Finding the Pony in the Pile

Faced with adverse situations? Dig. 


I’ve written before on the benefits for strategists of finding strength and beauty, and you can look here for that.

But this post is a little different. This one is about finding strength from adversity. This is about the pony in the pile. If you don’t know the apocryphal story, here it is:

Once there were five-year-old twin boys,
one a pessimist and the other an optimist.
Wondering how two boys who seemed so alike could
be so different, their parents took them to a psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist took the pessimist to a room piled high
with new toys,
expecting the boy to be thrilled, but instead he burst into tears.

Puzzled, the psychiatrist asked, “Don’t you want to play with these toys?”
“Yes,” the little boy bawled,
“but if I did I’d only break them.”

Next the psychiatrist took the optimist to a room piled high with horse manure.

The boy yelped with delight, clambered to the top of the pile,

and joyfully dug out scoop after scoop,
tossing the manure into the air with glee.
“What on earth are you doing?” the psychiatrist asked.
“Well,” said the boy, beaming,

 “There’s got to be a pony in here somewhere!”


So that’s the pony in the pile in the traditional sense, but what about in your own professional life? How do you look for the pony in the piles of manure you’ve walked into?  Maybe the better question is, “Do you even look for the pony?” I can offer a few anecdotes that address my own stubborn growth on this topic.  I’ve reflected on these often.

About 12 years ago, I was an ambitious, strapping young lad who had just joined what many consider to be the most prestigious professional services firm in the world.  My second assignment as a member of this bastion of intellect and influence was to recommend elements of a massive downsizing for a struggling company.  It was not only a project that you had to swallow hard to take in the first place, it was also right in the middle of the holiday season. I have never hoped to have to say “Merry Christmas, you’re fired” to anyone as they are being laid off, but this was it. The pile of manure was tall, dark, and handsome, and to put it bluntly, I didn’t see a pony in sight.

It was, to most people involved, a distasteful project.

Then, about 9 years ago, I had the opportunity to lead a team in a gut-wrenching engagement to support the buy side of a highly complex, time-sensitive M&A transaction that involved multiple large corporations, multiple cultures, and a massive government component to boot. For all involved, it was an absolute mess of a project, and I got to sit right at the nexus. The pile of manure was standing tall once again.

These couple of instances of the “pile” and their separate trajectories through my life may be informative to you.

The first instance was dire, but it was clearly an opportunity to learn something I hadn’t learned before. Nobody was breaking ethical rules; the company was just sick and needed help. I was everything short of malcontent, and at some point, I even got there. But the work got done, I learned a ton, and to this day I believe that any young, self-righteously smart person ought to have to go through the effort of trying to turn around a dying company, even if only as an adviser. In short, here, the pony was staring me right in the face, and I only needed to look.

The second instance was exceptionally challenging. Through the hours, pressure, and politics, several people involved with the project struggled to recoup their professional lives after it was over. In that instance, I could sense that the learning experience would be a good one.  I could also sense–as the banker across the table from me fell asleep during the meeting–that the pain was shared across all parties; in other words, I didn’t have to dig too far to find the pony.  That was one of the most heartbreaking and energy-sucking projects I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of–one that I never want to relive–but the experience I gained from that roughly 10-week period of no sleep, constant travel, and absolute burnout strongly buttressed my professional outlook–although it left behind scar tissue that to this day has not gone away.

So why the serenade on heaps of manure and ponies? Really it’s because maybe somebody else can benefit from the little bit of perspective I’ve been able to accumulate.  Namely:

  • The worst experiences are often the best growth opportunities for your life, professional or otherwise.
  • Until you recognize adversity for the learning experience it is, it’s hard to look for the growth opportunity.
  • Many of us hide behind facades in order to avoid confronting the dung heap.
  • It’s better to start digging than to continue complaining.

I’ve never been accused of being an eternal optimist, but I have learned that when you’re presented with a pile of manure, dig for the pony.

How about you? You dig?

Is Your Executive Team On Tilt?

Avoid going “on tilt,” and it will be ok.


It was a card room in downtown Stockholm, Sweden.

I did a bad thing–playing poker with only a finite amount of time available. I had a little time on my hands and wanted to play some hands, so I was “loose,” as they call it, firing out bets at a healthy clip just for a little entertainment. It’s a good way to lose money, but it can also be fun. Except then I suffered a bad beat–I think it was betting hard into a full house with a modest pair in my hand in a mid-level limit hold’em game.

I stayed with it and was crushed by a guy with a higher pair, and then I did something that is all too common. I took the aggravation of that hand and bet hard into the next hand with it; I had nothing in my hole cards, but I raised a couple times, and I was soundly blown out by the Swede sitting to my left. And under his breath, this guy who had spoken not a word of English for an hour or more said:


And despite wanting to jump up and take a swing at the guy, I took a second and realized he was right. I was “on tilt,” which is to say I was making stupid bets after losing a bad hand. Emotion got the best of me.

But you know what? The term applies in business as well: Managers and executives frequently go on tilt; they suffer a minor loss and then seek more risk to offset it.

We are not good at maintaining an even keel during times of rapid changes in risk; if we suffer a loss, we have a pernicious tendency to double down the next time around to make up the loss, and this leads to much stupid.

Case in point: a management team misses out on a highly strategic M&A transaction by bidding too low. They make a perfectly rational bid, but they lose. So the next time a deal comes along, the same management team goes on tilt, shading their bid not just to their economic disadvantage but often to the point of irrationality. They may win, but they suffer the winners’ curse: they pay a value that no rational actor, even one with a big strategic premium, would pay.

Another manager, in the midst of negotiating a deal, ignores rational advice that the deal is off the rails; he has to get a deal done, so he caves in to his counterpart’s demands after the counterpart walks away. He gets “played” in the negotiation because he perceives the walk-away not as a tactic but as a loss.

Another manager, on losing a highly talented potential new hire to a different offer, spends millions on upper-tier consulting support on the topic the new hire would have been expert on.

All of these are examples of being on tilt. The managers above have all made irrationality out of rationality.

How do you avoid it?

The first and best way is to avoid artificial constraints. In an uncertain world, constraints that have no bearing on value are dangerous. My artificial time limit at poker, the need to “make” quarterly or annual metrics, or the need to please management are all technically reasonable, but they don’t relate to value: You may get a deal done within the constraints, but chances are low that it will be a good deal.

Second is to seek advice.

Third is to understand your culture and the culture you are dealing with. How risk balanced are you? Rookies go on tilt far more often than pros, and so do insecure executives vs. seasoned ones.

Finally, know when irrationality is a possibility–and know what it costs.  You, like me in my poker game above, may be able to absorb some losses due to taking a flyer here and there, but you also might not.

All this is to say that you are likely to encounter circumstances in which you, your manager, or the executive team whose board you sit on is on tilt. They may be irrational to the extreme due to losses or perceived losses they’ve suffered, and this is especially true when it comes to good governance.  Management teams who have not made their numbers or moved the stock price in a while will have a tendency to up their risky behavior.

So watch out for examples of this type of behavior. Avoid going on tilt, and it will be ok.


Shark Tank And Manufactured Choices

Always, always, always ensure you understand your real set of choices. 

I will humblebrag this:  I don’t watch much TV. On one level, it’s embarrassing to be so out of the loop on TV entertainment, but on another level, meh.  Even when I do watch, it’s usually in snippets, which is where this post comes from.

A week or so ago, I caught the last few minutes of an episode of “Shark Tank.” The pitch was by a woman named Lindsey Laurain–leader of a company called EZPZ.  That’s “easy peasy” for those of us who are phonetically inclined.  Laurain’s company makes a line of all-in-one plate-placemats for the toddler dining scene.

All of that is well and good, and as a father of four, I can appreciate the invention, too.

But what was interesting was this:  Laurain asked for $1 million in exchange for 5% of her company, and she received two offers.  The offers were not without “hair” as we call it, but they put the value of her company at $20 million.  Not a bad indication.

And you know what?  She walked away.

The “sharks” were perturbed.  Why would she do such a thing?

Why? Because it was a bad fit, she had a good product, and there are other options for her to capitalize her company.

Which brings me to the point:  We all get into manufactured situations where others offer us options, sometimes even good ones, which you might even call opportunities.  Ms. Laurain certainly had an “opportunity” to tie into the sharks and gain the potentially increased promotional benefits that can come from their support.

But such situations are often manufactured in such a way that we are led to believe they are our only options. You see this everywhere from real estate (agents constantly extol how “hot” the market is when trying to get you to make an offer on a house) to elite investment banks (bankers will pull out all stops to ensure that the buy side ponies up and the sell side keeps their feet warm).

I’ve got news for you:  You will be a better decision maker if you learn how to take a breath–take time to think and then make a decision that avoids the manufactured circumstances entirely, a decision that evaluates all the outs, not just the cards on the table.

For instance, suppose HR says you need to accept the job before next Tuesday or else, and they question your loyalty because you decide to look their gift horse in the mouth. What kind of company looks to coerce people into roles they aren’t sure about? In a healthy company, career choices are made by the individual, without ultimatums or undue pressure, so take a breath.

Or suppose that the guy making the offer on your business thinks you’re an idiot for rejecting it. Of course he does…that’s his position in the negotiation.  But take a breath and realize your options.  You may still be an idiot, but at least you’ll know where you stand.

The “Shark Tank” anecdote was a great example of an entrepreneur who knew what was right for her team, and we should all learn from her example.

Take a breath, think it over, and always, always, always ensure that you understand your real set of choices.


When Reality Doesn’t Matter

The sad hilarity of the “say anything” executive and consultant…


I can’t write much on this one other than to say it represents the types of behaviors that give high concept consultants and high level executives bad reputations.

It’s worth your time to watch for a bit (and hopefully to get a chuckle).



You ever have to work with someone who took a “just do it, it’s easy” attitude toward things that are literally impossible?

Me too.  And, I hope I never do it again.


Do You Know Your Dilbert Premium?

Do you charge a premium for dysfunction?


I love Dilbert.

The classic comic strip by artist Scott Adams speaks to truths of the corporate environment.

As a matter of fact, the only people I have encountered who dislike Dilbert tend to be the ones whose behaviors the comic strip captures most perfectly.  In other words, they are offended.

What the Dilbert comics show best is the dysfunctions that crop up from management platitudes and organizational shortcomings.

They show the kind of dysfunction that overwhelms organizations…even some of the best organizations you know.  Leadership that believes “do something” is the answer exists in many, many forms.

I get a kick out of Dilbert’s send-ups of such stuff.  It puts on paper some of the rather ridiculous aspects of corporate environments (oh, and consultants) that make life miserable for people fighting the good fight.

Which has me thinking…

I like to think that a healthy part of running a healthy company is having people who value their own self respect and the dignity of others.  Those two things are really reciprocals of others.  I respect myself too much to be unethical, and I respect your dignity enough not to ask you to be.  Corporate environments that don’t foster self respect and dignity are worthy of leaving, as I’ve written before in many forms.  That’s a line that I won’t and I hope you won’t cross.

The real interesting question is about Dilbert dysfunction that falls short of the dignity line. How do you handle that? Do we need to define our own “Dilbert Premium” in our lives?  Do we need to place a price on dysfunction?

An anecdote

At a conference of consultants I recently attended, one of the participants related a story of a client.  It went something like this (and I’m quoting for effect, to be clear, I’m making up the quote):

“I was proposing on some work for a client who is known to be a real pain about fees and payment and scope. So, I was really careful to propose a lower than reasonable price for the work…”

What? Yes, that was my reaction.  What, you say?  You proposed a lower price for a potential client who is known as a pain in the rear?

Having served a few clients who were (a) known as jerks and (b) fulfilled that promise, I firmly believe that this guy didn’t have his Dilbert Premium worked out.

What is the Dilbert Premium? 

Think of the Dilbert Premium as the price of wading into dysfunction.  For a professional services provider, this is easy.  You know you have to go to the bottom of the septic tank to solve the problem?  Price accordingly.  Workers of this type are episodic.

The definition, then, of the Dilbert Premium is the increment or decrement you charge to your market value for dealing with particularly toxic or challenging environments or particularly attractive ones. 

Yes, that’s right, it works in reverse, too.  A lot of people make that calculation:  I like my job and the team, so I’ll take a pay cut. Still, it’s stunning to me how many people dislike the work, the people and the pay, and make no move whatsoever.  And by this, I mean seasoned professionals who are quite good at their jobs.

So, you work in a challenging business environment at a tough job with people you don’t like.  Name your price for your Dilbert Premium.  Is it higher pay? A better immediate working team?  Perhaps a change in job scope?  Those are all variables to consider.

How much do you charge to live with dysfunction? Do you just do your job, tolerate boors, and never ask for a raise? Are you expensive, or cheap?

I will write at some other point about how organizations’ cost of talent is directly related to reputation, growth, and leadership culture.  This one, however, is on you:  Do you price yourself appropriate to the dysfunction you will be asked to tolerate?

A second anecdote

I once took a lower paying role than an offered alternative on the theory (supported by historical evidence) that the Dilbert Premium would place the lower paying role far above the alternative; and, I was right.  The work, the people, and the pay were all fine. I never looked back.  If this is you, congratulations.

However, things do change, and as dysfunction mounts, you have to assess whether your assessed Dilbert Premium was, in fact, right.  If it was not…then look for the right time to make a change–a raise, a change in job scope, a change of team.

Ask yourself:  Do you charge a premium for dysfunction?  Should you start now?

I Am Legend, But I Shouldn’t Be

As change agents, we must not become what we hate.



They were everywhere.

In Richard Matheson’s classic book I Am Legend, the protagonist, Robert Neville, is the sole survivor of a pandemic that has left the rest of the human population converted to vampires.  Those who know the book and not the movies (especially the Will Smith version) know that the vampires could still talk and interact.  They could, eventually, be coherent individuals–still infected with a terrible disease that prevented them from being in the sun.

Neville, the last uninfected person standing, goes about his nights barricaded from the night stalking vampires–studying their evolution and weaknesses. And he goes about his days hunting them down and killing them while they sleep.  He drives stakes into their hearts with aplomb.

Every night, the vampires stand at his barricaded door…calling his name.

Eventually, Neville is captured.  He recognizes, after his capture, that the society of vampires that has formed now views him as the monster.  He has become the stuff of legends… the boogeyman who kills “good” vampires in their sleep.

I am legend.

The insight

What happens when the radical change agent goes too far?

What happens when noble goals like turning around a company or re-invigorating a culture get personal?

I’ve seen (and been) in situations where the radical change agents, focused on protecting or implementing the “good society” of their dreams or experience, get off track. It gets personal.  Everybody around them becomes a vampire to slay.

Their vampires might be in the form of people who represent the “old” culture of a company.

Or, their vampires might be in the form of people who simply won’t do things the way the change agent wants them done.

The change agent–a new executive or consultant, usually–wants a new culture or a new way of doing thigns. So, he or she goes about studying the vampires.  He identifies weaknesses, patterns, and ways of disposing of them.

He becomes a drop dead vampire killer.

But something happens on the way.

On the way, the notion of a “good society” gets left behind.  Killing vampires becomes the end in itself.

Where do you see this transference of a noble goal for a personal one?

Well, in companies that have gone through significant turmoil, vampire killers look like cost cutters.  They get so good at their craft that they take their eyes off the reason for cutting costs in the first place. As times improve, they kill the company’s mojo.

In companies that emerged from periods of zero financial discipline, the killers look like the spreadsheet artists. They work to the right of the decimal and find a way to control every “vampire,” but they lose sight of why.  Discipline becomes an end in itself.

In companies with highly innovative pasts facing uncertain futures, the vampire killers often look like old line leaders who “protect” their innovative heritage at the cost of the future of the company.  They kill off the vampires that look like spreadsheet jockeys. They resist any change whatsoever, even when it’s fully in line with the “good society.”  They are vampire killers.

The lesson

The lesson, then, I suppose is this:  Check your premises.

If you lash out at the old guard (or secretly harbor the desire to terminate them) because, well, you have power and they are the old guard, you might be on your way to becoming a legend.

If you destroy anyone who represents the “other” just because they are other, then you might be on your way to legendary status.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if you find yourself killing vampires just because somebody else said to–with no connection to the good society–then you are simply a legend enabler.  Lots of people pursue agendas triangulated solely from their impressions of what some other vampire killer wants.

Life is too short to only slay vampires.  Don’t become a legend.  Don’t let it be personal. Have a purpose beyond the practice.

Robert Neville started out by killing vampires to eradicate a disease.  He then grew to hate vampires, and became their killer for sport.  Even when the vampires in his story had a point, he still killed them.  He became a legend because he lost sight of his goals.

He became the vampire.

As change agents, we must not become what we hate.

The Most Important Distinction A CEO Makes

As CEO, be explicit about the state of conflict you face, and only go to war when it’s fully warranted.


“The board looks at us like we are the Navy Seals,” the executive told me. “We agree on a number and go get it—year in and year out—and we need someone on the team to soften that view.”

The exec was looking for a “softener” in the form of a person who could put a strategic wrapper around what amounted to a reputation for being single-minded financial performers. The Navy Seals comparison might have even been a little strong since the half-dozen or so Navy Seals I know would say that frogmen rarely just “follow orders.”  That’s what the Marines do, and they do it well, but it’s not as sexy to compare yourself to leathernecks.

But I digress. The gist is that the “person” the executive was looking for would be sorely misplaced. Let me tell you why.

Wartime vs. Peacetime

When it comes to C-level executives, there really are two different leadership mindsets: wartime and peacetime. This is covered very well by author, venture capitalist, and former CEO Ben Horowitz on his blog, here. I’m going to take a slightly different angle than Ben and say that a great executive can dial up both mindsets, but he or she has to be explicit about it. Specifically, in wartime, there is no tomorrow, and in peacetime, it’s all about tomorrow.

I write a lot about respect and healthy strategic outlooks for high-performing organizations, but I don’t spend a lot of time on financial and value-based performance. Why?  Because it’s a prerequisite; If you don’t create value or enable it as an executive, you’re probably not going to cut it. As I wrote nearly a year ago: Performance is the prerequisite. The latest management article on how mindfulness unlocks your team’s performance is all nice, but financial performance is where the median CEO is going to be evaluated. So, balancing performance needs and organizational “health” is, fundamentally, what value-based strategy is all about. In the purest sense, and in the short term, performance and health can be highly conflicting, and that is why executives—really leaders of any stripe—need to manage the balance, which is where the wartime/peacetime mindset conflict comes into play.

A wartime mindset means that decisions get made, by me, every day. It means I don’t have time for debate and discussion, that emotion and, yes, intensity are a part of the puzzle. In wartime, there is no comfort in comfort—it’s win or else. You fight through injury.  You forego pleasantries. Wartime mindsets are most appropriate in business during times of economic crisis, customer crisis, or product transition/launch/retirement, during deals, and, most importantly, during times of competitive attack. As Horowitz puts it, during times of existential threat.

In wartime, a leader makes an objective or else. Take that hill!  Hold that beach!  Cut 50 FTE!  Close that deal!  They are all the same. Mind if I curse? Was I rude? Oh, you didn’t like that I threw that document on the table? It bothers you to have to work past 7?  Comes with the territory. It takes a strong stomach. Suck it up. It’s wartime.

A peacetime mindset is one of building. It means that studies can be done. It means that I might defer a decision for a year (or more in some companies) because…bluntly…I don’t have to make it. It’s where investment and improvement come into play. It’s the mindset that focuses on people’s careers, the future of the company, and the weaknesses that need to be addressed (but not until the next employee conference). As Horowitz puts it, it’s the time to “focus on expanding the market and reinforcing the company’s strengths.”

It is a mistake to think of wartime as better than peacetime. They are different, and executives must understand the difference. Some will be much better leaders in peacetime than in wartime, although that’s beside the point.

What’s important is that great companies are built  with a peacetime mindset and sustained with a wartime mindset.

And so, the most important distinction

Executives, especially CEOs, must be explicit about the state of war a company is in; that distinction drives all others. Why must the CEO be explicit?  Because it’s not always obvious to others in the organization. To use the U.S. military’s old DEFense CONdition ratings:  When the CEO is at DEFCON 1 (signaling nuclear war) and the organization is at DEFCON 5 (signaling peacetime), things get discombobulated.

A CEO might be at war based on things the CEO and only the CEO knows, while the rest of the organization might be at peace because, well, things seem to be going well. This is a recipe for disaster as the CEO continually churns through people, disregards ideas,  and thinks short term without real rhyme or reason. If you operate as if it’s wartime and everyone thinks it’s peacetime, you will demoralize your people. CEOs who have overweening focus on the short term (layoffs, cost cutting, and general pressure) while extolling their company’s strong financial performance year in and year out run into this problem. They create cognitive dissonance in the organization.

A CEO might be at peace in an organization that knows it’s at war, and then the opposite thing happens: the CEO is fiddling with transformation or branding while the customer base is burning. If you operate as a peacetime CEO and everyone thinks it’s wartime, you will lose credibility quickly. There’s a reason we still talk about Nero: a CEO who fails to acknowledge that there are existential threats will lose his or her organization.

That is why leaders, CEOs and others, need to be clear on how they view their worlds. They need to be clear that DEFCON 1 behavior (slashing product lines and replacing people) is only warranted by DEFCON 1 threats, so they need to get people on the same page. Everyone also needs to be clear when DEFCON 5 behavior (delaying decision on a project viewed as critical by others or by a faction within the company) is warranted as well.

This is the most important distinction a CEO will make in the day-to-day operation of a company:  Wartime or peacetime.

A cautionary note on “artificial” wartime

Yeah, but we want a team of warriors, you say. So you continually keep the pressure on through artificial means—even lying to people about the true state of things to make them seem more dire—in order to ensure that people keep an edge or a warrior mindset.

I get it. It’s sexy, like saying you’re a Navy Seal. But it’s also dangerous.

From analyses on the topic of combat fatigue, it’s a known fact that normal people cannot sustain a wartime mindset for an extended period of time. Those who are in active, continuous combat for more than a month generally start to lose effectiveness. Those who are in active continuous combat for more than a couple of months typically become psychiatric casualties. This is true in actual combat, and I’d propose that it’s true in figurative combat.

Dave Grossman, a researcher on the science of combat and killing, outlines from an earlier study that after the beaches of Normandy in World War II, 98% of soldiers who survived constant combat for 60 days had become psychiatric casualties. The other 2%?  They were characterized as “aggressive psychopathic personalities.”

Let that sink in for a second.

The negatives of manufacturing a wartime mindset for your organization are legion. Not only do you (1) place focus on survival vs. building as outlined above, you (2) create an environment in which normal people struggle to thrive for any extended period of time and (3) facilitate the rise of psychopathic personalities who actually can handle the sustained pressure.

It makes no difference whether the artificial pressure is placed by the CEO herself or by some proxy, another C-Level executive or consultant tasked with “cracking the whip” so that the CEO can be the good cop.

So, be explicit about the DEFCON you face, and only go to war when it’s fully warranted. Again, this is the most important distinction you will make as CEO.

While executives (like the one in my opening story) may recognize that their boards see them as mercenaries who propagate a state of war because they act like it, they can’t solve that by adding peaceniks to the team; the peaceniks won’t be heard if the entire organization is charged for combat or thinks the C-level executives only expect combat mentalities. Culture, as I’ve written before here, will crush even the best change agents. The executives have to acknowledge—themselves—a credible state of war or peace within the organization and actually live it out.

And if they can’t change?  Well…

Never Go Full Framework


Frameworks exist to support decisions…not to make them. 


“Everybody knows you never go full [framework].” – Kirk Lazarus, Tropic Thunder

Ever work with a leader who was too wedded to a framework? Not in terms of using the framework to organize their thinking, but in terms of letting the framework do the thinking?

Plug and chug.

Rack and stack.

Rank and yank.

You know the kind.  They’re the ones who will not only enforce the rigor that a BCG growth / share matrix implies in evaluating a portfolio but also blindly follow its conclusions to divest, invest, or starve businesses in the company’s portfolio, real-world results be damned.

If you know corporate strategy, you know these people.  Sometimes they come in the form of consultants who are selling an approach or framework itself, and sometimes, it’s the executive who just really wants a complex world to be as simple as a spreadsheet.

So, let me just say it this way:  Never, ever go full framework.

A story

I spent years as a competitive athlete on the football field.  I had the opportunity to know and work with many truly great coaches (the greatest of whom are probably more nameless than they should be). In the highly structured and choreographed game that is American football, technical details, frameworks, concepts, and plays abound. Though it is a sudden and violent game, it is also a technical game: no play exists that doesn’t come with prescriptions for precise footwork, speed, and multi-person meshing of motion.

And you know what?  It’s all wrong.

What’s that you say?

Yep, it’s all wrong.  No great coach in football relies on his players to merely run plays as they are diagrammed, and no great team in existence runs plays that way.  The world doesn’t even work that way.  The moment the ball is snapped and the play starts, all bets are off.  The defensive tackle moves at the last moment, and suddenly you’re off balance.  Then the linebacker fills the wrong hole in the line, and now your path is blocked.

Precise footwork can become precisely wrong footwork, so for that reason, you do what it takes, not what the framework demands. Bad players will botch a play, go back to the coach, and say “I did all the right technique and it didn’t work.” They are “full framework.” Good players—really great players—read, react, and deliver.  They, to use a term I’m very fond of, overcome coaching.  They know when it’s time to go off script.

Which brings me back to my advice…

Going “Full Framework”

I have worked with management teams who decide to use extremely prescriptive financial or people metrics to run organizations; they use hard-and-fast logical frameworks, such as financial hurdle rates or scores on standardized tests.  They use the frameworks as tools to make decisions and, to put it bluntly, as alibis.

Frameworks give cover; they give comfort. And you know what? They too often also cause management to go home empty handed. The HR person who relies too much on standardized test scores is bound to miss out on natural players; the M&A strategist who relies too much on a framework of numbers and rules will miss out on attractive deals; and the sales manager who insists on having full attendance at 8:30 am every day of the week will miss out on productive salespeople whose style doesn’t mesh with such a rule.

The worst of cases

I’ve mentioned that going full framework gives cover and comfort, but what it can also give is moral distance. The framework says fire that guy, so you do.  Who cares if his wife has major medical issues and COBRA won’t cover them? The framework says promote that gal, so you do.  Who cares if she is completely loathed by the people she will manage—that’s their problem.  Your framework says you have to get to x dollars on price or you walk from negotiation. Who cares what other value is on the table? The framework says divest that underperforming division.  Never mind that it’s the division with the most promising talent your company contains…it’s underperforming.

You’ve gone full framework; it’s not your decision anymore, right? That’s where the worst cases come up—when you go full framework and you lose ownership of the problem, you lose values and a value-centric view of things.

I give these examples as the worst of cases, but in reality the worst of cases is when these alibis are used by senior executives; when they absolve themselves of the responsibility to interpret and decide in favor of letting frameworks or spreadsheets do the heavy lifting, companies suffer.

So what?

This is about you (and me).  You have to be able to overcome coaching, and you have to be able to overcome frameworks.  A good practice is to use frameworks for what they are:  ways of organizing thoughts and concepts for deeper consumption.  You use them rigorously to position yourself for decision making, but you don’t actually make decisions via framework; you make them via reasoned consideration of all available information, and no framework can capture that.

Sure, you diagram plays.  Sure, you use a profitability pareto to tell you which accounts you might need to change or fire.  Sure, you use a growth-share matrix to guide you to your most promising portfolio. Sure, you apply 5 forces, SCP, 7S, Blue Ocean, name your framework here to define reality.

But you still have to decide. Remember, you may diagram the play, but the defense will move. The framework can’t possibly represent the real world completely.  That’s for you to do.

Next time you are faced with an executive who has decided to go full framework, think about this picture of Simple Jack from Tropic Thunder, a fair if crude satire of many things Hollywood, business and otherwise:

simple Jack

Remember…He went full framework.

Now it’s your turn:  How do you ensure that you overcome coaching?  Ever gone full framework?  Leave a reply.  Start the discussion.

5 Ways To Be More Strategic This Year

In strategy, it’s sometimes the little things that make you better. Here are 5 for the new year.


It’s the new year.  2016.  And, of course with the new year comes a boatload of resolutions.  Perhaps you want to lose weight, exercise more, leave the iPhone at home one day a week, go to church, play more, or spend more time with your kids.  Resolutions of this sort come with a goal (pounds, hours, days, instances, etc.).  But, how do you resolve to do something more abstract or squishy?  How do you resolve to be a better person?  How do you resolve to love your partner more?

Appropriate to this post, how do you resolve to be more strategic?  Let me take that one and develop it in a way that almost anyone can use.

On being “Strategic”

At its core, strategy is about perceiving, processing, and acting.  There’s not much more.  We conjure images of egghead strategists and eccentric chess grandmasters, often to create an aura around strategy. But, in reality three things define you as a strategist: perceiving, processing, and acting.

Perceiving means watching and listening. It means having the gumption to stop and understand.  It means collecting data. It means having that moment of humility when you realize that you don’t know it all.

Processing means taking the time to assess position.  It means drawing conclusions about what you know and don’t know.  It mans being analytical, but in a way that ensures positive feedback loops toward the other two foundations of strategy (that would be perceiving and acting for those reading this before their first cup of coffee) Processing tells us whether it’s time to perceive more or to act more.

Acting means moving…hopefully forward (and, knowing that sometimes forward is backwards…or sideways…but I digress)  We tend to think of strategy as planning; but it’s not. Not exactly. No great strategist omits action from his or her repertoire.

Yes, strategy is that simple… And it is magnificently complex once you dig into the myriad ways of perceiving, processing, and acting.

5 ways to be more strategic in 2016

So, you are sitting here, at the start of 2016, wondering how you can be a more strategic businessperson.  Let me offer you 5 little ways to do it. These are relevant for the entry level analyst and for the CEO.  I’d bet that it’s a rare executive who does all 5 to start the year, so I hope there is something here for everyone.

You want to be more strategic?  Then do these 5 things:

  • Talk to 5 customers – That’s right, talk to 5 customers. But, I’m going to offer you a twist…You have to talk to them when there’s no deal on the line.  Try talking to customers just to perceive and not to talk about your own value proposition or features or benefits.  Go ahead, have a cup of coffee with 5 of your customers…just because.  Ask questions.  Try not to look too smart.  You might learn something about what they need.
  • Talk to 5 competitors – This one is a bit more dicey, but in the same vein as the first one.  Find a way to learn and share with market participants in your sector. You might (and I’ll emphasize might) uncover ways of growing the market.  Treat competitors as competitors. But, try–just for a bit–to treat the game as one that involves a growing pool of opportunity vs. merely a zero sum scoreboard.  You might surprise yourself.
  • Talk to 5 employees – This one sounds simple.  It isn’t.  Too many people say “I talk to employees all day long…” but what they mean is that they talk at employees all day long.  They go to meetings, they issue perspectives and orders.  What they don’t do is seek to understand.  The more senior you are, the more isolated you get. Employee interactions start to look more like town halls and focus groups vs. human interactions. Taking time to ask questions and listen of individual employees is challenging.  Your employees may not trust you enough to be honest…but they just might.
  • Outline the three risks you must manage in 2016 – Go ahead, make the list right now.  Refine it as you talk to employees, competitors, and customers.  Have a key person who isn’t happy?  That’s a risk to manage.  Have a key customer who may defect?  Write it down.  Learn something from your conversations in the market?  Refine your view of risks.
  • Outline the three major moves you can make in 2016 – This is where perceiving and processing start to move to action.  Take a moment, today, to define how you, individually, can make game changing moves.  If this is about business strategy, perhaps we are talking about a product introduction or an acquisition of a fellow market participant.  If this is about your individual career, perhaps we are talking about education or community service, or other enhancements to you as an individual.  Write them down.  Have a point of view on major moves.  Avoid “business as usual” where you wake up and suddenly it’s August and you haven’t done a thing that looks strategic.

There you have it.  5 little ways to be more strategic in 2016.  I figure that for the average manager or executive, the things I’ve listed above amount to 20 hours of conversation and contemplation. It amounts to upping your game on perceiving by listening to individuals you may only talk at.  It amounts to upping your game on processing by understanding risks and opportunities explicitly.  And, it amounts to upping your game on acting by taking a moment, now, to confirm the big moves you might make.

Ask yourself…is being a more strategic in 2016 worth 20 hours of time? Let me know in the comments below.

Here’s to a great 2016!