Strategic Thinking – An Interview with Kevin Maney on the Trade-Off Business Leaders Need to Make

January 23, 2010

Kevin Maney Tarde-OffFor those who are not familiar with Kevin Maney he is an author and journalist who has interviewed many of the biggest names in business in a career spanning 25 years. His most recent book is Trade-Off: Why Some Things Catch On and Others Don’t, published in the fall of 2009 by Broadway Books. He writes for Fortune, The Atlantic, Fast Company and other magazines.

Kevin was recruited by Conde Nast Portfolio magazine prior to its launch in 2007, and was a contributing editor there until its demise in April 2009. Kevin was previously technology columnist and senior technology reporter at USA Today. He is the author of the critically-acclaimed The Maverick and His Machine: Thomas Watson Sr. and the Making of IBM, published in 2003 by John Wiley & Sons. Working with Chicago firm VSA Partners, Kevin is currently an historical consultant and collaborator helping IBM plan for its 100-year anniversary in 2011.

He also wrote the 1995 BusinessWeek bestseller Megamedia Shakeout. Kevin is often on television and radio, and has appeared on PBS, NPR, CNBC, and other media outlets. He is a frequent keynote speaker and on-stage interviewer.

Gary Cohen: Kevin, with the flood of books today on the market–I believe the current number is 3,000 new titles per day–what was it that inspired you to write this book and face the daunting competition?

Kevin Maney: I guess I had to feel like I had something constructive to say. There was also a pull to write about the trade-off between fidelity and convenience. I had written a couple of columns exploring the subject while at USA Today. Those columns prompted the most extraordinary email responses I’d ever received for something I’d written. The emails were what first made me feel like I had an interesting concept here.

Who do you believe will benefit most from reading your book?

I’ve heard from all kinds of people who emailed to say the book helped them – from a real estate agent in the DC area, to an owner of a fitness center, to several engineering students at NYU after I gave a talk, to the head of a division of one of the biggest technology companies.

Can you help our readers understand what you are referring to in your book as the “trade-off?” And what is the “fidelity belly?”

When buying or using a product or service, people constantly weigh a trade-off between a great experience – which I call fidelity – and great convenience. You’re willing to give up some fidelity for convenience – for instance, you’ll gladly buy MP3 music for your iPod because it’s so convenient even though the sound quality is 10 times worse than music on a CD. And you’ll give up convenience to get a great, high-fidelity experience – which is why you’ll buy $200 tickets to a U2 concert, fight for parking, and all that just to see the band live.

As it turns out, the most compelling products and services are either clearly high fidelity or clearly high convenience. Stuff in the middle is not enough of one or the other to get people excited – this is the fate of the compact disk. In the book, I’ve labeled that zone of so-so fidelity and so-so convenience as the “fidelity belly.” You don’t want to be in the fidelity belly.

Many leaders who have been formally trained by schools like Harvard, Northwestern, Stanford and others have studied strategic thinking of Michael Porter, Jim Collins, W. Chan Kim & Renee Maborgne, Kaplan & Norton. How do you see your thinking either aligning or diverging from such notable academics?

Jim Collins wrote the foreword to Trade-Off. He’s a good friend, and he’s probably had more influence on my thinking over the past 15 years than anyone. I talked through the book’s concepts with him before writing a word. I also think the book closely aligns with Clay Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma, but from a different perspective. Andy Grove’s strategic inflection point informed some of the ideas in the book, too.

Clayton Christensen at Harvard this year gave a speech that I attended where he explained how business schools can go wrong. One of his key points was that when professors provide models, without a clear understanding of the context in which the model is useful or not useful, it can lead to damaging consequences for their organizations. In which context do you see your model most useful and where will it not provide the correct guidance?

Judging from the reactions to the book, I’d say that it’s most useful in branding conversations – both consumer brands and business-to-business brands. It’s probably less useful in markets where there’s not a clear range of strong players from high fidelity to high convenience – like in health care or legal services.

Have there been some examples that you have seen that are able to defy the fidelity belly for an extended time?

(Part two of this interview will be continued tomorrow)


Related Blog Posts:

  1. Trade-off Interview with Kevin Maney – Part II
  2. Trade-Off by Kevin Maney and Intro by Jim Collins – Book Review

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