Stop waiting for Han Solo

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.

Geoff Wilson

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-wing 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 (except Chewbacca). The galaxy is safe—for now.

Now, back to the real world.

Exhale …

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

So what?

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 – 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.

The cure that kills

Corporate change programs can be toxic treatments unless heavily dosed with honest communication.

Geoff Wilson

Early in my career, I had a conversation with a mid-level manager (let’s call him Carl) within a large company undergoing a tense operational change. Carl was responsible for multiple small sites in the organization’s footprint. He led tens of people. It wasn’t hundreds or thousands, but still significant.

I was a fledgling consultant to top management at Carl’s company. My team was focused on designing the approach to the company’s change. In my conversation with Carl, I asked how things were done and what would help with the change.

The conversation was productive, but then Carl paused. I now know it was the pause that comes before someone actually breaks through the facade of their professional life. At that point in my career, however, I just thought he was thinking.

Carl then laid it out there: “All these corporate programs—I can’t tell which way things are going or why we are doing what we are doing.” He paused again, and then unleashed the words that have stuck with me ever since: “It makes you feel like a beaten dog. You flinch every time the corporate hand comes toward you because you are more used to it beating you than it helping you.”

And there, my friends, was a life-changing moment. It was life changing for two reasons:

  • Carl was an honest guy. He was trying to comply with corporate mandates—and was getting crushed in the process. He lacked access to any rhyme or reason for the change.
  • I had a core belief (now solidified) that no senior executive walks into the office seeking to foist valueless initiatives on his or her people for the sheer joy of creating confusion and frustration. (Side note: After years as an advisor and executive, I’ve known one or two executives who propagate valueless initiatives for the sake of their own ego, but not as real sadists. The end result is the same, but the intent isn’t)

In Carl’s case, the two sides of the circuit—top management and line leaders—had strong values and desires to do great jobs. But they weren’t connecting. The missed connection was consequently crushing drive and initiative where it was needed most.

In other words, initiatives, mandates, and highly valuable corporate performance programs driven from the top looked—to those most needed to buy into them—more like beatings than opportunities. They were systemic “cures” handed down from corporate offices that could literally kill local energy and focus. The programs dulled the edge of the very people meant to be sharpened by them.

Not only that, but the entire situation very quickly made senior leaders look like the “doctors” in this post photo. Not folks you’d seek out for a cure, eh?

In the history of medical science, many so-called cures have proven lethal not only to diseases, but also to patients. The history of cancer chemotherapy is rife with such instances. Actress/playwright Anna Deavere Smith deftly illustrated this concept in her solo play “Let Me Down Easy” when she wrote that cancer therapy is “like taking a stick and beating a dog to get rid of fleas.”

Corporate change programs—especially the big ones—sometimes have the same feel: indiscriminate cure targeting incorrigible disease launched against unassuming patients. A stick swung against the body, and then again but in a different way. Again. And again. And again. Striking nerves and tissue they don’t intend to strike, but doing damage anyway.

It’s a way of targeting performance that is often effective but sometimes lethal. Corporate change programs, like a stick used to beat a dog or a powerful chemical used to decimate a disease, can be a cure that kills. But the analogies break down at that point.

Why? Because we as corporate leaders are able to package and prepare our patients for our cure in a way that no canine or cancer patient’s body can ever be readied. We can turn the stick into a staff, or the chemotherapy into a nourishing concoction.

How? We can use the power of “why.” We can communicate not only what’s coming, but why it’s happening. We can explain the meaning of the action and its upside for stakeholders. In the cases of the worst outcomes—change programs that have necessary but terminal impact on some individuals—we can quite literally let those afflicted down easy.

We just need to take the time to do it. And do it repeatedly. And then to do it again. But how? Simon Sinek’s TED talk that encapsulates the concept of “starting with the ‘why'” is a helpful guide. For leaders to inspire action and minimize confusion, angst, and ultimately departure, we should ensure that the “why” reaches everyone the change impacts.

Summarizing change in a change story is a great way to start. Delivering it personally is even more captivating. Living the change out visibly is the ultimate approach. But there’s a catch: If you as an executive leader don’t change at all OR you change too often—especially if your “why” keeps changing while the world around you isn’t—you’re just swinging the stick in a different way.

Being outstanding at operations one quarter, great at growth the next, and excellent at efficiency the following only serves to show that you’re untethered from principle. That, or your principles aren’t what you’re packaging into your “why” to begin with. Either way, you resort to more of the same—except now, instead of death by confusion and randomness, you’re propagating death by disingenuousness.

Don’t be untethered, and don’t be disingenuous. You have to have vision and integrity.

Change leaders of all stripes: Stop beating your dogs. Use the power of preparation and communication. Drive performance by leading with the “why.”

Prescribe a cure that cures by preparing people for the treatment.

What do you think?

Welcome to the real, messy world

Like the real world, real business isn’t as simple as you’d like it to be.

Geoff Wilson

I’ll confess, I’m a bit of a strategy junkie. You don’t have to be one to do what I do, but it helps. However, if you read my writing much, I hope you come away with a sense of the practical bent that I bring to the topic. The real world is the real world. Just as any engineer will tell you that lab scale processes rarely translate directly to production facilities, financial and strategic models rarely reflect reality—at all.

The below image was shown at a recent annual meeting of a private equity firm we have the privilege to serve. It shows indexed revenue and EBITDA performance over the life of a fund’s portfolio. Each line is a portfolio company. Lines that trend upward are green. Downward lines are red.

Keep in mind, this is a top-performing private equity fund. Returns for this portfolio were excellent. What do you see? The real world.

Each of those lines depicts the outcome of an actual business. It’s the result of some management team’s hopes and dreams. Those businesses were probably planned using relatively linear models and margins. But what you get is actual sausage making. And I’ll say it again: This is a top-performing portfolio.

The real world is sausage making. Real business comes with randomness, particularly in companies that are working to make things happen.

If you consider it failure that some parts of your portfolio might not stay in lockstep with your linear growth expectations, you probably don’t understand the nature of risk taking and enterprise building. You might be more comfortable investing in CDs.

The real world is messy. This is good to keep in mind when you’re futzing with a financial model that implies a precision that your business outcomes will never achieve.

What do you think?

Assumption, what’s your strategic function?

The journey to real insight lies in debating assumptions, not outcomes.

Geoff Wilson

You know what happens when you assume? Well, the classical answer to that question involves something unsavory that happens to you and me. But that’s not what I had in mind.

What I meant is what happens when you make assumptions about the future of your business, your competition, and your market. It’s something all strategists have to do. They can’t tell the future, but they can test assumptions about it. And testing assumptions about the future is far more rewarding and sound than testing guesses about future outcomes.

Imagine you’re trying to set a business strategy for entry into a market. Let’s say it’s the market for insulated coffee mugs. You might start your business on the notion that the outcome you seek is to sell 1,000 mugs the first year, 5,000 the second, and 10,000 the third. You reach nirvana that way.

But what matters is the assumptions you make about the market and your product in order to build to the outcome. If you’re targeting coffee mugs for truckers, you must estimate the number of truckers you need to reach in order to sell those first 1,000 mugs, and then determine the number of places that you need to carry your mugs in order to reach that many truckers (which leads to an assessment of how many mugs you should have on how many racks in how many truck stops, all driving your assumptions about working capital, how many competitive mugs are on the same racks, your price point, etc.).

Before you know it, you’ve had to make assumptions about many variables that actually matter in building up to that outcome of 1,000 mugs in the first year. And assumptions (or estimates, if you will) can be debated far better than any blanket statement about sales forecasts or market share gains.

Assumptions are where the rubber meets the road for strategy. Assumptions are testable propositions.

Too many strategic-planning exercises go sideways in the gap between “We have to grow sales by 7 percent next year” and “We can’t figure a set of assumptions that allows it.” This is especially true when a decidedly top-down view of the world (“grow by 7 percent”) collides with the reality of the bottom-up assumptions (“The market is shrinking and our competition is getting stronger.”).

Something has to give, and it’s usually either the top-down whim (in the case of sound strategic planning processes) or the bottom-up assumption (in the case of personality-driven planning processes). You’ve probably witnessed both cases.

When you make strategic assumptions, you create little test tubes that can be individually experimented with far better than strategic predictions about the overall environment. You can test a proposition about the market, but you can’t really test a statement about the market’s outcome.

When seeking to build a better strategy, you should debate assumptions about what drives reality around you, not mere statements on that reality.

What do you think? 

Why your people need to mesh for your business to move

Identifying ideal mesh points within your organization is vital to strategic execution.

Geoff Wilson

Your organization is the gearbox of your strategy. It’s the structure through which the energy of people and ideas gets channeled toward the strategic intent of the company’s leadership team. An effective organization structure is priceless. It fosters contact and collaboration among people who are best positioned to capture opportunity and manage risk en route to delivering the company’s mission.

But if the organization is the gearbox, a leader’s ability to fine tune the meshing of the gears within the box becomes a key determinant of whether strategy can be executed at all. Perhaps your strategy calls for an operation to be migrated from one geography to another—maybe to capture a cost advantage or to better serve a customer.

Such a move typically requires many disparate parts of a company to mesh with one another in ways that aren’t always natural.

How so? Imagine that the operation’s leaders are focused on delivering on cost and inventory performance at the start and end of the move. Then, imagine that the very act of moving will naturally impact production costs (as one facility is ramped down and another is ramped up) and inventory levels (as inventory is built up on one side for the move, and built on the other to achieve future service levels).

What is likely to happen if the operational leaders aren’t appropriately meshed with strategic and financial leaders to reset goals and expectations? Chaos, that’s what. Customer service suffers, transitions from the one location to another take twice as long (as cost levels are over-managed), and nearly everyone wonders why this was so darn hard.

It’s necessary during times of strategic change to over-invest in organizational mesh points that ensure ideas and energy are correctly driven. These can often be artificial and temporary—program management offices provide this function for large-change programs. But sometimes, strategic organization mesh points simply need to be matters of daily business. The emergence of sales and operational-planning processes and meetings the world over reflects the value of strategic mesh points in organizations.

Maybe you have a strategy that requires an unnatural coordination across your sales and product development teams. Perhaps your strategy requires your supply chain to interact differently with your marketing team. It’s important to know this.

Be sure to consider where your organization needs to mesh in order to achieve the change you’re seeking.

What do you think?

Accelerate decision cycles to increase competitive advantage

The pace at which your organization makes decisions may outrank the quality of your choices.

Geoff Wilson

Imagine you and I are playing a game. The type of game doesn’t matter, but assume it requires taking turns or possessing a ball. It could be innings in baseball, possessions in soccer, or even turns in a basic game like checkers.

Now, imagine there’s a wrinkle: I get two turns for each one of yours. I get to make two moves in checkers for your one move. I get six outs per inning in baseball against your three. I get the ball twice for every possession you have in soccer. Here’s the question: Can you win?

I don’t think so—at least not consistently. If I get two chances for each move you make, and if I get to work from basically the same information you have, my probability of winning is greatly enhanced. This example may seem absurd, as you’d likely scoff if I dared propose such an unfair contest. But it’s analogous to how some companies handicap (or, conversely, advantage) themselves.

Strategic decision cycles are too often internally driven

Companies the world over operate as if their internal decision processes are all that matter. They do annual strategic planning, quarterly account planning (if they’re lucky), and maybe monthly resource planning. For many of these companies, big decisions—such as introducing a new product line or building a new plant—can take years, while seemingly small decisions—hiring a new salesperson, for instance—can take months.

Their decision cycles are internally driven—even when managers know that the outside world is moving faster than their own company’s internal cycle. This pace lagging restrains opportunity in the best cases, and paves the road to ruin in the worst cases. The worst cases are when the world is rapidly changing, or a shifty attacker emerges in the market.

Fast decision cycles are advantageous

We all want to make good decisions, and doing so requires reasonable deliberation time. However, if you are caught in a scenario where your competition is able to make decisions faster than you can, your slower-paced good decisions eventually won’t matter.

Why? Because the organization that can multiply its capability via a faster decision cycle will have a substantial advantage in avoiding risks and capturing opportunities. The company that moves through decision cycles faster than its competition—the one that can make multiple decisions while the competition makes just one—is an advantaged organization.

For decades, Toyota has been constantly lauded for its production system, but its product development system is only occasionally celebrated. Toyota captured substantial share in the 1980s by introducing products and product refinements on a development cycle that was significantly faster than its competition. This system gave Toyota a major advantage over the slower pack.

One could argue that Tesla is doing the same thing in today’s market with its “platform and upgrade” approach to auto ownership. In some ways, Tesla is able to operate inside of its competition’s decision cycles.

So what? Cycle faster!

Companies with faster cycles are advantaged. Such advantage doesn’t eliminate failure, but it increases the probability of success (and of killing off failures quickly) to overwhelm missteps. Would you rather be a baseball player with a .500 batting average who gets two at-bats per game, or a player with a .300 batting average who gets to the plate six times a game? If you’re playing for hits, you want to be the latter, not the former.

Fast cycling allows you to multiply your force. It enables you to disrupt and dismember the competition. Done well, it allows you to lead—even with less talent, capital, and “perfection” than larger, slower competition.

But beware the alternative: When your competition is inside your decision cycle, you are going to lose—eventually. If you drive at a tempo slower than your competition, you might find yourself on the slow road to oblivion.

What do you think?

Don’t let butt brushes bite you from behind

The small things that turn people off from doing business with you can cause big damage.

Geoff Wilson

Millions of people shop every day. Thousands of retail executives spend millions of dollars each year trying to pinpoint what makes people lock in and buy their merchandise. They discuss store formats, look and feel, customer flow, sales interactions, and numerous other concepts. And then, some guy comes along with a perspective that attacks high-concept with a decidedly low-concept insight.

That’s what Paco Underhill did in his book Why We Buy. One of my favorite insights from that book concerns the “butt-brush effect.” Simply put, the butt-brush effect is an observation that customers tend to stop shopping when they’re touched from behind. So, when racks in stores are packed too closely together, people negotiating the cramped quarters are more likely to brush their rear ends against one another. And when that happens, they tend to get uncomfortable and stop shopping.

Butt brushes are easy to describe in a retail environment. They are, literally, butt brushes. But butt brushes exist in all business contexts. They are small portions of customer or vendor experience (yes, I’ll include vendors) that make executing your strategy just that much harder. They make people uncomfortable.

In your business, butt brushes are unintended impacts. They come from people who aren’t setting the strategy. They sometimes even occur from people just “doing their jobs.” Those are the ones that are the most insidious.

What are some examples?

  • “Aggressive attorney” butt brush: You know him. He’s the guy who makes closing the transaction a complete slog. He’s the one who focuses on the minute details to the exclusion of the relationship. He makes it hard for others to like your company.
  • “Credit Nazi” butt brush: Similar to the aggressive attorney, the contentious credit guy is a sales-prevention army of one.
  • “Purchasing” butt brush: You’ve gotten to know the senior managers of your prospective vendor. They like you. You like them. The deal is as good as done. Then, you have to pass them off to the purchasing department. Things get… brushy.

There are also the many tiny butt brushes you offer up to your prospective customers and strategic partners every day. A fantastic example is the “My smart phone is more important than you” butt brush. Yeah, you get it.

You’ve invested untold time and money into customer insights and strategy. You’ve established a path and process to get there. So why let butt brushes ruin it all? Seemingly small discomforts (sometimes driven by small mindsets) turn people off in a big way.

Keep an eye out for butt brushes before they bite you from behind.

What do you think?

The Worst Strategy Metaphor in Use Today

Choose your business metaphors wisely, because they say a lot about how you view the world.



One of the minor annoyances present in the business world is the use of metaphors that are resoundingly misfit.

How often do we talk about “blocking and tackling,” or “moving the ball down the field,” or “hitting singles and doubles,” or going for the “Hail Mary” in our everyday professional lives?

How many times have you heard even these simple ones mixed up, as in “I think it’ll be a home run, but the boss keeps moving the goal posts…”

Often. Right?

But every now and then, a metaphor is used so often it becomes a paradigm that is dangerous.

The metaphor of business as a “chess match” is one of them; and I’ll tell you why.

Chess and chess matches, when viewed in the light of the complexity and ambiguity of the business environment, are purely tactical. Chess is tactics. I write this despite the existence of a body of literature suggesting that the preparation, staging, execution, and ultimately winning of chess matches amounts to exacting preparation for business leaders…Strategic nirvana.

I’d argue it’s analytic nirvana–necessary but insufficient for a strategic metaphor.

Alas, chess as strategy is a bad metaphor for business mortals. While chess allows us to illustrate the depth of analytic thought on an issue (the best masters of chess can see deeply into a match to judge moves and patterns); it lacks the breadth of conceptual thought necessary to be an active analog for business strategy.

Mastery of tactical depth counts for something, to be sure. But mastery of strategic breadth, on the other hand, counts for everything.

The issue is that we conflate the two…Badly.

The most magnificent Chess minds spend thousands and thousands of hours mastering tactics. They learn every potential combination of openings and defenses. They spend their lives immersed within the very box of patterns and potential moves that, for some reason, has become synonymous with “strategy.”

They do this, and yet they have been mastered by machines. Think about that for a moment, and you can start to see why the game is based on patterns and repetition vs. intuitive, virtuosic strategic brilliance. The mechanistic logic of chess is its own prison, and thus is the reason chess is a bad metaphor for business.

Allow me to create the mental image of business as a chess match, then you be the judge of whether it rises to the level of a sufficient strategic paradigm:

Imagine that you and I both agree to play in a business arena where we:

  • Start with the same resources
  • Agree to the same set of moves
  • Operate on the exact same game board
  • Disregard comparative advantage
  • Agree not to move pieces in any innovative manner
  • Operate in a purely zero sum environment
  • Keep all moves open and transparent
  • Avoid arbitrarily upgrading or switching out pieces for pieces with more power
  • Prevent the lowly from ruling the mighty (as in the illustration above)
  • Avoid outside sources of power, resupply, or leverage (i.e., capital, partnerships, brand equity)
  • Will on average play to a draw if we both play the game as well as it can be played (“…chess is a draw” according to famous grandmaster Gary Kasparov)

…and so on.

Are we now engaged in a strategic struggle for the ages?


We’ve chopped all the degrees of strategic freedom save two: Our experience and our intellect. All the real world strategic levers I’ve outlined above lie in the negative space of a chess match.

In short, once you’ve taken nearly every strategic variable off the table, you are left with a chess match. It’s two people matching wits. That, folks, isn’t strategy, it’s a contest. It’s a highly regulated, constrained caricature of real world strategy.

Chess is a closed system. Real world strategy is an open system.

Strategy is about exploiting means to achieve ends. The first means anyone exploits in a strategic contest is whether to play on the terms available. While chess matches do offer the option of a “surrender,” to do so is to incur a loss and to provide a massive advantage to one’s adversary.

A second, and very important means, is the means of overinvestment. Overloading a single point of weakness (or strength) at a single point in time is a key real world capability. Put a team together to go after a single customer? Go ahead, it’s the real world. Overload on a chess board is a sequential thing, not an instantaneous one.

Other strategy games offer exit and overload options (like folding or going “all in” in the game of poker)–limiting losses or allowing asymmetric bets based on early indications that the game is or isn’t worth playing.

These moves are analogous to real world actions. But, they aren’t really an option in Chess.

If business were such that one could simply study all the moves in history and play the next match, it wouldn’t be all that tough, would it? That is essentially what has happened in chess. If it were so in business, IBM would have developed the Deep Blue machine for business back in the 1990’s and we would all be working for IBM at this point.

That, my friends, may be the best evidence for the misfit metaphor: If a computer can outwit a grandmaster (and they pretty much all can at this point), the game is one of logic and pure horsepower; not one of strategy.

If it were a game of strategy, the grandmaster would unplug the computer first, and then ask it to make its first move–while smiling of course.

Add to all this the cardinal observation that properly played chess will typically result in a draw (as noted above) and you have a very dangerous metaphor for your organization (implicitly, if you play well and lose, you did something wrong…Not always the case in business and life).

So, what?

I write this not to split hairs, but to illustrate the importance of the metaphors we put in front of our organizations–especially during times of change. So many of the metaphors we use are quirky; but some of them are downright dangerous.

If we are to pursue an enlightened approach to strategy, then using metaphors that speak to openness, flexibility, and canniness are much more on point than those that involve pure intellect applied to closed systems that imply no loss as long as strict discipline is maintained.

The metaphors you choose say a lot about how you view the world: Do you view your organization’s business environment as a closed, zero sum game, or something different?

File this one under strategy, change leadership, and perhaps curmudgeonly explication (as if LinkedIn needs more of that).

Note: The current Carlsen – Anand world chess championship match inspired thoughts for this article. Though the game of chess may not be a good business metaphor, the drama of championship chess matches can be quite a thing to behold and study.

Geoff Wilson is a strategy executive focused on the articulation of practical strategic principles for leadership. He also harbors the specific indignity of blundering into a fool’s mate one time in the 7th grade. He has just started a Twitter presence and still isn’t sure what to make of it, so consider following: @GeoffTWilson

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.

On Simplicity: Curly Got It Wrong

Reducing a life or business strategy to one thing leaves too much out.


Remember the movie City Slickers? Curly was the crispy, gruff drover.  Played by the late, great Jack Palance in an Oscar-winning performance, Curly is in some minds immortalized for his advice to Billy Crystal’s character Mitch in that movie; it was his philosophy of life.

The exchange goes like this:

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?

[holds up one finger]

Curly: This.

Mitch: Your finger?

Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean shit.

Mitch: But, what is the “one thing”?

Curly: [smiles] That’s what you have to find out.

The secret of life is figuring out your “one thing.”  That’s what Curly had to say: Find the one thing, and the “rest don’t mean shit.”

But you know what?

Curly was wrong.  Reducing your life, work, or strategy to one thing leaves out too much, and it also leaves out the art of having to do more than one thing.

Simplicity, then, is too simple sometimes.

Life should be as simple as possible, and not one bit more simple.  That means that saying life is about one thing is probably insufficient for anyone who takes the time to read this blog.

I know executives who say that their “one thing” is financial performance. I know others who say it’s their people. I know others still who will say it’s their faith. But I don’t know a single one who can do one thing to the exclusion of all others and find success.  It may be true that none of us can truly serve more than one master, but it’s also true that we all have to attempt to do so.

That’s where too many executives fail: they talk simple, but life isn’t simple. They say, “Just grow the company and all will be fine,” but they end up with an Enron.  They say, “Just treat people well and all will be great,” and they end up with General Motors.  They say, “Worry about the customer and we’ll be fine” and they end up like WebVan.  Or they say, “Just do what gets us compensated,” and they turn into Lehman Brothers.

One thing can lead to dark stuff, and that’s why I’m writing this: as an antidote to “one thingism.” You may work with a one-thing executive, and that may work well for him or her at a moment in time, but for all the talk of one thing, actions have to take into account many things.

Any CEO worth her salt has exceptional focus.  That focus may be on building a team, closing a financing, developing a product, or influencing stakeholders.  Any of these could be a given CEO’s one thing, but the truth is that they have to be good at balancing their “one thing” at any given point. CEOs have to build teams, and boards, and products, and customers, and relationships, and bad CEOs get “one thingism” in their blood and never let go.

Notably, though, bad strategies do too. How often do we as management strategists find executives or their critics attempting reductionist, one-thingist views of strategy.  They get so high-level, so abstract, that they end up achieving a grand unifying theory of organizational strategy that is significant to no one.  They “one thing” their strategy to empty pablum like “focus” or “innovation” or otherwise.

Reality is messy.  Practical strategy is tough.

So, if you are working really hard to simplify and synthesize your strategy or focus, congratulations, that’s not a bad thing. A strong strategy should be reducible to simple terms, but no more simple than necessary.

In short, if you are simplifying beyond usefulness.  Watch out.

I suspect that a mountain of Dilbert cartoons could be drafted on the backs of strategy statements that state nothing.  Some jewels:

“We will be a growth company.”

“We will build a great company.”

“We will be innovative leaders.”

“We will have a winning culture.”

“We will be a community of leaders.”

Perhaps the best way I can convey this notion to more seasoned executives is to use an interesting case study:  A survey of millennials about their life goals showed that more than 80% of them had a major life goal to “get rich.”  That means they wanted to make a lot of money as a goal in itself.  This is a generation that is being somewhat venerated for its focus on purpose and meaning.

If you are on older worker or executive, with a family, hobbies, pursuits, relationships, and other sources of meaning that do not derive from your bank account, think about how hollow the goal of merely making money is to a good life.  You’ve probably had friends who have hurt themselves and others in pursuit of mere money.  Money isn’t an end (okay, you and I both might say “but it helps…”).  It’s a representation of value provided to someone else.

It’s a “one thing” that has no meaning to anyone other than the person who collects it.

And, that’s what’s dangerous about one thingism in strategy.  Your one thing (earnings growth, people development, customer service) may not matter one whit to a truly rich strategy.

Reducing a life or business strategy to one thing leaves too much out.

Now, a challenge for you:  Take a moment and leave a reply on this post about a “one thing” strategy that has or hasn’t worked.  What’s your gut reaction to this post?