Would You Pay $10K for This Business Strategy Advice? Andrew Carnegie did.

In the phenomenal book Good Strategy, Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters, author Richard Rumelt tells the following story:

It was 1890, and there was a cocktail party here in Pittsburgh. All the movers and shakers were there, including [Andrew] Carnegie. He held court in a corner of the room, smoking a cigar. He was introduced to Frederick Taylor, the man who was becoming famous as an expert on organizing work.

“Young man,” said Carnegie, squinting dubiously at the consultant, “if you can tell me something about management that is worth hearing, I will send you a check for ten thousand dollars.”

Now, ten thousand dollars was a great deal of money in 1890. Conversation stopped as the people nearby turned to hear what Taylor would say.

“Mr. Carnegie,” Taylor said. “I would advise you to make a list of the ten most important things you can do. And then, start doing number one.”

And, the story goes, a week later Taylor received a check for ten thousand dollars.

Rumelt goes on to say that this seemed like very unexciting, hardly ingenious advice. “Make a list” is a common course of action recommended by business consultants.

So why did Carnegie send the check?

Later that night, I saw that there was a deeper truth in the story. Carnegie’s benefit was not from the list itself. It came from actually constructing the list…

Taylor’s assignment was to think through the intersection between what was important and what was actionable. Carnegie paid because Taylor’s list-making exercise forced him to reflect upon his more fundamental purposes and, in turn, to devise ways of advancing them.

Rather than simply carry out any number of individual tasks, Carnegie was challenged to consider the vision and attributes of his brand—as well as the inherent struggles—so as to define the goals that would propel it further.

Begin at the beginning

Taylor recommended that Carnegie “start doing number one.” But first, Carnegie had to go through the exercise of identifying what that number-one task needed to be.

The act of making a list forces us to reflect on the relative urgency and importance of issues. And making a list of ‘things to do, now‘ rather than ‘things to worry about’ forces us to resolve concerns into actions.

Prioritized thinking—ranking tasks and goals by level of importance—is critical to moving forward with any type of strategy, including branding and marketing.

It allows you to:

  • allocate resources effectively,
  • build upon existing successes,
  • avoid less lucrative pathways, and
  • focus yourself and your staff around progress.
Any good strategist will tell you that the act of planning the strategy is just as critical as carrying it out.

The list within the list

Too often, business owners neglect important planning steps while also neglecting to create a list to plan the individual pieces (events, mailings, social media campaigns, email campaigns…) of the overall strategy.

The result is disorganization at the highest level: poorly coordinated, poorly executed, and poorly tracked.

Pushing out a marketing effort without structuring it around a strategy for launch, execution, and follow-up tells customers an unfavorable story about your brand, such as:

  1. We didn’t take the time to assess your needs.
  2. We are simply looking to make money.
  3. We’re disorganized and/or lazy.

For the business, the result is often a waste of time. For the audience, a lukewarm impression.

[This is usually the time when you hear someone in the crowd mutter: “Marketing is always a crapshoot. I dump tons of money into it with little to no return.”

The funniest part about that statement is that without a structured follow-up plan to recapture possible leads or tracking in place to determine where people are coming from, the question is: How do you know?]

Effective marketing

Open Up a Dialogue

According to a recent study, customer service was ranked highest among customers who would align themselves with a given brand. 

There is a reason why big-name advertisers like Apple and Target attract the attention they do, and it’s not just large advertising budgets. In fact, as advertising researcher and professor at the Newhouse School John Philip Jones points out, smaller brands have to spend disproportionately MORE than larger brands for the same level of recognition.

But large brands know to continuously conduct research around their target markets, tailoring their branding and their marketing to hit their well-defined customer base. They do not have to allocate as many funds to educating the public about who they are and what they do.

Even in a smaller or niche market, small businesses and non-profits can do the same type of research. The easiest and cheapest way to gather information about your target clients is to talk to them! Send out quick online surveys, ask them questions when they’re in your store or office, engage them on social media, just open up a dialogue.

Hell, their feedback might even prioritize your list for you!

Management consultant and brand strategist for small teams. Fan of dark tea, thick books, peace, and unity.

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Dee Gardner
Dee Gardner
7 years ago

Sarah, Where did you find the information about the $10,000 and Carnegie?