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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? 

 

 

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?

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?  

Is anything too precious to automate?

What do you do that you wouldn’t want the machine to do?

Geoff Wilson

I get up in the morning and press a button to brew a cup of coffee.  I talk to a device to have it play the right news, then the right music.  I look at curated news feeds to understand what is going on in the world.

The question is:  Is there anything too precious to automate?

Maybe more to the point, are there aspects of your profession that should NEVER be automated?

This post is inspired by a podcast I listened to recently that was expounding on the value of email automation software that could send individualized email to your “target clients” from your own email account.

Sounds brilliant, right? Just like a toaster, you can put in the raw material and press the lever…and out pops a finished product.

Only, the podcast was targeted toward consulting professionals with individual or boutique footprints…and it got me thinking.  In a “trusted” profession, is it ever worth the risk of committing the mail merge faux pas?

You know what I’m talking about.  In my inbox today, I have spam addressed to “Wilson” as though it’s my first name.  I have received emails that start with Dear [Client Name].  I have, just today, dealt with a person who insisted upon copying their CRM software dropbox address as a CC to my email.

These are all just now…today!

In a world where we can automate almost anything, from writing personal emails to cooking gourmet meals, is anything still sacred enough to do manually?

I think so…that’s why I write this blog.  That’s why I write my own emails (typos and all).  And that’s why I think that a professional mindset requires a personal touch.

Now, excuse me while I tweet this out.

What do you think?  What’s too sacred to automate in your professional life? 

 

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?