Maybe it’s Time for a New Foundation

March 16, 2013

FoundationWould you build a 30-room mansion on a foundation made for a small Colonial? Sometimes as organizations grow, they may no longer fit on the foundation that was perfect when they were a start up. An organization outgrowing its foundation is a frequent problem, and great leaders instinctively adjust the foundation for the size of the current business, ensuring a stable condition.

In my analogy, the foundation is the strategic plan for the organization. Every business needs an operating framework that includes the following things at a minimum: Values, Vision, Mission, Behaviors, SWOT, Goals, Strategies, Tactics, and Measures. Without these guiding premises for the business, it would be as useless and grotesque as a luxury cruise ship with no power or operational engine.

When organizations start out, they are often small groups of people who operate like a family. The procedures can be informal and communication is just raising one’s voice to be heard in the next cubicle. Customer focus is pretty easy, because everyone in the office can hear the phone conversation the service person is having with a customer in need. In this small business mentality, the foundation items mentioned above are easy to describe, but that does not mean they should be ignored. Some level of documentation of things like values and vision will help the young organization to survive the treacherous infant years and grow into adolescence.

In the subsequent paragraphs, I will use sales revenue as a surrogate for the size of an organization. That variable is one typical measure that is often used. Realize that there are many other factors that can require a change to an organization’s foundation. For example, a not for profit group may take on a new major activity. Another example is a volunteer organization deciding to change their model for meetings. Any fundamental change in conditions can create the need to re-examine the foundation documents.

When an organization reaches roughly $50M annual revenue, the old foundation no longer fits, because there is usually a new physical space, and communication has become much more complex as the size and staff of the entity grows. It is time to revisit and revise the strategic framework for the journey toward a larger organization. Trying to hang on to the operating rules that applied on starting up will be a formula that severely limits future growth.

Another significant shift occurs somewhere between $100M and $200M annual revenue. By that time, the organization is a fully operating business entity with all the advantages of size, but with all the complexities and bureaucratic pitfalls that beset a large organization. Once again, it is imperative when organizations go through this metamorphosis that the foundation be resized to work correctly. The operating realities of a large organization are vastly different from a mid-sized company, and the strategic framework must reflect these realities or the organization will suffer.

It is a best practice to review and modify an organization’s strategy about once a year to verify it is still configured correctly for the current business situation. Normally these reviews can be done quickly with emphasis only on what has changed since the last review. As the organization reaches certain milestones of size, however, it is time to take a deeper look and make a zero-based activity of the strategic review. This will allow the strategic plan foundation to match the current business reality.


Strategic Jargon

February 16, 2013

dentistDoes your strategic plan clarify or complicate? When organizations do a strategic plan, a bunch of specific words are used to describe the various pieces, but you would be surprised how those words are often used incorrectly. Many people hate to work on strategy because it is either eternal or terrifying, like going to the dentist. This problem fascinates me, because I do a lot of strategic work with corporations, not-for-profit groups, and educational institutions. I also teach strategic thinking at two universities. One cure for confusing strategic plans is to use the jargon correctly.

For example, it is common to have the mission and vision statements mixed. I have written about that problem and given some typical examples in another article entitled “Mission and Vision Essentials.” Another common sticking point is getting the strategy separated from the tactics. Strategy is the overarching way you are going to move from the current situation to the vision, and tactics are the detailed actions you will take to accomplish the strategy.

Most facilitators have an order they prefer when helping groups with strategy. I believe it is not essential to have a rigid pattern, but I generally prefer to start out with the values. Reason: Values are a kind of foundation upon which the other elements rest. To me, putting values late in the process feels like digging the foundation after the house is already constructed.

A key element in most strategic work is a SWOT analysis. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. This work is the basis for determining an intelligent strategy. It consists of two views of the organization. In the first view, we look through a “microscope” at the internal strengths and weaknesses of the current organization. The second view is looking through a “telescope” at the environment around the organization to determine the opportunities and threats.

The SWOT analysis can be a time consuming and very boring process. It does not need to be. Facilitators can move through this exercise by breaking up a large group into four subgroups for the exercise. The use of creative techniques, like giving a prize for the most novel idea, can keep the atmosphere light. Of course, like in any brainstorm activity, it is essential to have a “safe” environment where the ideas are just captured, but not critiqued during the session.

One technique that I like to use is a “two wave” approach to the ideas. Let’s suppose we just completed a 10 minute discussion of the “Opportunities” part of SWOT. I then will say something like this, “That is a really great list of opportunities. We could stop here, but I want to challenge the group.

Most of these ideas came quickly and were from the top of your minds. I am sure there are additional creative and dynamite ideas still lurking in the corners of your brains. Let’s take another 10 minutes and see if we can double the number of opportunities on our list.” That process brings out some highly creative ideas, because all the obvious ones have already been mentioned.

I do not use this technique for all sections of the SWOT, as that would get old. It works best for the opportunities section.

After doing a SWOT, it is possible to identify the overarching strategy and tactics. A mistake made by most organizations is to have too many strategic thrusts in the analysis. The reason for a strategic plan is to focus effort on the vital few activities. If you have 32 high priority strategies, you will have trouble making much progress. I encourage groups to narrow the analysis down to three strategies: perhaps four.

One additional activity that is extremely important, but often left out by groups, is to document the behaviors we expect of team members. Without specific behaviors stated in advance, it is difficult to hold people accountable for doing them.

I use a story to illustrate what the jargon on a strategic plan means. Sometimes this helps groups focus on the work and not get muddled up in the terminology. Here is a typical story I use for that.

I liken the strategic process to taking a trip. I want to go from New York City to Toronto. My mission is to have a safe and enjoyable trip. I am considerate and make sure people on the other end are aware of my plans (values). Reaching Toronto is my vision; I can see the skyline in my mind.
I now look at my resources: my late model car is a strength; the fact that the tires are almost bald is a weakness. I see on the map there are some excellent highways (opportunities) but also there is some potential bad weather on the way (threats). I need to select the route and timing wisely.

I decide which day to leave and the route to take (my strategy). The plan is to stay in Toronto three nights, because I have two days worth of business to conduct. My goal is to drive there in 10 hours. I know it is not possible to get there in 9 hours, and I am willing to accept up to 12 hours if there is construction or other delays. There are contingency plans associated with potential problems.

Then I figure out what things to pack, decide what time to leave, and buy two new tires (tactics). I monitor my progress and determine my gas mileage along the way (measures). For example, I know it is necessary to reach Buffalo by 1 pm to make my timing goal. I drive within the speed limit, am courteous to other drivers, and I stop frequently enough to not get over tired (behaviors). I have a very good chance of having a good trip, which was my original mission.

Now if I can only get those SOBs in Toronto to sign my contract, I will be fine. Hold on a minute; maybe that is worth some planning as well. Maybe my vision in the first place should have been more about a signed contract than about seeing the Toronto Skyline. For that, I need to make sure my strategy achieves the true purpose for the trip, and make sure all parts of the plan align with that objective. In this case, I would have been wise to state the vision was to get a signed contract, and the trip to Toronto was one of the strategies. Now my strategic plan would stand a better chance of getting me what I really need.

The process of creating a strategic plan is fairly straightforward, yet many groups get tripped up with all these strange words, and come up with a plan that looks good on paper but does not work well in the real world. That is a colossal waste of time. Make sure you have someone who knows what he or she is doing lead the activities when creating your strategic plan.


Get Mission and Vision Statements Right

February 10, 2013

VisionMost organizations have done some strategic planning work that includes generating a mission statement and vision statement. I am amazed how much confusion there is relative to these two simple concepts and how the quality of statements is all over the map. This article will untangle the mess and give examples to show the difference in quality.

There are huge differences between a mission statement and a vision statement, although some organizations try to combine them into one statement. Actually, I have seen several organizations that have a mission statement that is really a vision and a vision statement that is their mission. It does not kill the organization, but it can get really confusing, and since the role of these statements is to clarify rather than confuse, why not get it right?

The mission statement is always about current reality. It is what we are trying to accomplish every day at work. It tells people what is important now, and it is crystal clear about that. Let me share a good mission statement and a terrible mission statement.

Great Mission statement – for the Wegmans Grocery Chain – “Every day you get our best.”

Terrible Mission statement – “To establish beneficial business relationships with diverse suppliers who share our commitment to customer service, quality, and competitive pricing.”

The reason the first one is good is because it is short, memorable, and it actually tells people what is important to do today at work. If you work at Wegmans, you know exactly how to treat customers every day.

The second mission statement is not good, because it is a bunch of management-speak and does not even give a whiff of what people are supposed to do at work. In fact, that statement could apply to a hospital, a garbage collection firm, a lawyer’s office, a manufacturing plant, the US military service, a real estate firm, or a baseball team, to name just a few. In reality, that mission statement is for Denny’s – – What? Where is the food? Isn’t Denny’s about getting wholesome food to people at good prices? Fill the tummy with really good stuff, and don’t soak the customer, folks! Don’t talk about establishing beneficial business relationships with diverse suppliers… etc. That is not your mission!

The vision statement is entirely different. The vision is all about where the organization is trying to go in the future. Without a good vision, the organization is like a ship without a rudder. You can go out on the ocean and sail around, but your chances of getting anywhere interesting or profitable are nil. You have no ability to control your destiny. You don’t even know where you are going.

Really good vision – Gorbel Inc. (maker of Cranes) – “We defy gravity”

Really bad vision statement – “Diversity means valuing differences. It’s a corporate value that must be continually developed, embraced, and incorporated into the way we do business.”

The first one makes a great vision statement for many reasons. First, it is short and punchy: easy to remember. Second, it really has a double meaning. One refers to the product made by Gorbel, but the second is that they intend to keep “going up,” even when the market goes down – “We defy gravity.” Now, we all know that to defy gravity literally without assistance is impossible, but that does not prevent the statement from being a powerful and brilliant vision for Gorbel Inc..

The second one is terrible because it, again, does not give a clue about the business and only refers to one thing – diversity. Well, there is nothing wrong with diversity as a value, but if that is the only thing mentioned in the vision, the organization has nowhere to go but down. In fact, they did go down. That was the vision for Blockbuster. Bye Bye now!

It does not take any extra time or energy to get these concepts right. Make sure when you do your strategic plan that you do not mix up the concepts of Vision and Mission, and do think about having high quality statements rather than drivel, so they really work for your organization.


Chances: Give Them and Take Them

September 2, 2012

I saw something in the social media a while ago, that said “Give chances: don’t take them.” I propose a different slant on the topic; I replace the word “don’t” with the word “and.” Since I am rather risk averse, the notion of not taking chances has a comforting ring to it. On the flip side, none of us can make progress in life without taking some kind of chances. Finding the right balance between taking calculated and strategic risks versus foolhardy ones is worthy of some analysis.

The trick is to determine the difference between smart risks and dumb ones. We need a system that helps us sort them out. Stop reading for a moment and focus on a personal risk that you have taken in the past year. Think about the process you used to sort through the risk/reward ratio and how you ultimately decided to make the plunge. In retrospect, would you do it again? Do you thank yourself for taking intelligent risks, even if sometimes they do not pan out?

My system is to have a good strategic plan for my life. It covers my professional as well personal life. Every year I renew the plan and refresh what I plan to do for the next year. Having a written plan allows me to turn down some tempting things without feeling guilty for missing something.

For example, this year I made a strategic decision to back off on some teaching to allow more time for product development. That meant sacrificing current income in order to have the potential for a better future. The result is not guaranteed, but the risk vs. reward tradeoff was a good one for me this year. I have also made some heavy investments in my speaking career that are already starting to pay off and are bringing me more speaking engagements on my topics of trust and leadership.

Having a plan helps me know which calculated risks might be the best moves to make. The plan is never perfect, nor do I adhere to it with shackled rigidity. I believe we need to be flexible and alert to possibilities we may not have considered before. Still, operating with a backdrop of a well-considered plan has been quite useful in my life. I recommend the practice to you, and I will send you my detailed system if you request it.

On giving chances, allowing ourselves and others to try things is a formula for enabling growth. We need to feel empowered to take a chance when it is prudent and encourage others to take responsible risks as well. Sometimes we also need to give second chances in order to reap the payoff.

If we are too quick to pull the plug when an attempt at something goes sour, then we limit the learning experiences that come from overcoming failures. I believe we learn as much from our failures as we do from our successes. We need to fail more often and make corrections to maximize the life lessons. It is all about learning.

For example, walking and talking are easy for most people. Recall what it is like for a child to learn to walk or talk. It is simply a series of numerous failures followed by support and more chances that allow the eventual learning to take place. But what if you had a stroke and had to learn these skills all over again? Thankfully, most of us never have to endure that agony. One person who did, and wrote insightfully about it, was Jill Bolte Taylor.

Jill wrote a wonderful book entitled, “My Stroke of Insight.” As a practicing brain surgeon, she suffered a massive stroke that destroyed the left side of her brain. In her book, she described the painful process to regain full control of her functions, with the dedicated help of her amazing mother. She literally had to relearn how to walk and talk while using only the right side of her brain. In the process, she discovered a kind of inner peace that is available to us all if we simply train ourselves to access it. I recommend this book to anyone who struggles with depression. It is not only about getting a second chance, but about the amazing personal skill of modifying our own thought patterns.

Giving second chances to ourselves and others is also an empowering activity. We allow the person to take ownership of the situation and figure out how to do better in the future. With this approach, people can take a creative and uplifting road to improvement rather than dwell in defeat.

In summary, if each of us would concentrate on taking intelligent chances with the right strategy and then extend chances if things go wrong, we would find the world to be happier and more productive.


Strategic Fossils

June 10, 2012

In current courses on “Competitive Advantage” in business schools, many of the texts used are more than a decade old. For example the “Father” of competitive theory is Michael Porter, who was a professor at Harvard University back in the 1980s. His book, Competitive Advantage came out in 1985. It is from that work that most of the theories students study today were derived. I have a copy of his original book in my library, and I even read quite a bit of it before falling asleep.

One thing that struck me in going through the MBA reading list was that the world changes so quickly that in just a few years theories can become obsolete. The world of today is a vastly different place than the early 2000s when many business texts were written. Many of the companies analyzed in the examples are now extinct – the result of failed strategic choices or mergers.

For example, The Strategy Process by Mintzberg came out in 2003. It gives examples of personal computer makers as AT&T, IBM, Apple, and Compaq. In intervening years, as the market changed, as technology changed, as the decisions got more complicated, only the strong survived.

AT&T has gotten out of the computer business completely, choosing to focus on the growing cellular market.

Apple has made a name for itself selling iPads, and iPhones, changing the landscape of computing. Their mobile media device sales dwarf their computer sales.

While you can still buy something called a “Think Pad” which looks like an IBM product, it is made and sold by a company called Lenovo. How many of us heard of Lenovo ten years ago? Although IBM still sells refurbished computers, their main products are networking and information management now: servers, cloud computing, network security, and custom client solutions.

Compaq was bought out by HP and still limps along – at least for the moment – but it is far from the powerhouse it used to be. Each company coped with change in its own way and came up with vastly different strategies and results.

Today the world is far more fluid and “flat,” meaning that many of the strategies that proved successful in the early 2000s would now fail. So, the number one rule of strategic thinking is to be current. That means getting out in the world to understand how it really operates today.

Far too many strategic planners become fossilized by parochial thinking and models that have existed in ancient history – like anything more than 2 years old is good for historical purposes but not for generating brilliant winning strategies today. You cannot survive simply by studying the theories of the past. You must be thinking ahead of the power curve so you at least have an accurate view of the environment in which you are trying to survive.

So, what is the benefit of reading books that outline great details about models for strategic planning? The benefit is that the process of strategic thinking and the mental steps you take are fixed and really do apply even in vastly different environments.

Let me illustrate with an example. There is a concept called “Segmentation Strategy.” This is where an organization slices and dices the market into chunks that can be addressed with slightly different tactics depending on the characteristics of each chunk. This segmentation idea could be applied whether you were making and selling wood stoves in 1900 or some kind of personal vapor heating body envelope concept in the year 2040. Even though the world is vastly different over time, the fundamental thinking process in trying to laser-focus marketing efforts on the precise segment you are trying to reach is a good one.

As you read and think about the various strategic tools, try to not get caught up on the specific examples the authors use, because the logic in examples is illustrative of the time when they occurred. Rather, think about the overarching principles involved in the techniques. These will not change much regardless of the current world and technological conditions.

The artistic part of strategic thinking is that you get the chance to paint a new picture every day. The canvas is there for you, and you can select not only the brush and colors to use, but also the subject you wish to paint. The only stipulation is that you need to produce a viable idea out of your effort. It reminds me of the story of the coal miner. Someone asked him if he got bored down in the mine. He said, “Bored? No way! I enjoy being down in the mine. I like the lack of restrictions. I have absolute freedom to do anything I want down in the mine, provided I get hold of two tons of coal every day.”


Monsters Under the Bed

August 22, 2011

Even though I am a calcified boomer, I can still remember the fear of monsters under my bed. I was fearless when not conscious of a potential for danger, but as soon as my brother would suggest I look under the bed in case there were any monsters there, I would be up for the night. It is amazing how many noises there are in a house when your ears are poised to hear every sound. It can drive you nuts.

So it is in some work environments. As groups become fixated on the potential problems (internal or external), they lose the ability to be objective, and they enter a world of paranoia. A defensive posture emerges that can stifle creative progress.

On the flip side, organizations that play only offense can be blindsided easily by changing conditions brought on by the competition, changes in customer preference, or other external factors. The obvious place to be is a healthy balance where potential problems are anticipated, but the organization flexes its own muscle in an aggressive offensive strategy. Here are some ideas that can facilitate this balance.

Clarify Your Own Strategy

The companies that consistently win in the marketplace have a product and service pattern that perpetually leaves the competition in a “fast follower” position. Apple Inc. is an excellent example of a company that continually out-innovates the competition and thus enjoys the ability to shape the future marketplace. They do not always win (remember the Newton?), but their batting average is pretty high, and the number of “at bats” is incredible. The powerful combination of brilliant strategic moves and best-in-class product design capability creates an impressive stream of products. I suppose if you are a competitor of Apple, they are the monster under the bed.

Invest in Good Market Intelligence

The ability to “see around corners” is not based on clairvoyance. The roots of excellent anticipation are knowledge and keen instincts. Knowledge involves investing in a continual scan of what everyone else in the market is doing. Here are some examples of just a few of the numerous legitimate ways an organization can distill the essence of major moves by the competition:

• Monitor patent applications.
• Read the annual reports of the competition.
• Keep up with social networking chatter.
• Track the delivery of supplies to the competition.
• Note requests for local ordinance variations.
• Listen to the industry speculation.

Of course, many organizations play dirty and try to use eaves-dropping or other inappropriate methods to gather useful information. Illegal processes eventually give an organization the reputation for having ethical problems, which can directly affect market value. In addition, if employees are encouraged by management to use quasi-illegal tactics, it drains the moral fiber out of the organization, which leads to an ethical dry rot problem that eventually leads to collapse. In the internet age, few things can remain hidden for long.

Create Common Goals in Your Team

The ability to articulate a compelling vision of the future is an essential leadership trait. Once a vision is in place, it is time to enroll every soul in the organization behind it. When teams perform poorly due to conflict, usually it is a result of team members not sharing common goals. They think they are on the same page, but really they are subtly pulling in different directions. If the vision describes a better existence for all people in the organization and it is solidified by consistency from top management, then the common goal created will provide an incredible force for forward progress. I am reminded of the TV segment of a man pulling a giant 727 airplane. Concentrated, persistent force can move large objects.

Build Trust

Without trust on the team, all efforts to excel and avoid the monsters under the bed will produce tepid results. Reason: Low trust means the organization continually has to pay a tax on all interpersonal activities as described by Stephen M.R. Covey in The Speed of Trust. When trust is high, it allows the organization to see the dangers clearly and still move forward with courage born of solidarity. Internal monsters have a hard time surviving in a culture of high trust because transparency shines a light of truth to reveal there is nothing under the bed but dust bunnies. The resulting absence of fear means a good night’s sleep is possible.

It is important to manage uncertainty with courage and an appropriate level of caution. If the underpinnings of an organization are solid, it can ride the wave of market changes like a surfer; if the foundation is not solid, the organization can be swept under the current of competitive pounding waves and struggle to survive.