Posts

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? 

 

 

What Andrew Luck just taught us about protecting top talent

Andrew Luck’s retirement shows that if you don’t protect the talent in your organization, you won’t have it for long.

Geoff Wilson

Andrew Luck announced his retirement Saturday night.  Luck, the intriguingly smart and fantastically gifted quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, basically explained that the constant cycle of injury and recovery he has gone through for the past few years had ground him down emotionally and physically.

This is a particularly personal story for me.  I am not one who is a big fan of individual football players.  It’s a team sport, and I enjoy the team aspect.  So, let me just put it this way:  Andrew Luck is probably my favorite football player of all time.

Now, there are those who disagree with Luck’s decision.  Some claim it’s a silly financial decision–Luck is leaving nine figures of future earnings on the table.  Some claim it’s a cowardly thing to do–football players always have to pay the butcher’s bill, and Luck’s “quitting” young speaks to his softness of character.

For those people, I’ll only say this:  Let the person who has taken snaps in the NFL with a lacerated kidney and peed blood afterward be the one who judges Luck.   I could stand on my soapbox and talk about “playing hurt” with the best of them, but I’ve witnessed Luck’s NFL career, and the guy has earned the right to make whatever decision he wants.

Andrew Luck is a generational talent. Unfortunately, the Indianapolis Colts teams that Andrew Luck led were built to exploit his talents, not to protect them.  So, the Colts had this big, strong, fast, smart quarterback who could pull off the most uncanny plays and shake off the most vicious of hits; and they placed him behind an offensive line that for years could at best be referred to as a “patchwork” of journeyman players.  The running backs and receivers that Luck has played with were fair at best, and absolute fill-ins at worst.

The Colts took Luck’s greatest strengths–his ability to take hits and still raise the level of everyone around him–for granted.   Luck’s toughness and tendency to compliment players for making good hits against him have been well documented in his “mic’d up” segments.  And, as it often goes in the NFL, the tougher you are, the more likely you are to be injured.  Luck has suffered through a litany of injuries.

Zak Keefer has the most noteworthy tweet on Luck’s injury history today.  The physical toll on Luck through 6 seasons reads like someone who has been in a major car accident…not somebody who has actually played the most difficult position in all of sports at the highest level despite and concurrently with these injuries.  

The Colts organization is smarting from the retirement of its young superstar quarterback. Colts fans booed Luck as he left the field for the last time after his retirement was leaked during their preseason game.  Still, I’m going to just put it this way:

The Colts organization and leadership is getting EXACTLY what they deserve.  

The waste of a generational talent is a sad thing to see, but it was entirely foreseeable.  Luck was sacked 41 times in his 2012 rookie year.  That kind of pounding is psychologically withering to a quarterback more than almost any other position player because the quarterback has to have the confidence that he can focus on other things without having a sledgehammer swung at his chest on every play.   So, what should be the priority for the organization?  limit those sacks, right.

Luck was sacked an identical 41 times in 2016.  That’s four years later for the mathematically challenged.  The result is that Luck has had to come back from an awful set of injuries, with each comeback extracting a little bit of soul.

In Luck’s words, “it’s been unceasing and unrelenting…It’s taken my joy of this game away.”

Which leads me to the point of this post:  If you are an organizational leader who is leaning on a few star talents surrounded by a supporting cast of also-rans to “gut it out” on a daily basis, you are playing a very dangerous game.

Because when your top talent has had enough–when you have extracted enough of their soul by asking them to jump on yet another grenade dropped by a poor performing organization–it will be fully justified to go elsewhere.

You will get EXACTLY what you deserve.

And, if you aren’t doing this explicitly, it might be good to take a moment and reflect on whether you are doing this implicitly.  Take a look at the team you lead and ask whether you are leaning a bit too heavily on a talented few.  Take a look at the organization you lead and ask whether you are counting too much on a few talented teams to carry the rest of the organization.

Do this not because you have the time to do it.  Nobody does.  Do it because you can’t afford to grind your top talent down to a joyless nub.

Andrew Luck’s retirement is a cautionary tale to those executives who believe a little too much in the power of star talent.

What do you think?  How do you protect your star talent? 

(Photo credit to Clutchpoints.com)

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?

When one more is too many, what do you do?

Focus need not be only about doing less.

Geoff Wilson

Focus is a frequent theme in our work.  Often, action-oriented teams do what they do, which is to take on more and more “things” until the collection of things is basically overwhelming. When organizations place one management layer of achievers on top of another management layer of achievers, the result can often be a cacophony of initiatives…each with a purpose and all generating tension against one another.

In the most mature organizations, the tendency of achievers to stretch toward more and more things is bounded first by a few good leaders who decide what not to do and second by processes that force choices early and often.

In less mature organizations…cacophony.

So what is that organization to do?  As with almost anything, the first step is to admit it.  If you can list a dozen initiatives that you are working on, you likely have a problem. I often tell executive teams that 3 – 5 active initiatives are plenty (a lot, even) for any management team.  That’s in the context of teams that can list a dozen or more active initiatives.  And, of course, all the initiatives are important.  All of them need to progress.  We must make progress on cost structure and product development and accounting systems and talent sourcing. So, admit it when you have a problem.

The second step is to actually define what focus is.  Is it truly doing fewer things, or is it about ensuring that the things that are done in the organization are done in the right place in the organization? All the example initiatives I listed in the paragraph above are likely important at the same time.  Of course they are…all of those elements are about running the business.  The problem is, many of them should belong to a person or team, not to the entire organization.  There may be a natural owner of the work that is not the executive team.

You don’t often really need to have the entire management team engaged in the accounting system rebuild, but often they are. And, thus, I see it frequently:  Senior managers scurry from one steering committee meeting to another, without having real context on any one initiative to be a clear contributor.  They have their hands in many pots, but have no idea what is for dinner.  Why not try to leave some things to the organization? Too many people get worried about focus because they think it leads to accomplishing less.  Once you factor in your ability to delegate, it’s just not true.

After you have the first and second steps completed, it’s time to actually focus.  This involves at least four decisions.  First is what to delegate.  Second is what to do now.  Third is what to do next. And fourth is what not to do at all (explicitly).   If anything is still standing alone after those four filters, then the answer is likely to get help. Why? Because it usually means you have other root issues–like not being able to delegate because you don’t trust your people or because they haven’t earned your trust.

If your management team or organization lacks focus, try to organize a bit to get through these few steps and decisions.  Your company will thank you for it.

What do you think?  

The bare essence of professionalism

The bare essence of professionalism is reliably doing real work on the right things, and doing it well.

Geoff Wilson

One of the benefits of my position as a management adviser is that I get to see a lot of different management and leadership styles. And I get to see them from all perspectives: executive, buyer, seller, consultant, adviser, subordinate, and superior to name a few.

As I think about the most effective people I know–that is to say the most effective professionals I know–I have realized over time that the key to enduring professional success tends to be a simple word: reliability.  The funny thing about reliability is that it is timeless.  It doesn’t depend on your experience level, it doesn’t depend on your topical expertise, it doesn’t depend on your role. It simply depends on your dependability.

Why do I write this?  Because I get to see the outfall of unreliable professionals all the time. These are the consultants who talk a big game but who don’t do real work to back it up (the “one-hit wonders” of the consulting profession).  These are the managers who set aggressive, unreachable deadlines for themselves and therefore can’t be counted on to deliver.  These are the employees who never met a deadline they couldn’t silently stretch or break–while their leaders silently watch them fail because why bother?

These are the professionals who look and feel like they have something better to do than work on your problem or the task at hand.

The essence of professionalism can be encapsulated in a timeless quotation from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  This particular quotation was the favorite of a beloved football coach of mine, and it’s one that has informed my ideals for a very long time.  It goes like this:

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”

That means if you are called on to deliver the next M&A deal for your company, you think Michelangelo. It means if you are a mid-career manager who suddenly has to step in and own the financial model, you think Beethoven. And it means that if you are a seasoned professional who suddenly has to create that pitch deck when nobody else is available, you don’t think about how you no longer have those skills or how you are better than this work–you think Shakespeare.

In short, the professional mindset is one that doesn’t get bogged down in what work is “beneath” him or her.  It’s the one that finds the work and figures out a way to do it for real.  It’s comfort in doing the little things that build to a big thing. And it’s being known for reliably applying that comfort. It’s reliably doing real work on the right things and doing it well.

That, my friends, is the bare essence of professionalism.

It’s an ideal that I always aspire to.

What do you think?  What would you add as the essence of professionalism?

 

Where heroes go to die

For 95 percent of your business, it’s best to put your heroes in the graveyard.

Geoff Wilson

Meet Sam.

Sam is a hero.  She probably lives in your organization.  She’s the one that “gets things done.”

Product not getting shipped?  Sam is the one on the dock.

Work not getting done on time in the drafting room? Sam has uncanny ability to pitch in and get things over the goal line.

Individuals not delivering their work packages on time in general?  Sam will step in, re-cast the process, lay out for the pass, and ensure that the deadline is met.

Sam knows–or at least is known by–the CEO.  Sam has made a living out of making her bosses look great. The people around Sam may not like Sam that much because of how hard Sam works and/or how much Sam pitches in to do their job, but the reality is that Sam has probably saved them from being fired countless times.

Sam delivers. Sam is a hero.

And, in 95 percent of businesses that I know, the need for Sam’s heroism is a problem.

Why?

Because heroism makes for good beer-drinking stories and for really awful business.  It covers up for bad processes.  It lulls bosses into a false sense of security because “we are always on time” when, in reality, processes are broken, and people are left in tatters by the heroic culture.

It also creates single points of failure.  That is, if the hero gets hit by the proverbial bus, the entire system reverts to chaos.  Chaos is not good.  Your best bet in building a strategically sound business is to eliminate chaos where humanly possible. And, that means (oddly enough) eliminating heroism–the ultimate cover for chaos.  I believe that to be possible in about 95 percent of business processes.  The other 5%?  Those are where we all deal with uncontrollable variables like last minute changes in customer preferences or mercurial executives.  For those, I love heroes.

For the rest?  Use your heroes as indicators of opportunity, not as indicators of success.  Know that an effort at the strategic renewal of your company through thoughtful planning and strategic focus should be a place where heroes go to die.

But beware, because the Sams of the world can turn toxic when it comes to putting a bullet in heroism.  In general, heroes really hate business improvement.  Heroes like Sam often (not always) create job security and ego-stroking visibility through their ability to lay out for the pass.  Heroes often hate it when processes are re-evaluated.  They are the first to bring up terms like bureaucracy and waste of time.  They are the ones who (rightfully) will focus everyone around them on the results, but when everyone around them stops to say “let’s fix the process,” they might say “no thanks, I’m going to go get some more results.”  Sam may be rightfully focused on results (I applaud her), but she may also be protecting a virtual fiefdom of heroism when it comes to opting out of the nearer term process fix.

That, my friends, is ultimately not scalable.  And, that can be toxic.  Sam’s a hero, but toxic Sam is merely another form of a high-performing corporate narcissist.

My advice?  If your heroes live anywhere outside of sales or otherwise in direct interactions with your customer, find a way to put them in the graveyard.  In your strategic efforts, take them to the place where heroes go to die.

What do you think?

 

 

Are you a micromanager? Oh, I hope so…sometimes

Micromanagement is a bad thing…until it’s not.

Geoff Wilson

Micromanagement has a really bad reputation.  But, is it deserved?

The term conjures mental images of a manager standing over the shoulder of a subordinate, hand on the subordinate’s mouse, clicking on a graphic to put it in the right place NOW.  Or, you imagine a manager who constantly lays out task lists and methods of doing the tasks for every member of the team.  Or, you see the manager who questions every decision of his subordinates. Why did  you spend $15.09 on pens last month?

Micromanagement as a term elicits the image of a bad manager.  And while that reputation is in some ways well earned, I think that the truth of the matter is that “micromanagement” can actually be a smear used by frustrated subordinates against managers who actually care.

Here’s why:

A great manager understands the needs of her people.  I’ve used the skill / will matrix in the past, with its management imperatives.  It gives a good indication how to handle different employee skill and will (that is, drive or energy) profiles. Here it is.

See that lower left quadrant that says “direct” for low skill, low will people?  That’s the “micromanage” quadrant.  In other words, whatever you call it, a good manager knows when it’s time to lock in and direct, micromanage, task, or otherwise be all-up-in-the-grill of a subordinate who is either (1) untrusted or (2) not up to an existing, critical task.

Anecdotally, I have seen far more trouble conjured up by managers who didn’t know how to lock in on task when the time comes.  So-called players’ coaches are great when it comes to ensuring “happiness,” but it’s the rare players’ coach who can be a players’ coach with every player and still be successful.

This post comes from the question of a colleague on my own style of management…and whether I’m a micromanager.  The only answer I could dig up was “not generally, but specifically, possibly, yes.”  I’m a big believer in allowing talented people to run and only adjusting course.  I’m also a believer in being very specific with inexperienced people.  Where the pain comes in is when a “talented” or “experienced” person gets a lot of rope and tangles himself with it, and I follow up with a whopping dollop of micromanagement.  That hurts, because it’s a clear signal that the person wasn’t up to the task, and I was asleep at the switch.

In other words, you may dislike micromanagement, but it’s a pretty darned good indication of how your talent is regarded and how much trust you have from your manager.  Before smearing your manager with the term, consider whether your manager is simply a mission-oriented manager who had  to micromanage you.

What do you think?  Is “micromanager” a justifiable epithet or simply another management hat of an effective leader?

Two ways to grow in the new year

If you want to grow this year, do these two things.

I confess, this entire new year thing has gotten ahead of me this year.  I thought it was December and now it’s January.

The new year comes with a sense of renewal.  It comes with a sense of burying all that was “bad” last year and focusing on what we want to succeed at this year.  Only, I think that for most of us that is a totally broken approach to growth–whether growing a business or growing a career or growing a skill-set.  We tend to set resolutions that we know we will break. We stretch only to settle back into our old habits before long.

So what is a person to do in order to win in 2018 (which is right now)?

I’ll offer two things that work for me, and that I think can work for most any executive out there.

First:  Focus on the strengths that you can deploy today.  Sure, sure…you know how to find your strengths. You probably have a winning smile and a wonderful personality, but what if nobody is looking or listening?  You have a problem.  You have the same problem if you have a great product in the pipeline that won’t get out until Q3.  It doesn’t matter that you have the perfect strength “coming.”  What you do with what you have today is what matters. So, focus on what you can do…right now.

Second:  Listen to your weaknesses. This is extremely hard for most executives to do–especially those who have mastered the spin of their “greatest weakness” being simply a strength in disguise (you know the ones: they always have an answer for how their weakness isn’t really a weakness). Like it or not, most executives (not you, but people you know) got where they are by sidestepping their weaknesses, not by confronting them head on.  I’m not saying “shore up your weaknesses,” I’m saying listen to them.  Find ways to grow from what you learn about your weak supply chain, or your weak sales force, or your (personally) weak communication skills.

Building on your deployable strengths and learning from your present weaknesses might just be your recipe for “better” this year…which means better right now.

Just to show that none of this is new (you didn’t really think it was, anyway), I’ll leave you with a fantastic lyric that implores you to focus on these two objectives. It’s a piece of the song Anthem by the late Leonard Cohen.  Take a moment to read it:

Ring the bells that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack, a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.

As you blast into this year, think about the bells you can still ring–now. Forget about the perfect strength–focus on what you have today. And, perhaps most importantly, find the light that comes through the cracks in your armor by listening to your weaknesses.

That’s how the light gets in.

Happy new year!

Who is defending your customer?

When you are setting strategy, who plays the customer advocate role?

Geoff Wilson

In a meeting this week with a very thoughtful management team that was in the midst of a heated discussion, the CEO made a comment that stuck with me.

He noted that one of the more direct and opinionated voices in the room was “defending the customer” while talking about strategic priorities.

And that got me thinking:  When you are building your strategy, do you ensure that the customer has an advocate in the room?  We talk about the voice of the customer as if having it in the mix automatically means something, but what if the voice of the customer doesn’t have an advocate?  What if it’s just another “opinion” in the room?

That would be a tragedy.

When you are planning your strategy, think about how to ensure that the customer’s point of view is not only known, but actively represented in the room.  That may be as simple as designating a customer advocate in your strategic discussions, or it may mean actually bringing customers into the room.

You never know what you might learn, or what you might prevent yourself from doing.

What do you think?