Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Set Goals With Intention but Not Attachment

A colleague and friend of mine, Jeff DeCagna, contended in a strategy training program I attended that "strategic planning is dead." He stated that we should keep a strategic focus, constantly ask strategic questions, have ongoing strategy sessions, but not lock ourselves into a specific, long-term strategic plan. Why? Because the environment changes constantly and therefore the strategy-making process must be nimble and continuous. A detailed, written document is not conducive to "changing on the fly."

There's a common acronym used in goal-setting: SMART, which stands for "Specific," "Measurable," "Attainable," "Realistic" and "Time-Bound" or "Time-Limited." It is believed that all good goals should have these attributes. The guidelines are good, as they build in some accountability.

I'd like to take the concept a little further. I suggest adding two additional attributes: "Intention" and "Non-attachment." While the SMART attributes allow for accountability, they don't necessarily foster flexibility and the ability to "change on the fly."

In addition to listing out the specifics, the metrics and time-frames for accomplishing a goal, I also like to ask what is my intention? In other words, to what end am I setting this goal? Is it really to accomplish the specifics I laid out? Or can it take shape in a slightly -- or even significantly -- different way and still achieve my intention, the direction I'm heading?

This flows naturally into the second attribute: non-attachment. Much as a static strategic plan isn't conducive to being nimble, static goals may not allow for adjustments in a changing environment. A goal as written may not keep us headed toward our intention if the wind shifts -- as so often is the case with new technology and a constantly changing socio-political and economic climate. Therefore, we might not want to become too attached to our goals. We should remain committed to our intention, but not so much to being SMART.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Is That So?

The Zen master Hakuin was praised by his neighbors as one living a pure life.

A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near him. Suddenly, without any warning, her parents discovered she was with child.

This made her parents angry. She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last named Hakuin.

In great anger the parents went to the master. "Is that so?" was all he would say.

After the child was born it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had lost his reputation, which did not trouble him, but he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbors and everything else the little one needed.

A year later the girl-mother could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth -- that the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fishmarket.

The mother and father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask his forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back again.

Hakuin was willing. In yielding the child, all he said was: "Is that so?"

-- Story from "Zen Flesh, Zen Bones"

So often in business, particularly due to its demanding and fast-paced nature, we act more like the parents in this story. We don't take the time to look deeply at the root cause of our problems. Much as "Beginners Mind" suggests that I look at each experience as though I had never seen it before -- even if I have "been there, done that" -- "Is that so?" says to me: "Don't be so sure you know the answer."

Many times we assume we know someone's motives or create a story around what someone meant when they said this or that, and we don't take time to verify the validity of our story. Maybe, because we've witnessed certain employee behaviors in the past and know how to recognize "signs," we draw conclusions without fully investigating the specific matter in depth.

I have often been sent on the wrong course in a business decision because I assumed I knew the answer but was, in fact, mistaken. Had I taken time to ask the right questions, I could have avoided the detour. I find this to be true especially in matters where emotion is at play, not simply facts. Getting to the root of facts is fairly simple. Getting to the root of feelings, opinions and viewpoints is not so easy.

Have you ever conducted an open-ended customer survey and discovered, to your surprise, that the real reasons why people are interested (or not) in your product or service are totally different than what you assumed were the reasons? I have, and it can be eye opening.

Determining the utility of your product or service from the end-user's viewpoint is, in fact, how you develop your value proposition. You don't determine the value of what you produce, your customers do. Thus, the only way you can create a "value proposition" is to ask your customers: why do you like us? Then repeat what they say to the rest of the world. Don't tell the world what you assume they want to hear about you.

Effective strategy requires fact facing and fact finding. Before acting, a good leader should take the time to ask "Is that so?" as many times as it takes to get to the root of the matter.

Give Up Hope

A popular business quote and book title, as well as a phrase that has been repeated by various politicians, including Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin, is "Hope is not a strategy."

It wasn't until about a year ago that I changed my perspective on hope. I used to view hope in a purely positive light, that it was a force that kept us moving forward, the belief or faith in the idea that somehow things would work out and everything would be okay in the long run. So just hang in there.

Then I read When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron. In this book she said, "This is the beginning of the beginning. Without giving up hope -- that there's somewhere better to be, that there's someone better to be -- we will never relax with where we are or who we are."

Throughout my personal and business life I have used hope as a means to view present unpleasantness as a temporary setback, that I'll get through it to the other side and I'll look back on it later as a "growth opportunity." While experience has generally proven this viewpoint true, this perspective has also allowed me, by taking the long view, to avoid fully engaging in the present situation. It is a fact: all situations are temporary; knowing this can provide comfort in the present moment. But taking this comfort can also let me off the hook here and now by allowing me to take refuge in the hope that "getting to the other side" provides.

In bad economic times, the long view becomes the mantra: "We just need to ride out the storm, keep our heads down, keep moving forward until prosperity returns." While I know based on experience and as history teaches that everything is cyclical, boom and bust, growth and recession, what if history didn't apply this time? What if this time it didn't "get better?" What if this time the future held nothing but continual economic decline, contraction, an unending depression, and continually increasing unemployment not just for years, but generations -- an end to which we would never see in our lifetimes? While this is unlikely, it could happen. I wonder how well the hope created by a "long view" perspective would serve me in this scenario.

But isn't it negative "stinking thinking" to give up on hope? When I look deeply, the opposite is true. If I adopt the perspective that things as they are are as good as they're going to get, then I can adopt strategies that are reality based. I can see each moment as the "new normal." If I adopt strategies that set me up to succeed now, not "someday when the economy improves," then I don't have to place blind faith in the hope that at some point I'll get to the other side.

Acting on hope that comes from the long view or historical perspective can be limiting and ultimately lead to business failure. Adopting a business strategy based on the "bunker mentality" -- i.e., we'll "ride out the storm until prosperity returns" -- isn't necessarily wise. It usually leads to decisions such as stopping new projects, freezing sales travel, cutting back on marketing, hording cash, cutting staff and being risk averse. If the "boom" returns, maybe this strategy will seem to have worked; if not, a downward spiral will begin.

Imagine a survivalist with 5 years worth of canned food in the fallout shelter who realizes when the cans run out that it's still not safe to go outside. What then? If the survivalist had considered "what if this is the new normal," then he might have strategized a way to produce food indefinitely in the shelter.

Perhaps there is no "other side." Abandoning all hope that there is can be liberating and, ironically, a good basis for strategic leadership.