Mar 112013
 

Strategy is the first and most important responsibility of business leaders. But although it’s a big deal in most companies of any size, it’s a major weakness in many of them and they get less from it than they think.

Research by McKinsey & Co. has shown executives to be largely dissatisfied with what strategy does for them. Many prominent academics who’ve spent lifetimes in the study of strategy-making are critical of how it happens and uncertain about its impact. Numerous studies report on the gap between companies’ intended strategies and their actual results. Many managers ask, “Does strategy matter?”

According to regular surveys of management tools by Bain & Company, another global management consultancy, strategic planning did not rank among the top 10 tools as recently as 1993. In 2000 and 2006, it was No. 1 in both usage and satisfaction—perhaps not surprisingly, as this was a period marked by the bursting of the tech bubble, extraordinary uncertainty and change, and hyper-competition.

But then in 2008 and 2010, strategic planning was displaced by, of all things, benchmarking. So at the height of the world’s worst financial crisis in 50 years, when sales, profits, and growth were all being hammered and competition in every sector was exploding, firms apparently thought it more important to watch each other than think about their future.

For all the attention strategy gets, there remains a lot of disagreement about what it is and how to make it. Neither have decades of academic research and theorizing, coupled with the real-world experience of any number of executives and consultants, added much to what we know about strategy or made managers more confident.

Will we see important advances anytime soon? Not likely. For some time—decades, in fact—the quest for new knowledge about strategy has yielded diminishing returns. So this critical subject, with innovation at its very core and so critical in driving innovation, will itself see little new thinking.

I expect a lot of people with an interest in strategy to take issue with this view. They’ll point to many past instances of similar predictions being overturned by advances in knowledge, by new technologies, and so on. But perhaps they should reflect on this challenge:

Name one major idea about strategy that we did not know about 10, 20, or even 50 years ago. Just one.

I’d be interested to hear the answer.

CONFUSION IN THE C-SUITE

There are numerous schools of thought about strategy, and a plethora of concepts, models, frameworks, checklists and other tools, all with their own champions and fans. But where is the “best practice”—a much-used management term—in this “body of knowledge”?

Answer: there isn’t one.

Most executives have attended management courses, read many books and articles on the subject and one way or another been involved with strategy for many years. Yet they lack a point of view about how to deal with strategy.

They’re somewhat familiar with the lingo, and may even be enthusiastic cheerleaders for this or that catchphrase. But question them, and it’s evident that they’re unsure about what various concepts mean and how to use them.

The result is that even close-knit management teams are divided about the best way “to do it.” They lack conviction about one point of view or another, and never commit to any process. So they keep flailing about and searching for a silver bullet that’ll deliver the results they want, and they chop and change on a whim.

It’s impossible to know all the consequences. But you can be sure that firms playing these games never do as well as they might. There’s always a gap between their potential and their performance.

HOW UNCERTAINTY BECOMES THE ENEMY OF STRATEGY

Strategy is, in essence, about the management of dilemmas. There’s an incessant barrage of these, and new ones arise continually. But strategists need to pay particular attention to four of them—all of which they ironically create for themselves.

First, is the question: What is the purpose of a company? Why does it exist? What should it achieve? Whose interests should it serve—and whose come first?

The answer used to be, to make a profit for investors. For only when that happens is anything else possible. But in recent years things have become more complicated. Firms are now expected to think beyond the bottom line to the triple bottom line—to concern themselves not just with profit, but also with people and the planet. To satisfy an array of stakeholders affected by their presence. “Sustainability” is the in word.

This is by no means a new idea but it’s one that’s gaining popularity. And it goes beyond mere altruism.

Harvard Business School strategy guru Michael Porter, who for almost his entire career has said that the measure of strategy is superior financial returns, has recently been arguing that companies would improve their competitiveness by creating value not just for shareholders, but for all stakeholders (the theme of my 2002 book, Competing Through Value Management.) That while setting out to alleviate poverty, for example, they might find opportunities to sell more products or services and produce superior profits. Other commentators are jumping on the same bandwagon.

But the balancing act is not easy—as companies in virtually every sector are showing. And it will get harder as stakeholders become more vociferous and more empowered by social media, and as politicians and regulators try to appease them.

Most CEOs are hesitant about publicly confessing to be focused first and foremost on profit. But watch them when times are tough and sales and margins take a hit. Without so much as a blink, they shove their virtuous intentions aside, become obsessed by the numbers and do whatever it takes to get things back on track. Their own wealth and survival hinge on satisfying their investors, so that’s what they focus on—if necessary at the expense of jobs, training and development, innovation, and social initiatives.

When the purpose of a business is undecided, every other decision is compromised. Many bad decisions will follow.

Second, is the presence of conflicting views about the causes of corporate success and failure. Do companies become great through focus or diversification? Should they think local or act global? Should they make or buy what they sell? Are there ideal business models for particular industries? Is the “first-mover” advantage a reality or should you be a fast follower? What’s the role of luck? Does leadership matter? And so on.

The answer to all these questions is, “It depends.” But that’s not an answer that makes executives sleep easier. So they keep searching, keep changing their minds, and keep blocking their own progress.

The causes of business success are many and varied, and they change from time to time. But if strategy is a point of view about where and how to compete, business leaders need to think through the “why” that underpins these decisions.

This leads to the third issue: which strategy concepts or tools to use. Should you begin with a review of your vision and mission, do a SWOT analysis, or a “five forces” exercise, or try to define your core competence? Can you disrupt your industry? What about exploring “blue oceans?” How important is agility, and how might you achieve it? Will a balanced scorecard help you implement your strategy?

As with the second issue, this leads to endless questioning, second-guessing, and dysfunctionality. A stream of self-inflicted upheavals keeps people off balance. And while the wheel is being reinvented the world moves on.

Fourth, is the question: which consultant to use. In more than 25 years as a consultant, I’ve never been the first one to facilitate a strategy session for any company. Others have always been there before me. Each arrived with their own process and language, their own pet ideas, and their own style. So each intervention was, in effect, a new beginning. Then I arrive, do my thing and move on too. Next year … another stab by someone else.

This may be entertaining, and management teams may enjoy the variety, but it definitely isn’t smart. In fact, it’s ridiculous.

For one thing, all consultants are not equal. Some do have the experience, knowledge and skill to make a real difference. Many others are hot on buzzwords, but have little practical understanding of how business works. And then there are those who are stuck on a particular theory or approach—and, as the adage says, “When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

The executives who hire them admit that, “Ketso went down well.” “Dave was so-so” Or, “Meg was disappointing.” But ask them exactly what they mean, and their answers are vague. Yet that doesn’t deter them from starting from scratch yet again—and again—with another stranger and another unfamiliar approach.

Of course, there’s much more. But these dilemmas are real performance-killers. Fortunately, they don’t have to be.

STRATEGY MASTERY REQUIRES BOTH CONTINUITY AND CHANGE

Running a business well requires both continuity and change. Strategy also needs this balance. It takes practice to master a particular way of designing and driving strategy, entrench the processes that flow from it and build the capabilities to support it. There’s no short cut.

Companies should obviously keep abreast of new management thinking, and adopt tools and techniques that will improve performance. A new consultant may well bring a breath of fresh air to a strategy conversation. But these are serious matters, and to be careless—or reckless—about them is an astonishing breach of sound practice and good governance.

It’s easier to sow confusion in an organization than to curb it. To continually replace one set of management ideas with another is to court trouble.  Companies might strike it lucky from time to time with a slant on strategy that really does make a difference, but chances are much greater that they’ll do long-lasting hurt to themselves. By shifting goalposts, processes, tools, and resources, they create uncertainty, disrupt programmes and activities, and stir up even more cynicism and distrust than already exists.

But that’s not the only downside. Because they never stick with one approach to strategy—or one strategy—for long enough, they never become as good as they should be at what they do. They never develop a sound “way we do things around here.” Instead of becoming better strategists and relentlessly honing their strategy, they scramble after new approaches, struggle to apply them, and dump them prematurely.

This is a shaky foundation on which to build any new initiative or grow a business over time. And given that firms are playing for increasingly high stakes, in increasingly tough circumstances, it should surely be avoided.

Running any company is hard work. So it makes no sense to undermine strategy  with a string of theories and dodgy experiments, and a constant quest for glitzier answers.

Managers will always face more dilemmas than they can easily cope with. But to add to them is a sure way to become uncompetitive and unprofitable. Until they acknowledge these five dilemmas and tackle them head on, they will never get as much from strategy as they should do. It will continue to be a matter they know they should know about, but never quite grasp; one that gives rise to buzzwords and bullshit, but whose impact on results is questionable.

LESSONS 

I’ve spent a lot of time studying these issues and thinking about them. As a consultant to many large organisations, I’ve had a front-row seat at their strategy deliberations for more than 25 years.  And I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t.

Here are some lessons:

  1. The business of business is profit. But profit is a product of value created for many stakeholders.
  2. There is no magical strategy process or theory. Everything we need to know has been known for decades. Stop searching!
  3. Business success is about making a difference for the “right” customers.
  4. Value up, costs down has to be the mantra in every company. It requires the input of every employee.
  5. Every company is a prisoner of its context, and every industry has its own “rules of the game.” So while innovation is critical, and “thinking out of the box” is an attractive notion, most firms could become more competitive by just fixing their basics.
  6. Strategy is partly a matter of analysis, logic and hard choices, and largely a social process. Job #1 is to take your people with you.
  7. Communication is the ultimate driver of business performance.
  8. Simpler is better.
  9. The time to start executing a strategy is when it’s created.
  10. By breaking all work down into 30-day chunks, and assigning them to specific people, you put pressure into the system, learn fast what’s working and what’s not and see who’s performing and who’s not.

Study and repeat. Again. And again. The more you practice, the luckier you’ll get!

(A version of this article first appeared in Directorship, the journal of the South African Institute of Directors, in January 2013)

  •  11/03/2013
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.

Print This Page Print This Page
  •  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.
Print This Page Print This Page
  •  23/06/2012
Jun 062012
 

The Bible tells us, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” According to Steven Covey, one of the “seven habits of highly effective people” is to “begin with the end in mind.” Norman Vincent Peale, Tony Robbins, and countless other self-help gurus have pitched the message that if you focus enough on what you want, you’ll get it.

Obviously, this may or may not be true. But it’s a seductive idea, and since the mid-1980s, a chorus of academics, consultants, authors, motivational speakers, and business leaders have echoed the same theme. They assure us that the future will belong to companies that have a bold dream, a huge ambition, a stretch target, a strategic intent, a powerful purpose, a “BHAG” (“Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal”)—or, to use the commonest term, a vision.

At the same time, we’ve been told that visionary leadership is critical for success. So for a firm to be a winner, it needs a leader who has the foresight to sense where his industry is going and can figure out how to seize the juiciest bit of it. Who challenges convention and refuses to accept the status quo, abhors what others take for granted, sees possibilities where they see only problems, and has the courage to lay big bets and venture into unchartered territory.

This line of thought has become an article of faith in business. When a company does well, you can be sure the leader’s vision will be cited as a key reason. If things sour, the leader will be accused of lacking vision. No fix is worth considering if it doesn’t include work on a vision. Developing, reviewing, or tinkering with a corporate vision is normally the first step in a strategy process.

Often, when a CEO briefs me, he’ll say, “We need a new vision. We have to re-focus and re-energize the company.” What he’s looking for is a point of view about how to move forward: possibilities for product or service innovation, whether to get out of a mature business or into a new one, or whether to expand overseas, adopt a new technology, outsource work, restructure or re-brand his organization, or explore alliances. And he wants a set of words that will point his team in a new direction and fire up their spirit. (Clearly, he’s not sure of that vision himself.)

When I ask people lower down in a firm why it’s not performing, I know what to expect. “There’s no vision at the top,” they usually say. We don’t know where we’re going.” They couldn’t care less about a glitzy new vision statement. They want to know they’re being led by someone who knows what lies ahead and what to do about it, and will take them on an exciting and successful ride.

Visionary leadership has become a Very Big Subject—but for all the chatter, it remains a slippery one.

Vision, we’re told, is a quality that sets leaders apart from mere managers. Individuals who “have vision”—however you determine that—are highly valued. But vision is widely held to be a trait people are born with, not one you can teach. So if you want it, you have to find someone who’s already got it.

But wait. Before you take off on a quest for one (or more) of these rare birds, or dive into yet another “visioning” exercise, think about what you really need to do to improve your company’s prospects, and where you should focus your attention. You might be starting in the wrong place.

BACK TO BASICS

In theory, a company’s vision should spur it to explore new opportunities, outperform its competitors, and achieve far more than it has in the past. It should give employees a sense of meaning in their work, and inspire them to be fully engaged and passionate about it so they’ll perform to their full potential. All fine, stirring stuff!

In practice, most vision statements do nothing of the kind. In fact, they’re about as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike. Far from focusing and motivating people, they confuse them and make them even more cynical and distrustful than they were. And while they should lead to action, what they really lead to is snickers among employees who see them as just more management bullshit.

In practice, too, many so-called “visionary leaders” turn out to be value destroyers. They’re so busy peering into their crystal balls and making silly predictions about where their firms will be in five, 10, or 20 years that they fail to deal with issues that scream for immediate attention. They bog their teams down with new projects—that often don’t hang together. They mis-read how things will unfold, embark on lunatic ventures, and get high on their “blue sky” “out of the box” cleverness.

It is true that some firms struggle to do well, or get into trouble, because they lack vision. Or they run into difficulties because their vision is out of kilter with emerging realities. Or they set their sights too low and settle for ho-hum achievements. But I’m willing to bet that much more often the cause of their woes is nothing to do with vision, or a lack of it. It’s more immediate, more down to earth, and closer to home.

It’s that they just don’t do what they’re in business to do. They don’t understand the “rules of their game,” and don’t excel in them. They don’t deliver on their promises to customers. 

Simply put: they fail in the basics.

To use an analogy: think of a company as a car. Shareholders and management imagine that if it had wings it would take off and soar away from its competitors. But the real problem is that the driver doesn’t know how to drive. The engine is firing on four cylinders, not eight. The gas tank isn’t full. The tires are flat. So wings are not going to help.

Now, don’t get me wrong: every organization does need to know where it’s trying to go. A sense of purpose—of “why we exist”—is vital. You do need to look ahead for new opportunities. You do need to give your people some idea of which “hill” you’re aiming for, so they know where to focus. You do need to ensure that they “do the right things” and don’t  just “do things right.”

But the first task for the leaders of most companies should be to “do things right” and make today’s business work as well as possible. After all, that is their “growth engine,” and it has to generate or attract the funding needed for tomorrow’s ventures. What’s more, it probably has greater potential for further growth than is realized. Anything that distracts managers from getting it to peak performance should be treated warily.

This is especially important in these tough times, when sales are hard to come by and customers are skittish and shopping around. Your current customers are vital to your future. Keeping them is critical, as is winning their enthusiastic support. To lose them or piss them off because your “engine” is sputtering is daft.

Big dreams are important, but the biggest opportunities for most companies may lie in fixing the basics—and that also creates a solid platform for the future

This isn’t a message that goes down well. After all, it’s hardly a big turn-on, and thinking big thoughts is much more exciting. But it’s one you need to consider carefully before you shoot for the moon.

If you don’t think it worth your time, ask yourself:

Why do so many customers have such a hard time buying almost anything—from the very companies that spend so much trying to attract them in the first place? Why do they have such lousy experiences with the products and services they buy? Why are they so disloyal?

If that doesn’t convince you, ask this:

Why does product development always seem to run late in so many companies? Why do their inventories keep swelling, while their out-of-stock level of key items gets worse? Why do their sales people make so few calls, and why are their calls are so ineffective? Why do their debtors’ days keep moving up? Why do their suppliers let them down so often? Why do their machines keep breaking down? Why do their warranty costs keep rising? Why is there so much scrap and waste in their plants? Why is the volume of paperwork growing? Why do their teams work in silos? Why does the left hand not know what the right hand is doing?

And the list goes on.

Surely this doesn’t make sense. Surely it points to internal weaknesses that could and should be fixed. Surely it suggests massive opportunities—right under your nose—to make your organization stand out from the crowd and steal a march on your competitors. (And if you think your company is different, maybe talk to some of your customers, suppliers, distributors, or employees!)

If your business is in good shape, many things are possible. If it’s not, your most brilliant ideas will never take off.

BABY STEPS…AND ACTIVE WAITING

No strategy lasts forever. You have to prepare to change when it’s necessary. But you also have to acknowledge that:

  1. You know less than you think about the challenges and opportunities ahead
  2. There’s no way you can be sure that the direction you choose will turn out to be the best one
  3. The more radical your vision, the bigger your risks.

The fact is, most winning companies get there not by making bold leaps, but by methodically putting in place the building blocks for the future. They take one small step at a time, and they make every step count.

Track the history of almost any firm, and you’ll see there’s not a straight line from where it started to where it is today. A leader may intend to follow a specific path to a glorious future, but that seldom happens. Strategy is only partly about hard choices and trade-offs, and largely about adaptation to new circumstances. There are many detours, blind alleys, and dead-ends.

If there’s one industry in which vision should be a very serious matter, it’s information technology. Yet consider how four extraordinary leaders have dealt with the matter of vision:

  • Bill Gates labelled it “trivial.”
  • When IBM got into trouble two decades ago, analysts said that the only course was to break up the company and sell the bits. Lou Gerstner took the helm and spent six months travelling the world to talk to customers and staff. He faced enormous pressure to spell out a new vision for the company. But he famously told analysts, “The last thing IBM needs right now is a vision.” In his book Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? he explains that “if you’re going to have a vision for a company, the first frame of that vision better be that you’re making money and that the company has got its economics correct …. execution is really the critical part of a successful strategy. Getting it done, getting it done right, getting it done better than the next person is far more important than dreaming up new visions of the future.” Gerstner did lay some big bets, but job #1 was to get on with making “Big Blue” a great computer company again, selling both hardware and software.
  • Steve Jobs was widely admired for his vision and his obsession with design. Yet he was always reluctant to comment on where he intended taking Apple. Instead, he said that he was “waiting for the next big thing.” And while customers, competitors, analysts, and others never let up on trying to figure out his “long view,” he was busy building one of the world’s most effective engineering companies, obsessed with detail and operational excellence.
  • When Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, was asked why he wouldn’t sell shares in the company in its early years, his consistent answer was, “We have no idea how big this thing will become.” No amount of visionary thinking could have told him that or prepared him for where he is today. Neither he nor anyone else can possibly know what Facebook will look like tomorrow.

In each case, these leaders focussed the present, on doing a great job one day at a time. Not on making crowd-pleasing statements about a future nobody could see. The lesson is an important one. More companies and leaders would do well to listen up.

Visionary leaders can make a huge difference to a firm’s fortunes. They can also cause it to plunge to earth. You might think that visionary leadership is what your firm needs right now. But maybe it’s the last thing you should seek.

Print This Page Print This Page

 

  •  06/06/2012
May 272012
 

It goes without saying that leaders are driven to succeed—to do the best they can for both themselves and their organizations.

It also goes without saying that they expect their people to succeed—to do well in the jobs they’re paid for, meet and exceed targets, handle projects effectively, produce new ideas, create constructive relationships with colleagues and business partners, develop the people around them, reach their own potential, and so on.

Yet all too often, leaders set themselves and others up to fail. They “throw sand in the gears” of their organizations, by creating conditions in which under-performance is guaranteed.

That’s a hell of an indictment, so let me explain it.

For more than a decade, I’ve encouraged my clients to reduce all their strategies to a few goals and a series of 30-day action plans with specific people responsible for each result. This has four critical benefits:

  1. It forces people to break work down into “do-able” chunks, and to focus on the few things that really matter rather than the many which otherwise crowd their agendas.
  2. It puts immense pressure into an organization, as 30 days isn’t long and there’s no time for wheelspin. When it’s clear exactly what needs to happen, by when, and whose name will be called, people have to put their heads down and get moving.
  3. It enables you to see, very quickly, whether your strategy is on track or needs fine-tuning, and how the people responsible for various actions are doing. Fast feedback and accelerated learning let you deal with problems and opportunities in as close to “real-time” as possible.
  4. It enables you to quickly praise or reward people for a job well done, or guide, sanction, or replace those who don’t deliver. So the very process of driving your strategy becomes a powerful performance management process. And because success does lead to more success, celebrating some quick wins provides important motivation.

Making plans and assigning work is the easy bit. The hard part comes when you start reviewing progress. For that’s when things either get a boost or fall apart.

Every time you bring your team together, you have an opportunity to either turn them on or turn them off. The way you craft and conduct your conversations will either bring out the best in them or the worst.

Review meetings need to be both respectful and robust. So on the one hand, people must be treated decently. They must be listened to and given the sense that they are valued and their ideas count. But on the other hand, they need to know that your purpose is not to create a “social club” or win a popularity contest.

This is about work and results and progress. Everyone must know that they’re expected to deal in facts and well thought-through opinions, and that there’s zero tolerance for blaming, bluster, bullshit, or excuses.

I’ve sat through any number of these review sessions, in companies of many types. Some leaders get things right: people come well prepared, the conversation is informative and constructive, and they leave feeling positive and knowing exactly what they need to do next. But often, things break down quite quickly.

Typically, everyone pitches for the first meeting. The first few people to report back do it well. Mike, Sue, and Dumesani seem to have a grip on things and achieved what they had agreed to. And they’ve thought about what they need to do in the next 30 days. They get a “thank you” and a pat on the back. Smiles all around.

But then there’s a hiccup. Damien couldn’t do what he should have because he was still waiting for budget approval. Or a supplier had let him down. Or he’d had to deal with some emergency or other. Or he hadn’t been able to recruit a key person because the headhunters hadn’t come back to him. Or the IT guys hadn’t delivered. Or Jeff or Derek or Sam or whoever had been away for much of the month and hadn’t been available to discuss certain issues. Or…

What the leader should do when this happens is come down hard on the individual, question each of his “reasons” and make him explain why he couldn’t do something about them, demand that he take his plan for the next 30 days 100% seriously, and make it clear to everyone that such behavior is not acceptable. In other words, the “rules of the game” must be firmly established right from the get go.

What the leader actually does when she gets the ducking and diving is say, “Oh, OK. Thanks, Damien. Well, do try to sort those things out and get things moving before the next session. Now, let’s move on. Who’s next?”

In that moment, the leader has done two extremely dumb things: first, she has taught Damien that not meeting commitments is acceptable, that non-performance doesn’t matter. (And she has thanked him for letting the team down!) But even worse, she has taught the whole team the same thing. So her very first review session has set the tone for trouble.

When the next meeting comes around, one or two people don’t show up and more of them report that they haven’t done what they promised. Even fewer pitch for the third meeting and there’s a longer list of excuses. Meeting four gets called off because too many call in to say they can’t make it. Meeting five gets rescheduled a few times, but then doesn’t happen at all.

Game over!

Strategy reviews are, in effect, training sessions. You can make them work for you or against you. Clients who use my 30-day planning process say it’s the best thing they’ve ever done. The pity is that things so often start with a bang but end with a whimper. And that clever executives keep wondering why executing strategy is so hard, when it’s they who enthusiastically agree to a sensible way of working then show they didn’t really mean it.

Effective leadership requires tough love. Leaders need to show empathy, foster teamwork, and be unfailingly polite to their people. But they also need to instill discipline, enforce compliance with agreed procedures, and show courage in handling those who play fast and loose with their organization’s future.

Notions like “servant leadership, “principled leadership,” and “values-driven leadership” are all popular. However, if they’re not leavened with firmness, they cannot possibly drive performance and results. Being nice is no substitute for managing. Empowering people does not mean simply letting them loose and leaving them free to do or not do whatever they choose.

The buck stops on the leader’s desk. He owes it to himself to use the power of his position to make things happen. If he doesn’t, he’ll undermine himself because his people will know in a flash and lose respect for him.

If bad habits are allowed to creep into a business, it’s hard to get them out. Only the leader can stop them in their tracks. And strategy review sessions offer the ideal forum for doing it, because they usually involve senior people who, in turn, teach the rest.

Of course, virtually any other get-together—even those chance encounters in the passage where people share ideas or update each other  about projects—provides a similar opportunity. But the discipline, structure, and status of a 30-day review makes it special. Not to be wasted.

Print This Page Print This Page

 

 

May 232012
 

Every company today faces growing uncertainty and complexity. Executives are under increasing pressure. Employees are nervy, and many are not fully engaged in their work. So how do you stay competitive and keep producing results?

What you don’t need now is another complex formula. So instead, here’s a simple checklist to remind you of what’s really important and to keep you focused.

Keep it on your desk. Pin it on your wall. Share it with your team. Use it in your meetings and strategy review sessions. And if you think it’s just too simple, read it again, and ask, “Is this what I do?… Is this the way we work around here?… What must change?”

  1. Your #1 challenge as a leader is to take your people with you. So create a climate for high performance and engage them constantly in a rich, robust conversation.
  2. Accept complexity, but simplify everything you can. Cut through clutter and focus on the few things that make the most difference. You have limited resources and a lot to do, so don’t try to do everything and be everything to everybody.
  3. Know what you’re aiming for, and spell it out loud and clear and often. Make sure your entire team understands your purpose, strategy, values, and priorities. You can never communicate enough, so keep repeating yourself.
  4. Focus on your “right” customer … forget the rest. Create clear criteria for defining your “right” customer (industry, size, growth potential, reputation, buying power, ease of doing business, ability and willingness to pay, what they can teach you, etc.) Make these criteria clear to all your people. Be ruthless about customers that don’t fit—they’re a dangerous distraction and you can’t afford them.
  5. Get your “basics” right. Put “gas in your tank and air in your tyres” and do what you must to get your “engine” firing on eight cylinders, not four. Strike a balance between consistently meeting customers’ current expectations and surprising them with something new, better, or different.
  6. Relentlessly drive value up, costs down. It’s the only way to compete.
  7. Learn from everything you do, and share new insights with your whole team fast. The more you learn, and the quicker you do it, the more adaptable your company will become.
  8. Hold your course. Be boringly consistent and persistent. Don’t be tempted to zig-zag. Sustainable strategy might be an impossible dream, but you have to repeat yourself for some time to hone your performance and build key resources and capabilities.
  9. Be ready to change when you must … then do it with everything you’ve got. Gather all the information you might need. Think about what you might need to change, and how. Develop the strengths that will matter. Practice, practice, practice. And when the time comes, don’t dilly-dally—go for it!
  10. Pace yourself … when you think it’s time to make a new decision, ask, “Is this really the time? If it’s not, wait. Sometimes, doing nothing is best. In another day, week, or month, you’ll have more information and a clearer picture of what you need to deal with. And it’s quite possible the risks you see right now, or the challenges you think you need to respond to, will have come to nought.
Print This Page Print This Page
  •  23/05/2012
Apr 202012
 

Governments and business everywhere live in a state of tension. Neither behaves exactly as the other would wish. They have different agendas and different ways of meeting their goals. They need each other, but mostly don’t like each other.

In some countries, they do work reasonably well together. Some governments do try hard to create a business-friendly environment. But more often, the relationship is an uneasy one.

When a prominent business leader speaks out against his government—and more so in a country like South Africa, still struggling to escape its past, and where politicians are prickly and many are socialist or harbor deep anti-business feelings—he needs to think carefully about what will follow. The outcome is unlikely to be what he wishes for. The response from those he’s criticized will be defensive and angry. His peers in business will duck for cover. His own business may be negatively affected.

This is exactly what we now see unfolding in the drama between Reuel Khoza, non-executive chairman of Nedbank, and the ANC-led government of South Africa.

Khoza lit the match with this comment in his chairman’s statement in Nedbank’s latest (2011) annual report:

“UPHOLDING OUR CONSTITUTION

“SA is widely recognised for its liberal and enlightened constitution, yet we observe the emergence of a strange breed of leaders who are determined to undermine the rule of law and override the constitution. Our political leadership’s moral quotient is degenerating and we are fast losing the checks and balances that are necessary to prevent a recurrence of the past. This is not the accountable democracy for which generations suffered and fought.

“The integrity, health, socioeconomic soundness and prosperity of SA is the collective responsibility of all citizens, corporate or individual. We have a duty to build and develop this nation and to call to book the putative leaders who, due to sheer incapacity to deal with the complexity of 21st century governance and leadership, cannot lead.

“We have a duty to insist on strict adherence to the institutional forms that underpin our young democracy.”

The ANC/government immediately struck back at Khoza. The attacks—labelled in the media as “boorish,” “hypersentive,” “paranoid,” “personal,” “inappropriate,” and “illogical”—ensured that the matter got wide publicity, and may have done more damage to SA than anything he’d said. Various commentators called for open and polite discussion of the issues he’d raised. Khoza visited the ANC’s headquarters to discuss the matter, and the movement issued a statement afterward, saying:

“We are happy that this interaction took part in a cordial atmosphere and was fruitful.

“The meeting resolved what was perceived as a stand-off and addressed a variety of issues related to governance and business leadership.

“We are encouraged that a variety of options in terms of engagement were considered. The meeting resolved that there will be more meaningful interaction between the two parties in future.”

OK. And what now? What might “more meaningful interaction” mean? Is all forgiven? Has Khoza’s message been given short shrift or taken to heart?

Will there be further chats…or actual changes of leadership…more careful recruitment of future leaders…leadership development programs…? Is Khoza now going to back down and pretend he didn’t really mean what he said? Or will he repeat it the next time some journalist asks him if he was serious? How will he deal with questions about this matter that will surely be lobbed at him when next he speaks at a conference?

While all this was happening, Garth Griffin, outgoing chairman of Absa, wrote in his own bank’s annual report that SA needed less talk, more action. Then Nicky Newton-King, CEO of the Johannesburg Securities exchange (JSE), told the Cape Town Press Club that investors wanted certainty from markets, but Khoza’s views reflected uncertainty about the direction of South Africa’s policies.

Some people saw these as signs that “business” was starting to speak out, and hoped for more.  But that’s not been the case.

While there were murmurs from the corporate sector about government being wrong to expect business to stick to business and stay out of politics, hardly anyone said Khoza was right. That was left to “outsiders” like Institute of Race Relations CEO John Kane-Berman, the indomitable Business Day letter writer, Dr Lucas Ntyintyane, and the CEO of the SA Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Massmart CEO Grant Pattison saw Khoza’s comment as having hit a nerve because it was “too close to the truth.” But when the Sunday Times sought comment from other captains of industry, most became unavailable or refused to speak.

Corporate SA has once again been cowed.

SO WHAT EXACTLY HAS BEEN ACHIEVED?

Reuel Khoza was brave to do what he did. He stuck his head above the parapet to say what many other people think. Nick Binedell, dean of the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) said he was “a bit provocative” but “should be commended for getting the debate out in the open.”

The political climate in SA has soured badly in recent years. The national conversation has become toxic, uncivil and destructive—and will get more so in the months ahead of the ANC’s December policy conference at Mangaung, as power struggles intensify. Politicians and bureaucrats worldwide get slammed for their behavior, but ours are drawing more and more negative attention.

Relations between government and business have never been good since the 1994 transition, and are marked by mutual suspicion and distrust. While government struggles to deliver on its mandate, and desperately needs business investment and assistance, too many of its policies, actions, and words add up to a different message and have the opposite effect.

One objective of the Nedbank Group strategy is, “Becoming the public sector bank of choice.” But the threat has been made that the ANC might need to review its dealings with the bank, and with ANC cadres so firmly entrenched across the public sector, this doesn’t even need to become a formal position to have some impact.

Nedbank also aims to become the leader in business banking, and its retail unit has been performing well. But again, in both of these areas, ANC supporters may be turned off by Khoza’s criticism.

Although he opened his chairman’s statement by emphasizing the importance of sound corporate governance, Khoza then waded into risky territory—in the name of his company. Strange, given that one of Nedbank’s “Deep green aspirations” is to be “worldclass at managing risk.” And that in the risk management review in the annual report, it states:

“Nedbank Group has a strong risk culture and follows worldclass enterprisewide risk management, which aligns strategy, policies, people, processes, technology and business intelligence in order to evaluate, manage and optimise the opportunities, threats and uncertainties the group may face in its ongoing efforts to maximise sustainable shareholder value.”

So what risks has Khoza exposed the bank to? Did Old Mutual, Nedbank’s parent, know this was coming—and what was their view about it? Did Nedbank’s board have advance warning—and what inputs did the members make? Who else in the bank saw the statement before it was published?

QUESTIONS FOR THE FUTURE

Past experience has shown the ANC/government to be extremely sensitive to business statements it doesn’t like. So if one thing was guaranteed in this case, it was that the response to Khoza’s opinion would not be calm, respectful, or kind. He pulled no punches, and the fact that he had been close to the Mbeki administration was probably an added irritant.

However, some of the country’s political leaders may think carefully about what he said, and may even try to change their ways and try to get people around them to change, too.

South Africa badly needs all hands on deck, and government and business to work together to create the much vaunted “better life for all.” Now, that is either much more or much less likely. Much depends on whether government is able to tone down its anti-business signals, convince business that it really does value it, and do whatever is needed to make SA a good place to do business. Without that context, business will always be reluctant to invest, create jobs, or contribute in all the other ways that it can.

So here we have an interesting case study for business leaders—and for business schools. With some difficult questions:

  1. What should characterize the relationship between government and business?
  2. How freely and openly should business speak about national affairs?
  3. Should business leaders speak out personally, and under the banner of their firms, or should they leave comment to the organizations that represent them (chambers of commerce, Business Unity South Africa, the Black Business Council, the Black Management Forum, etc.)?
  4. Should they engage publicly with government about contentious matters, or should they do it behind closed doors?
  5. How should companies evaluate the risks of making statements critical of government?
  6. How should they manage the flak that flies when things go badly?

We live in testing, touchy times. Creating a “burning platform” might be the only way to get some things done, but it can also take you down. This saga could have a happy ending. It would be a pity if it ended in tears.

Print This Page Print This Page
  •  20/04/2012
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.

Print This Page Print This Page
  •  16/04/2012
Apr 032012
 

Harvard Business School recently announced a stand-alone course on Strategic IQ that “examines the essential concepts and practices that will help you make your organization more agile and better equipped to prosper in a changing marketplace.” This is good news, and it’s sure to be an excellent programme—but why has it taken so long? Why is strategic IQ not as big a deal for business schools, academics, authors, consultants, and conference organizers as emotional intelligence? Why has so little been said about it?

As I’ve pointed out for as long as I can remember, in articles, books, talks, business school lectures, and conversations with clients, strategic IQ is not just an essential factor in any company’s competitiveness, it’s the essential factor.

To survive and thrive in a rapidly-changing world, you need people who can think and act strategically—not just efficient drones who’re oblivious to their environment, mindlessly take orders, and just do as they’re told. But while much has been said about the importance of people, teams, empowerment, “virtual organizations,” “organizational learning,” “emergent strategy,” “the wisdom of crowds,” innovation, and so on, one key point is glossed over: without a particular set of intelligences, no one will ever be worth of the label “strategist.” And which company do you know where there is a deliberate, systematic effort to develop strategic capabilities outside of the executive ranks?

In my 1988 book The New Age Strategist, I wrote:

“…while the ‘strategist’ might be one person, or even a small team, strategy formulation is not the strict preserve of that person or group—and certainly not of top management. The fact is, because so many of a firm’s people might set off a response to environmental changes, strategic management is a task almost everyone must be involved in.”

Then, in a 1997 article titled “Questions of strategy,” I said:

“Business strategy, like every journey through life, is a learning process. The first goal of every organisation should be to raise its “strategic IQ”—the ability of every person to participate to the best of their ability in scanning the environment, providing new insights, applying their imagination, and exploring the bounds of what’s possible.”

But this led to two questions: 1) what capabilities did an individual need to be able to participate that way? and 2) how to develop them?

These were questions I wrestled with for a long time. For answers, I dug into books and journals on management, psychology, and education, talked to leaders about their growth experiences, and watched people making decisions at work. And the more I read, saw, and heard, and the more deeply I reflected on it, the more convinced I became that the answer was, in fact, both clear and simple—and right under our noses.

It lay in strategic conversation.

After pointing out, in my 2001 book, Making Sense of Strategy, that “The ‘strategic IQ’ of your firm is, literally, a life and death factor,” I went on to say:

“Most valuable human development takes place in”the school of hard knocks, not in the classroom. Most people’s growth and inspiration results from their day-to-day activities and interactions. The conversations they’re involved in shape their attitudes and aspirations, and impact on their capabilities. Yet, common practices ensure that too many individuals are constrained rather than liberated, and that only a few are able to think and act strategically.

“… In effect, people are forced to short-change their companies, because their companies cut them out of the conversational loop and limit what they can do and what they can become.

“While the ‘heavies’ engage in a ‘big conversation’ about the firm’s context, its challenges, its strategy, and so on, the majority of employees are allowed to take part only in a ‘small conversation’ which focuses narrowly on their jobs, their specific tasks, the methods they use, and the results they must get.

The strategic IQ of most firms is pathetically low—because of the way they make strategy. But you can change that fast, by immediately involving as many people as possible in your company’s ‘big conversation.’ This single step will do more than anything else to align and motivate your team, and to empower them to conquer tomorrow.”

Harvard’s new programme focuses on four intelligences:

  1. Rational
  2. Creative
  3. Emotional
  4. Social

These are undoubtedly important, but I have a different take on the matter. Let me explain it like this:

Assume you’re about to hire a consultant to help you with your strategy. You obviously want the best strategy you can get. What mental skills would you expect of the person you’re about to rely on? Surely they’d be these:

  1. Foresight—the ability to look ahead into the future and anticipate what lies ahead, what’s likely to happen, and how things are likely to unfold.
  2. Insight—the ability to cut through clutter and complexity and to understand things incisively and in a new way.
  3. Analysis—the ability to collect information, decipher and make sense of it, and make it useful.
  4. Imagination—the ability to see what others have not seen, to think “what could be” where others are content with what is.
  5. Synthesis—the ability to connect disparate snippets of information, different sensations and perceptions, and unrelated ideas, to give them new meaning.
  6. Judgment—the ability to weigh up situations, facts, feelings, opinions, and so on, and to make choices about what must be done in a way that best balances risk and reward and leads to the most desirable outcomes possible.

Now, if these are the traits you’d want in a consultant, what about the people on your own team? What should you seek in them? What should you strive to develop in them? Other capabilities? Or these ones?

Answer: these ones.

This isn’t a contest between Harvard’s list and mine. In fact, there’s a strong case for putting them together, for they work as one. But it is important to recognize that strategic thinking skills are quite different from equally critical social and emotional skills.

What happened to creative IQ, you might ask? And the answer is, it’s a product of all the six elements in my model. Creativity is a complex process. It’s not just about wacky ideas.

And rational IQ? Same thing: if the term refers to the ability to confront and deal with reality, to keep a cool head under pressure, and to make well-reasoned decisions, all of those come from the capabilities in my model. Couple those strategic thinking skills with social and emotional skills, and everything is covered.

The fact that strategic IQ has made it as a Harvard Business School course is an important breakthrough. Now, watch the “thought leadership” mob leap onto the bandwagon.

Thanks, Harvard!

Print This Page Print This Page

 

  •  03/04/2012
Mar 222012
 

In my March 17 blog about the resignation of Greg Smith from Goldman Sachs, I predicted the story would become a big one. According to the Wall Street Journal, Smith’s Op-Ed missile in the New York Times drew three million page views by the afternoon of publication. It quickly trended in the top ten messages on Twitter. My Google search for “goldman sachs, greg smith” this morning yielded 44,300,000 pages. The infosphere is humming over the matter.

Smith has drawn heaps of praise for the way he showed Goldman the middle finger. But while he has lots of admirers, many of them citing other examples of huffy employees spilling their guts on the way out the door, he’s also drawn a surprising amount of criticism—and not just from business commentators or other hard-core capitalists. Populist, anti-business sentiment clearly has its limits.

Meanwhile, Goldman is reviewing Smith’s claims, and searching its email records for “muppets,” to identify employees who insulted clients and handed its detractors a soundbite from hell. It’ll also look for other offensive terms, but hasn’t said what will happen to staff who used them. (In America, “muppet” was popularized by the hit TV show of that name featuring Miss Piggy, Kermit the Frog, and other cuddly characters. In Britain, it’s a label for stupid, gullible people.)

The debate is on.

Print This Page Print This Page
  •  22/03/2012
Mar 172012
 

When Greg Smith, a 33-year-old London-based Goldman Sachs executive director published reasons for his resignation in the New York Times on March 14, he was scathing in his criticism. In a knife-to-the-heart Op-Ed piece heavy on praise for himself, he wrote:

“…I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people and its identity. And I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it.”

“…culture was always a vital part of Goldman Sachs’s success. It revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients. The culture was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to earn our clients’ trust for 143 years. It wasn’t just about making money; this alone will not sustain a firm for so long. It had something to do with pride and belief in the organization. I am sad to say that I look around today and see virtually no trace of the culture that made me love working for this firm for many years. I no longer have the pride, or the belief”…

“It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off. Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as ‘muppets,’ sometimes over internal e-mail. Even after the S.E.C., Fabulous Fab, Abacus, God’s Work, Carl Levin, Vampire Squids? No humility? I mean, come on. Integrity? It is eroding.

“I don’t know of any illegal behavior, but will people push the envelope and pitch lucrative and complicated products to clients even if they are not the simplest investments or the ones most directly aligned with the client’s goals? Absolutely. Every day, in fact.”

Andy Rosenthal, the Times editorial page editor, told The Huffington Post that Smith had approached them about writing the article. “We checked him out,” he said. “…the whole idea of Op-Ed is to generate debate and discussion, so the more, the better.” The article has certainly generated plenty of both. Its all over the internet and according to BloombergBusinessWeek, book agents and publishers are keen to sign a deal with him.

THE FIRST RESPONSE

According to the NYT, Smith’s “wake up call to the directors” exploded “like a bomb” within Goldman. “He just took a howitzer and blew the entire firm away,” said one observer. Within a day, investors stripped $2.15bn from the bank’s value.

As happens in this age of instant opinions, citizen journalism, and social media, the story “went viral.” The public and the media quickly added fuel to the fire with a mixture of praise and condemnation. Smith was variously described as “brave,” “reckless,” “foolish,” “disgruntled,” and “disloyal.” The fact that he’d held back his resignation until he’d been paid his $500,000 bonus for 2011 drew snide jabs. But journalists who dug into his background and talked to people who knew him when he was growing up in South Africa reported that he had a reputation for integrity.

A Bloomberg News item in the San Franscisco Chronicle tackled Smith for his naiveté, implicitly supporting Goldman and saying what many business leaders no doubt thought:

“It must have been a terrible shock when Smith concluded that Goldman actually was primarily about making money. He spares us the sordid details, but apparently it took more than a decade for the scales to finally fall from his eyes…

“We have some advice for Smith, as well as the thousands of college students who apply to work at Goldman Sachs each year: If you want to dedicate your life to serving humanity, do not go to work for Goldman Sachs. That’s not its function, and it never will be. Go to work for Goldman Sachs if you wish to work hard and get paid more than you deserve even so. (Or if you want to make your living selling derivatives but don’t know what a derivative is, as Smith concedes in passing that he didn’t at first.)”

Forbes columnist argues that this event is a mere a storm in a teacup, and says the excitement over it will soon blow away:

“So what should our reaction to this be? No, not as clients of the firm, that’s obvious. Similarly for the management, what they need to change is obvious. But what should we, the people out here in the public and political square be trying to do about the company?

“Nothing of course, we should be doing nothing at all. For one of the great joys of this mixed capitalism and free markets system is that mistakes like those allegedly being made by Goldman Sachs are self-limiting, indeed, self-correcting.”

Of course, Goldman—the target of much criticism in the past few years—quickly denied Smith’s accusations:

We were disappointed to read the assertions by this individual that do not reflect our values, our culture and how the vast majority of people at Goldman think about the firm and the work it does on behalf of our clients.”

WHAT’S NEXT?

So where do things go from here? How will Goldman deal with Smith and the continuing fallout? What does this drama mean for other banks—and, indeed, for other companies of any kind? (And let’s not forget to ask, how will Smith’s career be affected?)

Unfortunately for banks, they’ve made themselves a juicy target for outrage. When Smith’s article appeared, a lot of people probably thought to themselves—or said to others: “I knew it. Here we go again. Scumbag bankers. Can’t trust them an inch. Bastards got bailed out, but keep stealing our money!” So what’s likely out in the “public and political square” is that this story will get so much airtime it will be impossible to ignore. The media will continue to make a feast of it. Politicians and regulators will seize the chance to sound off, and maybe try to force change. The anti-capitalist, anti-business crowd will jam the infosphere and the profit motive will take another beating. Smith’s act will become a popular dinner table topic, the stuff of business school class debates, and a trigger for massive introspection at both Goldman and other firms.

Business leaders need to tread carefully through this minefield. The CEO of Morgan Stanley told his staff not to circulate the Smith piece. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase & Co., sent word to his people that they should continue to act in the above-board way they always had. In a widely-publicized e-mail, he warned:

I want to be clear that I don’t want anyone here to seek advantage from a competitor’s alleged issues or hearsay—ever. It’s not the way we do business.”

You can bet the bosses of other financial institutions have sent similar messages to their staff and clients, and will spend a lot of time and money trying to distance themselves from the blast and confirm that they’re above reproach. And you can bet that a lot of people, from spin doctors to corporate governance gurus, from HR executives to career coaches, from management consultants to IT security experts, will hop onto the bandwagon and make new work for themselves.

Make no mistake, this event has huge implications. It affects not just financial institutions, but all of business.

THE DIFFICULTY OF PROTECTING A REPUTATION WHEN YOU CAN’T PROTECT SECRETS

One of the most important social trends of the past half century has been the move towards openness and transparency. That’s a very good thing. But it doesn’t make life easy for business.

Windows to the internal workings of organizations are being forced wide open. Largely as a result of scandals at Enron, Anderson, and many other firms, corporate governance has become a growth industry. Firms are required to provide more and more information about themselves. They face a growing number of regulators and a growing tide of regulation, vigilant law enforcement agencies, and courts that are under pressure to impose severe sanctions for shenanigans.

News-hungry media are quick to spot wrongdoing. Consumer hotlines not only give disgruntled customers a voice, but also make it likely that one complaint will trigger a shitstorm of others. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, e-mail, instant messaging, and other social media make it increasingly hard to keep anything under wraps, and easy to be a critic or spread dirt. And reasonableness, objectivity, balance, and truth do not always prevail.

Wikileaks, has created awful problems for governments, the military, corporates, and individuals by splashing confidential material all over the internet. A growing community of criminal hackers break into government and business databases, and don’t hesitate to fraudulently use credit card details or post personal information on the web.

Whistleblowers like Greg Smith have long been a concern to employers. But if once they were vilified, they’re now encouraged, protected, applauded, and rewarded—true social heroes. Their motives don’t matter; the fact that they’re insiders, and therefore must know what’s going on, gives their views credibility and clout. And in a verbal war between a whistleblower and a company’s leaders, the underdog invariably wins most sympathy and support.

Dealing with anonymous attackers is no easy task. Fighting back when your attacker is a valued member of your team, apparently with nothing to gain by opening up—and apparently of unquestionable integrity, too—may be worse.  The reputational damage that follows leaks is hard to contain or fix. A carefully-crafted image that has taken years to establish can be shredded in an instant.

VALUES DON’T GUARANTEE “GOOD” BEHAVIOUR

Surveys show that public trust in companies and their executives is at an all-time low. The trust level in many teams is also nowhere near where it should be. So what now? Do you demand that your new hires all sign confidentiality agreements? (And how enforceable are those, and do you really want to explain yourself in court?) Do you require the same of the people you already employ? How do you deal with those who refuse? How do you deal with violators?

According to Smith, Goldman has a culture problem. He has just provided the culture-change crowd with new inspiration—and a new promotional drum to beat.

One of their favorite tools is values. “Values-based management” (not the same thing as value management) or “managing by values” is a hot fad, and thanks to Smith, just got hotter. The theory is that if you spell out how you expect your people to behave, they’ll stay on the straight and narrow, be nice to each other, bust a gut for customers, and produce innovations galore. But that’s a very big “if.” And anxious executives should beware: changing culture is never easy and always slow, and values are no silver bullet. So while we’re in for a noisy debate about all this, and opportunists will make pots of money peddling “new” ways to make things better, don’t expect miracles.

Most values statements include the same handful of terms—”integrity,” “respect,” “innovation,” “service,” “responsibility,” “teamwork,” “accountability.” Yet precisely what these mean is often open to interpretation. And you have to ask: if this guff  features so strongly in business books and leadership courses, if so much prominence is given to it in company documents and presentations and on office walls, and if it’s discussed so often and so seriously in team-building sessions and strategy workshops, why is “walking the talk” so uncommon?

The first reason is that it’s damned difficult. (The 10 Commandments haven’t done too well, have they?) It’s one thing to say that companies would solve many of their problems if they “just did the right thing,” but it’s quite another to actually do it. Values that sound so right when you adopt them are almost certain to clash with future circumstances, and what then? How much “flexibility” should you tolerate? When and how should you bend the rules? After all, values can’t be cast in stone … or can they? Should everyone be allowed to bend them, or just a special few?

The second reason is that all too often the very people who espouse a set of values are the ones who violate them. And are seen to violate them. They set a bad example—”Do what I say, not what I do.” Perhaps they never really believed in those values in the first place, but needed something to improve their company’s performance and thought a values statement might do the trick. Or maybe they were just humouring the HR department. Or they just wanted to be seen to be standing for the right things and to be in tune with the latest management thinking.

Individual and groups all have values of one sort or another. These may be either implicit or explicit. But it’s sheer delusion to think that merely drafting an explicit set of values will keep a company out of trouble. Take another look at Goldman’s response to Greg Smith:

“We were disappointed to read the assertions by this individual that DO NOT REFLECT OUR VALUES…”

This begs several questions: What exactly are those values? How were they defined and how are they communicated? Who champions them? How rigorously does the firm test itself against them? What sanctions exist for violating them?

It also illustrates the high probability of mixed messages about this very central, very potent subject. Leaders do not always send consistent signals. People interpret things differently. And they misinterpret things very easily.

For all the value in  values, there’s also a risk in making a big deal of them. When you tell your team that you expect them to adhere to a certain code, every word immediately becomes a potential rod for your own back. From the minute you utter them, the people around you listen, watch, and wait: “Oh yes … let’s see if she really means this.” And if you’re not 100% resolute and consistent in your own behaviour, their response will be, “If she was so serious about those values, but then didn’t stick to them, what else is she not being honest about? How can I trust her about anything?”

DID SMITH DO THE RIGHT THING?

It’s easy to be critical of corporate behaviour—and much of it deserves major criticism. Whistleblowers do have an important role to play in exposing corporate misdemeanors and ensuring that executives are held to account. But while Smith complains that “It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off,” he also admits, “I don’t know of any illegal behaviour…” No doubt, we’ll hear more about that. Meanwhile, several clients have commented on the internet that they use Goldman because it gets results for them.

Smith spent 12 years at Goldman, in New York and London, so had plenty of time to choose to leave. For at least a decade he “recruited and mentored candidates through our grueling interview process”—most likely in the last 10 years of his career there, not the first. So how was he able to suppress his growing disgust at Goldman’s ethos and its leaders, and what did he tell those young people? Why did he agree to keep selling something he abhorred?

In his essay, he makes a strong effort to establish his own bona fides, but doesn’t say whether he ever spoke up before he savaged the hand that fed him. We’re left to guess whether the practices that caused his disappointment in Goldman in any way helped him earn his bonuses.

Smith isn’t the first person to leave a firm in a public huff. He won’t be the last. But his use of the New York Times to strike at his employer was a particularly spiteful move.

The Greg Smith/Goldman Sachs case is a special one in many ways, and the story is a work in progress. It has a long, long way to run.

Print This Page Print This Page
  •  17/03/2012
Mar 092012
 

In these uncertain times, the value of strategy is often questioned by anxious executives. Is there any point in having a strategy, they wonder, when conditions change so fast and it’s so hard to be sure what might happen next? What’s the best way to make strategy? Can we still reply on the process we’ve always used, or is there some new way to go about it? Are we wasting our time on long-term plans when we’d be better off just tackling what’s on our agenda right now? Should we spend less time trying to fine-tune our strategy, and more on building our capabilities and honing our ability to flex and adapt as things change around us?

While different companies and consultants may go about developing strategy in slightly different ways, every management team needs to ask and answer three fundamental questions:

  1. What’s happening around us, and what might happen next?
  2. What are we trying to achieve?
  3. How shall we go about it?

To help answer these questions, firms may commission market studies, gather detailed competitor information, conduct benchmarking exercises, or create future scenarios. Many default to a SWOT exercise (but wind up listing most of the same strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats that they wrote up last time around!) Some are fans of Michael Porter’s “five-forces” or “value chain” analysis. Others prefer to talk about “core competences” or “capabilities,” or about finding a “blue ocean” in which they’ll happily have no competition.

A lot of companies do much of the work internally, perhaps using off-site retreats for focused debate. Many hire consultants to do the grunt work, guide their discussions, and provide an outsider’s perspectives—and hopefully some fresh insights. Or they bring in economists, political analysts, demographers, trend watchers, or functional experts to enhance their understanding of the environment and their industry.

Invariably, the end result is some kind of document. Answers to those three questions should—but don’t always—provide the basis for allocating resources and developing budgets. (Strategizing and budgeting don’t always sit easily together!)

Of course, you might ask any number of other questions to enhance your strategy discussion. There are many tools, developed by very smart people, to help you. But these three questions are the ones that matter. If you avoid them or treat them carelessly, you’ll be sorry.

Now, let’s consider them from a slightly different perspective, and using slightly different language. Let’s look at a model that will help you shape your future agenda … and your business.

THE 3Cs OF COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE

Almost always, when CEOs brief me for a strategy assignment, they start by telling me, “Our business is different.” Then they spell out their situation and challenges in much the same way as others in quite different firms and industries have done. So I’ve heard the same script over and over.

While it’s true that businesses are different, there are many similarities, too. There is a common story. Whether you sell hot dogs or passenger jets, luxury goods or financial services, there’s a core set of issues you just have to think about. I call them the 3Cs. They are:

  1. Your operating context (external and internal)
  2. The concepts that shape your thinking and that you use to manage your business
  3. How you conduct your affairs.

The 3Cs are the foundations of strategy

  • Your external context is largely out of your control. It’s the hand you’ve been dealt. You might be able to influence parts of it, but never all of it. But you have to fit into it, so the best you can do is adapt to what’s happening around you. Your internal context, on the other hand, is something you can mould and change. You can shape both the culture and climate in your firm. You can choose the people you hire; what processes, systems, and technologies to use; and what kind of working conditions to create.
  • Concepts help us make sense of things. They help us cut through complexity and make things simple enough to understand. So we have concepts of how the world works. Of how businesses should work (business models). Of how we can make them work (management ideas, philosophies, and tools). And of what a business might look like in 3, 5, or 35 years.
  • Conduct is about what we do and how we do it. It’s our behaviour—as individuals or a team—at work and towards each other. And towards customers, competitors, investors, government, unions, and other stakeholders. It also describes the processes, systems, and technologies we use, and how we deal with matters ranging from discipline to customer service, from quality and productivity to innovation and acquisitions.
MANAGERS TEND TO PUT CONCEPTS FIRST … BUT NOT ALWAYS THE MOST IMPORTANT ONES

In my experience, most companies spend most of their time thinking about concepts. But instead of dreaming up new ideas about how to compete, and designing new business models, they flail around in search of the latest tools—most of which turn out to be fads—that may save their skin. Too often, they have no idea whether they have a hammer or a saw in their hands, and no clue about using either. Besides, they fail to master whichever new “thing” they fall for, or to entrench it in their organizations. And when it doesn’t work quite as they expected, they dump it and dash after something even sexier. So it’s little wonder that they make less progress than they’d like.

Competing for tomorrow’s customers involves many factors, and management concepts (ideas, philosophies, and tools) are critical. But first you need a business concept—a point of view about how best to compete. For without a clear model, map, or blueprint, you’ll not only struggle to make sensible decisions, you’ll also fail to focus and integrate your activities. And it will be impossible to choose the right management concepts.

Today, one industry after another is being transformed by companies inventing new ways of creating and capturing value. The boundaries between sectors are blurring and even disappearing. There are overlaps everywhere. Suddenly, yesterday’s friends are eating each other’s lunch.

Executives who understand the “new normal” and the need for “business unusual,” are frantically clawing their way into the future. They’re cooking up new business models to make old ones irrelevant. And because it’s happening on so many fronts, and so fast, the shelf life of these models is shrinking—which, in turn, leads to even more frenetic activity.

Upstart firms with no baggage pose an obvious threat because they’re not encumbered by installed infrastructure, sunk costs, or deeply ingrained beliefs and habits. Their founders are usually determined to turn convention on its head, and to raise the customer service bar from day one. Their focus is on creating new concepts of business, rather than tweaking old ones with some new-fangled management tool.

Established firms can be even more dangerous, simply because they are established. They’ve survived good times and bad and periodically reinvented themselves. They know how things work in their sector, so they don’t have to figure that out from scratch. They have deep skills and valuable relationships, and their delivery mechanisms are in place. They have a presence and a reputation in the marketplace, so customers know what they offer and how to find them. And they can afford to conduct research, experiment, explore—and make mistakes.

IT’S WHAT YOU DO THAT COUNTS, NOT WHAT YOU SAY

Concepts are clearly important. You need a mental picture of how your industry works and how best to compete in it.  You also need to understand what management ideas are available, which are best for you, and how to use them.

But it’s equally important to understand how your company should act (its conduct) and to make that behavior a way of life. (This was highlighted for me in a discussion with Willie Pietersen, professor of strategy at Columbia Business School. At that time I was focusing on context and concepts. He pointed out that there was a missing factor—conduct—that could make all the difference. For that, I thank him.)

Strategy does matter. In fact, it matters more today than ever. But it has limitations. The whole notion of “sustainable advantage,” the core idea in most strategy books, is under siege.

Because we live in an information age, it’s easier than ever to find out what you need to know about markets, customers, competitors, and so forth. At the same time, executives are taught more or less the same things in business schools, read the same books and journals, attend the same conferences, and network with peers in their industry and with analysts and journalists who watch it.  And companies belong to the same industry bodies, hire the same consultants, recruit  each other’s people, buy from common suppliers, and—increasingly—collaborate with their competitors.

The result: there are very few secrets, and even the most closely-guarded of strategies is unlikely to stay under wraps for long. Breakthrough ideas and strategic shifts in one company are quickly noted, decoded, and adopted by others. Sustainable advantage is a fine ideal, but the reality for most firms is that the best they can hope for is a series of unsustainable advantages.

Harvard strategy guru Michael Porter advises that companies should avoid “running the same race” as their competitors, and rather “run a different race.” The theory is sound, but in practice that’s mostly a pipe-dream. Like it or not, you’re going to wind up running the same race as your enemies. And it’ll happen faster than you think.

Staying ahead of the game today depends increasingly on the ability of your organization to constantly adjust its conduct to fit your changing context. Or, as I tell my clients, to run faster than the other guy.

The external environment is where companies usually focus their search for opportunities. But as I’ve already said, “in-the-box” thinking may be even more profitable than “out-of-the-box thinking. For the internal environment is where things go right or wrong, where external opportunities are captured or squandered, and where you can score some quick wins and build some long-term advantages.

THE NEW BUSINESS ARENA

Concepts and conduct deserve attention. But whatever you do in those areas will only pay off if it fits your context—your zeitgeist, or the “spirit of your time.” Without a deep understanding of the environment around you, and of the context inside your firm in which your people work, you will never design the most appropriate business model, choose the most suitable management tools, or settle on the most appropriate behaviours.

The astonishing changes that are now taking place around the world, in every aspect of our lives, have profound implications for business. This is a time to reset your strategy. To dissect it, put it under a microscope, and think long and hard about what you see. And then to make whatever changes might be needed.

But first, you need to know more about the context in which you do business. You need to understand the trends that affect you, and the players who influence your organization in one way or another. You need to review your assumptions about politics, the economy, society, technology, customers, and competitors, and other “stakeholders.” And you need to keep testing those assumptions, embracing new information and insights, and  sharing them with your colleagues.

Starting today, make it an obsession to understand your context. Change the way you spend your time to make this your priority. Talk about it in every conversation. And watch how soon you start to see new possibilities, and your team gets the message that change must be normal.

A NEW AGENDA FOR EXECUTIVE DEVELOPMENT

For the past 100-odd years, most management and leadership programmes have focused on skills development. In the future, they’ll need to redirect their attention from management concepts (ideas, philosophies, tools) to concepts of business (business model design) and to the context of business (the environment in which business gets done).

The fact is, there is just a handful of management concepts that matter, and they can be taught very quickly; after that, practice has to kick in. The real challenge for tomorrow’s leaders is to know about new business models, and to know how to create them. And for that, they need to have a deep understanding of the world around them.

This will be a big shift, so I’ll have more to say about it in a future blog post!

Print This Page Print This Page

 

  •  09/03/2012
Mar 052012
 

Most companies have a strategy, but the quality of those strategies varies greatly. Not all are equally sound. A lot are utterly useless. And all too often, even the best of strategies won’t get turned into action because of organizational weaknesses.

You might wonder if strategy really is necessary in today’s environment of extreme uncertainty, roller-coaster volatility, resource constraints, and rising competitive hostility. The answer: unequivocally yes! In fact, right now, strategy matters more than ever. Precisely because the world is so hard to understand and there are so many surprises, you need a strategy in order to give you the best possible chance of defining your own future.

This is no time to be careless or vague, to bet on yesterday’s strategy taking you into the future, or to bank on your competitors being idiots. A carefully thought-through, robust strategy is essential for riding the “white waters” we’re in, and that in turn requires a systematic, disciplined strategy process. Now, more than ever, you need to subject your strategy—and the way you made it—to tough, dispassionate review.

No doubt you and your colleagues have put a lot of effort into your strategy. You’ve probably thought long and hard about the best process to use, what it should address, what you should finally say, and how you should communicate the outcome. But before you rush ahead with implementation, pause for a moment. Stand back and take another long, hard look a what you’ve decided. Use this checklist to stress-test your strategy. These 20 questions may highlight weaknesses, trigger new insights, or lead to new decisions.

One set of questions helps you evaluate your overall strategy:

  1. Is your strategy based on specific and sound assumptions?
  2. Is it based on adequate and accurate information—most importantly, about customers, competitors, your operating context, and your own capabilities?
  3. Does it address all the key issues facing your company, or have you overlooked some or skirted around the tricky ones?
  4. Are you clear about the results you want, and will it raise your chances of delivering them?
  5. Will it give you a meaningful advantage over competitors, and can you capture the value of that edge?
  6. Have you made the right trade-offs, or are you making too many compromises?
  7. Do you have what it takes to make it work—resources, capabilities, attitude, stakeholder support, etc?
  8. Will it be sufficiently hard for competitors to understand, copy, or nullify?
  9. Will important competitors worry about it, and wish they’d thought of it first?
  10. Does it lock you into a particular course, or will you be able to change direction when you need to?
  11. Is this strategy unquestionably the best you can do given your current circumstances?
  12. Does it have legs – i.e., will it give you the results you want for long enough to make it pay off?

A second set of questions looks at your chances of making your strategy work:

  1. Is your strategy simple, clear, and specific (i.e., will it be easy to explain, will it make sense, and will you be able to stay “on message”)?
  2. Does it have just a few (3-5) key goals that are unquestionably the priorities, and will achieving them get you where you want to go?
  3. Are those goals followed by (3-5) well-defined actions, and are specific individuals responsible for those actions within specified time-frames?
  4. Do you have the right people in all functions, and are they excited about your strategy and aligned behind it?
  5. Do the “pivotal people” on your team (the few who are the most critical “gears in the system”) have the skills and clout they need to make things happen?
  6. Do they have the information, resources, and support they need, and will they continue to get it?
  7. Will your organizational arrangements (structure, processes, systems, culture, incentives, etc.) support your strategy?
  8. Do you understand the risks that lie ahead, and do you have plans to deal with them?

All of these appear to be quite simple questions. But they may be tougher than you imagine. Getting to the answers may be painful, and you and your colleagues may not like them.

But remember, strategy is not just about logic, analysis, and hard decisions. It’s also a highly-charged social, political, and emotional subject. If you don’t start out with that understanding, and if you fail to confront reality while you craft your strategy, don’t expect great results. The world is just too tough for that, and it’s getting tougher.

Print This Page Print This Page
  •  05/03/2012