Achieving Business Excellence with John Spence

The Pattern of Business Success

Last week I came across a fascinating video on one of my favorite websites in the world, It was entitled “The beauty of data visualization,” and was presented by infographic designer David McCandless. During his presentation, David talked about how to turn complex data sets, like worldwide military spending, media buzz, Facebook status updates and all sorts of other interesting information… into beautiful yet simple diagrams where the observer could quickly visualize the “pattern” that the data yielded once it was turned from numbers and words… into an infographic representation of the information. It does not matter whether you agree or disagree with the data that David presents, I was simply awestruck by his ability to take massive amounts of information and turn it into a extremely easy to understand picture that immediately made the pattern of the information obvious. As someone who has spent their entire career looking for the “patterns” in leadership, strategy, teamwork and business success… I was almost speechless as I realized the implications this sort of tool offered for the work I am doing.

Here is David’s presentation on the power of infographics and pattern recognition, it’s about 18 minutes long and VERY interesting and entertaining.

After watching this video I became incredibly excited about applying these techniques to the years and years of research I have gathered on the key “patterns” for business success, so I immediately started searching the web for a tool that I could use to visually represent all of the data I had collected. It was then that I remembered a neat little program called Wordle that takes text and turns it into “word clouds.” When I got to the site I quickly realized how powerful this tool would be when I loaded an extremely special document.

You see, in order to write my book Awesomely Simple I spent more than four months reading and rereading my highlighting from the top books I have ever read on strategy and business excellence – and then I boiled each book down to a set of bullet points that represented the fundamental “pattern” of key data in the book. When I finally finished I had taken more than 10,000 pages of reading and hundreds of pages of personal notes from client engagements with top companies around the world… and gotten all of that information down to a single page that I called my “Strategy Map.” This list of bullet points represented everything I had learned about the key strategies of highly successful organizations and served as my guide in writing Awesomely Simple

So I took my Strategy Map and loaded it into Wordle. In a matter of seconds… years and years of research and study turned into the word cloud you see below.

I urge you to take some time to study this word cloud VERY carefully (NOTE: the larger the word… the more times it appeared in the data) as I believe that if you can see, understand and then apply the pattern it presents, you will have an amazingly powerful tool for taking your business to a much higher level of success. This is nearly two decades of work and tens of thousands of pages on business excellence – in ONE picture. Enjoy!

 By the way, if you would like a PDF of this word cloud to study it more detail, simply send me an e-mail and I’ll be happy forward one to you right away. My e-mail address is:

 Lastly, I would like to ask you a huge favor. I really think that this word cloud would be extremely helpful to most people in business – so I’d like to ask you please forward a link to this blog on to anyone and everyone you think would find value in studying this word cloud. Here is a tiny URL link so you can easily tweet about this post or send this link on to your friends and colleagues:

Thank you so very much for helping me to get this post in front of as many business people as possible. I truly hope that this blog post has been of great value to you. Take good care – John Spence


  1. I have already gotten so much fantastic feedback on this blog – thank you for the very kind emails — PLEASE, PLEASE take a moment to email, tweet, LinkedIn, facebook or anything else you can do to get this blog post to as many business people as possible! Thank you VERY much — John Spence

  2. John, this is a tremendous idea, and it’s fascinating to see what has come out of it. It definitely makes a strong impression on first viewing, but as I look at it more closely several questions come to mind.

    The first is a concern for the methodology. Since you loaded just one page of your own distillation into Wordle, is it possible that your highlighting and selection of what went into that page a result of confirmation bias, where you were (at least unconsciously) looking for these words and hence weighting them more heavily in the result? Also, because the word cloud was generated from just one page, might the small sample size be an issue? Maybe it would help to load all 10,000 pages and see how it differs from this cloud.

    Data sets like this also make more sense when compared to others. For example, it would be interesting to see, how the Wordle cloud changes if you could take snapshots over time, and see the relative growth of shrinking of various words.

    Finally, while the eye is initially drawn to the largest words, I thought it was intriguing to see which words were smaller than I would have expected. My own bias shows through here, of course, but here are four that surprised me: execution, results, sell, and strategy. I also didn’t see the word data on there, but I will need your PDF to study this more closely.

    Please accept my comments as constructive criticism, because I think you’re onto something really powerful here, and I just want to help make it even better.

  3. Jack – GREAT feedback and similar to comments I have gotten from others.

    *** IMPORTANT*** Yes, the distillation comes from my highlighting… but, I truly work very hard to try to remove as much bias as possible when highlighting a book — and look NOT for the things that confirm my opinions – but instead for the key ideas the author is trying to focus on. I honestly believe you’d get just about the same cloud if you simply took the Table of Contents and the chapter summaries of the top 100 books on strategy. As an example, my friend Todd Sattersten at 800-CEO-Read did load the full manuscripts of the “100 Best Business Books of All Time” into Wordle and the resulting word cloud did not yield a meaningful pattern – focusing more on words like: business, page, book, chapter, company, work, time, new. The only “large” word that appears on both the 100 Best manuscript word cloud and my word cloud is: People! However, it is impossible to remove all personal bias – so hopefully my years of experience added a positive filter to the equation.

    I like your idea of looking at this over time – and I will also try scrubbing the data in a few different ways – so there will be more “word clouds of business excellence” to come.

    Lastly, I love your idea of looking at some of the smaller words. For example, I was shocked that “vision” was not one of the major words. However, when I examine my own personal work on the topic of vision I realized that having the vision is not nearly as important as “Clearly and consistently COMMUNICATING the vision.” So maybe that explains why the cloud looks the way it does. Which I guess is exactly the point – the idea is to study the cloud to see what pattern is revealed to you – and how you will apply that knowledge.

    Jack – as always, thank you for the very thoughtful feedback, it is extremely valuable to the discussion.

  4. Steve Cooper says:

    John, The original pattern and the word cloud might be interesting to see over longer periods of time. If you have read as many books as you indicate, were they all from the same era? Compare and contrast a cloud from each decade of the industrial revolution. I think you will find we are a trendy bunch in search of the magic button – – – always. By the way, why is passion so small? And, where is enthusiasm? See what I mean?

  5. Pranesh Kumar says:

    Hello Mr.John,

    What a wonderful explanation. Its really gonna help me for future, whatever I may do. Thanks for your incredible work.
    Would love to read more from you.

  6. Jack and John,

    Jack’s post above represents a bit of what I was thinking when I was reading this post (great idea that may need to be “cleaned up” a bit when it comes to the validity of the data collection process). When dealing with data like this (and all of the potential consequences related to it), I think it is very important to not only consider the AMOUNT of data, but to also consider the QUALITY of that data (in other words, is all of the data collected in a way that promotes confidence in its validity?).

    Jack’s point is spot on, I think. One of the major differences between what scientists call “pseudoscience” (using data that may or may not have a high degree of validity) and science has to do with research methodology. There are many “threats to validity” that good research designs help to minimize (most of which are ignored by many leaders when they are seeking knowledge, in my experience). Jack refers to one of the most common threats to validity above: confirmation bias. For a good sense of how many such threats exist, here is a list of threats under just one category of threats to validity (threats to internal validity, which help us to determine if one thing causes another or is simply correlated with it): The book The Halo Effect goes into some (but certainly not all) of the threats to validity out there that do not seem to be addressed by some of the biggest business and personal excellence books out there.

    I think this is such an important conversation because I see the pursuit of business excellence-related knowledge as similar to exercise; we can do a bunch of things with our body, but if it is not truly related to health we can wind up doing more harm than good. I’ve seen many leaders (including myself, before I got tuned into threats to validity) make very big decisions with a great amount of confidence because they read a bunch of books with a lot of information in them without realizing that most of the information was gathered in ways that did not take into account the many threats to validity.

    I might add that some seem to believe that differentiating between information gathered in scientifically sound ways and information gathered from people who “know what they are doing,” etc., is not useful enough to warrant the time and focus needed to do so. I think this approach can be similar to doing what a very well-muscled person tells us to do exercise-wise, then coming to find out that the reason this person is so well-muscled had nothing to do with his exercise routine, but more in line with his genetics and/or steriod routine! This can have very real results; people who misunderstand the difference between being lucky, having good connections, etc., and the daily activities associated with business excellence can wreak havoc on people’s lives. One of my favorite examples was illustrated in the book Friday Night Lights. Part of the book tells about a bunch of oil people who got lucky finding oil, but mistook that luck for being great business people and investors. They began starting businesses and investing and soon found that all of the money they receieved from their lucky find was gone! I think that story may be seen as a metaphor for some of the things that have contributed to our current economic state.

    Good conversation, you two. I think valid information about how to make business excellent (including what the objectives of a truly excellent business should be and how it should measure the degree to which it is excellent) is a critical component of an outstanding culture and world! Hope you both are doing well and I appreciate both of your efforts to provide people with critical information via your blogs.

  7. David Weisselberger says:


    Great blog! I truly enjoyed that video and this new concept of involving visual technology with informative data. Especially, I found very interesting what David McCandless said regarding your potential ability to let the data reshape your beliefs and if possible change your behavior. Excellent!

    Hope all is well,

    David W.

  8. Lisa McAbee says:

    Loved this blog! Thanks for sharing the video and your word cloud. Very eye opening. As a training professional, I find it interesting that most of the biggest words are competencies that we call “soft skills.” It begs the question, if these are “soft” skills, what makes them so challenging to master? Obviously, some compaies and leaders are getting it right. It’s good we have you to share their best practices. Thank you!

  9. John,

    I love your post, your Wordle, and Anthony Iannario’s response to your blog post. I “borrowed” your business theme and turned it into a tutorial about Tagxedo:

    Hardy Leung
    Tag Cloud with Styles

    • Hardy — yes, yes — I saw your “Passion – Execution – Sell” word cloud — it is awesome!!! Thanks for the kind words.

  10. Brilliant, John. Thank you so much for sharing this priceless information!

  11. Tony Heath says:

    Thank you John and others for a spot-on conversation.

    Yesterday I printed the .PDF and shared it with my colleagues. Here are a couple reactions:

    1. Business success has always been a challenge to achieve and to describe. Since both are done by humans, they are subject to the zeitgeist of the time. Thus the way business success is described, which is the data for the word cloud, is influenced by the time of the data. Wouldn’t it be fun to use the technology to compare books from different times and/or cultures?

    2. I work for a fortune 100 service industry company and our current talk about business excellence always includes the words “execution,” “simplification,” “engagement.” It’s almost absurd how many times a day I hear these words. If we had a word cloud for talk in my office, these words would loom large. I expect that books being written now, like John’s wonderful new book, would also yield a cloud with these three words.

    On the other hand, this is all just talk. Business success requires engaged people who simply execute. It’s really the walk, not the talk, that counts.

    Thanks, John and everyone for this stimulating exchange.

  12. Very cool, John. I’m definitely going to share this in our blog!

    People focus first.

  13. This piece of information is helpful, it really is an excellent article.


  1. […] Spence, the author of Awesomely Simple, sent me an email today to share with me his latest blog post. For the past 20 years or so, John has been reading 100 business books a year. He has taken notes […]

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  3. […] with the platform but the reason I love twitter is because I get to meet people online like John Spence and the video he posted by David McCandless(data journalist) from  John Spence is the […]

  4. […] The Pattern of Business Success.   This actually passed across my screen as I was getting ready to hit the Publish button on this post, but is so cool that I “stopped the presses” to share it with you.  If you’ve ever seen Wordle – a program you see on many blogs that creates word clouds that show the dominant words and phrases in your writing (it’s also great to use on your resume) – you’ll click on this to see what happened when John Spence applied Wordle to his life’s work.  It’s fascinating.  […]