Strategic Implications of Clark Griswold’s Turkey

Clark Griswold’s turkey was an object of art on the outside, and a hollow mess on the inside. So are some strategic plans. Have the courage to call them what they are.

‘Tis the season. So, I figure…why not take advantage of it?

Remember that finely-crafted 1989 cinematic masterpiece, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation?

It provided us with such insightful and penetrating quotations as Clark Griswold’s “Hallelujah! Holy S#*@! Where’s the Tylenol?” It also gave us that indelible image of Randy Quaid as cousin Eddie poolside with his t-shirt tucked into a leopard print Speedo.

And, who can forget Eddie, the RV, and the storm sewer?

On a more serious note, the movie has a couple of meaningful lessons for leaders.

Yes, there’s the “Jelly of the Month Club” fiasco and the classic (and useful) quote by Clark’s boss about how things sometimes “look good on paper, but lose their luster when you see how it affects real folks.”

That’s a good one for all of us to ponder as we tweak our spreadsheets this Christmas season. But…

…I’m taking on the turkey.

Remember the turkey? It was beautiful…stunning even. Ask anyone who has labored near an oven, basting a roast turkey for hours on end, and they can tell you how difficult it is to achieve the golden brown visual perfection that is the Griswold’s turkey. See for yourself:

But then, the test.

Clark puts the knife and fork to it. And, well, click here if you don’t know the story.

It’s the letdown of letdowns–a finely tuned visual feast followed by the disgust of a dry, empty, cracked, steaming hole of a broken promise.

What are the leadership implications?

For those of us who are the cooks–the ones charged with compiling and crafting strategies, plans, visions, and ideas–the siren song of great visuals with no substance constantly beckons. We have the tools to create a symphony of perfectly prepared sights, sounds, and steam. We also have the pressure to perform and incentives to placate those we answer to, whether they are managers, executives, boards, or shareholders.

For those of us who are the carvers–those charged with reviewing such plans and possibly eating the cooking–such placating visuals can be blinding, especially if they confirm our desires.

In working with more than 30 large organizations and countless small ones as employee, consultant, investor, and executive, I have had the opportunity to witness and test countless executives’ abilities to cook up a plan, if you will.

A majority of the time, the cooking survives the knife and fork. It is grounded in facts, shaped to the reality of markets and constituencies, and staged thoughtfully. It is represented by people who know what they believe and can articulate it carefully.

But, every now and then, I’ve run across Griswold’s turkey. And, it’s not always obvious. Careful use of numbers, mindful (or at least artful) omission of realities, and tight stage management of the presentation all combine to create a golden brown shell of a vision or plan that anyone would want, supported by a scaffold of…nothing.

In those cases, two things became apparent (but, again, not always obvious..keep that in mind):

First, for the executives who knew that the plan was a, well, turkey; the immense focus of their time was on parrying the knife and fork. They delay, obfuscate, rotate the turkey five different ways, or just keep saying “it’s still in the oven.” They waste time. They aren’t all bad people, but they do tend to lack the courage to call it what it is. In some cases which one could consider unethical, they avoid examination of the underlying realities because they are playing a timing game due to misaligned incentives.

Second, for those who had to eat the cooking (that is, live with the choices of the first group)–the shareholders, boards, and true fiduciaries–the surprise of the broken promise leads to needs for hard decisions. They finally put their knife into the plan to carve it and eat it; and it turns into a dry, cracked shell. When the carvers finally do take action, people are fired and in the worst of cases investigated. Boards are turned over. Divisions or entire companies are sold or shut down. Shareholders, employees, communities, vendors and customers all lose.

I’m not necessarily talking about fraud, mind you, I’m talking about window dressing on a brick wall. For example: Griswold’s turkey could be the metaphor for the vast majority of companies founded and funded during the dot com era. They had beautiful plans with no reasonable path to profit. These were not (typically) fraudulent. They were, however, absolutely built on the back of willful blindness to reality peppered with really difficult incentive issues related to agency and timing.

What are we to do?

Step 1: Admit when you are looking at Griswold’s turkey. If the plan looks nice on the outside, but is a steaming mess of emptiness on the inside, be willing to call it out no matter where you sit. Have courage.

Step 2: Go to the knife and fork every now and then. For those of us who review strategic plans and are charged with poking around, be willing to poke with more than a finger. Ask the penetrating questions about the numbers, the dynamics, and the actions underlying the shiny shell of the plan. Learn to spot the obfuscation or honest ignorance that comes with Griswold’s turkey. Really think about the responses you get to your questions.

Step 3: Be careful as an executive or board member not to inadvertently provide incentive for others to bring you Griswold’s turkey by being soft, lazy, or simply too busy to inquire. Management claims to pursue a local market strategy but can’t name the markets, segments, or tailored approaches? Hmmmm… Maybe you’ve been too easy to fool or too comfortable with current performance.

Step 4: Be willing to slow down, start over or exit. So many instances of the Griswold’s turkey come from the need to show progress or a plan in the face of intense time pressure and expectations. It’s easier to polish up a PowerPoint and parry every question with “I’ll come back to you on that” than it is to know what you believe. If you are on the team, be willing to say when a plan isn’t ready. If you are reviewing the team, be willing to order them to go back to the clean sheet. If you are making strategic decisions, be willing to know when it’s time to stop cooking–to change leadership or exit.

These steps represent a critical aspect of leadership and a key learned skill: Calling a golden brown shell surrounding a hollow hot mess exactly what it is.

These particular turkeys are, as mentioned earlier, the letdown of letdowns. They are a visual tease. They lead to the disgust of a broken promise.

Learn to spot them, have the courage to avoid them, and role model the discipline to prevent them.

Hallelujah! Holy S#*@! Where’s the Tylenol?

Merry Christmas!

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