In the New Digital World, Learning Faster than the Competition is the Only Sustainable Competitive Advantage


Almost every C-level executive I speak with tells me they are so busy doing their business that they have no time to think about their business. Whether it’s the back-to-back to back meeting calendars or the explosion of digital communication tools from e-mail to texting to Twitter to Snapchat, executives at all levels are completely overwhelmed by the demands on their time and their schedules.

In KPMG’s Global CEO Outlook 2016 survey of 400 CEOs, 85% “admit vulnerability about the amount of time they have to spend strategizing about the forces of disruption and innovation.” The consequences of this loss of control is that critical decisions often get made without sufficient understanding of what’s at stake and what tradeoffs should be made to gain the desired outcomes.

Core vs. Context: What are you paying attention to?


In my experience, the one defining factor of a successful leader is someone who can clearly distinguish between what’s important, mission critical core versus what’s urgent, non-mission critical context and has the discipline to spend the majority of their time on the former not the latter. So that begs the question, how do you find that right balance?

You can start by doing your own personal core and context assessment. Go back over your calendar for the last two months and look at how you spent your time and identify each activity as either core or context. Simply put, core is any activity that directly impacts the performance of your company while context are those activities that need to be done but don’t directly impact your company’s performance. This exercise will enable you to get a core and context ratio of what percent of your time is spent in each area. If you’re like the many executives I’ve done this exercise with, you will be surprised by how much of your time context activities consume.

Take an hour a day just to learn

In reading the recent blog by Michael Simmons, co-founder of Empact, I learned that throughout his adult life Benjamin Franklin consistently spent one hour a day in “deliberate learning.” Those activities consisted of:

  • Waking up early to read and write
  • Turning his ideas into experiments
  • Cultivating conversation partners
  • Having morning and evening questions to reflect on

Whatever rituals work for you, the key is to commit to them and carry them out on a daily basis.

Think Weeks, Block Days & “Thinking Thursdays”


When Bill Gates was CEO of Microsoft, he used to take “think weeks” where he would go off by himself to a cabin in the woods and read, try out competitive software and think about the major changes that could potentially disrupt his company’s success. It was on one of these think weeks that he came to the conclusion that Microsoft had to convert to an Internet-compatible business model.

When I worked with Rob Carter, CIO at FedEx, we installed a series of block days on his calendar which allowed him to come to the office with nothing scheduled for the day. This gave him the freedom to choose how best to spend that time including 2 to 3 hour blocks of time to think through a particularly complex issue.

Recently,, the online car buying company, introduced “Thinking Thursdays” for July. Each Thursday, all employees have no meetings so they can focus their full attention on getting their critical work done without interruptions.

Always leave the door open for the unexpected


On the surface, getting control of your time and schedule has multiple benefits. But on a whole other level, you can’t expect to achieve extraordinary outcomes if you haven’t applied your full time and attention to the opportunity or challenge in front of you.

Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation said it very well in his recent book Creativity Inc.:

“In most companies today, you have to justify so much of what you do – you prepare for quarterly earnings statements if the company is publicly traded or, if it is not, to build support for your decisions. I believe, however, that you should not have to justify everything. We must always leave the door open for the unexpected. Scientific research operates in this way – when you embark on an experiment, you don’t know if you will achieve a breakthrough. Chances are you won’t. But nevertheless, you may stumble on a piece of the puzzle along the way – a glimpse, if you will, into the unknown.”

If you agree that learning faster than the competition is the only sustainable competitive advantage, then your company’s future depends on your ability to instill a culture that prioritizes what’s important over what’s urgent. It’s not easy instilling new work habits but with the stakes as high as they are in the new digital world you really don’t have a choice.

As always, I am interested in your comments, feedback and perspectives on the ideas put forth in this blog. Please e-mail them to me at