Mar 192018
 

Around the world, strategy workshops—also known as retreats or breakaways—are a favourite way to plan and review business strategies. Run them well, and they can play an extremely positive role in your firm’s success. Do it badly, and they’re a waste of time and money. So an expert strategy facilitator is essential.

Having worked with hundreds of management teams over more than 30 years, I’ve learned some valuable lessons in how to make strategy workshops work. Here are some guidelines:

1.    Be clear about why you need a workshop at all. Why do you need to to discuss your strategy? What specific challenge (opportunity or problem) must you deal with? What should the outcomes of your deliberations be? 

Some executives have thought these questions through and can provide a useful brief to whoever will facilitate the discussion. But a surprising number are astonishingly vague, and even C-suite colleagues differ in their expectations. Many CEOs routinely jot “Strategy breakaway” into their diaries at the start of each year, and then scratch for a way to justify spending time and money on taking their top team away from the office for a couple of days. Their agenda typically centres on a review their existing strategy, how they’re progressing towards it, and what they need to do next, and no brief is complete without emphasis on “blue-sky thinking” or “disruption.” And, hey, there has to be room for “team building” and “motivation.”

But this generic template is no guarantee of success. In fact, without careful thought and preparation, and expert design, it may lead to boring and aimless conversations which in no way improve a firm’s competitiveness. And even if a good time is had by all, many people are likely to leave feeling, “What the hell was that all about?”

So what, exactly, should it be about? That’s Decision #1.

2.   Get the right people into the room. Since strategy informs everything a company does and the way it does everything, and since it’s widely seen as a top-management function, I t’s not surprising that only top teams get invited to most workshops. But this can be a costly mistake.

When CEOs ask me, “Who should we include?” I almost always say, “Everyone.” And I’m not kidding. Firstly, because you never know who’ll offer the most valuable insights or the best ideas. Second, because I think it’s important to have everyone hear the same message at the same time, as communicating it later is always a hassle and poor communication is a major cause of strategy failures. And third, because being invited sends a powerful message that “You matter. You’re important. We need to hear your opinions and ideas.” (While not being invited sends an equally powerful message: “You don’t matter. You’re not important. Your opinions and ideas aren’t worth anything.”)

Obviously, you won’t always be able to invite everyone. There will be times when you do need to confine sensitive discussions to just a few people. Or there might be logistical issues. Or it might be impractical to take everyone away from their jobs. Or doing it might be unaffordable.

But remember: the  first—and biggest—challenge in implementing your strategy is to take your people with you. Without their support, the wheels will spin and performance will be disappointing. Fat strategy documents and detailed strategy maps will be of little help. Yet while it’s an article of faith for senior executives to say, “People are our most important asset,” it’s a fact that more often than not, when it comes to strategy, they’re an afterthought.

3.  Recognise that people have different views of strategy, and confusion can kill a strategic conversation. Ask almost any group of even the most seasoned managers to define strategy and how to “do it,” and you’ll get an array of views. They walk into the room not only with different mindsets and different views of why they’re there, but also with different opinions on what strategy is all about and how to craft it. One person thinks competitors are the problem, while another says it’s a lack of R&D; one believes they should rewrite the mission statement, while another argues for developing some scenarios; one likes the idea of Porter’s “five forces,” and another votes for a debate about “blue oceans.” They zig-zag between visions and missions, from strengths to weaknesses, from threats to opportunities. Not surprisingly, this leads to poorly-informed and haphazard conversations that end with ambiguous intentions rather than firm decisions,

4.   Keep it simple. Keep it brief. This should be the guiding principle in every company. Strategy is partly a matter of analysis, choices, and decisions—and largely a social process. It’s easy to complicate, so you can easily make it impractical and unworkable. And although you might be tempted to chuck everything into your strategy, don’t fall into that trap. Simple language makes the right actions much likelier than wads of complex verbiage. A few clear ideas beat a laundry list of to-do’s every time.

START WELL TO END WELL

If your organization is to be a winner, you have to tap into the imagination and spirit of your people and they must all pull in the same direction. So they need a shared understanding of your strategy, and they must know what’s expected of them personally, and by when.

Getting their support starts from the moment you begin crafting your strategy. And it’s most likely when:

  • Your company has one strategy toolkit with just a few tools in it.
  • Your people speak a common strategy language.
  • They own the strategy.

For these reasons, I believe in starting a workshop with two building blocks:

  1. A short “Making sense of strategy” presentation—to suggest the tools and provide the language. It clarifies what strategy is about, what can be expected of it, and how it’s best created and implemented.
  2. “Strategy snapshot”—which captures the essence of the firm’s situation, options, and strategic priorities. It gets conversation going, and since the workshop delegates provide much of the information on which it’s based, they’re involved from the very start.
THE “STRATEGY SNAPSHOT”

To prepare for a workshop, I need to be thoroughly briefed—at least by the CEO, and perhaps by other senior people, too—and see whatever strategy documents you might have. I may also see various parts of an organization, talk to industry experts, customers, and suppliers, and spend time on desk research. And I reply heavily on questionnaires which are sent to everyone who’ll attend the strategy workshop—and maybe to  wider audience who won’t be there. This not only brings many voices into the process, but also gives people a sense of involvement and meaning. It also gives me a deep understanding of why a firm is where it is, what issues really affect its performance, and where the strategic conversation needs to go.

Then, looking at your business through the lens of my knowledge and experience, I develop a “strategy snapshot” from what I’ve learned and what it all seems to imply. This usually takes much longer than the workshop itself, but it always pays.

There’s no beating about the bush. My conclusions, comments, questions, and advice during a workshop are often provocative, and maybe uncomfortable. They untangle complex issues, make people face reality, and assist them in reframing the way they see things. They also enable us to cut straight to the chase and deal with what matters, instead of wasting workshop time trying to surface issues and figure out how to begin.

Your most urgent need may be to get back to basics and fix them. Or perhaps to counter a competitive threat or cut costs. Or maybe you should review your supplier network, rethink your “difference,” intensify your innovation efforts, redesign your business model—or even radically reinvent your business.

The “strategy snapshot” points to where the focus should be. In just a few slides, I sum up your firm’s current situation and its challenges—and suggest possibilities for action. 

This guides our debate, gets you and your team talking about the right stuff as quickly as possible, and leads to a simple, sound, and practical “strategy story.”

(Of course, you could argue that all consultants do this—hence the old joke that a consultant is someone who steals your watch and then tells you the time! But if you want someone who can cut to the chase, challenge your assumptions, push back against easy answers, and ensure a rich and robust strategic conversation, we should talk.)

BALANCING FIXES, CAPACITY-BUILDING, AND BLUE-SKY THINKING

Every business has to attend to countless short-term issues, while at the same time preparing for the future. You have to manage the present and the future concurrently—not sequentially. So improvement and innovation are both imperatives. How you balance your time between each depends on your circumstances.

The priority for some companies should be to “get back to basics”—they need to urgently fix what’s broken or not working optimally, drive down costs, ramp up productivity, or hire more sales people. Others should make tomorrow’s customers, investments, technologies, and value the focus of their strategy discussions. Mostly, though, it’s a bit of both.

Striking the right balance makes all the difference between success and failure.

I’ll help you find it.

TAKE-AWAY SLIDES FOR FAST EXECUTION

Companies love strategy documents. By now, though, there’s plenty of evidence that they’re almost always a waste of time and paper. Writing them takes longer than a workshop, and things change so fast that they’re out of date before they’re done. They get in the way of reality and destroy agility. They mostly wind up on a shelf or in a bin.

I’ve written plenty of them, but I now I hardly ever do. Instead, I capture all key decisions on a handful of PowerPoint slides, and give you a set immediately. That way, you can start executing your strategy right away. And you can keep adjusting your story quickly and easily to suit new circumstances.

FLEXIBILITY, NOT A FORMULA

I look at every consulting assignment through fresh eyes. Unlike many consultants, I never try to “force-fit” concepts or activities that are just plain wrong for you.

The process described here is not cast in stone. I’m not stuck on a single method or tied to one concept, and I won’t drag you through a prescribed set of steps. Strategy is too dynamic for that. Your needs are different to those of other firms; what you need to focus on today is not the same as yesterday. So I make sure that we do only what’s most appropriate to get you the best possible strategy. From start to finish, there’s a sensible mix of structure and flexibility.

  •  19/03/2018
Jan 312013
 

One question I’m constantly asked, by both consulting clients and business school classes, is, “When should you review and possibly change your strategy?”

A second question—one that’s almost never asked—is just as important: When should you rethink the way you make strategy?

The answer to both questions, as with most others in management, is “It depends.”

There is never a “right” time to take a fresh look at your strategy. After all, strategy is a dynamic activity. You may create it at a specific moment, but you execute it over weeks, months or years—and meanwhile, things change constantly both inside and outside your organization.

Let’s say you develop a five-year plan. Let’s say, too, that you’ve laid out in great detail what you expect to happen in your world from year to year, what you must do, and what results you will get. You bind that story into a thick document, and start moving.

In no time at all, though, the assumptions you made about the future turn out to be wrong. You try to execute your plan as well as possible, but the world you designed it for is not the world you find yourself in. There are many surprises. Things don’t go as smoothly as you’d like. Problems distract you. New challenges engulf you.

Politicians fighting for voters seem intent on making life tough for business. The economy  grows and slows. Regulators keep you on your toes with a string of new laws and adjustments to old ones. Machines fail. People present you with a constant flow of problems. Suppliers let you down. Competitors surprise you. Customers change their spending habits. And so on.

The result is, you spend more time fighting fires than thinking about the future. You miss some of your targets. And you realize that that you’re doing a lot of things that no longer make sense.

There’s no point in persisting with a strategy that’s out of kilter with the world. So you need to rethink what you’re doing. But it’s not enough to do it at long intervals, or as a one-off response to factors that have popped up on your radar screen.

NEW REALITIES DEMAND A NEW STRATEGIC CONVERSATION

If 2011 was a year of astonishing tumult and upheaval, 2012 is bringing even more of it. “The new normal” is defined by austerity, volatility, and surprise, and much of the world will struggle for years through “The Great Contraction.” At the same time, we face rapid and radical shifts in politics, society, the environment, regulation, and technology—and in customer and competitor behavior.

Today, virtually every market—for any product or service—is an emerging market demanding fresh insights and ideas.

To survive and thrive in this new era, companies need to take a new look at the purpose and role of business, what “value creation” means—and which stakeholders really matter. They need to out-learn and out-run the competition. They need to understand the “rules of their game” and excel at them, while simultaneously making innovation a way of life. And they need to balance long-term capability building with short term action.

Strategic thinking is a living process. Strategy is a here-and-now view of where and how you’ll compete, which will almost inevitably have to change faster than you might imagine. So you need to review it constantly, to be sure you’re dealing in the best possible way with emerging conditions.

But it’s not enough just to re-look at the assumptions you made and the decisions and choices that followed. The content of your strategy is obviously important. But equally important—and largely overlooked—is the way you got to it. In other words, the way you think about strategy.

Right now, job #1 for most executives is not only to reset their strategies, but also to rethink what strategy should do for them and how they use it. That’s job #1 for me too!

 This is no time for business as usual. Neither can you risk strategy as usual.

 
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  •  31/01/2013
Jul 252012
 

No doubt about it: an outside expert can help you bring your strategic conversation to life, refocus your efforts, introduce useful concepts and fresh ways of thinking to your firm … and shift your strategy from good to great.

So surely if you’re going to take time out for this vital discussion with your top team—and spend whatever it takes—it’s worth getting the pivotal element right. In other words, your facilitator.

All too often, though, organizations leave this critical decision to last. They block time in their executives’ diaries and book flights, venues, meals, and even magicians and comedians … and only then wake up and think about a facilitator.

Result: while they want someone with an “outsider’s perspective” and experience—someone who can challenge, provoke, inform, and advise them—they all too often wind up with a mere “meeting manager.”

But that’s not all. They also give their facilitator too little time to prepare well—to learn about the company and its needs, think about the specific challenge and how it should be dealt with, and prepare any materials that may be necessary.

Choosing the right person to help you craft your strategy is a lot more important than choosing a venue, agreeing on tea-times, or deciding whether to include a round of golf. It’s a make-or-break decision that should be made early and with great care. The job is not for fad-merchants or amateurs. Don’t expect a motivational speaker to morph into a strategy guru, or a sales trainer to make the high-level inputs you need!

If you want real impact, be sure to get someone with 1) the ability to cut to the core of complex issues and identify the few drivers of your success, 2) in-depth understanding of the latest thinking on strategy design and implementation, leadership, and change management, 3) loads of experience with major organizations in virtually every sector, and—oh, yes—4) professional facilitation skill too!

IN OTHER WORDS, HIRE A HEAVYWEIGHT STRATEGIST WHO WILL PROVIDE REAL MEAT TO GET THE MOST OUT OF YOUR TEAM … NOT A LIGHTWEIGHT WHO MAY KEEP TIME AND TAKE NOTES BUT IS OUT OF HIS OR HER DEPTH WHEN IT COMES TO OFFERING INPUT OF ANY SUBSTANCE.

It may cost you more, but having a pro help you design and run your strategy workshop takes you a big step closer to getting the results you want.

What are your objectives for the meeting—i.e., what do you want to walk away with? What preparation is necessary? What should the process look like (presentations, discussions, frameworks, concepts, etc)? What should be on the agenda, and how should it flow? And most importantly, what comes next, when everyone is back at work?

Get this stuff wrong, and you’ll be sure to head down the wrong path. Get it right, and your time, effort, and money will be well spent. But make no mistake: this is where you need real competence.

And by the way, you may think you can facilitate your own meeting, but that’s seldom the best path. When you’re part of a team, it’s hard to stand outside of it; when you’ve been party to decisions and you’re involved in the politics of corporate life, you can’t easily be as objective as you should—and anyway, no one will believe you are.

So hire someone you can trust, brief them thoroughly—and early—and watch the meeting work!

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  •  25/07/2012
Jul 252012
 

The proof is everywhere: companies are better at talking than doing. They know strategy is important, and put a lot of effort into it, but then just can’t get the right things done. For all their action lists, KPIs, KRAs, compacts, dashboards and scorecards, their wheels keep spinning.

Tom Peters says 90% of strategies don’t get implemented and Kaplan and Norton, authors of the balanced scorecard, say the same. A study from Ernst & Young, cited in the December 2004 issue of Harvard Management Update, says it’s 66%. Research by Marakon Associates says firms lose about 37% of the financial potential of their strategies.

Precisely which number is right doesn’t matter. What does matter is that across the world and across companies there’s a yawning gap between good intentions and hard action. Almost every management team I’ve worked with in more than 25 years as a consultant has told me the same thing: “We’re good at creating strategy, but not at execution.”

Closing the gap must be a priority for any firm wanting to get ahead and stay there. The best ideas and plans of little value if you can’t turn them into reality. The costs of slippage are colossal. Besides, in a world of sameness, where it’s increasingly difficult to sustain a strategic position and avoid commoditization, operational effectiveness—also known as execution—might be your most important advantage.

Because execution is so hard, it’s tempting to look for a system, process, model, or other formula that might help. There are plenty of them around. Some are costly and most are complex. You’ll find one or more of them in most firms. But the fact that so many smart executives point to execution as a problem tells you something is wrong. The tools being used are clearly not working as they’re supposed to.

Executing strategy is not a once-off job. You’ll never excel in it by just instructing a few people to “do it.” It’s an all day, everyday activity that involves everyone, one way or another. It demands a simple, sound and practical approach, the involvement of key people, and enormous commitment. Above all it demands tough, determined, “in your face” leadership.

The good news is that with common sense and proven principles rather than fads and flashy answers, you can escape the execution trap. You can improve your organization’s ability to turn plans into action so you consistently get more done, faster, and possibly with fewer resources, than you do today.

GET A HEAD START

The time to think about how to execute your strategy is when you first think about making it. Not after the event when you have something on paper and need to make it happen.

The starting point is to recognize that your overriding challenge as a leader is to to take your people with you. Your brilliant vision is worth nothing if they don’t buy it and give it their all. Here’s where execution gets a kick-start—or failure gets baked in.

To help you win support, think about these two questions:

  1. WHAT MUST YOUR PEOPLE KNOW, SO THEY’LL BE ABLE TO DO WHAT THEY NEED TO DO?
  2. HOW SHOULD THEY FEEL, SO THEY WILL DO WHAT THEY NEED TO DO?

While the focus of these questions is different, they are inextricably linked. It’s almost impossible to effectively deal with one without at the same time dealing with the other.

To get your people on side, you have to ensure they understand what you’re trying to do, why it matters, what must be done altogether, who will be responsible for what—and what they personally need to do. So you need to provide a point of view (which may or may not yet be completely clear) about how you see the future. You need to ensure that they have access to whatever information will help them. And you need to solicit their opinions and ideas, and embrace those that improve your strategy.

At the same time, you have to inspire and energize your people to actually do the right things rapidly and well. And here’s good news. The very fact that you give them direction and information, and involve them in shaping your strategy, goes a long way towards winning their hearts and minds. The reason? People seek meaning in their work. They want a sense that they matter, they’re respected, and their opinions count.

GET THE RIGHT PEOPLE IN THE ROOM—AND THAT MAY MEAN EVERYONE

When I’m asked, “Who should be part of a strategy conversation?” my automatic answer is, “Everyone.” And I’m serious. (And yes, I do understand that it’s not always practical, may not be affordable, and you might need to talk about some particularly sensitive matters.)

It’s common practice for small teams of top people develop strategy, then pass it down for others to action. While there may be good reasons to confine initial choices and decisions to a just a few people, there are equally powerful arguments against doing so.

Here are some of them:

  1. When you invite anyone to a meeting, and particularly to one of high importance, you send them and everyone else a signal: “You matter; your contribution is valuable; we respect you and need to hear what you have to say; we trust you.” Not inviting them sends exactly the opposite signal—not an encouraging one!
  2. The top people in an organization may have a broad perspective of the world and the challenges they face, but they’re unlikely to know in detail what’s happening down in the trenches or out in the marketplace. First-hand insights from where the action is may be crucial to their decision-making.
  3. You never know where the best ideas will come from in an organization. Often, it’s from the unlikeliest people. But that only happens if they’re given the chance.
  4. Communicating a strategy is always difficult. The simpler a presentation, the more gets left out of it. The nuances of the conversation in which it was developed are lost. As a result, you may do a reasonable job explaining the “how”, but not the “why.” And it’s the why that helps people understand the significance of their efforts.
  5. Participation increases the likelihood of buy-in. Exclusion is a sure-fire way to make execution difficult.

Only by involving the right people early, and in a positive and constructive way, can you hope to either develop the best possible strategy or execute it effectively. For this is when your strategic conversation begins. The first discussions set the tone for all others. By focusing your attention here, you can sharpen your competitive edge and give your firm new advantages for the future.

We all know that strategy is an intellectual process, involving logic, analysis, decisions, and trade-offs. But that’s only part of the story. It is to a far greater degree a social process, involving people with all their strengths and weaknesses. Ignoring this reality, firms set themselves up for failure.

Without the insight and imagination of a critical mass of your people, you’ll never get the best strategy. Without their spirit and commitment, you’ll never execute your strategy. And the time to start work on getting their buy-in on Day 1—right up front.

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  •  25/07/2012
Jun 232012
 

No leader in their right mind would deliberately take their company on a suicide mission. No one would initiate projects, programmes or activities that would foul up their organization’s culture, operations or results. Or agree to major commitments that would be a deadweight on performance. Or assign valuable people to tasks they never should have been doing. Or waste their own time and energy confusing and demotivating their people. Or wear themselves out trying to drive an agenda that was full of flaws.

Or would they?

More often than they know it, executives are their own worst enemies. Their good intentions cause endless trouble for themselves and their firms. They create the very problems that they worry about. They pour resources down the drain and wonder why they never get the results they seek. And perhaps worst of all, they never discover just how well they might have done.

Here’s what I call The Performance Paradox: In trying to improve results, managers deliberately, systematically and at considerable cost apply measures that come back to bite them in the butt by hurting performance. 

If you think this is a hysterical rant with no foundation, think again. And look at how easily it happens—and why it’s so common.

Management’s cycle of self-destruction

Start with the fact that every leader wants to better yesterday’s results. Sales should go up. Costs and waste should fall. Productivity and quality should surpass previous levels. Innovation and improvement should take customer satisfaction to new heights and make it possible to capture new markets. Profits should rise.

Wanting all this, the first question is, “Why haven’t we got it?” So introspection and diagnosis begins. And inevitably—between comments about fickle customers, competitors playing foul, IT problems, a lack of resources and so on—answers like these pop up:

  • “Our strategy’s not working—we need a new vision, mission and values”
  • “Our culture is wrong, so we need to change it”
  • “There’s no teamwork—our people operate in silos”
  • “They’re disengaged”
  • “We have a skills shortage, so everything is up to the top team”

The second question is, “What should we do?” And the fixes seem obvious:

  • Get a new vision, mission and values (preferably through a companywide conversation)
  • Change the culture
  • Teach people change management and involve them in change management projects
  • Start some teambuilding
  • Become “customer-centric” by making speeches, running workshops for all staff and putting up some posters
  • Motivate the people—get a motivational speaker for the company conference, improve the canteen food, spruce up the place, set up coffee bars in open spaces, put happy faces on all screensavers, introduce “casual Fridays”
  • Have HR find a new performance management process
  • Make empowerment a way of life—spread the word about “servant leadership”, get an expert on “ubuntu” or offer some courses on personal branding and self-actualization

But are these the right fixes? Chances are, definitely not. The management field is abuzz with nonsense. Too many vendors peddle one-size-fits-all panaceas. Flaky fads and unproven “solutions” are a dime a dozen. There are more tools than can ever be understood or used—many of them utterly worthless. And for every one of them there’s sure to be a champion, all too eager to take charge of a budget, make work and build an empire.

Besides, what appears at first sight to be an obvious problem might not be where an intervention is needed.

Take culture, for example. What exactly might be meant by the sweeping statement, “We need to change the culture”? Is culture a proxy for lousy leadership, skills gaps, a toxic climate, a dysfunctional structure, uninspiring incentives, weak systems, inadequate performance reviews, poor communication or some other factor? And if one or more of these is the real problem, isn’t that where attention should be aimed?

Or take another favorite—team building—trotted out as the answer to almost all corporate ills. Is teamwork really a problem, and if so, why? Could it be that no one knows where “the hill” is, so they’re all picking their own? Do they understand the company’s priorities? Are roles and responsibilities clear, and do people know what to expect from others? Are the right people in the right jobs? Are there enough meetings, are they about the right things, do they include the right people and are they well managed?

Follow a poor diagnosis with inappropriate treatment—or treatment you don’t know how to apply—and it’s all downhill from there. In no time, you’re in a doom loop. The “solutions” that looked so smart either cause whatever problems might exist to become even more entrenched, or quickly lead to others. Suddenly, there’s a flurry of new activities all over the place and people are bogged down under their weight. Complexity increases, confusion mounts and frustration grows.

But hey—you’re busy, busy, busy! You’re being proactive! You’re taking action!

All of which costs money and distracts people from what they should be focused on. The same old problems keep coming up in meeting after meeting. And again and again, the same solutions are offered: work harder at the initiatives that aren’t working, or get another one … or a bunch more. Or make a video and some T-shirts to rally the troops and drive the message home. Or send some of the team to a course. Or … whatever.

So how do you avoid this cycle of self-destruction?

  1. Face reality. Get your diagnosis right. Separate facts from mere opinions. Be alert to how politics, agendas and emotions color things, and don’t let them get in the way or distort your views.
  2. Be especially wary of too quickly settling on the “vision, mission and values” issue, trying to change the culture, or teambuilding or “empowerment” projects.
  3. Don’t buy any initiative with a funny name. Avoid tools you don’t understand. Beware of hucksters selling quick-fixes, or wielding a hammer and treating everything as a nail.
  4. Take an inventory of projects already under way. What is essential (and why)? What’s showing progress? What’s not working, or simply lurking on someone’s desk? Stuff piles up. The old suffocates the new. You can’t do everything. So agree what you’ll stop doing to make way for what’s next. And chuck out whatever you can (which probably means more than you thought!) as fast as you can.
  5. Don’t launch anything new until you’re satisfied that what was on the agenda has been dealt with or no longer matters. When you do start something, be reasonably sure you can see it through to the end. Then, stick to what you set out to do. Don’t chop and change. Your people are watching. They’re cynical and skeptical.
  6. Agree on a very short to-do list with tight timelines and clarity about who will do what. Better to do a few things well than a lot badly. Better to act fast and learn quickly than to keep the wheels spinning while you plan for perfection.
  7. Clarify how you’ll communicate what’s going to happen next—and communicate like crazy.
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  •  23/06/2012
Apr 162012
 

Managing a business of any size is a hell of a job. The world is a complex and dangerous place. Change is constant. There are surprises around every corner. And there’s unending pressure to perform through good times and bad.

Companies are complex, too. And the bigger they get, the more complex they become. Coordinating their efforts was always a challenge. But today, many firms sprawl across the world, so there are facilities, people, and many other factors to worry about. Just-in-time production, a growing amount of outsourced work, and intricate networks of suppliers all add logistical challenges. Relations with governments and regulators are of increasing concern. Investors, analysts, unions, environmentalists, lobbyists, and a host of other stakeholders all demand attention. And of course, there’s always the need to drive innovation, improvement, and cost cutting; to adopt new technologies and ways of delivering world class quality, productivity, and customer service; and to survive the daily deluge of seemingly trivial matters which may quickly explode.

Executives face a stream of dilemmas with no easy answers. Their to-do lists keep getting longer. They’re torn this way and that by people with competing agendas, and bogged down by meetings, video conferences, phone calls, e-mails, and so on. Many of them also have grueling travel schedules. Time is their scarcest resource.

It goes without saying that any war on complexity must be fought with a determined drive for simplicity. That in itself must be an ongoing effort with targets, projects, champions, regular reviews, and whatever else it might take. But on its own, it’s not enough. For there’s an over-arching problem of managers themselves creating conditions in which complexity flourishes. They introduce ideas and activities that often don’t line up, won’t produce the results they expect, and lead to unnecessary work, waste, and costs—all as a result of how they manage.

With few exceptions, they’d do well to ask themselves:

Why they so readily make life even more difficult, with management ideas, practices, and tools that in theory should help them, but in reality make little sense?

Why they keep searching for new answers to their management questions, when the answers they need are probably already well known?

Why they develop strategies that are either too vague to be useful, or too complex to explain?

Why they’re such suckers for buzzwords and bullshit when they have so much on their plates, and so many people expecting guidance from them? 

These are questions that have bothered me for the past 30-odd years. During this time, I’ve read countless management books, scholarly journals, and popular articles, and talked to many of the most prominent thinkers in the field, trying to learn three things:

  1. How should firms compete?
  2. What causes some succeed over the long term, and others to fail?
  3. Why do some executives produce better results than others?

You’d think by now the answers would be clear and widely accepted. But apparently not. For the quest for new ones is accelerating, not slowing. Or, at least, the amount of stuff published on these matters is growing by the second. And someone is grabbing all those books off airport bookstands!

Whatever you want to know, a Google search will instantly yield tens of thousands, if not millions, of links to possible answers. Authors of business books and articles slice and dice management issues into ever narrower opinion. The internet gives voice to anyone and everyone who has anything to say about strategy, structure, organizational behavior, people management, change management, analytics, leadership, IT, systems thinking, six sigma, values, culture, presentation skills, or whatever.

With all this “expertise” to hand, it’s little wonder that firms are jammed up by initiatives, or that managers are totally shell-shocked from being bombarded with information and advice about their world and their craft. The exploding volume of management flim-flam has made managing increasingly difficult.

Executives get in their own way because they’re always looking for another answer to their management questions—a quick fix or “silver bullet”—when the answers they need are right under their noses. And to compound their problems, they radically over-complicate things, and cause much of the mess and muddle that bogs things down. They also continually introduce new initiatives—or allow others to do so—while seeing few to a sensible end. And even as the pile deepens, they chop and change their priorities so fast that their people haven’t a clue what’s going on or what they should focus on.

Put differently, only by getting back to basics, simplifying things, lightening your load, and sticking to one view of how to manage will you ever make the progress you want.

I’m willing to bet that, right now:

  • you’re using management-speak that you don’t fully understand
  • your strategy is a mystery to many or maybe most of your people (and possibly to you, too!)
  • you struggle to turn your strategy into action
  • your priorities are not really what you should be focusing on
  • your people are doing things for reasons that aren’t clear to them, and don’t make sense to them
  • they’re expected to use tools that they don’t grasp
  • there are too many projects in your firm, many of which should never have been started, and many others past their sell-by date
  • quite soon, you’ll latch onto some new management idea, and launch a flurry of new initiatives to replace the ones you haven’t properly finished
  • there is a better, simpler way to get the results you want.

Sound crazy? A lot of nonsense? Well, think about this:

  1. When I ask company employees or participants in my business school classes why their firms’ strategies don’t work, the number one reason is, “We don’t know what the strategy is.” Many say, “We don’t have a strategy” (they probably do, but no one told them or they just weren’t paying attention).
  2. Companies love strategy documents. And usually, the thicker the better. I read these things for a living, and when I get to the end of many of them I have no idea who is supposed to do what. They’re heavy on detail that should have been left on a functional manager’s desk. A clutter of thoughts, lack of logic, poor structure, big words, and long sentences make them murky. So they say too much, but explain too little.
  3. Management tools are mostly not all they’re cracked up to be. They’re as fashionable as hemlines. As Bain Consulting’s periodic tools survey shows, usage and satisfaction scores go up and down. Besides, very few tools are truly new, based on sound research, or proven across industries, companies, or even functions; and what works at one time, in one set of conditions, may not work when things change. The catchy language that management “thinkers” use to draw attention to their recipes should be cause for suspicion.
  4. When a new tool is adopted, others that are already in place tend to stay there. So the pile grows. Each new idea creates a blast of activity, and sucks time, attention, and money from others. It becomes a nightmare trying to figure where to focus, how to integrate all this work, and what comes first, second, or third. And it becomes impossible to know which intervention caused what result.
  5. Explaining strategy is a never-ending job. I once heard a senior manager ask former GE chairman Jack Welch, “How often do you have to tell people what your strategy is?” Said Welch: “You have to explain it, and explain it, and explain it, and explain it, and explain it, until you drive yourself crazy. Because nobody is paying attention!”

So where to from here?

For starters, clarify your own point of view about what you’re trying to do. Think of strategy as the frame through which people see your company’s future. What exactly do they need to know? Answer: not much. In fact, the four things here tell the whole story.

Framing your strategy – keep it simple, or you won’t make it work!

Get this story right, and you have a good chance of success. Get it wrong, and you make a really bad start. So keep it simple. Keep it short. Cut to the chase. Maybe, at last, your team will get the message.

And what comes next?

First, a few tools, carefully chosen, well understood, and relentlessly applied so you and your people become expert in their use. (I’ll talk more about these in a future post.) Toss out anything you don’t really, really, really understand; anything you can’t use properly; anything that doesn’t produce the results you expect. And any duplicates.

Second, make a list of all the initiatives currently in your organization. (Some will be in use, others just lurking somewhere, and probably at some cost.) Ask: what do we really need to do? Which of these initiatives helps us? What should we kill right away? Then, zap as many as you can, fast, and slam the door on new ones.

Third, keep reminding yourself—and drum it into your colleagues—that whatever approaches, methods, models,tools,  or processes you go for, all work hinges on conversation. On what you talk about, how you do that, and who you involve. So make sure you talk about the right things, in the right way, to the right people.

Above all, understand that everything follows from your point of view. And the surest way to cut complexity is by avoiding it in the first place with your ideas about managing.

Life is hard. Managing is one of the toughest jobs around. There’s no point in making it harder for yourself.

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  •  16/04/2012