Prosecutor: “Your honor, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. Today we’ll prove that the defendant did knowingly and willfully kill his business strategy in what can only be described as a complete and utter disregard for human intelligence. On the morning of June 7th, 2010, where exactly was your business sense?”
Defendant: “Hmmm…we had just finished another meeting where I skillfully avoided any accountability for two floundering initiatives. Not wanting to jeopardize my ascension up the corporate ladder, I then passed another decision I should have made onto the group in the guise of ensuring we had “consensus” on the issue. To further confuse and delay the process, I concocted several sub-committees to further explore the issues. Naturally, we left the meeting with absolutely no progress at all on any of the important agenda items.”
Prosecutor: “So you admit that you have in fact killed the business strategy?”
Defendant: “On the contrary. I have built a strategy of innovation. In the meeting in question on June 7th, I spent 45 minutes running a lively discussion of what type of logo coffee mug we should be giving away at the financially draining trade-shows we mindlessly agree to attend each year. I suggested giving away a logo coffee mug without a handle, to show the market exactly how innovative we are.”
Prosecutor: “You are also being charged with the crime of trying to be all things to all people. Why exactly hasn’t your business made the trade-offs necessary to focus your resources on specific customer groups to grow revenue?”
Defendant: “You obviously haven’t spent much time in the real world of business. In order to make the types of strategic trade-offs you’re referring to, we’d have to take time out from our adrenaline-jazzed fire fighting, running around with our heads cut off, tactical goose-chases. Next we’d have to choose the right questions, frameworks, and models to strategically think through the four key areas of market, customers, competitors and company. Then we’d have to take those insights and channel them into an action plan that meets our goals and objectives. Finally, we’d have to communicate this strategy to the people who actually implement it on a daily basis. Now do you see how ridiculous the idea of developing and executing strategy really is in a typical company?”
Prosecutor: “One final question: your company manages to survive each year but profits continue to dwindle at an alarming rate. How do you account for this?”
Defendant: “That’s simple. Our corporate attorneys have said that we need to be environmentally conscious or friendly or eco-something. I then read an article my daughter, a freshman at Cal-Berkeley, sent me from The Economist that said being green could actually help companies make money. So by creating a strategy-free business environment we’re reducing our level of profit emissions and saving the planet.”
Prosecutor: “I rest my case.”
A feature on many of today’s automobiles is the voice navigation system. Here’s what it might sound like if the voice navigation system (VNS) were applied to a business:
VNS (alluring female voice): Please enter a destination.
Manager: I’d like to grow market share and increase shareholder value.
VNS: Please enter a valid destination.
Manager: I’ve already told you I want to grow market share and increase shareholder value. Oh yeah, and we want to be a leader in innovation…as long as we can reduce costs by 15% this year.
VNS: Very well. Proceed one-half mile and then turn left, right, straight and reverse, all at the same time.
Manager: But that’s impossible. I can’t do all those things at once.
VNS: Precisely. You haven’t really honed in on what your business is trying to achieve. Where exactly is your destination?
VNS: Where exactly is your destination?
Where exactly is YOUR destination? One of the disadvantages of our reliance on computing technology is the atrophy of our creative, spatial insights. Such insights are critical to envisioning where we want our businesses to be a year, or five years, from now. Simply spitting out numbers relative to EBIDTA, operating margins and return to shareholders is not good enough and does little to energize the organization. Our efforts to set strong strategic direction inherently depend on a clear understanding of the aspirational components of the business: mission, vision, goals, and objectives.
If you have any examples of great or just plain awful ones, let’s take a look.
People like to make strategy complex. I don’t. It’s essence is as simple as a Dr. Seuss book:
I am strategic. Strategic I am.
Do you like to think strategically?
I do not like to think strategically,
not in an office
not in a tree.
It’s more fun to think tactically,
stuff I can touch,
stuff I can see.
I do not like to think strategically,
I haven’t the time
to be so leisurely.
Setting good plans, I’ll leave to others.
Gotta check my Blackberry.
Even in bed, under the covers.
I do not like to think strategically.
Growing business and beating competitors,
simply isn’t for me.
10th place in the market isn’t so bad,
especially when you consider,
it’s the best we’ve ever had.
No, I do not like to think strategically,
I prefer the adrenaline rush,
of mindless reactivity.
You do not like to think strategically,
so you say.
Try it, try it and you may.
Say! I do like to think strategically.
In the office and conference room too,
new ideas and insights are clearly in view.
While others around me only fight fires,
I’m focusing my resources,
taking the business higher.
I’ve scheduled time, just to think.
Now my goals and strategies,
are in perfect sync.
I do so like to think strategically,
creating differentiated value
my customers can clearly see.
Thank you, thank you!
We often refer to strategy as “the big picture.” What we need to remember is that strategy too is part of a bigger picture. I had the pleasure of speaking with Wharton professor of management Stewart Friedman about a leader’s ability to manage the whole. Stew has written the bestselling book Total Leadership and has a thought-provoking blog simply titled “Stew Friedman’s blog.”
One of the points I found most interesting in our conversation was Stew’s belief that leaders need to “be real, be whole and be innovative.” When we consider strategy, these same elements are equally important. As I’ve written before, strategy inherently is about being different, not better, than the competition (be real). It’s also about the continual awareness of the four key areas of the business: market, customers, competitors and company (be whole). And finally, good strategy continually challenges old assumptions and adds new value to customers (be innovative).
Understanding that our strategy is also part of a bigger picture is critical. People, culture, organizational structure, compensation, processes, suppliers, and systems all play a role in how effective our strategy is. Taking time to assess and manage these elements of the strategy ecosystem can improve your picture–no matter how big it is.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Daily Herald business columnist Jim Kendall on the evolving role of strategic planning in today’s economic climate. Jim’s article entitled, “How to Develop a Strategic Plan, Then Make it Work,” focused on the challenges many of us face today when it comes to setting a course for our business.
Jim astutely pointed out that few companies are willing and able to both develop great strategy and then execute that strategy on a continual basis. The biggest obstacle cited is a lack of time. Many managers simply feel they don’t have time to step back from their flurry of activity to actually think about the business in a methodical and comprehensive way.
A good first step to overcome the issue of a lack of time is to begin adding strategy as an agenda item to the weekly/monthly staff meeting. Then build in a few strategic thinking tools and frameworks to those discussions to get people thinking in new and fresh ways about the business. Before you know it, people are thinking and acting strategically, and doing so more than the typical once-a-year at the offsite meeting. The sooner you transform strategy from a pilgrimage to a dialogue, the quicker you’ll get to profitable growth.
What tools and techniques have you found successful in developing and executing your strategic plan on a regular basis?
Ever feel like you’re in the middle of a strategy sandwich? Boy, that peanut butter is hard to get off.
In a number of organizations I’ve facilitated strategic planning sessions with this year, the issue of managers getting pushed by strategy on both sides has come up. Mid-level managers say they are asked by senior management to implement strategy and then are also held accountable for strategies acted out in the levels below them. Hence, the strategy sandwich phenomenon. It’s characterized by a feeling of “I don’t have any control over strategy!”
In many organizations, it’s true that mid-level managers are required to execute strategies they have had little input on. Is this frustrating? Hell yes! What we need to realize though, is that managers in this position are still responsible for their strategies–the ones they are intentionally or unintentionally practicing based on how they allocate their resources (time, talent and budget). While you may not have control over “strategy from the top,” you certainly have a say in your strategy, whether it’s formally acknowledged or not. Instead of constantly pushing back on the bread, find the areas where you can leverage your strategy with the others and spread it on thick.
How have you handled being in the middle of the strategy sandwich? Speak up or forever hold your mustard.