It Ain’t What You Put Into It That Counts

A foolish focus on the inputs can endanger your strategy, company, and career.


Have you ever heard someone say something like,  “I’ve worked 75 hours this week.” (Of course you have.)

Have you ever heard a manager or business leader expound on the dollars spent on something?  “We’ve spent ten million dollars on implementing this effort.”

Have you ever seen an approach to business strategy that focused solely on the available inputs?  “We have two factories, the strategy has to focus on those.”

Worse, have you ever witnessed an approach to strategy that only focused on organization, infrastructure, or edifices?  “Let’s build it and then figure it out.”

I’m betting you’ve seen at least one of these.

And really, what’s wrong with focusing on how much work you’ve done, or the money you’ve spent, or the assets you have in place today, or the capital you could deploy tomorrow? Here’s what:  They are all inputs.

A strategy, whether for wars, countries, companies, or individual careers, is about ends, outcomes, objectives.  A strategy without an objective is a dance.  It can be beautiful, but it is ultimately just a play…kabuki at its finest.

When “being strategic” means focusing on the hours you’ve worked or the dollars you’ve spent, you’ve probably already lost the battle.  Why?

For the professional individual, a focus on how many hours you’ve spent doing your job is frankly just silly.  I have a healthy respect for people who work hard; I really appreciate it.  However, if a person works an 80-hour work week when a smarter person would work only 50 and get the same result, why is the input of 80 hours relevant?  When people start to focus on time, particularly in knowledge work roles (we aren’t talking the factory floor here, folks), the organization will suffer.  It usually signals a transition in the conversation from the “responsibilities” of a role–generate an output that has value–to the “rights” of the individuals–work a reasonable work day.  The conversation for an individual ought to be about the product of the work, not the time spent doing it.

A wise senior leader of a global consultancy I know well once told me, “If you can’t consistently do this job in 60 hours a week, you may not be smart enough for the job in the first place.”  That’s a pretty interesting perspective.  A true pro focuses on the outputs of their work and negotiates the resources to ensure the right output at a reasonable input of their own resources.

For companies and senior leaders, the problem is a little different.  Business strategy is about deploying resources to achieve an objective.  Some senior leaders are exceptionally good at these sorts of things without even thinking about it, but some, frankly, are not.  The ones who are not good at it tend to use strategic planning as a reductionist exercise to meet “non-strategic” objectives–budget numbers, financial incentives, etc.–that in all reality don’t tie to the health of the company as a whole. A focus on inputs at a company level usually comes in the form of binding constraints that aren’t really constraints at all.

Instead of asking the question, “What would it take to win that account from that competitor?”, they say, “How can Ralph from accounting take on this new sales role and try to get some wins?”  When hunting elephants, bring enough gun.

To wit, managers use only the talent and capabilities they have today in thinking about their business strategies.  They focus only on the financial resources they have at this moment to achieve their objectives.  They allow themselves to focus on optimizing their existing pie charts of businesses, assets, resources, talent, etc. vs. thinking about what the future pie can look like.  In other words, they focus on the inputs.

So what?  

For yourself, watch out for a creeping sense of martyrdom about how much you put into your job; instead, focus on what’s coming out of it.  Shift the focus to results attained and only then zoom in on what it would take to sustain them.

For your company?  This is tougher.  First, management teams have to articulate practical business objectives for a strategy to be real.  “Take hill 1221 from the enemy” is a strategic objective; “cover 2500 meters and burn only 5,000 gallons of fuel” is not.  Yet we allow companies to run on goals and metrics (or budgets) that look like the latter, and in some cases, they operate with management not even knowing what hill to take.

All this is to say that it’s healthy to ask yourself whether you are too focused on the inputs of your strategy and not enough on the outputs.  It is not, however, to say that constraints don’t matter; constraints are important, and they should be reflected in any strategy.  To use my analogy above, a strategy that says “Take hill 1221 from the enemy using only a cigarette lighter, five rubber bands, and a Daisy bb gun” is what I would call a good start toward revising your objectives.

On hill 1221, that might get you killed.  In your company, such ignorance of constraints might just get you fired.  It’s the strategist’s job (and we are all strategists at some level) to balance strategic objectives with degree of difficulty and possible resources (not resources on hand…important distinction, that).

A foolish focus on the inputs can endanger your strategy, company, and career.

Now, if you’ve come this far, take a moment to leave a comment.  Hundreds of people read this blog, and your insights matter. 


6 replies
  1. Gray Shipley
    Gray Shipley says:

    Great perspective, Geoff. In my experience, those who are the busiest and have the most on their calendars (and talk the most about how much time they work) are those who get the least accomplished. Those who seem to always have extra time for people are the ones creating amazing productivity.

    It helps to keep in mind that customers are the reason your company is a company – your value can only ever be a subset of the value you create for your customers. And the value to your customers is your output, not your input.

    • Geoff Wilson
      Geoff Wilson says:

      Thanks Tony. And, the really cool part is I get to use the word “Ain’t” in the title of a blog and not have a PR person look askance (well, at least one INSIDE the company).

  2. Richard Miller
    Richard Miller says:

    Excellent article. That is part of why government is so poor at solving problems. They get so caught up in thoughts of solutions by defining the inputs (usually to please key constituencies) that the goal gets lost in the shuffle. The solution to carbon fuels is to pour money into electric cars rather than reduce the carbon footprint of cars using readily available technologies to reduce weight etc. They tell you what we are doing to fight poverty by the money they are spending rather than telling how many families the have succeeded in getting off the dole for good.

    • Geoff Wilson
      Geoff Wilson says:

      Richard: Government is probably a topic for an entirely different post (or book…). Our concept of government nowadays is far too focused on allocating resources vs. allowing people to choose allocations on their own. It’s a lot easier for a politician to make hay with “look what I got for you” vs. “look what I allowed you to do for yourself,” even when allowing more local choice tends to result in better local outcomes. Beware anyone who talks about “solutions” when it comes to complex systems.


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