‘The Soft Edge: Where Great Companies Find Lasting Success,’ by Rich Karlgaard (Wiley)

For Rich Karlgaard, publisher of Forbes and writer of its “Innovation Rules” column, businesses able to create and sustain success do so by balancing attention and development of a strategic base, a hard edge and a soft edge.  Each of those edges is constituted, in turn, by five elements.  Historically, managers have tended to focus on the hard edge as the basis of business success, favoring its more clearly concrete and measurable focus on speed, cost, supply chain, logistics, and capital efficiency in decision-making and the fight for organizational resources.  The soft edge, by contrast, has until recently been viewed, as secondary, fuzzy and, yes, soft, values that are nice to have but not at the core of lasting success.  Karlgaard’s new book, The Soft Edge, seeks to re-set those priorities. 
Most of the book is taken up exploring the five deep values of the soft edge.  Trust between leaders and their teams, and colleagues more generally, is needed to create grit, the ability to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals (as advanced by Angela Duckworth).  Smarts takes the idea of grit and contends that it helps to accelerate and sustain learning, both learning new things and solving novel problems and applying the outcomes of learning.  Teams, marked by chemistry, passion and grit, are where the hard work of combining and building on different perspectives and shared values take place.  Taste is the discernment that guides the design process, a broader sensibility that deploys teamwork to generate abiding experiences for customers.  Story is the source of persuasion in the market but also of purpose and motivation for teams and organizations, even when those stories are increasingly told better by outsiders, like customers, and data.
Of the five values, taste is perhaps the book’s most distinctive contribution for leaders seeking to build brands, organizations, and lasting success.  Karlgaard breaks out that sensibility into function, form and finally meaning, indicating how all three must combine to create “an emotional engagement” or demonstrate “the significance and associations customers experience with a product” or service.  The resulting complex and well-integrated experience flies in the face of classical business ideas like building economies of scale, as he acknowledges, shifting focus from pursuing cost advantage over competition to delivering more substantially to customers.  Summing up this priority, Margit Wennmachers of Andreesen Horowitz is quoted to say, “taste is a matter of really understanding your customer on a very, very fundamental level.”
Using the example of Specialized Bicycle’s data analysis of wind resistance in designing high-performance bicycles, Karlgaard argues how leaders should seek to combine design, creativity and data for memorable experiences today.  One of the commendable features of The Soft Edge is its consistent attention to how the tools of the digital age and the knowledge production and management that makes those tools all the more important have altered the business landscape.  In fact, the book closes with a sustained discussion across the five values of how important is the collaboration of CMOs and CIOs for businesses to be successful amidst the increasing complexity of messaging and marketing platforms shaped by sensors, computers, and analytics.
Specifically how and when to apply the values of the soft edge, particularly in coordination with  each other and the elements of the other edges, is mostly not discussed here.  Nor is there an elaboration of the potentially distinct approaches to developing soft edge values and, again, their balance, with other core elements of lasting value, in different kinds of businesses, particularly creative ones.  Even at its most evocative, as in the closing call for leaders to operate in the “elusive sweet spot between data truth and human truth,” the book also leaves largely open the matter of how to work in that zone effectively.  More than once while reading, I hoped that a Soft Edge “Workbook” might soon appear to help leaders and others to take and implement the wealth of practically helpful thinking here.  (Several related tools, including a free self-assessment of individual leadership needs and opportunities related to the values of the soft edge, are available online at http://bit.ly/TJRWFg).
Yet even without additional guidance for implementation, the model of organizational success in The Soft Edge provides many useful spurs to those striving to improve their businesses.  Producing and sustaining high performance depends of striking the right balance of hard and soft skills in given settings and situations.  Karlgaard’s useful insights and varied business examples offer a valuable resource for leaders committed to thinking deeply about and engaging in their own organizations the too-often-neglected values of the soft edge.

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