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Real dirt on your uniform

Sure, you want to show how hard you worked. But sometimes it’s better to just do the work.

Geoff Wilson

 “The optics aren’t good.” 

Ugh.  That phrase is the start of something bad in many circumstances.  Sometimes, bad optics and a good outcome is much better than a really pretty but really awful outcome.

Allow me a moment for two anecdotes…

Back in my college football days, I had a teammate who was caught rubbing dirt on his uniform after a game. He was not a guy who saw the field during games, but he really wanted to show that he had been in on the action.  One of the equipment managers noticed him squat near the sideline and pick up some dirt clods to rub on his uniform.

Voila!  Instant football hero.

Fast forward to my days at a top-tier consulting firm. In the middle of a hard-core operations strategy project in the electric power sector, we needed to run a workshop on site at a power plant.  The issue was that–safety standards being what they are–we needed to wear steel-toed boots.  So, of course all the white-shoe consultants go out and buy new steel-toed boots.  Except, one of the partners, convinced that his new boots were a bad signal, decided to spend some time scuffing his up enough to be inconspicuous on site.

Voila! Instant operations veteran.

These two stories are important reminders of the old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover.

They are also a reminder that people will often go to great lengths and waste great amounts of time and energy to “look the part.”  They worry so much about the “optics” of a clean uniform that they actually go out and seek a dirt clod to rub on their uniform.

The same is true in the business world.  Often, the 100-page PowerPoint deck is simply a dirt clod, or a set of scuffed shoes.  It’s the way consultants, managers, and analysts show that they are doing real work–even when they aren’t.

I’ll just ask you this:  Is the work you are doing actual, real work to solve a problem for a customer, or are you just digging up a dirt clod to rub on your uniform?

Because sometimes a dirty uniform just means you fell down a lot.

What do you think? 

So smart you don’t have to listen…

Lack of listening betrays lack of empathy.

Geoff Wilson

 Are you too smart to listen?

You know that feeling: It’s that feeling that you already know the end of the discussion, so you don’t really have to be patient enough to listen?  Or, maybe it’s that feeling that your position of authority means you don’t have to listen.

It gets to you.  It especially gets to you if you don’t watch out for it.

Recently, I spent some time alongside a few consultants from a “top tier” firm after being away from them for quite a while.  What struck me was their lack of focus on others…their lack of listening.  It seemed that the lack of listening was built into the cultural model that comes with competitive upper tier strategy consulting. I remember it, but I hadn’t “felt” it for a while.

That model is built around being smart.  It’s built around knowing the facts better than the client.  It’s built around being more assertive than your next best peer (so that your superiors know you know what they don’t know).

And, here’s the rub…  In today’s age, it’s exceptionally hard to be the smartest person in the room. Access to information is quite broad. Demand for cultural sensitivity is commonplace. Skepticism of strategic platitudes is growing. This means that a pretty much nobody is smart enough not to listen.

And so, I’ll say it this way: You are not too smart to listen.  You may think you are, but you aren’t.  And, that guy or gal who sits back in the room and listens for a while?  Just remember that still waters run deep.  Honor it.  Don’t throw it away with the old “he didn’t add anything” trope.

Professionals who lack consistent ability and discipline to listen usually lack empathy in most other parts of their professional profile.  Which brings me to the point of this post:  Too smart to listen is all too often too smart to actually lead.

What do you think about that?

The hobgoblin of business strategists

If your strategy can’t be wrong, it’s not right.

Geoff Wilson

Business strategy, like any real strategic pursuit, is fundamentally ambiguous.  It involves estimating the future along many axes–regulatory policies, competitive behavior, customer tastes, supply shocks, organizational zeal, and investor requirements are just a few.

Ambiguity has a terrible consequence for some senior management teams and most strategy consultants: It leads them to adopt a style of communication and assertion that is unassailable.  You’ve probably seen it:  A request for a recommendation for what to do in the face of a possible change in trade policy turns into a long explanation from your consultant on how “it depends.” On the way to trying to be completely right, many of today’s management strategists turn to arguments that can’t be wrong, and an argument about ambiguous things that can’t be wrong is a pseudoargument.

Famous philosopher-scientist Karl Popper had this comment to describe the phenomenon:

In so far as a scientific statement speaks about reality, it must be falsifiable; and in so far as it is not falsifiable, it does not speak about reality.

So if you are a top manager who likes to resort to platitudes and spin vs. direction and argument, Popper would say you aren’t actually confronting reality, and confronting reality is the first order of business for any leader or adviser.

How does this actually look in the real world?  I think the best way to see it is to look for arguments that can’t possibly be wrong no matter the evidence placed in front of you. If your management strategist tells you that restructuring an industry via an aggressive M&A agenda is the right strategy, and you say “but valuations are too high” to only get the response that “this means M&A is the right thing to do because everybody is already seeing the value,” then your management strategist might be engaging in an un-falsifiable strategic argument.

A strategic argument must be falsifiable a priori.  That is, you must be able to say in which states of the world you might be wrong when the strategy is built, not after.  Anybody can tell you why a strategy was wrong once it encounters the real world; but if you can’t say what makes your strategy wrong, you probably don’t have a strategy (or at least a sound method for defining the strategy) in the first place.

That’s why strategies that only focus on inputs are often wrong: They are not falsifiable.  “Innovate” says the strategist, or “become more productive,” or “hire better talent.”  Those are all great strategic inputs, but they don’t survive the falsifiability test.  How about these:

  • Innovate in the personalized medicine space to meet a current need for cystic fibrosis therapy
  • Become more productive in our pipeline repair process to regain lost capacity to serve existing customers
  • Hire better talent at CEO to avoid management platitudes and ensure sound strategy

See what I mean?  The comments above are falsifiable in states of the world where (1) there is no need for CF therapies, (2) there is no need for capacity to serve customers, and (3) the CEO understands the need for falsifiable business strategy. Strategy is an argument, and ideally it’s a scientific argument. But for an argument to be scientific, it must be precise enough to be wrong when presented with countervailing evidence.  In short, your business strategy must be falsifiable.

Try it out:  Ask yourself what your strategy is, and then test whether you can envision a future where it is wrong.  If you can, then you are probably standing on solid ground. If you can’t?  Well, you are probably engaging in pseudoscience.  This is the hobgoblin of top management consultants and senior managers of all stripes.

If your strategy can’t be wrong, it’s not right.

What do you think?  Do you see “strategies” that are merely platitudes disguised as science? 

Strategy is hard when you’re scared

Thinking long is hard when things are short.

Geoff Wilson

Have you ever been in a circumstance where short-term shocks completely derail long-term plans?  You might see it in your family life when an illness strikes, or in your professional life when the loss of a customer leads to wholesale panic. On average, we are poorly prepared to stay the course during adversity.  We get defensive.  We get scared.

Part of this is a fact of our minds:  We narrow our focus during times of strife.  When life gets short, we close our ranks; we narrow our circles of friends.  When life is long again, we expand our horizons and think big.  I wrote about that a while back in this blog post.  In it, I outlined how shared vision of the future prevents small thinking.

In this case, however, I am posing the question a little more narrowly:

Can you be strategic when you are scared?

You are scared of losing your job, so what do you do?  You are scared of an economic downturn, so how do you manage your business?  You are scared of…wait for it…being wrong, so how does that affect your decision making?

We all respond to fear a little differently.  Some of us throw the problem on our backs and carry on.  Some of us wait for somebody else to do it.  Some of us simply freeze.  The traditional model of fear reaction that most of us know is “fight or flight,” but I’m a fan of a model that was proposed by Dave Grossman in his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in Modern Society. In that book, Grossman outlines the four possible responses to fear: Fight, flight, posture, and submit.

We fight when we actively take on the fear with countering force or influence.

We flee when we actively avoid the fear by putting distance between us and it.

We posture when we attempt to show our strength without actually doing anything.

We submit when we open up our soft underbelly to the fear and let the fear win. We freeze.

And, here’s the rub…most of us are wired to posture. That is, we are wired to figuratively inflate our chest, yell a battle cry, and fire our guns into the air.  In a business context, we are wired to schedule more meetings, produce more presentations and analysis, and show our boss or board how much activity we are producing in the face of adversity.

We aren’t wired to fight.  We aren’t wired to resort to violent action in the face of adversity.  In the professional context, we aren’t wired to take action on winning that next customer when we’ve just lost one.

We are wired to posture…to explain the situation (sometimes violently) vs. solving it.

And, we are wired to submit…to become victims of circumstance…to freeze in the face of fear.

And, that makes strategy hard when fear is involved.  Keeping our eyes on a long-term strategy when short-term shocks upend the organization is the stuff of exemplary leaders.

We live in interesting times.  I have clients dealing with the bucking bronco of current trade policy uncertainty.  I have clients projecting the next recession constantly. I have clients worried about finding the talent required to carry out their aspirations. And of course, I have clients dealing with their own, very personal fears that relate to turbulence in their own personal lives.

I think the most basic piece of advice I can offer is this:  Despite what so many attempt to brand as “fearless leadership” or “fearless strategy,” nobody lacks fear.  There is no such thing.  Even the most emotionless automaton of a corporate executive is afraid of being exposed about something.  If you can admit your fear, and if you can determine whether your response to that fear is actually productive–am I fighting or fleeing vs. posturing or freezing–you will be far ahead of the game.

If you can keep your eyes on the horizon while you walk through a bed of thorns, you will set yourself apart from the pack.

Strategy is hard when you are scared.

What do you think:  Does fear get in the way of long term strategy? 

What the fear of missing out does to your business strategy

You don’t want to miss an opportunity, and that means you might miss them all.

Geoff Wilson

What does a smart strategist do with resources?

Most would say that “strategy” in and of itself depends on focusing the investment of resources against valuable ends. But what happens when you have too many possible directions to go with your resources?  Or, worse yet, what happens if you are afraid to focus on a critical few ends?

What if you suffer from an all too human factor:  the Fear Of Missing Out, or FOMO for short?

Here’s what happens:  Your fear of missing out exacts a price on your focus because every opportunity you pursue comes with a little bit of distraction.  Call it the fixed cost of opportunity pursuit: The need to organize, plan, and simply think about any given opportunity just to start it up.

To illustrate, assume that you have 100% of your mind to allocate.  Now imagine that any given opportunity you pursue comes with a 5% fixed “mind cost” of addressing it.  If that’s the case, then addressing three opportunities leaves 85% of your time after the fixed cost (or nearly 30% of your attention per opportunity) to truly develop them. But pursuing five leaves 75% (or about 15% per opportunity) and pursuing ten?  That leaves half your time to dedicate and only 5% to pursue each opportunity.  And so it goes: The fixed cost of opportunity pursuit, even if it’s small, devours valuable development time.  But while the cost of pursuit may be linear, the price you pay per pursuit in terms of dilution is essentially exponential.

And, no, you can’t escape the fixed cost, because it’s more than organizational.  Even left fully alone, you have to contend with your own brain, which incurs a cost when shifting gears.  That’s why multi-tasking is a dangerous thing.  Your brain simply can’t filter out all the noise between the many focus areas.

The impact to your organization is easily as bad. You see this all the time: the organizational costs imposed on opportunity pursuit.  They might look like project reviews, justifications, planning meetings, and deployment program reviews, and in some organizations, these exceedingly hungry mandates devour more of the managers’ time than actually pursuing opportunities.

Admit it…you’ve seen this happen.  And, all too often, it’s because of the fear of missing out: ol’ FOMO.

But what drives the fear of missing out?  In almost all instances it’s confidence. You don’t know enough about a critical few things, so you spread your bets around…only in doing so, you don’t simply allocate resources, you simultaneously dilute them.  In gambling terms, you play with scared money; you impose a fear tax. In the process, you often create a lot of really small initiatives that don’t go very far or make much difference. Refer to this article from a few years ago about killing these “gerbils” in your plans.  In simple terms, the fear of missing out leads you to this: You don’t want to miss an opportunity, and that means you might miss them all.

So what is the point of all this?  It’s pretty basic, actually. Challenge yourself to focus on the critical few things that matter. If you don’t have the confidence to do so, invest the time to build it.  Challenge your organization to do the same.  That’s what a smart strategist does with resources.

What do you think?  Are you diluting your focus out of fear?  

 

Evolution and business transformation

A brief notion of what it takes to actually evolve in the business world.

Geoff Wilson

“We need to transform” says the executive.

But what does that really mean?

To the dude with the MBA, it means driving margins higher, generating more cash flow, and establishing the efficient organization of the future. Only, it’s too often that such “transformations” are drafted on somebody else’s template. I grew up in an age where everybody wanted to “be like Mike,” and those same kids are now adults chasing the best in the business. Only instead of trying to dunk a basketball with their tongue sticking out, they are trying to implement the business system of their favorite high-flying company.

If you’re in an industrial company, that might mean you are emulating Danaher, or drawing on time-tested lessons from Toyota, or attempting to be like GE (not anymore, of course, because GE is passé).

If you’re in tech, then you are emulating Netflix, who creatively leaked a slide deck on culture years ago that seems to have inspired legions of management engineers. Or, maybe it’s Google parent Alphabet, Inc. that strikes your fancy.

You learn about these business systems at current or erstwhile world-class companies, and it all looks doable as you contemplate your transformation. But it’s not, and too many otherwise really bright managers don’t understand why.

So let me try to explain.

I just returned from a fascinating trip to the Galápagos Islands. The Galápagos are well-known for their unique and highly differentiated species, some of which have adapted over many generations to their own specific islands. Everybody knows about the Galápagos tortoise. Most people are aware of the marine iguana, and many people know about the legendary clumsiness of the blue-footed boobie. Finally, many people are aware of the many varieties of Darwin’s finches, with their many different beaks specially shaped for different food types.

These species all evolved through a course of natural selection from some primordial ancestors along their family tree: The marine iguana doubtless comes from iguana stock, the giant tortoise from tortoise stock, and the finches from a finch ancestor. And today they are competitively specialized to their specific environments, some of which are only miles apart in distance while being worlds apart in hospitality to non-local species.

Which brings me to the natural illustration: You wish to transform your company, and that’s fine, but you have to transform from your own template. If you have iguana DNA, don’t pine for the airborne life of the finch; if you’re a finch, forget about evolving to be a giant tortoise.

That’s not transformation, it’s a delusion.

The punchline is this: You must know your DNA, and once you know it, you must steer your transformation along it. Great things can happen to companies that take the best of their DNA and add or snip. Horrific things happen to companies that attempt to transform via somebody else’s DNA.

I, and probably you, have seen such mutant companies slogging along in confusion and demoralization while some “smart and worldly” senior executive tries to impose their iguana DNA onto a finch culture. That is not the way to evolve a corporate culture. You do it by knowing who you are.

What do you think? Can an iguana become a finch? Can your organization do the same?

 

5 randoms on strategy

Here are 5 thoughts on strategy that might be of use.

Geoff Wilson

Every now and then, I just have to lay down a post to get the juices flowing again. This is one of those times.  The past 6 months have been client-heavy and blogging-time light.   As I typed and re-typed the title of this post, I became more acquainted with the factual reality of writer’s block.  Namely, it’s not necessarily that ideas stop flowing, it’s that they stop flowing to the page.  That is tough. And it’s something that I have to overcome every now and then.

 

So, in a kind of forced movement, here are 5 random thoughts on strategy, gleaned from recent experience, that might be of use to you.

Thought 1:  When in doubt, sell. 

Yes, yes, I know: It’s not rocket science to say that sales are strategically important to most any company. But, it’s shocking how little emphasis some management teams put on investing in and enabling their sales teams.  Some management teams spend hours upon hours in meetings about their latest operational issues, but barely spend a moment on sales.  It’s remarkable to see strategic priorities laid out that forget to emphasize sales.

Thought 2: Real innovators ship.

Having spent plenty of time around “innovative” organizations, I can tell you that they come in two types:  Those who say they are innovative, and those who innovate. Management teams who use innovation as a slogan are wasting time. Real innovators ship product.

Thought 3: Strategy is content before process…function before form. 

One of the major issues within the realm of strategic management is that people who are good at it are often very process-oriented. They like systems. But, systems aren’t really great at learning. Strategy is about learning and adapting.  It’s about observing and adjusting. So, when you find yourself in a company whose approach to strategy is dominated (not supported, that’s different) by templates and processes, you are probably going to land off target.  You want to focus on the content.  A single page of strong strategic arguments are often far more effective than 50 pages of powerpoint slides produced because corporate said so.

Thought 4: There is a place for short-term management

Short-termism can be a very bad thing. It can lead to poor investment approaches and can leave big ideas on the cutting room floor in exchange for quick ones.  Still, the discipline of short-term management tools (weekly reviews, monthly reporting, quarterly investor calls) can bolster performance and place emphasis on the longer-term.  How?  By ensuring that short-term decisions constantly reflect long-term objectives.

Thought 5: Your action plan is only as good as your leaders

Creating plans can be challenging.  But, it is still a creative process, which means that there is some latitude in conceiving how the future will play out and putting it into plan format. If you are creative and thoughtful, you can build a great plan.  But even the greatest of plans have to survive interpretation and ambiguity. And that’s the job of the leader who executes.  So, make a real assessment of whether you have planned well, and then make an even more real assessment of whether you have put the right talent on the plan to overcome its inevitable deficiencies.

So, there you have it. Five random thoughts on strategy that might resonate.  You might find them useful.  What do you think?  

 

In praise of the anti-curator

Every organization needs a little bit of time and talent to stop, look, and notice what is going on.

Geoff Wilson

I had an interesting discussion with a friend recently that sparked a thought.

My friend is preparing for a 500-plus mile solo hike on the Camino de Santiago.  A veteran of these sorts of hikes, he explained to me that his mode of walking was to be fully aware of his surroundings…meaning he didn’t listen to music or indulge in other distractions along the way.  He related a story about a prior long hike that involved a companion who had a similar philosophy of situational awareness.

That companion, he explained to me was a great noticer.  He related how she found a wild orchid on the path that he (claimed) he would never have noticed because it just wasn’t in his nature.

And, that brings me to the thought…

Our modern, western, techno-lives deliver us into a fantastically automated and increasingly curated world.  Our privilege is the ability to put our heads down, focus on what’s directly in front of us, and miss everything else around us because the systems around us are designed to deliver to us the typically right answer or the safe answer.

But, it’s not always the fulfilling or creative answer.  It’s the closest-to-the-pin, least likely to hurt answer.  I wrote on this a couple years ago in a post entitled Come On, Feel the Noise! where I wanted us all to question whether infinite stability is a good thing.

That’s because curators (and by this, I mean anybody feeding you information based on what typical people do) have to have some “typical” data stream to go on.  And their data stream is highly dependent on what others did.

Curators, in other words and to extend from the hiking story above, are the path.  They cannot leave the path.

Sometimes, you need to ensure you have a few noticers around you.  These are people who appreciate that you are following a path, but who have the presence of mind to watch out for the occasional uplifting opportunity that might branch from the path.  They are the ones who actually illuminate the road less traveled.

They are, in a way, anti-curators.  They break the “typical” and push you to see what might be outside of your inertia.

Maybe you need a few anti-curators around you.

What do you think? 

 

 

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 the to the place where heroes go to die.

What do you think?

 

 

The things you leave behind

The toughest part of business strategy is choice.

Geoff Wilson

We live in a fantastically privileged time and I live in a fantastically privileged place.  When thinking about taking a journey with my family, I am rarely, if ever, really constrained by my capacity to carry things along with me.  A large SUV and a few containers and attachments that my family of six has accumulated over the years have made sure of that.

But, those who take serious journeys in the real world know what it’s like to deal with constraints on a journey. On a hike of hundreds of miles that might cover tens of thousands of feet of elevation change, the difference between carrying a 5-pound sleeping bag and a 2-pound one can be the difference between a comfortable hike and terminal fatigue or injurious fall.

In other words, how we deal with the constraints around us can be defining, and if we aren’t careful, we can become numb to the fact that constraints do still exist.

Your business will be defined by choices.  Those choices might be purposeful, or they might be passive.  Still, you will make choices.  Those choices will come in the form of positive choices about “what we will do,” and negative choices about “what we will not do.”

Positive choices are a call to action. They point the way.

Negative choices are a call to create capacity.  They explain how we will create focus.

But, if we aren’t careful, we can become numb. We can let profitability (which is like a large SUV…it allows you to carry many things) mask overburden or distraction, and those things can crush us when the economy turns.  We make many positive choices, and we avoid the negative choices.  We decide not to decide on what to leave behind.  Because, well, that’s hard.

And, there’s risk in that.  Because, like in the hike I outlined above, a failure to make choices on what to leave behind can be the difference between a comfortable success and a painful failure.

Those choices might be about which customers to fire.

Or employees.

Or markets to exit.

Or businesses.

Or assets to shed.

Or brands.

Or meetings to cancel.

Or trips.

Or products to eliminate.

Or partners.

What you leave behind can be as defining to your strategy, and your well being, as what you take with you.  Don’t forget it. The journey is long.  Pack for it the right way.