Relying on unidentified heroics is great for movies, but bad for business strategy.
This article contains a spoiler for the 1977 movie “Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope”. If you’ve never seen it, you’ve missed an important and largely wholesome artifact of modern popular culture, so please don’t read on until you watch it.
Picture it. It’s a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. You’re Luke Skywalker. It’s the final battle of “Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope”. In your X-sing starfighter, you’re bearing down on the small exhaust port that is the Death Star’s only known weakness. Your strategy says a proton torpedo or two delivered into that port will be all she wrote for the evil Empire’s new toy.
But Darth Vader and two henchmen are closing in on you in their roaring, menacing TIE fighters. You only need a minute more to triumphantly blow apart the Death Star as per the battle’s strategy—but Vader is seconds from destroying you instead.
As he locks his TIE fighter’s weapons on you, Vader unleashes a sinister, foreshadowing boast in James Earl Jones’ deep voice:
“I have you now …”
And he does. All appears lost. Your strategy isn’t going to make it. But then, out of nowhere, Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon blast Vader and his entourage out of the picture and into outer space. Solo exclaims those classic words:
“You’re all clear, kid. Now let’s blow this thing and go home.”
You are. You do. And you all go. Everyone gets a medal. The galaxy is safe—for now.
Now, back to the real world.
I’ve got news for you: Han Solo won’t save your business (or life) strategy. So don’t plan like he will.
Business strategy, like an excellent motion picture, is a narrative acted out. It’s supported by facts and demonstrated through action. Any good narrative—and many sound business strategies—can use all manner of plot devices. Cliffhangers, climaxes, twists, bluffs, foreshadowing, flashbacks, and feints are all in bounds.
But the one plot device that should never penetrate the documented realm of any strategy is called deus ex machina. Literally translated as “god from the machine,” it is “… a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object.”
You see? Han Solo shows up out of nowhere and saves the day.
Examples of deus ex machina in business strategy are legion. Any time you review (or, God forbid, develop) a strategy that goes from point A to point Z, but you can’t find the connecting points between, you’re seeing this problematic plot device.
You’re probably part of a company today that has at least one business unit that plans for growth to rescue margins, acquisition to rescue growth, new products to rescue customer loyalty, or an expert new hire (his or her initials: TBD) to drive a new level of performance and engagement. But its done without growth plans, without an acquisition map, without articulating which products will unveil the promised land, and without the budget, candidates, or even value proposition to fill the open spot.
People who operate like this are waiting for Han Solo. Don’t wait for Han Solo. It’s dangerous. Here’s why.
Most long-term business strategies start with goals given by senior management, boards, or CEOs without more than vague notions of how to achieve them. The best of those goals constitute true “commander’s intent,” with end states in mind bounded by sets of values—definitions of what you won’t resort to in pursuit of excellence. Others are simply budget targets. We hit “budget as strategy” in another post; they can and do coexist, but tenuously.
Let’s assume the commander’s intent is your starting point. A beautiful strategic objective is therefore put in place, with an understanding of what we won’t do to achieve it. Own a market segment, grow at top quartile rates, be excellent to your customers. Be the most aggressive and the most admired simultaneously. Have it all.
But what if the strategy drawn up to get there relies on too many unidentified elements to succeed? It lacks specificity and shape. It is written as though the answer is “Trust us, we’ll figure it out.” In short, it is amorphous–not simply flexible, but in reality unbounded. “Han Solo will rescue us.”
Amorphous strategy creates at least three hazards that are brutally deleterious to an organization, your standing as a leader, and your own decision making:
- Creates confusion where there should be cohesion. All things are possible as long as they are even obliquely oriented toward the end objective. A thousand flowers bloom and quickly die due to shallow roots. In the end, scope creeps toward what is nearby and comfortable. Incrementalism abounds because it’s the least confusing option.
- Makes you, as the strategic leader, look like a short-term thinker. It leads organizations to believe that leaders are solely focused on the near term. Because there is no connective tissue between now and the future state, long-term strategies are viewed as mere window dressing. They are something you put on PowerPoint slides and show off at conferences, but don’t really believe in. More of the same, piled high and deep. All the advanced degrees. You get the picture.
- Confounds good decision making. Because the means and methods are undefined, principled decisions are hard to come by. Anything and everything can be “on strategy” and the same can be “off strategy.” Pet projects, politics, and personal peccadilloes can grow to dominate decision making vs. principled protection of proper perspective.
What are you to do? Here are a few practical ideas:
Believe in belief* – Yes, that’s right. Have a point of view and share it. The fog of war is no excuse. Practice the art of saying “I don’t know, but my hypothesis is …” vs. just artfully dodging the issue. If your business (or life) strategy isn’t built on a set of beliefs about yourself, your organization, your competitors, and the world around you, then you are, my friend, a sucker. Always have a hypothesis about what the savior will be and how you cultivate it. Test the hypothesis frequently.
Apply your beliefs to “Step 2” – If you have a strategy that is big and audacious (including a strategy for your career), it’s not sufficient to plan for incremental moves. Think of strategy as the often-quoted three-step framework. Step 1 in many, if not most, strategies is “Do what we are doing, only better.” Step 3 is usually some variant of the Jack Welch theme: “Be number one or number two in our market segment.”
You have to know at least the silhouette of what Step 2 is—especially if Step 3 requires a step-change in performance. Who would you acquire? What kind of product would you need to bring to market? What customer would you have to reach? What does your footprint need to look like? What capabilities should you build now?
If you can’t bridge the gap between Step 1 and Step 3, even conceptually, then you are now in possession of a powerful insight about the objective itself.
Pack for the journey – I posted previously on the importance of answering the question “Have you packed for the journey?” If your strategy has a Step 1, 2, and 3, then ask yourself if you have resourced it and made the real risk/resourcing/return decisions necessary to go the distance. Many strategies founder on the rocks of stretched resources or capabilities—especially in today’s age of management by spreadsheet.
Pressure test the means – If you’re in a leadership or board position (or one that looks like it), be sure to ask about Step 2. Trust, but verify. A leader who demonstrates a grand strategy but cannot outline a practical step to get there is telling you something. Getting excited about an end objective is a good thing, but it shouldn’t crowd out sober assessment of the path to the objective.
You must ruthlessly eliminate the white knight, Prince Charming, Han Solo—pick your metaphor—from strategic planning. Using them as plot devices—or their relatives the unfunded mandate, growth by hockey stick, cost reduction by benchmark, and the unidentified acquisition—is strategy based on faith. It’s strategy by fairy tale.
A more direct appraisal is that it’s not strategy at all.
Han Solo doesn’t work on your team, so don’t plan as though he’ll save the day—or your strategy.
What do you think?
* I borrowed this adage as a direct homage to the late, legendary swimming coach Richard Quick. I’m glad to have known him. It was his motto, and it’s a good one.