Who do you turn to when the blood hits the floor?

Times like these tend to reveal who we can really trust to deliver.

Geoff Wilson

A crazy phenomenon has happened over the past couple of weeks as the world has digested the coronavirus shock. Executives, many of whom have never been in executive roles in a massive shock, have had to take stock of their teams in the most critical of ways. They have had to close ranks and think about who it is that they really trust.  Think about that.  Who are the people that you trust when it comes to executing all day, every day?  I’m betting that they aren’t necessarily the same people you interacted with the most prior to the crisis.

You know why?  Crises refine trust.

When you aren’t in crisis, you can afford to take a few flyers and let a few things go to hands you may not fully trust with them.  But, today?  You probably already have a good sense of who is “in” the circle of trust and who probably isn’t.  You probably know who can deliver the goods, and you are probably loading them up with everything they can handle.  And, you probably know who can’t, and you’ve probably made choices appropriately.

Mind you, I’m not talking about your “best” talents.  I’m talking about those who can deliver.  If your organization is like many, it’s your high-bred talents who struggle the most in challenging circumstances. They are often the ones who have had a lot of good come their way due to pedigree and profile, and who haven’t had to make a whole lot of nitty-gritty choices. The worst case is that they have achieved their position by NOT making choices. You know them:  They are the ones who probably never had to improvise for a C minus, so now they are hurting when the best and only possible grade is a C minus that requires massive improv.

The ones who CAN deliver in a crisis often look different. Your shop foreman probably isn’t at home on videoconference right now, she’s probably on the shop floor trying to figure out how to stagger shifts to avoid COVID-based shutdowns.  Your grizzled veteran HR, Finance, and IT leaders are probably on the job 24X7 right now while you might be simultaneously finding that their younger, shinier counterparts (in some cases, the grizzled vets’ bosses) aren’t up to the challenge.

It’s a good lesson to learn.

Bruce Springsteen wrote a song to go along with the 2008 motion picture The Wrestler starring Mickey Rourke.  In the song, the washed-up, has-been wrestler declares that he’s a “one-trick pony,” a “one-legged dog,” and a “scarecrow filled with nothing but dust and weeds.”  In other words, he declares that he’s not of much use for anything, except…

…the wrestler also declares this:

“…bet I can make you smile when the blood, it hits the floor
Tell me, friend, can you ask for anything more?”

I am going to bet that you are in the middle of finding your own one-trick ponies and one-legged dogs–rediscovering the grizzled talent in your organization. You know them as the people who are specialized enough to be really strong in a crisis.

I’m also going to bet you are finding out that–sometimes–those are the people who might have deserved a bit more attention.  You are probably  doing the same “trust triage” with your advisors, sorting out the ones who can help you go and go faster from the ones with a lot of polish and bluster but no “go.” You know them, they are the ones who are all hat and no cattle.  Judging by the sudden surge in snazzy marketing pitches on LinkedIn around the COVID-19 crisis, a lot of high polish consultants are suddenly in possession of a lot of free time.

While I firmly believe that you should always sort out your show dogs from your working dogs, now is a great time to keep your eyes open for the ones who buckle in and deliver vs. the ones who…don’t.

Because you need to know who can make you smile when the blood hits the floor

Tell me, friend, can you ask for anything more?

I’ll leave you with a link to the song…It’s worth a spin.

What do you think?

When it all goes to VUCA, what do you do?

Is there an operating system for strategy under absolute uncertainty?

Geoff Wilson

Well, the world has gone to hell in a handbasket. It certainly didn’t take long, did it?

Ask anyone and they will tell you that the world is somewhere between an intense over-reaction and The Walking Dead’s best impression of The End Of The World As We Know It (you know?  TEOTWAWKI). That is to say, it’s anybody’s guess where the global economy–nay, the global social fabric–may end up after COVID-19 has run its course.  Sports are canceled, schools are shut, travel is being banned in ever-tightening circles, and social institutions are being completely put on hold.

Right now, just another blog on strategy may not be sufficient for the Big-Mac-layer-cake of stress that is being thrown at the average citizen around the globe.  We are, all at once, not only dealing with commercial collapse, but also social and institutional uncertainty on a scale not often seen without physical invasion. And, if YOU, dear reader, are not feeling the stress, you can be assured the people around you do.

So, instead of writing about what you should do as a strategic executive–which is a hard thing to do when a reader might just as easily be at an airline, a retailer, or a bank–I thought I’d write on how you might organize your thinking in any challenging circumstance. The question at hand is really this:  Is there an operating system for strategy under absolute uncertainty? I think that there might be.

There is an acronym that is commonly used in military circles called “VUCA.”  It has been around since the 1980s.

A VUCA environment comprises:

Volatility – where the speed and magnitude of change is exceptional

Uncertainty – where outcomes are unpredictable and surprises are many

Complexity – where the number of changes happening at once is very high

Ambiguity – where the potential for error and over- or under-reaction is real

or, just VUCA, for short.

We all live in a VUCA world right now.  So, how do we handle it?

With my best fireside chat tone, I’m going to suggest that the first way of navigating VUCA is to realize that you cannot “handle” it.  There is no traditional “control” of circumstances in a VUCA world whether you are an executive or a common citizen.  You cannot “priority list” your way out of VUCA.  If you are used to controlling circumstances, you’d best get ready to learn to read and react. If you are used to calling the plays and issuing the orders, you’d best get ready to play defense and establish your lines of retreat.  If you have been inflexible in your pursuit of success, it may be time to consider flexibility in the shadow of collapse.

In other words, it’s time to focus on resiliency and responsiveness vs. concrete priorities and resoluteness.  VUCA demands it.

But, where do you start?  Your portfolio is a mess, your kids are out of school, your office is shut, and your customers aren’t answering the phone…how does a person regain footing?

Here’s my best advice, and it’s as simple as two steps:

The first step is to major in the majors.  Just as I’m sure there will be a lot of people who may one day regret that they drove all over town trying to hoard toilet tissue when they absolutely should have been ensuring that grandma was comfortably anti-social, I’m sure that there are a lot of minor things you are stressing about that are adding to your sense of VUCA.  You have to prune the ones that matter less.

That means postponing that training program and using today’s environment as a training program in itself.

It means canceling that “nice to have” project and doubling down on the must-haves.

It means stopping the standing meetings that you have and opening up your calendar.

It means ensuring you have enough strategic cash reserves (at home or in your business) without resorting to willy-nilly asset sales.

It means taking a moment to understand what kind of volatility is tolerable (perhaps the market being down 8 percent today really is a secondary concern), and what kind is not (how can you ensure that your customers will actually receive the goods???)

It probably means having a frank conversation with your family and your organization about what it means to live in times of extreme VUCA: about how choices we make now may look a lot different than choices we made even days ago. The circumstances demand that we major in the majors.

The second step is to accelerate your review cycles on the “majors.” Decisions on the majors that might have been revisited quarterly or monthly are now reviewed daily or hourly.  In the first step (majoring in the majors) you created some capacity by pruning the activity set.  Now, it’s time to deploy that capacity to evaluate and react faster than you would have otherwise.  Many executive teams are, today, engaging in rapid, periodic calls about their workforce when just last week they probably did so monthly.  Why?  Because the environment demands it.  The same is true of your household, your office, your customer portfolio, and many other things. This is not to say that short-term thinking dominates and that long-term things don’t get done, it is to say that long-term things are tested for relevance on a much more frequent basis.

But a word of caution:  Don’t try to evaluate everything rapidly.  Step one is critical, lest you over-stress yourself, your family, and your organization.  Be explicit about majoring in the majors.  Take some stuff off your plates, and those of your cohorts.

So, is there an operating system for strategy under absolute uncertainty?  I think so, but it’s a concept–perhaps a mindset–and not a recipe.

First, major in the majors:  Prune the activity set to create the capacity to stay ahead of what matters most.

Second, tighten up your decision cycles: Invest the capacity you have created to accelerate your review and decision cycles to match the pace of change in your environment.

This two-step process for managing uncertainty is true if you are running a household, and it’s true if you are running the largest organization in the world.

Keep your hands washed, and your prayers flowing.

What do you think?

Legacy lessons from NASCAR’s worst wreck ever

We all leave a legacy of some sort. Ryan Newman’s survival of NASCAR’s worst wreck ever highlights the contrasts of passive and active legacies.

Geoff Wilson

Do you know the legacy you are leaving with your business, team, or organization?

It’s surprising how little this topic actually gets highlighted when managers and executive teams focus on their strategic aims.  Sure there are legacies that are left via who you are–for example the ethical legacies like that of Marvin Bower at McKinsey or innovation legacies like that of Gordon Moore of Intel and Moore’s Law fame.  Those were probably not forged in a boardroom strategy session but rather through strength of personality.

But, there are also legacies left in a couple of other ways.  There are passive legacies that result accidentally, and there are active legacies that result from thoughtful focus and intervention.  This weekend offered a stark contrast of the two.

Monday’s Daytona 500 ended with a vicious wreck where driver Ryan Newman–leading the race at the time–was bumped from behind and spun violently into the wall of the final turn in the race.  His car, pictured above, went airborne, was struck broadside by another car at 190 miles per hour, landed on its roof, and then slid for a quarter mile or more in a conflagration of sparks and flames.  Here’s a post with that wreck:

Most are saying the wreck is the worst in NASCAR history.  Rescue crews took a long time to extract Newman from the car, shielded by black screens that usually signify tragic carnage on race scenes.  Speculation was rife that Newman was killed in the wreck, and prayers and concerns swept social media.

But, Tuesday morning brought news that Newman had survived.  As of this writing, details remain sketchy, but reports are that Newman is not only alive, but also is awake and conversing with doctors and family.  Doctors have said his injuries are “non-life threatening.” And, while such announcements can no doubt hide life-changing and awful injuries, they offer hope.  Furthermore, Newman’s survival illustrates an amazing pair of legacies.

The first, is the unfortunate legacy of the last race driver fatality in NASCAR’s elite division.  That would be the 2001 death of Dale Earnhardt, Sr.  Earnhardt Sr.’s death–on the same track at almost the same spot as the Newman wreck–happened one day shy of 19 years before Newman’s wreck.  For those who are not NASCAR-literate, that wreck killed the biggest legend in a sport that is rife with legends.  It was, put simply, the equivalent of Michael Jordan, Lebron James, Tom Brady, or Lionel Messi dying on the court or field.

And, it changed the sport.  NASCAR changed mandates for safety equipment and changed car and track characteristics significantly.   Many fans are acknowledging this:

At the same time, Ryan Newman is being acknowledged as having a safety legacy of his own. Newman has been an outspoken safety advocate who is responsible for the addition of the “Newman Bar” to the roll cage of the current NASCAR car design.  That addition may have saved his own life on Monday.

Which brings me to the punchline of this post.

The sad reality is that a lot of passive legacies are written in blood.  The Earnhardt legacy can certainly be characterized as such.  Without going too far in trouncing a legend, I’ll put it this way:  Earnhardt came from a tradition of selective usage and even modification of readily available safety equipment that was allowed within NASCAR at the time. But, that selective usage arguably cost him his life in a wreck that “looked” far less violent than the Newman wreck.  I quote “looked” because I know firsthand that television cannot convey the real physics of collision like this.

Active legacies, like Newman’s with the “Newman Bar,” are quite different.  They are active modifications in hopes of protecting the future. They are also often implemented without fanfare or–thankfully–tragedy.

Not seeing the connection to your legacy yet?  Consider such passive legacies as innovation funding or safety investment cuts to meet current quarter profit targets.  What do they leave for the future?  Consider such active legacies as protection of training and development programs for your team. What do they leave?

The list could be long on both sides of the ledger.  I only pose the question:  What kind of legacy are you leaving, and are you trying to leave it?

What do you think?

Are your people uninspired? Maybe it’s time to hang the DJ.

Your strategy is supposed to inspire.  Have you forgotten?

Geoff Wilson

What’s the purpose of your strategic plan?

The possibilities are endless.  Some might say that the sole purpose is to “enhance shareholder value.”  I’d argue that this old trope is no longer the gold standard.  Some adhere to the stakeholder model…which might be closer.  Regardless of the “concept,” a given business strategy has to appeal to a lot of people.

Strategy, inasmuch as it deals with things that are less certain and immediate, is an argument.  It’s an argument formed from assumptions that are (or should be) formed from knowable facts and less knowable (but educated) estimates.

But, something tends to happen on the way to building business strategies that derails one of the most important imperatives.  We lose the power of inspiration. Usually, we lose it when the hardcore management nerds get ahold of the strategic planning and implementation “ecosystem” and start overswhelming the organization with jargon, tools, and really smart pablum.

A strategy is an argument, for sure.  But it’s an argument that is–in the main–supposed to inspire action against specific aims.  And, when you lose inspiration, you lose action.

How do you know if you are building an uninspiring strategy?  Well, if it’s uninspiring to investors and the board they usually let you know.  Where it gets tricky is when it’s uninspiring for employees, customers, partners, or other stakeholders.  A lot of times, they will vote with their feet; and you don’t want that. The best way to test is usually to ask.  I know, I know…too easy. But, it’s true.

So what’s a well-rounded leader like yourself to do if you find less than stellar inspiration in the ranks?  Well, it depends on who the uninspiring one is. I’m reminded of the lyrics from The Smiths’ still fantastic song “Panic.”

It goes something like this:

Hang the blessed DJ

Because the music that they constantly play 

It says nothing to me about my life

Hang the blessed DJ

Do you see it?  Are you the DJ?  Do you know who is? Did you hire the DJ?  Did you allow the DJ (in the form of very smart but totally uninspiring consultants, perhaps) to hijack the strategy and make it a “value creation strategy” vs a truly inspiring enterprise strategy?

If you are authoring uninspired strategy, or hiring those who are, then consider starting over.  If your strategy isn’t touching people where they live…through things that are relevant to their lives and livelihoods, then you are probably going to get hung at some point anyway, so why not just do it yourself?

Build strategy to inspire. And if you haven’t done that?  Hang the DJ.

What do you think?

It’s what you give that matters

How much do you focus on what you give vs. what you think you do?

Geoff Wilson

“It’s not what you got, it’s what you give / it ain’t the life you choose, it’s the life you live.”

– What You Give, Tesla (the rock band)

Have you ever met an executive that focuses a LOT on the skills and capabilities she has amassed, but who forgets to measure the actual impact of them?

I have.

In the strategy world, we talk about capabilities, value propositions, and sources of competitive advantage.  Those are all super, super important.

The problem is, they don’t always translate to outcomes for those who matter most:  The customers who derive pleasant value from products, services, and experiences; and the employees and other stakeholders who play a part in delivering them.

In other words, only looking at your balance sheet and what it contains–both tangibly and intangibly–is a recipe for disappointment in the longer run.  And, it’s all about the longer run, so make no mistake.

Tesla (the rock band, not the inventor or the auto manufacturer) had a less appreciated song that I’ve quoted from above.  It essentially says, that life is about outcomes, not ownership or expectations.  Your customers know this.  Your employees know this.

Don’t you doubt it.

So as you think about your strategy–as you decide to position yourself for the future–be sure to focus on what you give and the life you live…not the things you have or the choices you think you are making.  Focusing on outcomes vs. assets can lead you to very different conclusions about how to position your business and yourself.

In other words, be sure to focus on outcomes and not intent. Intent is far less memorable to your customers and other stakeholders than outcomes.

You can take that to the bank.

What do you think?  Is it possible to focus on outcomes vs. assets?  

 

 

New year, new you?

Renewal is the word to embrace at the start of the year.

Geoff Wilson

2020.

Two thousand twenty.

For those of us born and reared prior to the turn of the century, just the concept of 2020 is striking…it’s as if we are living in the future.

The turn of the decade brings to mind an important habit for executives of all kinds:  the habit of reflection and renewal.  More than just “re-setting your plan,” a habit of reflection and renewal is about a full breakdown of your career and personal aspirations and–this is the important part–how your current actions align against them.

The most effective executives I know are experts at reinvention. Without being haphazard, they are thoughtful about what to cast off and what to bring into the fold when it comes to their professional lives and their overall endeavors. The kicker is that this habit isn’t done as “change for change’s sake,” it’s done as a means of renewal

Renewal.

Not change.

Renewal implies the continuation of the good, a re-upping of time and effort against things that matter most.  And, it implies that some things are left to expire.

As we start this new decade, it’s good to consider what your own points of renewal are.  This habit can be focused on your personal life, your career, or your overall business.

Maybe, in your personal life, you might seek to renew a writing hobby but to allow a portion of your screen habits to expire.

Maybe, in your professional life, you might have a renewed focus on developing new expertise in your particular function or profession.

Maybe, in your overall business, you might have a renewed focus on a particular strategic thrust at the expense of boondoggles of the past.

Think renewal.

What do you think?

5 ways strategy deployment fails

Deploying your strategy isn’t easy, here are 5 reasons deployments fail.

Geoff Wilson

The reality of strategic management is that it requires having a strategy and actually managing with the strategy as the touchstone. The first part isn’t easy…plenty of management “stories” masquerade as strategy without actually being founded on real choices about what to do and not to do.

The second part–managing with the strategy as touchstone–is downright hard. It’s hard because organizations have inertia…they keep moving in the direction they are already going. Overcoming this inertia is a real challenge when it comes to deploying strategy that involves a change in direction. Here are 5 root issues that we frequently witness for companies that “have” a strategy but are struggling to deploy it.

  1. Nobody knows: The executive team has focused on building a strong, coherent strategic plan.  The organization never gets the word. Need I say more?
  2. Strategy management is left to staff functions: Every strategy at organizations of any significant size and complexity comes with a need for coordination, control, reporting, and management.  So, many organizations set up a staff organization (in some companies, it’s a single person) to help coordinate the strategy.  The problem starts when line leaders start leaving strategy program execution to the staff organization.
  3. Initiative definitions are lofty and cute but ultimately meaningless: The company has a great, tailored set of marketing messages, but initiatives based on marketing messages are hard to manage. They need to be based on actual process change. “Customer success” may sound great to you and your friends, but how do you drill that down to the bedrock actions that deliver on such success? If your strategy can’t connect to economic and process reality, then you are probably here.
  4. Workstreams masquerade as initiatives: An initiative is a self-contained effort to change “something” within the company.  Great strategies are made u up of initiatives. The change may be around a process or product.  A workstream is a subset of activities within an initiative.  It may be somewhat self-contained, but it ultimately lacks standalone sense apart from the Initiative.  In other words, a workstream rarely delivers an overall result…it requires the result of other workstreams and coordination among them.  Many, many strategic deployment structures fail because they create “accountability” for workstreams and call them initiatives.  This results in every “initiative” requiring constant and tedious C-Level intervention to actually get things done because, well, none of the “initiatives” is actually self-contained.  While this may look like an odd and technical distinction, it actually matters a lot because it represents a failure of delegation.  An initiative ought to be self-contained as to design and to general decision rights, or else it’s just another cross-functional conflagration.
  5. The future is undefined: The deployment lacks a vision for the future. This is the opposite of point 1.  Strategic deployment looks like business as usual, but with PowerPoint and neat messages about component outcomes.  If your strategy lacks a view what the future state of the business is, it may be lacking something.  People are much better at executing when they have a view of a future than they are when they are given only concepts and objectives.  If you find that you are spending more time communicating with powerpoint and slogans than asking about the latest progress toward margin or sales improvement, you might be in this bucket.

There you have it:  Five reasons that strategy deployment fails.  There are many others, but these are my “five.”  The antidote is actually pretty simple to articulate, but harder to execute:  vision, communication, integration, and followup.

What do you think? Have you found the secret to great strategy deployment? 

 

 

The waiting is the hardest part

There is such a thing as strategic patience…

Geoff Wilson

I have a confession to make:

I’m impatient.  It’s a fundamental trait that I have wrestled with for years.  I’d love to think that I’m not alone and that it’s okay because other people are impatient, too, but the reality is that impatience is not okay.

Urgency is okay in most circumstances, but impatience?  Not really.

This reality has smacked me in the face HARD lately due to an adventure I’ve been on for the past 7 weeks.  A minor fall down some stairs left me with a torn quadriceps tendon.  It turns out that this type of injury is one that, while painful at its onset, is really a test of patience.  Following surgery a number of weeks ago I have been set aside, wings clipped and wheels idled, because I have not been able to bend my right leg.

Why?

Because this particular injury–a grafting of a very large tendon and muscle group back to the bony real estate of my kneecap–has to heal before I get to start rehabilitation. Waiting is actually the right thing to do. It’s excruciating.

And that, like many parts of life, brings to me a question:  While most of us want results and we want them now, is it often healthier to be patient? Is patience a strategic weapon?

Yes! Of course it is!  But we forget this so often.

I’ve witnessed executives wreck M&A negotiations by being impatient.  I’ve witnessed sales efforts scrapped by impatience.  I’ve witnessed promising innovations cast aside by–yep, you guessed it–impatient executives.  I’ve seen extremely valuable assets given away for a pittance by executives with a tyrannical urgency to do…something.

But, how do you know when waiting is actually the strategically correct position?

Usually, it’s the correct position when you know that things will sort.  In other words, if you have the luxury of time to wait to gain additional insight or maturity, then waiting is a strategic option that should be considered.  In most of the generic examples in my prior paragraph you see examples where the fear of missing out interjects to drive really bad decision making.

When in doubt, assess whether you have the ability to exercise a real option to wait.  It’s not always the right option, but it is one that should be on the table.

Sometimes, the time to be aggressive is after you’ve let things settle.

What do you think?

How do you respond to adversity?

Things are going to go sideways…so how do you respond?

Geoff Wilson

No strategy survives contact with the enemy.

That’s a timeless truth that, while written for a military crowd, is valid in all parts of life.

If you don’t like that one, how about this one:  “Man plans…God laughs.”

In other words, no matter how much you think you are in control, there are risk factors to any plan that will prove you are not.  These risk factors create adverse outcomes for your business, or maybe your career.  So, how do you respond to them?  How do you handle adversity?

I could riff here about always having contingency plans and ensuring that you have mitigated key risks across the board.  Those things are important and I certainly preach them to my clients.  Still, what do you do when a true black swan risk shows up in your back yard.  They do happen, and the way people respond to them are absolutely defining.

A famous case is the so-called “Tylenol murders” in the 1980s.  Bottles of Tylenol were laced with cyanide by some nut job (yeah, I know, but I can only call them like I see them).  People were dying.  And, what did Johnson & Johnson–the maker of Tylenol–do?  They pulled all distribution, stopped advertising, and recalled all the product from the shelf.  They absolutely gutted what was no doubt a cash cow for the corporation, and in doing so made a widely praised statement to the world that their focus was on product safety above profit.

I suspect that product tampering may have been on J&J’s radar before the incident, and J&J may have had contingency plans. But in any instance, the response to adversity was a defining moment.  Compare that to today’s situation with opioid pills–distributed to the letter and not the spirit of the law–leading to deaths of tens of thousands of people.  It’s not clear that current makers even have internal contingencies. They are being forced into contingencies by legal and social pressures.  Such inaction has defined perceptions of many drug makers lately as well.

What these cases illustrate is that how one responds to adversity usually tracks very closely to what one values.  When things go sideways (or south), you often are left with only your most basic principles to operate from.

As an individual, your most basic principles may be to ensure your family is provided for and your health isn’t impaired.

As an executive, your most basic principles may be to ensure the survival of the company in trying times.

As a board member, your most basic principles may be to ensure that the company operates both legally and ethically in times of strife.

As a strategist who works to maintain a focus on the real world, I can only say this:  Your plans are likely to succeed only partially, and in some instances, they will fail completely.  It’s in the basic values you espouse that you will find your likely responses to adversity.  Instead of the usual approach to management that involves working the business problem from the top down (e.g., forming a commander’s intent and disseminating it), you suddenly have to work the problem from the bottom up (e.g., falling back on the basic values that you have articulated and built into your organization).

If you don’t have a foundation of values that will allow you to clearly lead through adversity, you are likely to fail.

What do you think?

The strategic executive’s enduring dilemma

The hardest part about giving excellent advice is the hardest part about being an executive.

Geoff Wilson

One of the real disasters of the consulting profession is the consultant who really, sincerely, thinks he has it all figured out.  He’s the guy for whom no problem is unsolvable.  Usually, the advice on complex topics is distilled into “just” statements, like “just automate that process,” or “just downsize that organization.”

I have seen many, many seemingly impractical and amoral nuggets of advice emerge from otherwise smart, sincere people advising clients.  They often are packaged as “best practices” but ignore practicality.  In the worst of cases, they come from individuals who wouldn’t take the same risk with their own capital or reputations.  You know them…they are the consultants who give advice that looks like “acquire your way out of problems.” They like the big, provocative recommendation, but don’t appreciate the nitty gritty difficulty or bold-faced risk that their recommendations come with.  They just arm wave the risk away.

In forming a practical approach to strategic planning, I have found that the biggest challenge to strategic planning itself is the acknowledgement of the unknown or the un-experienced.  It is far, far easier to pose hypothetical assumptions about the world and then to claim them as true than it is to deal with the difficulties of reality as they are today.  What this challenge usually boils down to is lack of experience.  All too often, strategic advisors are brought in as a source of insight from a different perspective, and they end up marginalized (or, worse, cloistered with the CEO) because they simply don’t take the time to understand reality before pronouncing “solutions.”

This is where you end up with big but unworkable solutions to problems that genuinely require knowledge and care.  “Acquire your way out of the problem” is a great example.  It sounds great, but often ignores the compounded risks of acquisitions–valuation, integration, customer attrition, etc.  Once those risks are taken into account, an acquisition often looks like a roll of the dice; and it has to be more than that.  It has to be grounded in some amount of understanding of how the acquiring company will “money out” the deal.  This usually requires more than a passing understanding of the acquiror and the target.  And still, the advice is often given with neither.

So what?  Well, the answer is simple, but hard:  Experience bases take time to develop, both in employees and in advisors.  Build them, and then don’t forget them when forming big, audacious plans. Moreover, the tagline of this post is perhaps the most important one:  Executives suffer from the “big and easy” disease at a rate that is nearly as high as top consulting strategists.  From the cloister of the c-suite, it can be easy to gloss over real practical issues.

So, before making that next big pronouncement about your company’s strategy, or before taking action on the logically founded but inexperienced advice of a consultant, just remember this quote from J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing:

“Let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.”

It’s a great, distilled “what just a minute” for any advisor or executive. Let us all acknowledge where our experience is lacking before we make drastic proclamations.  That is the hardest part of giving excellent advice.  And, it’s one of the harder parts of being an executive.

What do you think?