Maliciously Delicious

Great compliance can equal unhappy customers.


Not long ago, I asked some people in my organization to make a change to how they submit expense reports.  Instead of titling the expense reports willy-nilly, they were to use a more systematic titling convention that allows our chief administrative officer (that’s me) to quickly sort through a high volume of reports.

I asked for a simple convention:

Last Name, Client, Month, Year

Admittedly, when reports are submitted this way, it has worked beautifully for me…shaving off minutes of time it takes to review, to book, and where needed to accurately bill expenses from our firm.

Today, I chuckled as I received an expense report titled “Last Name, Client, Month, Year.”  As in, literally named with those words.

Now, notwithstanding my amusement at what was clearly a person’s diligent attempt to remind themselves of how to name their reports that accidentally didn’t get updated prior to submission, it brings up a really interesting topic for the manager and strategist in all of us.

Have you ever heard of “malicious compliance?”

Malicious compliance is compliance with the letter and not the spirit.  It’s doing what you are told and not what’s right.

Good examples of malicious compliance come up in all organizations all the time.  Did you attend that “mandatory” meeting instead of fixing that customer problem because you knew your boss would focus (pettily I might add) on your absence vs. the customer?

Did you ever have someone do exactly what the customer wanted, even though it was exactly the wrong thing?

That’s malicious compliance.

In establishing change programs, we have to balance the need for strict compliance with what I will call “first things.”  First things are principles like the Hippocratic “do no harm.”  They are principles like “customer experience first.”  First things are values.  The first things have to come first.

You want all reports for your strategy deployment effort on time, every time?  Sure, but what about the fire down at the plant?

Having strong values is a way of avoiding instances of malicious compliance.

The point here is that great compliance–even with good rules and regulations–can equal unhappy customers and unhealthy organizations.  Your values should guide you to when it’s time to “overcome compliance.”

I’m curious:  What’s your favorite example of malicious compliance?  If you start the conversation, I’m betting this one could be more interesting in the comments than in the post!

What do you think?

It’s Your Value Proposition, Stupid!

The missing link in too many strategies is the master link.


Have you ever walked into a store and said “I’m buying brand X because they have the best scientists?”

How about “I’m going to buy this car because the maker has an outstanding leadership development program?”

What about “I’m buying from them because they are going to double the size of the company in 5 years?”

Probably not.

When we are customers, we buy based on a really strange thing called a value proposition. That is to say that we buy something because it is worth more to us than the time and money it takes to (a) buy it in particular and (b) buy it or anything else from someone else in general.  That’s it.  That’s how you win.

The crazy thing, however, is that I see corporate and business strategies spending less than an iota of time defining a true value proposition. They instead tend to focus on internal capabilities or realities and pose them as value propositions.

Have you ever seen this?

“Our strategy is to be great at business to business sales.”

Okay, fine, but does the customer who actually buys from you really care?

“Our strategy is to use our impeccable R&D capabilities to drive innovation.”

Um, maybe, but unless you sell R&D services, the customer doesn’t buy R&D from you, they buy a different product or service.

I’ll leave this one shorter than it needs to be: Your value proposition is what wins you business. Your strategy has to encompass your value proposition. Sure, it can also encompass other competitive advantages like operations, unique skills, or low-cost assets; but if you cannot articulate your value proposition (which may very well be delivered via your competitive advantages) to the customer, then your strategy is probably a waste of space.

Are you wondering why your growth strategy isn’t resulting in growth? Are you struggling to figure out why your customer acquisition strategy isn’t acquiring customers? Are you clueless about why your operations strategy hasn’t given you the boost you expected?

Then, check their links to the value proposition you are delivering to the market.

It’s your value propositions to the customers you hope to serve that determine your success…and too often the customer value proposition is disregarded in favor of some internal, known, but altogether insufficient drivers of success.

Your value proposition is far too often both the master link of your strategy, and the missing link.

Mind your value proposition, stupid.

What do you think? 

Your Platitudes Are Showing

Strategic platitudes can ruin your day.


Have a look at these:

“We’re going to be number 1 or number 2 in our markets.”

“We’re going to double the size of the company!”

“We’re going to focus on M&A as our growth driver.”

“We’re going to build a growth engine in our product development department.”

“We’re going to out-compete our competitors.”

Ever hear any of these articulated as “our strategy?”  Probably.  Maybe in your own company, today.

They are the chunks in the chunky soup of management platitudes.  You hear them and their derivatives at all times.

Let’s take them apart…

“We’re going to be number 1 or number 2 in our markets.”

This is a bastardization of an old portfolio management philosophy most famously articulated in the U.S. by General Electric.  It was and is a good one, in my opinion.  But, one cannot confuse a portfolio management philosophy (which is strategy at one level) with a strategic plan for a business.  Yet you hear people ripping off Jack Welch, even today, and claiming it as a strategy for a business.

You want to be number 1 or number 2?  Okay, fine.  How?  That’s where strategy comes in.

“We’re going to double the size of the company!”

This one has been strewn across management thinking in the worst of ways. Put simply, “growth” is not a strategy.  It’s not a strategy for a portfolio and certainly not for a given business.  In fact, anyone who articulates strategy as “we’re going to grow” is only slightly removed from the guy who says his strategy for winning the football game is to “score more points than the opponent.”  It’s a nice notion and definitely a metric, but it isn’t going to determine the concept of your passing or ground game.

 “We’re going to focus on M&A as our growth driver.”

This one is especially dangerous because of the implications it brings with it.  Focusing on M&A as a tool for growth is ok.  It really is.  Plenty of companies allocate capital to acquisitions all day long and book the growth.  But, let’s be clear, acquired growth without a coherent strategic philosophy is a loser’s proposition.  In the 1970’s, AMF Corporation made motorcycles and bowling pins. Its management team walked itself into a non-performing corner by acquiring indiscriminately.  It died a slow death as all of its pieces were sold off in the ’80s and beyond.

M&A as a “strategy” implies that the current business is played out.  It lets management give itself a free pass on growing the existing business. Why would any board allow that?  M&A is not a strategy any more than “sales” is a strategy.  M&A is a tool in the toolkit of an effective management strategist.

“We’re going to build a growth engine in our product development department.”

This one is interesting because it presents a competitive advantage as a strategy.  Competitive advantages are great.  But, they aren’t strategy.  Strategy is direction, focus, resourcing, and value delivery.  Anybody who tells you their strategy is to invest in a competence needs to be asked whether the competence links to actual value delivery.  Building an asset is nice, but remember, an asset delivers cash.

“We’re going to out-compete our competitors.”

I threw this one in there for good measure.  Strategies that assume harder work than the competition are legion.  I mean that.  “Hard work” is not a strategy.  Neither is “focus.”  Yet we see these sorts of platitudes trotted out as components of a strategy.  We are going to work harder than the competition!  Sure, whatever. The competitor is a competitor because they are already in your market. What makes you think it’s a good idea to imply to yourself or your organization that the competition doesn’t work as hard as you?

Strategic management is hard.  To muck it up with low worth slogans and platitudes is to distract from the mission.

What do you do when your platitudes are showing?


Strategic synthesis: The art and corruption of brevity

Pithy management insights have their place—and their perils.

Geoff Wilson

I dig synthesis. I mean, I really enjoy enlivening concepts by making them simple and direct. You say, “I want to have the best service, best product, best operations, and the best brand.” I say, “You want a delighted customer.”

See what I did there? Same concept, synthesized. But synthesis is a Goldilocks proposition: too much and you get burned; too little and you’re left cold. Take the above example. Is it sufficient feedback? I’m not sure. That mostly depends on the leadership team receiving the synthesis.

I know some leadership teams that would take “delighted customer” and turn it into a map of service, product, operations, brand, etc. And I know other leadership teams that would hear “delighted customer” and knuckle down on their customer service function. It’s obvious, right? Customer service is the function that delights customers … right? Wrong.

That’s where synthesis is dangerous. Excess synthesis make you pithy. Pithiness is useful in some contexts. Look at the typical internet meme and you’ll see pithiness writ large. But go too far down the pithy path and you end up at pithy’s dangerous neighbor: glibness.

If synthesis is a beautiful red wine, pithiness is a wine cooler, and glibness is a nasty bottle of Boone’s Farm. Dilettantes guzzle Boone’s until they suffer the consequences. Boone’s is cheap, shallow, and insincere—just like a glib statement.


To wit, I’m struck by a meme that recently passed through my LinkedIn feed. It depicts Simon Sinek and a quote about hiring attributed to him:


This statement epitomizes glib, dangerous advice. Would you select your surgeon based on demeanor? Or choose a mechanic based on attitude? Of course not.

The advice is so extremely context-driven as to be useless. It’s not pithy, it’s shallow—glib, even. Such thinking may apply to the most basic entry-level or noncritical jobs, but adopting the same philosophy to hire your CFO would not only be moronic but could also put you in jail.

While I’m not trying to disparage Sinek—I don’t even know if he approves of the use of this particular quotation—I am denigrating truthiness in management advice. Sinek, I suspect, may know better. Synthesis is an art of the highest order. It delivers precisely what you need when you need it.

Pithiness is an art, too, but it’s a corruptible one. Pithy bullshit sells. But that same pithy bullshit can also get you in deep trouble. Leaders, strategists, managers, and people of all sorts must be skilled at hearing a pitch, proverb, or proposal and searching for the bones beneath it.

If I tell you to “delight your customer,” you may be able to find the full skeleton of a well-built customer-value proposition. At that point, I may have done my job. But f I tell you to “delight your customer” and you then zero in on only the customer service function, I haven’t done enough. I’ve delivered you a wine cooler when you actually need more wine.

If Sinek tells you to hire for attitude and then teach skills, and you rightly ask how that works when hiring senior software engineers, you have properly looked for the bones that were never there. You’re calling bullshit on a tidy, pithy, pseudo-synthetic glass of glibness. Think Boone’s Farm.

Such swill is from the bottom shelf of management thinking—just like a $2 bottle of “strawberry-flavored citrus wine” (a description that sounds like the recipe for a bad hangover). You can live with a wine cooler now and then, but if you’re swigging Boone’s Farm, you’re in for a rough awakening.

What do you think?

That Dead Guy In Your Organization

Put it in their belly, not their back.

You ever have an experience where a senior manager called the death of a living and breathing individual?  I don’t mean literal death, I mean figurative death. I mean like when Michael Corleone tells his older brother Fredo, “You’re nothing to me now.”

Here’s that epic scene…

You get it?  Harsh. Right?  “You are dead to me.”

Except what about the executive who doesn’t have the intestinal fortitude to actually face up and admit it to the other party.  Have you ever met him (or her)? I have, and it isn’t pretty.

I once served a senior executive who, when faced with people who would not comply with his wishes, would literally say, “They are dead to me.”

Get it?  They won’t take my advice?  “Dead to me.”

Won’t see things my way?  “Dead to me.”

Said no to me? “Dead…”

It’s a hollow way of looking at the world, to be sure; it is, quite possibly, one of the most self-centered utterings out there.  And imagine when it’s done by people in senior positions, but without it being stated to the party who has just died!!!

That means that not only is the other party “dead,” but that he or she is still walking around the organization with a death mark hung on them.  Their career in the organization might be over, and their opportunities for advancement might be nonexistent, but the senior exec doesn’t have the nerve to admit it.   He may have just created a dead man walking, and stated so to other influential people, but he lacks the courage to counsel the dead man out.

In life, we have the opportunity to do two things with our disappointments about other people.  We can backbite and undermine, or we can work them out in front of those who disappoint us.

If you know a dead man walking, then you probably work for or with a person whose moral compass is haywire.

If you’re going to voice your displeasure, have the courage to put the knife in their belly–not their back.


Don’t Forget Your Change

The focus of strategy should be on what needs to change, but too often, we leave the change behind. 


For those of us who still pay in cash, there is the experience of going through a modern checkout line, paying with paper money, and receiving paper money in return from the clerk, while coin-based change is chunked out by an automated machine.

Invariably, this setup requires the clerk to say “Don’t forget your change!”


Because what used to be a one-part activity (receiving change from a clerk) has now been split into two parts. This post is about not forgetting your change.

Allow me to outline two modes of strategic planning.

First is the mode that business owners tend to engage in–let’s just call it owner mode.  Working with owners on strategic planning tends to be very interesting and engaging for someone like me because you can dispense with the pleasantries of multi-constituency narratives and logrolling and just go straight to the spreadsheet.  Private equity firms are my favorites at this. My best private equity clients don’t want the PowerPoint; they want a well-structured and justified to-do list and a spreadsheet that outlines the costs and benefits of the action we came up with.

The same can be said for owner/operators.  A CEO client of mine who happens also to be an owner, when asked by one of his team members, “What do we need to do to start implementing the plan?,” simply said, “Why aren’t you implementing it already?”

While owners want to see justification for change, they only want so much before they put it in place: they want their change, as it were.  Private equity firms and owner/operators derive benefits from and demand near- and long-term changes in performance.

The second mode of strategic planning is manager mode; manager mode is extremely common in companies that are populated by managers who are not…you guessed it…owners.  The manager mode of strategic planning tends to be more status quo oriented, and there’s a reason for that:  current management doesn’t necessarily derive great benefit from explaining to its owners how wrong they have been over the past few years.

Face it, nobody walks into the office every day saying “Today, I’m going to do a bad job.  I’m going to misallocate resources and tamp down our sales culture with massive bureaucracy.  In fact,  I think I’ll demotivate a few people today.

Nobody says that, not even the worst managers.  Everything happens for a reason (or at least has a story for why it happened), even current structures and processes that really make no sense. So managers tend to focus more of their time on strategic planning and justifying why they are where they are vs. why that should be blown up and rebuilt.  They entertain their boards with creative narratives. They “kill the clock” with their owners and boards so as not to confront hard things. And they build plans that are heavy on narrative but light on change, and this is especially true when it comes to the specificity of change implied in manager-driven plans.

So with those two modes of planning outlined, the enlightened strategist has to understand that effective strategic planning, especially with manager-driven strategic plans, is a two-step process: There is the step of creating the paper plan, and then there’s the step of producing the hard change that will ensure competitive endurance.

So I’ll just leave this with you:

Strategic planning from a manager’s point of view can devolve into an argument for the status quo and why change is hard, while an owner’s point of view tends to ensure a focus on change sooner, faster, and deeper. In every strategic planning exercise, there must be a moment where the planners–whether or not they are owners–put on the owner hat and test for whether recommended changes are sufficient. 

A strategic plan should envision changes to meet challenges.

Don’t forget your change.


Cheese, Change, and Cheyenne

Your signature characteristic as an executive will be how you respond to change.


Here’s a bit of verse for you, courtesy of country music legend George Strait:

She said, “Don’t bother comin’ home
By the time you get here I’ll be long gone
There’s somebody new and he sure ain’t no Rodeo man”
He said, “I’m sorry it’s come down to this
There’s so much about you that I’m gonna miss
But it’s alright baby, if I hurry I can still make Cheyenne
Gotta go now baby, if I hurry I can still make Cheyenne”

This post is about Cheyenne, and getting tangled up, and moving on, and dealing with unexpected change, and keeping on.

“Well, that didn’t go so well, did it?”

Have you ever had a meeting, project, job, or career move that resulted in such a polite evaluation?  Probably so. Things happen.  It’s how you react to things that will define your leadership profile and quite likely your career. It’s how you react to unexpected outcomes that will define you in front of your family, your friends, and your fellow professionals.

Life is full of surprises. Some of them are good, some of them not so good. We all have choices to make in how we respond to surprises.  Unfortunately, it’s human nature to do two things with surprises:  First, we like to take credit for favorable ones.  Second, we like to lay blame on others for negative ones.  These tendencies–taking credit and placing blame–are probably all around you, even if only in nuanced fashion.

How do we ignore credit and blame and just work to move on?

First, let me say that it’s hard.  A defining aspect of my role in the business community is that I have the opportunity to listen to many people who are in transition.  Executives are moving around all the time, and it’s easy to hear from them when your network is deep and your ears are open.  They really fall into two categories:

Category 1 transitioners are people who are focused on “why this happened.”  They fall into a cycle of diagnosis of what got them where they are.  They are focused on what they did right or wrong.  They get bogged down in blame and misunderstanding and pain. They find reasons that they were right and that others were wrong.  I’ve been there.

Category 2 transitioners are people who are focused on “what is happening next.”  They are the ones who recognize change for the opportunity that it is.  They work to define the next thing as quickly as possible. They get off the dime.  They move on.  They look forward. They hurry.

You want to know a little secret:  You don’t have to be an executive in transition to fall into these two categories.  You are in sales?  Fight to maintain a Category 2 mindset.  You are leading a company through a strategic change?  Yep… Category 2 is your ticket.  You are choosing a CEO to lead your company?  Look for Category 2 characteristics.

Category 1 people are caught in the credit/blame cycle–a perfectly natural but fully unproductive place to get caught. I won’t try to insult your intelligence beyond saying that Category 2 folks are the ones who are more successful in normal businesses and organizations.  They are also a lot more fun to be around.

They have a concept of what is possible next.

They have their Cheyenne in mind.

They are in a hurry.

Oh, boss, you don’t think it’s going to work out between you and me?  Ok.  I really liked it here, but I understand.  Gotta go now.

Oh, prospective client, you didn’t like my last and final sales pitch?  Ok. I have an appointment to make for later today if I can hurry.

This is not a post about surrendering and leaving at first difficulty. It’s about knowing how to move on when it is, in fact, time to move on.  I’m not saying have no memory or accountability for the past. I’m absolutely not saying what in the past does not matter.  I am saying that if you let it define you it will sandbag your next steps more than you’ll ever realize.

Author Spencer Johnson has sold 26 million copies of his famous book Who Moved My Cheese?.  The book is a parable about a couple of rodents who get too used to eating cheese that is in the same spot every day.  One day, the cheese is no longer there.  One rat sits still and frets.  The other?  It ties on the running shoes and gets going.

Change readiness (perhaps change openness) is a simple concept.  It’s also a concept that will define you for better or for worse.

Gotta go now, baby, if I hurry I can still make Cheyenne.

What do you think?