Dear Strategist: Euthanize Your Gerbils

When it comes to strategy…  The first thing we do, let’s kill all the gerbils.

On the heels of an article I wrote a couple of weeks ago titled “Being Strategic Means Naming Your Elephants,” I thought it useful to go to the other end of the spectrum…

Do you ever find yourself focused on the wrong things?

It’s ok… Admit it.

Sometimes we all get focused on things that don’t really matter to our missions.  They come in the form of shiny objects or minor brush fires that we chase to either develop or quash.

An old colleague of mine once referred to such things as “gerbils.” Gerbils are small, hairy, cute, hungry, and long-tailed. In other words, gerbils are a waste of time.

And we need to euthanize as many of them as we can.

First, a little background from my own professional life

As someone who has historically kept a very full calendar, and who continues to do so today, I have an interesting means of testing where I spend my time…  I can simply look at my calendar.

A couple of years ago, while serving as an executive in a diversified firm, I did such an analysis of my time. I was able to pull my calendared time into a spreadsheet, categorize it, and look at the results. For the record–or perhaps the hall of shame in some people’s books–the analysis covered 1,943 work hours over the course of 272 days. That’s an average of 7.14 hours a day, including weekends…about 50 hours scheduled per week.

I found that a significant minority of my time was being spent on activities for a function that was outside of my own organization’s mission.  It was remarkable to see that being “helpful” and focusing on what was at any moment labeled “important” in the micro led to what an objective observer might call a dilution of mission through allocation of time available in the macro.

To be clear, I found the split of time rewarding because I was able to get things done. I was able to help people.  I was running to fire, helping where the help was needed most.

And I was probably wrong.

I shared the analysis with other key executives and with my team and quickly explained what I saw as “wrong” with my time allocation.  I then set about to do more of the things that were important to my own mission, and to do less of (or delegate) those things that were not important.

I guess you could say I set out to euthanize the gerbils in my own agenda.

But teams and corporations have gerbils, too…and that’s where this gets juicy.

Gerbils in your company

Gerbils, like the unnamed elephants that I mentioned in my previous animal-analogy post, suck the life out of your agenda.  They tend to come in the form of executive flights of fancy or risk-averse “toe in the water” efforts.  They, by definition, are:

  • Small – They generally don’t “move the needle” for the agenda they embed within.
  • Hairy – They come with risks or needs for attention that are completely out-sized to their impact.
  • Cute – For some reason, they tend to captivate attention…examples are new products that have no market or initiatives that are vain pursuits.
  • Hungry – They eat a lot of resources to execute, and those resources have a much higher return on investment when deployed elsewhere.
  • Long-tailed – This is where the gerbil analogy really takes flight–your gerbils have long tails…they last a long time…they are persistent.

With that description, are you seeing any gerbils in your company’s corporate agenda?  Perhaps it’s a new product that’s eating up time and money that should be used to grow the company elsewhere.  Maybe it’s a cautious deployment of resources in a sub-scale manner against an opportunity that management just isn’t sure about.  Maybe it’s an initiative focused on engaging employees that the employees already view as a cynical ploy.  Maybe in your company it’s the kabuki theater of strategic planning itself that is a gerbil.

You get it?  Small, Hairy, Cute, Hungry, Long-tailed…akin to worthless.

In the midst of a strategy development discussion, a leadership team of one mid-sized company found 130 strategic initiatives to place on its agenda.


It’s a rare management team that can generate much less manage 130 truly strategic initiatives.

Time to kill some gerbils.

But how?

Some of your are sitting and thinking, “Yep, I see the gerbils in my company’s agenda,” but you may be missing the point:  Gerbils exist at all levels of abstraction.  For a corporate leadership team, a gerbil could be a sub-scale acquisition millions of dollars in size but made for looks, not impact.  For a business unit leader, gerbils might be a product launch hundreds of thousands of dollars in size that is already DOA.  For an individual, it might be the waste of time on Facebook or useless blogs (not this one, others…).

Gerbils are everywhere, which is why I started with the personal anecdote.  If you can become better at finding the gerbils in your own agenda, you can get better at finding them in your company’s agenda.

All this means is that one person’s elephant is another person’s gerbil.  A circumspect leadership culture acknowledges this.  They also realize when they need help. A healthy fact base (like my calendar exercise above) can give them a start.  When it comes to corporate agendas, sometimes they simply need an outsider to help structure and organize the discussion. Sometimes they need outsiders to bring the fact base to bear.

Your mileage may vary.

In our practice at WGP, we have engaged with clients looking for structural support on their corporate and business unit agendas.  In this type of engagement, we play a challenging and facilitative role for management.  We have also engaged deeply with corporate teams and business unit teams who need a more intense and full understanding of facts and options.

In any event, a great strategist focuses on naming elephants and murdering gerbils.

May you have success in doing the same.

I would love to have your thoughts on this topic in the reply section below.



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