I once worked for a large, regional accounting firm. Really!
As a non-accountant, I felt out of place. Sort of like when I ran a marathon and sneaked to the front of the line with the elite runners. If you’ve met me, you know that I (1) do not look like an elite athlete, nor do I (2) look like a Kenyan. But I wanted a good time and thought … well … let’s just say that I finished the run before the last ferry left, but well after downing a few beer shots offered throughout the neighborhoods of Victoria B.C.
Since I’m not a CPA, the firm did not let me help with taxes. They did, however, ask me to join their strategic planning group. After the initial training I went to Chicago as a part of team leading a large financial advisory firm through a strategic planning session.
For two long days we guided our client through a series of eye-opening exercises. Using flip-charts, colored dots and sticky pads we helped participants identify their vision, articulate their mission and commit themselves to the first steps of the long march to their preferred future. It was magic.
A few weeks later I was in Boise, Idaho where I used the same process with a large automotive company. While flying there we (there were two of us) decided to follow the same script I used in Chicago in the hope of producing the same results. We weren’t disappointed. After two days of flip charts, colored dots and sticky pads lightning struck a second time, producing the same results. Magic!
The leaders of this company now knew what to do, why they should do it and how they should proceed. The alarm had rung and they were off!
Until someone hit the snooze button.
In their long march to a preferred future, leaders found themselves distracted by unexpected challenges, personnel changes and old habits. They’re still a good company. I hope they get better.
Why Dots and Flip Charts Don’t Work
I thought about this when managing the search for the executive director for a large, regional airport. To better understand the airport’s needs I performed a lot of interviews with a lot of internal and external stakeholders. It was then that a member of the board of directors talked about the possibility of a planning retreat.
He was for it, “As long as you don’t bring those colored dots and flip-charts.”
I told him that I agreed. Sort of. Colored dots and flip-charts won’t get the job done.
In fact, since my time at the accounting firm, I’ve guided dozens of companies and organizations through a much needed strategic planning (NOTE: is it just me or do those two words make us tired?) process. Looking back, I have to admit that I’m not satisfied with the lasting results. Not because I don’t believe in planning, but because this alone is not enough to overcome a company’s inherent culture and bad habits.
Let me illustrate. When I started training to run the Victorian Marathon, I did so from a lifetime of running. For as long as I remembered I started to run; each time lasting for about two weeks before I lost the battle of the bed, the will to an apple fritter, or the thought that I’m not as fat as my neighbor.
I started with great intentions (which, according to my mother, are used to pave the road to … well … never mind) but could never get over my inherent culture (my basic tendencies) or bad habits (my basic actions). If I were to complete this goal, something had to change. I needed a new plan; a new strategy.
For a business to improve – to get better – its leaders too, need a new strategy and I’ll frequently recommend the benefits of strategic planning. However, my recommendations are qualified. For strategy to work, the organization must answer three essential questions. Doing so will protect them from investing in an effort that could prove to be both costly and futile.
Question One: “Do they or do they not have the appetite to go somewhere, and to accomplish it with the highest standards?”
David Maister, the author of True Professionalism, Managing the Professional Service Firm and other must read books, talks about meeting three kinds of partners in a professional service firm. A dynamo is somebody who is constantly doing something to bring about their personal future by asking, “Where do I want to go next, and what do I do today to make that happen?”
The cruisers work hard, produce great sausages year after year, but have no particular desire to advance his or her professional career.
Losers have been derailed by life – divorce, alcoholism, drugs, fraud – and may or may not recover.
Having worked with hundreds of firms throughout the world, Maister concluded that about 15 percent of all partners are dynamos, 75 percent cruisers, and 10 percent losers. In other words, in a typical professional service firm only 15 percent of the partners are trying to get somewhere while the large majority coast along, content in making sausages day after day.
Personally, I believe Maister was optimistic. I also believe that with just a small percentage of its leaders committed to take the business “somewhere,” strategic planning will be a waste of time. Because strategic planning in that environment is like trying to figure out which way to point the thundering herd when the herd isn’t interested in thundering.
In these companies or firms the lack of performance or growth has little to do with the overall direction or strategy.
The issue is whether or not there is enough hunger in the organization – or with those leading the organization – to pursue a preferred future.
Question Two: “Do they have the willingness and the courage to try new things?”
If anything has been proven to be true in recent business history, it is that what worked yesterday may not work tomorrow. We admit this, yet continue to hold onto the tried and true.
A friend reminded me of this when I was working with a medical technology start-up, helping create a business out of some pretty innovative discoveries. My friend had designed and patented a new medical device that effectively (and painlessly) treated a common problem. Today, after an uphill climb lasting several years, his device is readily available and accepted. Though excited about what we were doing he shared from his own experience, “Remember, in medicine we love advances but hate change.”
Not just in medicine.
During the strategic planning process, leaders and participants will identify a number of opportunities that can dramatically and positively change their business or practice. New markets. New systems. New products or services. New focus. New excitement.
In one engagement we identified and prioritized several key initiatives, any one of which would make a lasting impact on the organization. After selecting three or four “big ideas” the discussion stalled. Caution crowded out confidence until Jim Collins’ “BHAGs” (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) were reduced to “WILIs” (WhImpy Little Ideas).
The more the conversation turned from opportunity and benefits to risk and cost, the less the owner participated. Honestly, I wasn’t certain if he was angry, frustrated or bored.
Finally, he got up and as we all watched he walked to the white board and drew two parallel lines. Turning to the room he said, “We cannot leap a twenty-foot chasm in two ten-foot jumps.”
Convinced of the need to re-direct his company, he was ready to try something new. Today his business is thriving.
Question Three: “Are they already doing what they should be doing?”
I was in California meeting with client who owned a nationally recognized research group. As we were winding down I noticed a book sitting on the coffee table in his office. The title caught my eye: Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You’re 80 and Beyond by Chris Cowley and Henry Lodge. Since I have a lot of clients who are older than 50, I thought I should read it.
… No really. It was for them!
That night I walked to the bookstore near my hotel and picked up the book and started reading. A few pages in, I discovered the key to staying younger. Are you ready to be amazed?
“You should exercise hard almost every day of your life – say six days a week … You should eat the way you know you should eat but probably don’t … You have to be involved with other people (and) you have to care about something.”
I doubt if anyone is surprised by the author’s conclusions. To stay healthy we need to exercise more, eat better and care about people and causes. As my teenage friends would say, “No Duh!”
Keep this in mind when I tell you about a strategy session I had with a large regional company doing business across three state lines. At the end of our second day, participants broke into groups where they created a list of action steps they should take in order to reach their newly defined goals. Using our flip-charts and colored dots, we prioritized the findings. I then asked a few obvious questions:
- “Why aren’t you already committed to providing outstanding customer service?”
- “Why haven’t you already started to improve your profit margin by 5%?”
- “Why haven’t you already insisted on having a coordinated marketing effort?”
- “Why haven’t you made a commitment to develop and train your employees?”
- “Why should anyone in this room believe that things will change when the steps you will take to produce this change are obvious?”
In business, strategic plans are frequently stuffed with familiar goals: build client relationships, act like team players, and improve customer service. We want the benefit of these things. We know what to do, we know why we should do it and we know how to do it. Yet most of us don’t change, as individuals or as business.
Until an organization is committed to doing the obvious, it will not enjoy the full benefits of strategic planning.
Making Strategy Work
When reading this, I hope you don’t think that I’ve given up on strategic planning. I haven’t. In fact whenever I find a company or firm working hard to create a better future, taking risks to leap across the unknown, and renewing their commitments to consistently do what they know to do, something comes over me.
And before I realize what is happening, I catch myself grabbing my colored dots and flip-charts in the hope of being a part of another process that will bring yet another organization to its new and exciting future.
But not before asking them a few questions.