William Barnett

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Visionary Authority on Strategy, Leadership and Competition; Author, “The Red Queen;” Professor of Organizational Behavior, Graduate School of Business, Stanford University

Biography

How does a company get ahead in a dynamic, competitive market? How can leaders help their organizations create and sustain innovation and growth? The answer, says leading strategy expert and Stanford University Professor William Barnett, is to lead “by design”: focusing not on what you think is next, but on creating the systems to discover what’s next.

A wide range of industries have seen rapid innovation over the past few decades, including high-tech markets like computers and telecommunications, but also financial services, manufacturing, transportation, health care and the list goes on. In so many industries, highly competitive incumbents have been swept away virtually overnight, thanks to sudden changes in technologies and business models. The problem, says Barnett, is that so many leaders have failed to lead by design, so their organizations have not been able to adapt. In his keynotes and interactive workshops, Barnett helps companies devise strategies and systems more likely to breed innovation, and thereby improve their rates of innovation and growth.

Barnett, the Thomas M. Siebel Professor of Business Leadership, Strategy and Organizations at Stanford Graduate School of Business, is widely known for applying a theory of adaptive evolution to the business world in his seminal book, “The Red Queen Among Organizations: How Competitiveness Evolves” (Princeton University Press, 2008). The book explains that even a company working at its fastest pace to deliver value can be quickly surpassed by competitors able make the next jump forward. Barnett’s extensive research and case studies illustrate how building an environment tolerant of “nonconsensus” ideas is key to generating innovation and enabling the dynamics within your organization that create breakthroughs and transformation. “Ideas are best when they can be turned into action,” he says. Using a range of examples from his own case studies, such as Alibaba, Facebook, Apple, Mercado Libre, Cemex and others, Barnett shows how companies retrospectively praised by business theorists as ingenious were, in the beginning, doubted by those same experts and many investors as unworkable. Barnett elaborates on how business leaders can change their structures and incentives to reward rather than ignore or punish creativity and ideas that don’t have widespread support. Many of these ideas will ultimately fail, but the few that succeed can mean the difference between running in place and leaping ahead.

Barnett is also a leading authority on the study of competition, both between and within businesses. Though competition within a market or industry is conducive to innovation, competition within organizations can prove detrimental, depending on the systems in place for dealing with it. Barnett teaches companies how to emulate successful examples of competitive organizations that also encourage cooperation, rewarding innovation and creativity without allowing competition to hurt the greater good. This is another issue that must be addressed by companies’ internal strategies and systems, enabling them to create the conditions in which innovation – which is otherwise unpredictable – can organically arise.

After receiving his PhD in business administration from the University of California, Berkeley in 1988, Barnett was an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison School of Business. In 1991, Barnett transitioned to the Stanford Business School as an assistant professor. He became an associate professor in 1994 and received tenure in 1996, and has been a full professor since 2001. Barnett has also twice been a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and is an affiliated faculty member of the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University. Barnett serves as a senior or associate editor for several academic journals. His research is published in the leading academic journals, with citations in the thousands, and he has conducted case studies and consulting engagements with hundreds of firms.

William Barnett is available to advise your organization via virtual and in-person consulting meetings, interactive workshops and customized keynotes through the exclusive representation of Stern Speakers, a division of Stern Strategy Group®.

Videos

Books & Research

The Red Queen Among Organizations: How Competitiveness Evolves

(Princeton University Press, February 2008)

A-Z Name

Barnett, William

Biography

How does a company get ahead in a dynamic, competitive market? How can leaders help their organizations create and sustain innovation and growth? The answer, says leading strategy expert and Stanford University Professor William Barnett, is to lead “by design”: focusing not on what you think is next, but on creating the systems to discover what’s next.

A wide range of industries have seen rapid innovation over the past few decades, including high-tech markets like computers and telecommunications, but also financial services, manufacturing, transportation, health care and the list goes on. In so many industries, highly competitive incumbents have been swept away virtually overnight, thanks to sudden changes in technologies and business models. The problem, says Barnett, is that so many leaders have failed to lead by design, so their organizations have not been able to adapt. In his keynotes and interactive workshops, Barnett helps companies devise strategies and systems more likely to breed innovation, and thereby improve their rates of innovation and growth.

Barnett, the Thomas M. Siebel Professor of Business Leadership, Strategy and Organizations at Stanford Graduate School of Business, is widely known for applying a theory of adaptive evolution to the business world in his seminal book, “The Red Queen Among Organizations: How Competitiveness Evolves” (Princeton University Press, 2008). The book explains that even a company working at its fastest pace to deliver value can be quickly surpassed by competitors able make the next jump forward. Barnett’s extensive research and case studies illustrate how building an environment tolerant of “nonconsensus” ideas is key to generating innovation and enabling the dynamics within your organization that create breakthroughs and transformation. “Ideas are best when they can be turned into action,” he says. Using a range of examples from his own case studies, such as Alibaba, Facebook, Apple, Mercado Libre, Cemex and others, Barnett shows how companies retrospectively praised by business theorists as ingenious were, in the beginning, doubted by those same experts and many investors as unworkable. Barnett elaborates on how business leaders can change their structures and incentives to reward rather than ignore or punish creativity and ideas that don’t have widespread support. Many of these ideas will ultimately fail, but the few that succeed can mean the difference between running in place and leaping ahead.

Barnett is also a leading authority on the study of competition, both between and within businesses. Though competition within a market or industry is conducive to innovation, competition within organizations can prove detrimental, depending on the systems in place for dealing with it. Barnett teaches companies how to emulate successful examples of competitive organizations that also encourage cooperation, rewarding innovation and creativity without allowing competition to hurt the greater good. This is another issue that must be addressed by companies’ internal strategies and systems, enabling them to create the conditions in which innovation – which is otherwise unpredictable – can organically arise.

After receiving his PhD in business administration from the University of California, Berkeley in 1988, Barnett was an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison School of Business. In 1991, Barnett transitioned to the Stanford Business School as an assistant professor. He became an associate professor in 1994 and received tenure in 1996, and has been a full professor since 2001. Barnett has also twice been a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and is an affiliated faculty member of the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University. Barnett serves as a senior or associate editor for several academic journals. His research is published in the leading academic journals, with citations in the thousands, and he has conducted case studies and consulting engagements with hundreds of firms.

William Barnett is available to advise your organization via virtual and in-person consulting meetings, interactive workshops and customized keynotes through the exclusive representation of Stern Speakers, a division of Stern Strategy Group®.

Speech Topics

Discovering Greatness by Design

Repeatedly, new technologies and business models transform industries, creating tremendous value and forever changing the way human activities are organized. In this session, we tackle the question of how a business leader can help to orchestrate the creation of a great organization. By the end of this session, you should understand these ideas:

  • Strategic emergence
  • Sense-making as a function of leadership
  • Strategy as logic
  • Strategic planning
  • Testing the value hypothesis
  • Error, false positives and false negatives in testing strategy
  • Value capture vs. value creation
  • Nonconsensus vs. consensus innovation
  • Exploration vs. exploitation as organizational strategies
  • Technological uncertainty vs. market uncertainty

For more on this topic, read his online articles, “Discovery Beats Planning, So Plan to Discover” and “The Source of Genius.”

Leading for Competitive Advantage

Why are some organizations more competitive than others? In this presentation, William Barnett addresses this question, focusing especially on what you can do as a leader to help your organization gain and maintain a strategic advantage. By the end of the session, you should understand the following concepts:

  • Positional advantage vs. capability-based advantage
  • The basis of advantage, and trade-offs between bases of advantage
  • “Red Queen” competition
  • Barriers to entry
  • Strategic alignment

For more on this topic, read his online articles,  “What is Strategy” and “Strategic Advantage.”

Leading Organizational Growth

Ultimately, one of the best measures of success is organic organizational growth. Yet strategies for growth are fraught with risk, and confront business leaders with critical decisions. William Barnett delves into the exciting and hazardous world of leading growth in this session. By the end of the session, you should understand the following concepts:

  • Viral growth and engagement
  • Marketing-led growth
  • How growth can cause failure
  • Demand-side increasing returns
  • Platform strategies

Leading Entrepreneurial Strategies

Entrepreneurship is widely seen as the engine that drives economic development in much of the world. At the same time, entrepreneurial firms are extremely likely to fail. Faced with this powerful risk-return trade off, many students feel torn over whether to join a successful company or to start a new firm. In this presentation, William Barnett looks at the challenging problems and promise of entrepreneurial strategy. You should end the session with a better understanding of these ideas:

  • Product-market fit
  • Jobs to be done
  • The “whole product” vs. the “integrated product”
  • Signal vs. noise

For more on this topic, read his online articles, “The Power of Product Market Fit” and “Want Success? Invite Failure.”

Leading Global Strategies

Globalization is a fact of life in virtually every industry, and the rise of powerful global firms is part of that reality. At the same time, regional and national firms often gain an advantage by being locally responsive in ways that global giants cannot. William Barnett delves into the tension between global leverage and local responsiveness. By the end of this talk, you should have an understanding of:

  • Global leverage vs. local responsiveness
  • National economies as “logic laboratories”
  • National culture vs. organizational culture
  • Corruption and the informal economy

For more on this topic, read his online articles, “National Culture: Constraint or Catalyst?” and “Two-Faced Compliance.”

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Recommendations

“Professor Barnett demonstrates a rare combination of intense curiosity, contagious enthusiasm, and unconventional exploration. His energetic engagement and provocative questioning implore his students to take intellectual risks, pushing them outside the confines of conventional wisdom. In doing so, he challenges his students and himself to delve into the forces—good and bad—that deliver exceptional performance and innovation. After all, innovation won’t be found in textbooks, the status quo, or the comfort of consensus. It, and he, demand more of you.”

— Wendy Harrington, Head of Nuveen Labs

“Bill’s energy, passion, knowledge, and ability to engage is the best I have ever experienced.”

— Tom Mendoza, Former President and Vice-Chair, NetApp

“Bill masterfully uses compelling illustrations to bring alive his insights about leading for success.”

— Andy Rachleff, Founder and CEO, Wealthfront

“Bill is one of the most liked speakers we have ever had. Our audience really enjoys his great energy coupled with a funny side and outstanding content.“

— Fabian Hediger, Co-Founder and Head of Product Development, Bitcoin Suisse AG

Praise for “The Red Queen Among Organizations:”

“Engaging and thought-provoking, Barnett’s construct of ‘learning organizations’ that evolve as a function of their particular competitive environment and capabilities is, in my experience, an accurate description of this complex and important corporate dimension. Having spent fifteen years in the disc-drive industry, which is generally regarded as the most competitive segment in the technology marketplace, I strongly recommend this book to anyone concerned with the strategic and organizational issues related to corporate competitiveness.”

— Steve Luczo, chairman of Seagate Technology

“The Red Queen tells us that corporations and other organizations can run faster, but fall behind because others are running too. Worse, they learn how to run faster by studying the leaders in their race. Barnett’s analysis is pathbreaking and equally interesting to academics and practitioners because it lays out the many ironies that make superior rates of learning and adaptability in one set of circumstances counterproductive when those circumstances evolve (as they always do).”

— John Freeman, University of California, Berkeley

“A very important contribution to the literature on competition and strategy. Barnett writes with admirable clarity and shows a depth of knowledge of a wide range of industries that he uses to illustrate his ideas. His empirical analysis is rigorous.”

—David Barron, University of Oxford

“Organizational analysts have a lot to learn from reading this book. Old assumptions are questioned, attention to institutional and competitive logics is extended, historical detail is presented with precision and depth, and the empirical specifications of the model are much improved over previous analyses. Without a doubt, this is cutting-edge research in organization and management theory.”

— Stanislav D. Dobrev, University of Chicago

“Barnett presents an excellent theoretical account of the evolution of competitiveness, supported by empirical evidence. . . . This ecological theory provides an excellent complement and contrast to many existing theoretical frameworks in strategic management.”

— J.J. Bailey, Choice

The Red Queen Among Organizations represents outstanding scholarship in the organisational theory field but is sufficiently rooted in the “real world” to be of benefit to business strategists and particularly to MBA and doctoral students in the field of corporate strategy. [I]t is a serious attempt to understand organisational behaviour, and it does it exceptionally well.””

— Cary L. Cooper, Times Higher Education

“Barnett’s presentation of the Red Queen theory is a well-crafted, nuanced, and thoughtful contribution to the voluminous literature on organizational population change.”

— David Knoke, American Journal of Sociology

“The main strength of the book is in highlighting the importance of competition in market-based economies for building viable, adaptive organizations.”

— Jason Potts, Kate Morrison, The Business Economist

“The most ambitious and important new book is The Red Queen among Organizations, by William P. Barnett. . . . [I]t is the best strategy book of the year because of its main insights: Competition concerns relative performance, not absolute performance; a company’s competitiveness is context-specific, and contexts can change, giving rise to the competency trap; learning comes from competing, not isolation from competition; and differentiation is desirable as a way to secure rents, but must be pursued in the context of competition, not in the vain hopes of avoiding it.”

— Phil Rosenzweig, Stratgey & Business

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