Cholera and John Snow’s Ghost Map

By the mid-1800s London was a crowded, smelly city that killed many of its residents. Specifically, cholera killed many people living in the heart of a great, growing city.

We know today that cholera is an intestinal infection that leads to severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalance, killing its victim in days. It’s generally caused by infected water but in the mid-1800s the real cause was unknown. (Pasteur would not announce his germ theory until 1861.)  The leading public health authorities of the day considered “miasma” (fetid air) to be the cause.

In August of 1854 London experienced another cholera epidemic, this time in the Soho district of the city and centered along a section of Broad Street. Within three days 127 people died of the disease and all of them lived on or near the street. The epidemic eventually killed about 600 people, but Broad Street was the epicenter. Why Broad Street and how did John Snow, an unknown physician, use data to solve the problem? 

Edwin Chadwick was the leader of the General Board of Health for London and he “knew” that the disease was carried in the unpleasant, smelly air of the city. The area was poor and overcrowded and because the new sewer system being built in the city had not yet reached Soho, the “water closets” in the buildings either emptied into a cesspool in the yard or the basement. Because of the poverty in Soho these cesspools were not cleaned out as often as required.

Snow, however, was intrigued by the pattern of cholera death surrounding the thirteen public wells. Specifically, Snow mapped the deaths and found a cluster around the Broad Street pump. He identified the addresses of the victims and marked them on a map of the city. He was convinced that the Broad Street pump was the source of whatever was causing cholera.

In today’s terminology, he was not looking for causation, he was looking for correlation. And he found convincing evidence by using “small data,” 600 points on a map.

Overcoming obstacles from higher authority, he removed the pump handle from the well, forcing people in the area to get drinking water from another well. The epidemic was over and later they found the culprit, an old, leaking cesspool that was three feet from the well.

I want to make the point about using data to overcome existing “knowledge” and this story does it well. To quote some of my six sigma friends, Let the Data Speak!

 That said, if you want to read a riveting story about the epidemic, I suggest that you get a copy of Steven Johnson’s wonderful book, The Ghost Map. It’s a great read. 


Trend or Fad?

Apple saw the trend of downloading music and they took the portable music crown from Sony.  

Motorola missed the trend of moving away from analog and toward digital and they became a footnote in the history of cell phone technology.

My cousin spent way too much money building his stash of Beanie Baby “collectibles” and now he kicks himself for wasting so much money.

Quinoa, kale, and “natural” wine – are they a fad or trend? I wish I knew for sure.

So, how might you help yourself (and your business) distinguish between a trend and a fad? There is no sure-thing checklist, but there are things to consider.

Fads often have single industry impact; trends tend to show multi-industry crossover. Think about music downloading.

Fads have a “fashion” feel to them; trends cause us to change our behavior. Think about e-cigarettes.

Fads arrive with short incubation; trends have a longer incubation. Think about healthy eating and the impact on fast food.

Fads satisfy an emotional need; the rise of trends have an identifiable and explainable foundation. Yoga studios seem to be here to stay as Boomers age.

Fads often show up in a single product or brand; trends encompass multiple products or brands. Pet rocks and craft brewing come to mind.

Send me your favorite fad (historical or emerging). I’ll put the responses in a hat, draw a name and send my latest book to the winner. 

15 Great Questions to Improve Your Strategy

Big picture strategy may belong to the C-suite, but strategic thinking has to take place at all levels of leadership and through all of the professions. Basically, strategic thinking is the deliberative thinking that takes place when you ponder how you, your team, your department or your company will succeed.  

I’ve been facilitating strategic thinking workshops for well over a decade, but I was at a loss as to how to organize a planned guidebook aimed at helping people become better strategic thinkers. 

I could launch into a description of industry successes and failures and try to tease out some lessons learned, but if the stories were from another industry or time the reader may find them boring or mysterious or non-relevant. So although stories are helpful, they are not a good organizing tactic.

I could summarize the workings of the famous strategic thinkers and identify common threads and explanations, but some of the best known thinkers of the past are not very relevant to young, emerging leaders. What was brilliant in 1980 may be boring today. So although we have plenty of famous thinkers to choose from, their models and suggestions are not necessarily a good way to organize my new book.

I could try to glean the best thinking about strategy by studying the best and most successful companies in the 21st century, but this would situate the learning in the context of today’s competitive ecology. Remember all of the books about the “Microsoft way” or the “GE way” to succeed? They are gathering dust and being ignored as new books are being written about “the secrets” of success to be learned from Google and Facebook. Sitting at the feet of the currently successful companies would lock-in thinking to today’s reality.

So I decided to ask fifteen questions.

Going back over the many workshops I’ve conducted in the past decade, I tried to align and summarize the questions from the attendees that drove some of the best conversations. And I came up with fifteen great questions that opened the eyes and minds of the people engaged in the conversation. Are there only fifteen? Probably not, but these will provide a rich starter-set to improve your strategic thinking.

Answer each question with an honest "yes", "no" or "not sure". Use your answers to prioritize your efforts.

1.       Are we working on our most important challenges? All organizations face challenges, both good and bad. However, urgent challenges often get in the way of ones that are more important.

2.       Do we understand why these challenges exist? Challenges are often a symptom of a more fundamental set of circumstances. Are you dealing with root causes?

3.       Does the workforce understand and accept our stated vision, values, and goals?  Vision, values and goals are the very foundation of planning but, unfortunately, they are “just words” to the majority of the people in many organizations. 

4.       Do we think big enough?  Change generally comes from outside your organization so you need to consider conditions in your industry and the economy at large. Learn to think in “bigger boxes.”

5.       Do we think far enough into the future? There are three zones of strategic thought: the reaction zone (today’s problems and opportunities), the adaptation zone (existing trends), and the anticipation zone (clues about the future). Unfortunately, too much managerial time is spent in the reaction zone and the future arrives as a surprise.

6.       Do we examine multiple approaches to resolving our challenges? There is always more than one way to resolve a challenge and too often we default to the least risky approach or to the approach that senior leaders like.

7.       Do we regularly ask tough questions of ourselves and senior leadership? Questions are the most powerful tool you have. Unfortunately, we often leave questions unasked because of an organization’s “hands off” attitude. What questions are we afraid to ask?

8.       Do we know what key assumptions we are making and if they are (still) correct? All plans are built on a set of assumptions. When they are correct, they are a great aid to strategic thinking. But when they erode they will kill your strategy. What assumptions are dangerous?

9.       Do we know who have different points of view and do we listen to them? It’s rare to find an organization wherein all of the stakeholders agree on the definition of the challenge, much less the solution. Unfortunately, stakeholders who disagree with the popular point of view are often labeled as naysayers and ignored.

10.   Have we discussed both the intended and unintended consequences of our favored approach? Solutions always produce a ripple effect throughout an organization, resulting in unintended consequences. Sometimes these are good and sometimes not so good. You job is to at least think about them before they occur.

11.   Have we tapped into the decision wisdom of our entire organization? The “wisdom of the crowds” is a real phenomenon that is too often ignored. Go back to Question 9 and consider the points of view you are ignoring.

12.   What should we change and what obstacles exist to making these changes? Strategy is all about deliberative change and there are numerous factors that will determine your future success. You can change some of them but barriers always exist.

13.   Do we have the right capabilities to implement our solution? The capabilities that got your organization to today may, or may not, be the capabilities needed to get your organization to tomorrow. Think in terms of capabilities needed for the future.

14.   Do we have sufficient capacity to implement our solution? For the past fifteen years many organization have stressed the need to be “lean and mean.” However, when it comes to dealing with the future, some have become lean and anorexic.

15.   Do we know if this solution is aligned with our culture? An organization’s culture will either accept or reject plans for change.

A forthcoming book will be used to expand upon and answer these questions.  In the meantime, send me a note if you have questions. You can find me at