts with seeking to embody and become someone new.

    Theatre artists are trained to ask detailed questions about their characters and to answer those discovery questions in the first person. Instead of looking at a character in a play and asking what “they” are feeling or doing, theatre artists assume the character’s identity for a moment.

    Actors seek to step inside the character’s body and see the world through their eyes. They explore the “world of the play.” Then, from the point of view of the character, they ask:

    • If it were me in these circumstances, what might I be thinking and feeling and doing?

    • What are the factors in my history, environment, and needs that drive my actions and outlook?

    • What are the forces acting on me that are impacting my options and decisions?

    As they do this, good theatre artists seek to continue to dig deeper. They do not accept the first and most obvious answer. They keep looking for more profound and more unexpected levels of discovery.

    Actors use this mental exploration and a host of other physical and emotional techniques to achieve a state that theatre artists refer to as “living truthfully in imaginary circumstances.”

    The idea is highly relevant to business strategy. It is a focused process of ideation.

    Great organizations combine research and data with insight and imagination until they can fully understand their customers’ circumstances. They may not know every customer by name, but they know the “character” of their customers so well that they come to know the “truth” of their customer’s experience. 

    The exciting news is that this is a process we can do consciously and “on-demand.”  Fostering creative insights does not mean you need to sit around waiting for inspiration to hit you.

    All arts disciplines have processes that their practitioners use to encourage insight and skill development. There is still hard work involved, and you will run into stuck spots, dead ends, and frustrations the way you do in any meaningful human endeavor. But, there is a process to follow.

    And, if you stick with the process and allow yourself to take risks and fail along the way, you can often come out on the other end with exciting new insights and opportunities.

    The first part of the process starts with awareness and openness.

    Instead of beginning with a specific result in mind, simply explore. Allow yourself to start with mindful exploration.

    Take a walk or grab your journal and begin by asking yourself how your customer sees themselves and experiences their world. Challenge yourself to avoid asking yourself about how your customer sees your product or service. Instead, explore in a more open-ended and holistic way. You may be surprised and delighted by what you discover.  

    Imagine If…

    Imagine that you are the Executive Director of a Writing Studio in a small city.

    Suppose that in the past, you have identified your customers as middle-aged professionals who seek to develop their writing skills for a creative outlet and personal fulfillment, and your competitors as other organizations in your city that offer writing instruction.

    You may have even occasionally considered other creative and artistic classes as part of your competitor base and mused about how to attract more young people and more people from diverse populations to your studio.

    But your thinking is still stuck in an old model of looking at your customer from the outside-in. This will make it perilously easy to keep thinking about what you have already done and making many small (and possibly contradictory) tweaks to your offerings.

    It will be hard to generate the insights that lead to a genuinely fresh look at your obstacles and opportunities and develop a bold and compelling new strategy.

    It will be hard to differentiate.

    But you can open up new possibilities by taking a new approach.

    What If:

    • You began by creating a safe space to take risks and challenge your thinking to explore an imaginary future customer from the inside-out?

    • You pretended that you were an actor getting ready to play the part of your prospective customer in a play and had to get to know them deeply and intimately?

    • You had some handy questions to prompt you into thinking both deeply and differently?

    Let’s try it out.

    Instead of starting with the idea that our customers are “middle-aged professionals who seek to develop their writing skills for a creative outlet and personal fulfillment,”- let’s try creating a character of our customer.

    We are not trying to think about all our customers, or even most of our customers. We are taking a deep dive into one customer and paying with the idea of “becoming” that customer for a short while.

    We will walk through some questions. And as we do so, we will work on trusting our imagination to explore these questions without worry about getting the “right” answer. Some of our responses may come from research, internal organizational data, or what we know about existing customers, and some of them may come from pure conjecture and fantasy.

    That is OK. There are no correct answers, only ones that lead to exciting thoughts or opportunities.

    The process starts with the question of identity. From the customer’s point of view and stated in the first person, we may choose to ask:

    • What is my name?

    • What are my pronouns?

    • Who am I demographically? (age, gender, occupation, race, geography, etc.)

    • What cultural norms or expectations do I want to accommodate?

    • How do I want others to see me?

    • How do I see myself?

    • Is there a conflict in how I want others to see me and how I see myself? (For example, “I want others to see me as a polished, professional businesswoman, but I see myself as an underdog and harried mother of 3 who can barely keep it together.”)

    But we don’t stop here. We keep going.

    The next step is looking deeply into needs and obstacles. Remembering to answer questions in the first person from the customer’s perspective, we ask:

    • What do I want in my life, long-term?

    • When I wake up on the average Monday morning, what do I most want for that day?

    • Why do I want the things I want?

    • How must I get those things? (Does it need to look a certain way; do I need to get other things first etc.)

    • What do I usually do to get what?

    • What other things will I do to get what I want- how far will I go?

    • What are the practical obstacles in my way?

    • What are the internal obstacles in my way?

    • What cultural norms or prejudices must I navigate to get what I want?

    • How confident am I in my ability to get my wants and needs met?

    Finally, we want to ask ourselves about circumstances and events. From your customer/character’s point of view, ask yourself:

    • On a typical day, what am I doing?

    • On a typical day, what else must I do?

    • On a typical day, what outside forces are impacting me?

    • What special events or circumstances are going on to make this day (the day they seek your product or service) different from all the days before?

    While it takes some time, and you might not get great answers to every question or even understand how every question relates to your context and your customer, just walking through this process can open new ways of thinking.

    You may discover, for example, an entire change of organizational identity.

    Maybe you were a Writing Studio that serves middle-aged professionals who seek to develop their writing skills for a creative outlet and personal fulfillment.

    And perhaps you are becoming a Retreat Center for High Performing Executives who seek to recover from a mid-career crisis by developing their creative capacities and connecting with a community of visionary business leaders.

    Anything is possible.

    You can create whatever is possible for you by looking behind the curtain, casting yourself in the role of your customer, and stepping into your studio to explore deeply.

    Enjoy it. 

    And break a leg!  (For those of you who don’t yet know, that is theatre-speak for Good luck!)