Don’t Forget Your Change

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


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

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


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

Allow me to outline two modes of strategic planning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I’ll just leave this with you:

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

A strategic plan should envision changes to meet challenges.

Don’t forget your change.


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