Sunday, December 4, 2011

Strategy Lives in Unmeasured Action

When executing on strategy, there are two realms of action: measured and unmeasured. A management axiom "what gets measured gets done" may be true, but is too limiting. When what is unmeasured gets done, you have a strategic organization.

In my previous posts "Carrying Strategy from the C-Suite to The Receptionist's Desk" and "Measure Mindset, Not Past Performance in Strategic Execution," I state that without strategic mindset, doers will only do what is measured in an execution plan. They won't think "out of the box" to intuitively take aligned actions that are not part of -- and may even be superior to -- a plan. Maximum strategic execution requires extending strategy mindshare.

Measured actions are simply leadership's best guess at which actions will achieve results towards the strategic vision. But by focusing on measured actions only, a much larger realm of possibility for aligned action is excluded, which prevents organizations from reaching full strategic capacity.

To open up access to the whole range of potential aligned actions, what we need is a sphere, not a single line. In other words, since there may be a vast array potential means to the same ends, if we prescribe only a specific set of means, we are unnecessarily preventing exploration of a potentially better path.

Instead, create a container of context that keeps actions aligned with the outcome, regardless of whether those actions are measured.

Imagine a swarm of bees headed to the hive. While it may look disorganized, if the swarm were to follow a single-file line and the leader encountered an obstacle, like a tree, the entire line would get backed up like a multi-car traffic accident. The fact they are not taking a single path to the destination is, in fact, more efficient. Rather than put our focus on the path, we should put our focus on the destination and on ensuring the whole swarm is clear we're heading to the hive.

Thus, strategic execution is not about directing people to follow a single path toward a destination, but ensuring they know the destination.
A container of context is created through repeated strategic conversation. Strategic conversation is not talking about vision, goals, objectives and action plans. Strategic conversation that creates context is describing in vivid detail what the end point looks like. Describing the features of the beautiful house on the hill, not the blueprints and designs.

In my previous post, I explained that a couple buying a custom home is not excited by the blueprints. What excites them is picturing themselves by the swimming pool or enjoying coffee in the sun room -- a mental picture of the end point.

Creating strategic context requires ongoing conversation with those involved in building the vision where we create a shared mental picture of the end point. It is a mental picture of the experience of achieving it, not simply memorizing a written vision statement.

When the entire organization acts within the sphere of strategic context, ideally, all actions become aligned to the vision, whether they are measured or unmeasured. Thus, strategy lives in unmeasured action. If alignment exists independently of plans and designs, the organization maximizes its odds of fulfilling the vision.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Carrying Strategy from the C-Suite to the Reception Desk

The challenge organizational leadership faces is carrying strategy from the board room to the receptionist's desk. That is, extending strategy mindshare throughout the organization, not just among those at the top of organizational chart.

In my last post I promised to provide more detail on the "how-to" of developing a broader context on organizational strategy among the "doers," as well as measuring strategic mindset.

Let's review the traditional strategic planning methodology paradigm:
  1. A strategy document transcribed from flip-chart plastered walls is reviewed by top leadership.
  2. Top leadership sets goals and objectives for middle management that it believes are aligned with the strategy.
  3. Middle management establishes performance metrics for the line-level that align with the objectives.
  4. Top leadership and management regularly monitor and evaluate performance against the metrics, then adjust as necessary.
Traditional management models will say this is the "ideal," that effective strategic execution requires cascading measures starting broadly from top management down to the granular performance measures of line-level staff. Line-level performance measures tie upward in progressively broader ways to the "big picture" vision.

Sounds great. But, as I've outlined in previous posts, it's a flawed concept. It applies a management approach to a leadership function. Leadership involves influencing people, whose actions are driven by values, attitudes, and organizational culture -- mindset. The cascading measures approach is a process-focused approach measuring actions taken, not the values, emotional connection and shared understanding that drive the actions.

Without strategic mindset, doers will only do what is measured in an execution plan. They won't think "out of the box" to intuitively take aligned actions that are not part of -- and may even be superior to -- the plan.

Ultimately, taking strategically aligned action should be natural and innate without any prerequisite objectives and performance metrics needed. Strategic execution should be like driving home from work. You know where you live. You don't need a map. You just know how to get there, no matter what direction you're coming from. This is "intuitive alignment."

Cascading measures are for operational alignment, not strategic leadership. While such metrics do align actions in the organization around strategic objectives, they don't encourage a strategic mindset. They measure outcomes, not the mindset driving the outcomes. So while actions may be taken in alignment with the performance measures, without strategic mindset, the actions taken outside of such measures may have no alignment with the strategy whatsoever.

Strategic mindset is a large bowl containing a wide array of aligned actions, both measured and unmeasured. Without it, the organization will only become effective at implementing the narrow range of measured actions, leadership's best guesses at the correct means to achieve the ends. As is now widely accepted, often the best ideas come from the line-level closest to the customer. Thus, keeping the "owner" mentality in the C-Suite deprives an organization of its full strategic capacity.

To most effectively execute strategy, drop the cascading measures approach entirely. That approach is fine for addressing processes, where the goal is to achieve incremental improvement, higher productivity and better operational efficiency. But let's not confuse process improvement with strategic execution. The most efficient operations won't overcome obsolete strategy.

So what is the strategic leadership tool that replaces cascading measures? Conversation. Strategic conversation, specifically. Strategic conversation is the most powerful tool to ensure strategic execution, not plans and metrics. It is through conversation that values are clarified and cultural norms are developed.

But first, a caveat. Don't confuse strategic conversation with "communicating the strategic objectives, goals and vision." That's the "fix" applied to the failure of the cascading measures approach used in strategic planning methodology. It is yet another false diagnosis for why a "strategic plan failed" (not attributing it to the true cause that strategic planning is a flawed concept in the first place). The diagnosis being that the plan wasn't effectively communicated.

Referring to the previous example of knowing how to get home without a map, think about how we reached a state of intuitive alignment. Over time, we developed a mental map through daily repetition, occasionally trying different routes, and learning the broader context of the area in which we live by exploring the neighborhood. And the key reason we take the time to learn and explore is because the place we are going is our home, it's where we live, a place to which we have an emotional connection.

The same process creates intuitive alignment in strategic execution: creating a mental map through repitition, trying various routes, developing a broader context by exploring the neighborhood, and having an emotional connection to the endpoint. And the last item on the list is the most critical and the reason why a process-focused approach is inadequate. No one feels an emotional connection to organizational vision statements, plans, performance metrics and checklists. Not even leadership.

Wait a minute. . . leadership has no emotional connection to a vision statement? No. It's not the statement itself, but the story, the mental image, the triumphant manifestation of the outcome that the statement attempts to describe, which inspires.

"All instruction is but a finger pointing to the moon; and those whose gaze is fixed upon the pointer will never see beyond. Even let him catch sight of the moon, and still he cannot see its beauty." - Zen Quote

Vision statements are a finger pointing to a future state of being (the moon).

A couple designing a custom home isn't excited by the blueprints, but their mental picture of what the finished home will look like, seeing themselves in it, sitting by the fireplace, swimming in the pool.

That is the essence of strategic conversation. We co-create a shared mental image of the endpoint and together we get excited about what we're building. This requires each person to become an active participant in the conversation. The shared vision comes from describing together what it's going to be like living in our new home, having a barbeque on the patio. And in an organization, the conversation needs to involve the whole family.

Taking the metaphor a little farther, the conversation continues throughout the various phases of construction. Though all are committed to the general vision, various changes to the design may occur as unidentified problems come to light after building begins. So, though the final structure won't look exactly like the original plans, because we discussed solutions together with a common understanding of what we wanted to achieve, we'll create a better end result.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Measure Mindset, Not Past Performance, In Strategic Execution

To build a strategic organization, not just strategic management, measure alignment rather than achievement.

Measuring strategy execution traditionally means reviewing achievements according to the plan (i.e., checking off progress against the to-do list). This approach focuses on "lagging indicators" -- things that have already occurred -- which may be an effective approach for operational management, but ineffective for strategic leadership.

Another reason I discourage the checklist approach to strategic execution (i.e., leadership developing detailed goals/objectives/task lists) is that it limits implementation to those goals/objectives/tasks prescribed by management.

By focusing only on leadership's "best guess" regarding desired actions toward the organization's strategic focus, those who implement strategy are discouraged from formulating actions based on their own real-time "boots on the ground" assessment. In other words, they will do what the detailed action plan says, even if their own (often superior) assessment says it would be better to take a different path toward the same strategic outcome.

With this in mind, as leaders, we should create broad limits within which to take strategic action, but leave the specifics up to those with specialized knowledge of the area of strategic focus. This does beg the question: okay, so how do we measure progress against strategy?

Since we're leaders, not managers, when wearing our strategy hats, I suggest looking at leading indicators of strategic execution -- that is, the behaviors that lead to strategic execution. That means, rather than using achievement metrics (i.e., goals and objectives achieved), use alignment metrics. Alignment metrics measure mindset: vision clarity, attitudes and cultural support.

Creating Alignment Metrics

Let's revisit the graphic I used in a previous post, but I've altered it by adding the words in big letters on each side. In that post, I stated that strategic leadership means staying on left side, NEVER venturing onto the right side. Why? Note the words in big letters I've placed over the graphic. Organizational transformation only occurs on the left side. Focusing on the right side only makes us better at doing what we've always done.
So, where does one begin in developing alignment metrics? Start by having strategic conversations throughout the organization, not just in the C-Suite or Board of Directors meeting. Don't ask staff what the organization's vision or strategic focus is. If they can answer correctly, it may only prove they've memorized the vision statement.

Instead, ask questions where the answer given demonstrates a depth of understanding of the vision that results in an intuitively aligned response. In other words, presented with a common "what if" scenario in the organization, does a staff person naturally know how to respond in a way that is aligned organization's strategic focus? Ultimately, if they can recite the vision chapter and verse but don't act accordingly, what difference does it make?

The typical solution to this strategic challenge is to create output metrics. For example, if your area of strategic focus is customer service, you may have a metric that all calls be answered within 20 seconds or less. And these types of metrics are helpful. But they only tell you how you're doing in those specific, measured areas and they only provide a backward glance.

What about situations relating to customer service that are unanticipated? If we focus only on the areas where we have metrics in place, then those being measured won't venture "outside the box" of measurement.

In order to ensure that aligned action is taken even when unanticipated issues arise, those responsible for strategy implementation have to have a broader context, which encompasses an array of actions they can take that fulfill the "spirit" of the strategic focus, rather than the "letter" of a checklist of items upon which they are measured.

In the next post, I'll provide more detail on the "how-to" of developing context, as well as alignment metrics.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The "Every Option as the Best Option" Strategy

By accident, I discovered a new approach to strategy making (okay, I've never heard of it before so at least it's new for me), which I call the "Every Option is the Best Option" approach.

As we get older, more spiritually centered and have been through more than one stretch of difficult times -- divorces, deaths, financial meltdowns, job loss and such -- we're prone to make a statement that goes something like this: "What I thought was the worst thing that could happen to me actually ended up being the best thing that ever happened."

Then we go on to explain how after a divorce we truly blossomed, had a spiritual awakening, did something we'd always wanted to do, etc. Or after losing a job, had the opportunity to travel. Or having lost a business, started a new one that was our true calling. And so on.

I have a friend who said of life, "It's all just lessons and blessings." With that perspective, every scenario is a win-win. It comes from the realization that life's greatest moments often arise out of life's greatest tragedies. Our greatest spiritual growth is often (or in my experience always) born of pain. The epiphanies that come from getting to the other side of a difficult experience are usually the most profound and the ones for which I am most grateful.

In short, I don't know what's good for me. And I'm going to go out on a limb and assert that you probably don't know what's good for you either.

I'll bet just once in your life you wanted something really bad and were heartbroken when you didn't get it. And in retrospect you said, "Man, I really dodged a bullet. It's a good thing I didn't get that." Or, just the opposite. You got what you wanted and realized you didn't want it after all. And both of these outcomes taught you some important things, not the least of which was: I don't know what's good (or bad) for me.

So what does any of this have to do with business strategy?

I had a wake-up call when faced with potentially losing a substantial piece of business. My business partner and I got together and tried to line out the various scenarios and judge them according "best case/worst case" and ran through a number of "if this happens, then. . . " projections.

At first most of the discussion was around preventing or delaying the loss, as if this were our best option. But as we went on, we asked more fundamental questions like -- do we really need the business? Do we really want it? Are we losing opportunities because we focus too many resources on keeping this business? Would we better off focusing our efforts in other areas that better align with our strategic direction?

It started to become clear that losing the business might not be the worst thing that could happen. In fact, it might even be beneficial.

In the end I said, "Why don't we just assume that every outcome could be the best possible outcome for the company." From then on, we could look at every scenario and see how it could benefit the company. If we keep the business, we'll be able to do ___, which will make us better off. If we lose the business, we'll have more time to focus on___, which will make us better off.

In other words, we looked at how every outcome was the best outcome.

I'm not sure why this was such an epiphany. When it comes to life experience, I've gotten into the habit of looking at difficult times almost immediately from the standpoint of, "It's painful now but I know I'm going to grow from it. I'll have some great lessons once I get to the other side." And it's true. I've come to rely on this wisdom, as it allows me to recognize the blessings that come from the lessons.

If I don't know what's good for me in terms of life experiences, it likely follows I don't know what's good for the business in terms of business experiences. Perhaps the worst thing that could happen to my business will be in retrospect the best thing that could happen. Including going out of business. I'll leave no scenario off the table as the best option.

What's the advantage of the "every option as the best option" approach to scenario building? Well, no matter what happens, you've already identified a positive strategic response.

But, of course, many times the actual outcome is one we never even thought of. The beauty is this approach can be applied in real-time, too. You can begin to think right away about how what just happened is the best thing for you.

If you analyze each worst case scenario from the perspective of how it is actually the best case scenario, then if it happens, you can throw a high-five, saying "Yes, this is exactly what I had hoped for because now I'm going to have the opportunity to". . . do whatever cool thing you'll be able to do because of what happened.

"Every option as the best option" gives you an immediate, positive response to what you might have seen previously as a setback. After all, it isn't a setback. It's the best thing that could have happened to you.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Renew Your Vows

Complacency leads to crisis. Crisis leads to clarity.

I've come face-to-face, once again, with crisis arising from complacency. Like a marriage taken for granted, small things become big when overlooked. False comfort is a relationship-destroyer. One day your spouse asks for a divorce. Blindsided in the moment, in retrospect it becomes clear: I should have seen it coming.

Human nature, I suppose. Although our situation may not be ideal, the passion is gone, and we're just "making the motions," we take comfort in the familiar. We get lulled into a false sense of security. But in doing so, the thing that gives us comfort is slowly slipping away and we don't see it until the crisis hits.

A colleague of mine is facing the potential loss of an executive position. In relating some soul-searching on the subject, her conversation could easily have been substituted for the marriage scenario I just described.

After many years, her "heart wasn't in it" like it used to be. Yet, she was completely blindsided and hurt by the board's consideration to seek new leadership after many years of what seemed to be a happy relationship.

Complacency leads to crisis. Upon further examination, "checking in" on the relationship along the way may have averted the crisis. That is the clarity that comes from the crisis.

What's important about my colleague's story is that it made me do my own soul-searching and I realized I face the same danger. I, too, have a long-term client relationship that I've been coasting along with, not checking in on the health of the relationship, "doing the motions" -- in other words, I've become complacent. The rule applies to me, too -- it is simply a matter of time before the crisis hits. No doubt, if nothing changes, I'm setting myself up to be "blindsided" (but, of course, now I can no longer make that claim).

I related this to a friend of mine, who used to be a Zen monk. He said, "That's why we would renew our vows. That's why every year there was great ritual and ceremony around renewing our vows."

I had never looked at renewing vows as a best practice in business. I always thought it was sweet for a married couple that had been together for many years, but it wasn't until now that I got it.

I have written posts about "Beginner's Mind" and include Suzuki's full quote in my blog's description. This conversation about "renewing vows" brought home to me, once again, how important it is to maintain a beginner's mind in all my affairs.

Imagine the difference if I treat my significant other as though I've met her for the first time every day. Imagine the difference if I treat my long-term clients as though I were working with them for the first time.

When we begin a relationship, all things are new and we want to make a good impression. We're full of excitement and possibility. We're willing to "go the extra mile." We constantly think of creative ideas and are eager to please.

But a relationship can't be new forever. The nature of time is that it makes new things old. While we can't control time, we can control our mind. And a great way to keep things fresh is to renew your vows.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Strategic Planning is Old School

As I've explained in this series, strategic planning is an old school approach that is not strategic and focuses leadership in the wrong place. Let's look at the fundamentals of the "new school" of strategic leadership.

We'll begin by replacing the "Strategic Planning Pyramid" with a "Strategic Leadership Pyramid," both illustrated below for comparative purposes.

As stated in previous posts, what we've been calling "strategic planning" is really operational, not strategic; it is, in fact, project planning methodology. And this methodology is fine when it is applied to project management. In fact, it's the best approach to take when hard deadlines exist and detailed action plans are critical. For example, it is ideal for planning conferences/trade shows, product launches, construction projects, marketing plans, publications, etc. Anything that has logical steps, firm deadlines and lots of details.

But it's the wrong tool for strategic leadership. Values aren't steps in a plan. Vision is not a project and it doesn't have a deadline. A strategy is a choice, a focus, not a destination, and it requires an agility that a written plan can't provide. Organizational culture doesn't operate using goals, objectives and action plans. Attitudes and mindset can't be effectively influenced by a plan.

But the opposite is true. Execution of vision, strategies, goals, etc., is influenced by organizational culture, attitudes and mindset -- particularly if they are unsupportive.

What are vision/values/culture driven by? People. Not process. Therefore, the most effective approach to ensure vision execution is one that is people-focused, not process-focused. That means focusing on mindset (people), not goals/objectives and action plans (process).

In a previous post entitled "Leadership Needs to Focus in the Right Place to Build a Strategic Organization" I stated that with traditional strategic planning approaches, an inordinate amount of time is spent on management/operations activities where leadership should spend NO TIME AT ALL, and strategic planning methodology quickly shifts the focus from leadership to management.

You'll note that none of the activities in the Strategic Leadership Pyramid include goals, objectives, action plans, key performance metrics, etc. If those who execute on vision (including top leadership) want to use goals, objectives and action plans as part of their operational methodology for executing on vision, great. Goals, objectives and action plans are good tools for personal time management, as well as focusing team activities when accomplishing complex projects.

But as I've also previously written ("I Still Say Strategic Planning is a Flawed Concept"), planning and goal-setting methodologies are just one among many tactical approaches to taking actions aligned with organizational vision, and not always the best approach.

Explaining the Layers

Aspirational Culture is at the top, not Vision. Why? As I explained in "Alignment Comes Before Vision," the "way we do things around here" supersedes desired outcomes. By necessity, leadership focus must begin here. "Aspirational Culture" means the desired way we work together as an organization. Before we begin crafting vision statements, we need to be sure we have clarity on the organization's "personality," the unwritten rules of behavior. We should know in advance of crafting a vision whether the organizational culture will support it. If not, we need to work on building our aspirational culture first.

A note of caution here. It's tempting to judge organizational culture traits as "good" or "bad." For example, if you are a creative, daring and innovative person, you may view an organization with a culture that is conservative and risk averse as "behind the times" or "unwilling to step out of its comfort zone." However, such an organization might be highly effective and successful if its vision plays to its culture. For example, even though it may not be innovative, perhaps it creates traditional, timeless quality products with unparalleled craftsmanship, which gives it a competitive edge in the market.

What makes organizational culture problematic is when it lacks alignment on identity, values, ethics or trust. To illustrate a lack of alignment on identity, I'll go back to the previous example. If leadership and fraction of the staff is daring and innovative but the vast majority of the organization is conservative and risk averse, the ability to find alignment around a vision focused on innovation will be highly compromised.

Vision and values are among the few items from the Strategic Planning Pyramid that remain on the Strategic Leadership Pyramid. They belong there because they are aspirational and inspirational, not operational or tactical.

Strategic focus areas are another area of crossover. Obviously, strategies are strategic. Enough said. But, for further thoughts on strategy, see "Strategy, Plain and Simple" and "Haiku Strategy."

Co-creating and telling the story means, let's describe vision and strategic focus in a compelling story format that is memorable and actionable. And the story needs to have specific relevance. That means, it's not just leadership's story. As the office receptionist, I know my part of the story, and it's personal, not general. And I can articulate it and play the role, too. I'll get into further detail on how to do this in future posts, but I touch on the concept in "Developing Intuitive Alignment."

Last -- and this is where strategy gets operationalized in case you're wondering how strategic focus becomes manageable and measurable without the goals, objectives, action plans and the like -- is Ongoing Strategic Conversations. Instead of going back into an operational, project management-type approach, this approach requires ongoing strategic conversations with the operationalizers. The conversations focus on inputs, not outputs. They involve asking questions that surface incorporation of the vision and strategies into the various roles in the organization. I'll go into detail on this in future posts, as well.

In short, this approach provides a blueprint for keeping leadership focused in the right place -- on leadership (people), not management (process).

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Alignment Comes Before Vision

Typical management methodology has leaders develop a vision and then work within the organization to build alignment around it. The order is backwards; before creating vision, create alignment.

As I said in my last post, I'm offering a viewpoint counter to prevailing wisdom about strategic leadership. Not only am I advocating abandoning strategic planning methodology entirely, but many of the foundational management principles upon which it is based. This includes the ubiquitous "strategy pyramid," which has at the top "vision/mission" working down to goals, objectives and action plans.

Vision is not at the top of my strategic leadership pyramid, and goals, objectives and action plans aren't on it at all (read my previous posts if you want to know why).

So, if you don't have vision at the top, then what the heck are followers "aligning" around, you might ask? Aspirational culture. Organizational culture dominates behavior. What's more important than where we're going is how we intend to work together to get there. To create a strategic organization, we need to reverse the order: first create alignment, then create vision.

Knowing this, our first order of business ought not to be choosing our destination port, but making sure the crewmembers have shared values about how we're going to work together on the ship. We don't want to discover we have the ingredients for a mutiny in place after we've already set sail.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins explains that the companies that made the transition from good to great focused first on who (alignment), then what (vision). Getting the right people on the bus first was more important than having the right business strategy. As he put it, in a great organization, people want to be on the bus because of who else is on it. Or, to say it another way: it's about the journey, not the destination.

One thing (among many) that differentiates strategic alignment methodology from strategic planning methodology is keeping in the forefront “who, then what.” This means before even coming up with strategy, first examining whether we have alignment in relation to how we work together.

In my post Beyond The Plan: A New Approach to Strategic Leadership I offered a well-known quote often attributed to Peter Drucker: "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." And proferred that, like individuals, organizations have personalities, which we commonly refer to as "organizational culture."

How often do strategic planning efforts fail due to lack of execution, organizational culture, etc.? Afterwords, leaders wring their hands trying to figure out how they could have better communicated the vision, overcome the cultural hurdles and employee attitudes about the strategy. They engage in futile "change management" exercises, etc.

The problem is they’re trying to “reverse engineer” the personality and unwritten rules of the organization, taking apart what they have, trying to rebuild it to fit the vision. That’s hard work -- quite often futile -- and I’m not a fan of working harder, but working smarter.

The reason we want to take time to clarify organizational culture -- the rules of engagement --first, then align vision to organizational culture is 1) it's a lot less work and 2) people will intuitively act in alignment with the vision if it aligns with the culture. In other words, they will act in alignment with organizational vision and strategy automatically if they're aligned with "the way we do things."

If "the way we do things" is destructive or dysfunctional, before attempting vision, leaders need to work on building the aspirational culture.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Leadership Needs to Focus in the Right Place to Build a Strategic Organization

The graphic below clarifies why traditional strategic planning methodology misses the mark in terms of leadership focus, and shows where leadership focus should be. This isn't rocket science, but for some reason it's a concept that not only many, but most, organizational leaders seem to be missing (including me until recently).

Typical strategic planning session focus areas are highlighted below. Note that the majority of the highlights fall in the right-hand column, labeled “Management/Operations,” not the left-hand column labeled “Leadership.”

The un-highlighted areas are generally left out of the process or, if discussed, only in relation to creating and implementing the plan.

Most strategic planning processes/retreats start with things like a SWOT analysis, environmental scans, etc. , to help determine the strategic choices. This is followed by creating or re-examining the vision/mission, then developing some areas of strategic focus, creating goals/objectives, and may even go so far as developing action plans.

The areas of focus for strategic leadership are found solely in the left-hand column. (Note that planning is in the right-hand column.)

It should now be clear why strategic planning methodology fails to build a strategic organization. True strategic leadership activities are either skipped or given short-shrift at best, and an inordinate amount of time is spent on management/operations activities where leadership should spend NO TIME AT ALL. Strategic planning methodology quickly shifts the focus from leadership to management.

When a leadership retreat is held, instead of shifting the focus to management/operations activities, the entire focus should remain on the leadership side, NEVER venturing into the right-hand column. Ever.

The right-hand activities are for mid-management and staff, and in nonprofit organizations, this would include committee chairs and volunteers. When building a strategic organization, the left-hand side is where leadership, the C-Suite/owners/Board of Directors, should be focused like a laser.

And executive leadership should not only stay focused on the left side, but build capacity within the rest of the organization to shift its focus to the left-hand side. That's an important piece often left out. Leaders by nature have a visionary, strategic-focused mindset and attitude, but often fail to build capacity in the rest of the organization for a strategic leadership focus.

The un-highlighted activities in the left column are the ones that build organizational capacity for strategic leadership at all levels. Ultimately, we want what we do as an organization (behavior - mission/tactics) to be aligned with who we are (mindset - vision/values/strategic focus).

Leaders need to focus on reminding us of who we are as an organization; aligned actions will follow automatically if all stakeholders have an ingrained, intuitive understanding of this.

How many times do we as leaders complain of getting bogged down in operations, losing sight of the "big picture?" We say to ourselves, wouldn't it be great if we could work on the organization, rather than in it? It stands to reason, if we're getting sucked into operations, then what about the people in our organization whose only focus is operations? If we don't take the time to build strategic leadership capacity in them, they'll never get out of an operational focus, which they must do in order to take thoughtful actions aligned with the vision.

Since we now know where our focus needs to be to provide strategic leadership, we'll take a look at how to keep it there in upcoming posts. In my next post, I'll be offering a thought that goes counter to prevailing wisdom about creating vision.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Beyond The Plan: A New Approach to Strategic Leadership - Part 1

By now it's clear I aim to kill strategic planning methodology. And, yes, there is an alternative. But I won't call it that because it's a false comparison. If you believe there could be a better way, read on.

Sometimes I wonder why I'm taking on this cause because strategic planning is a standard exercise at many, if not most, organizations. So much so that many smart people mindlessly use it as a prescription for all organizational ills.

"Having problems, eh? Do you have a strategic plan? If you do, when was the last time you looked at it?"

As if the reason why an organization is failing is because it doesn't have a strategic plan or isn't using it.

And when I say traditional strategic planning methodology places leadership's focus in the wrong place, the standard response is: "The problem isn't the plan, it's the execution."

What's the difference? Why would there be any problems implementing something truly transformative? The answer is: because strategic plans are not truly transformative. If they were, you'd encounter less resistance to them.

Platitudes are the other standard response:

"Much calculation (planning) brings triumph. Little calculation brings defeat. How much more so with no calculation." Sun Tzu

I hear this one a lot! First Place winner.

"If you fail to plan, plan to fail."

Second Place winner.

As though invoking ancient wisdom about strategy, plans and tactics should put an end to the discussion once and for all.

Such responses indicate people really don't have a cogent argument to defend strategic planning methodology; they just know strategic planning must be a good thing because sages say so. (Whether that's actually what the sages say is an argument for another day.) Or, there must be something to it because everyone does it.

Now I invoke my own platitude and blog motto: "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind there are few." Shunryu Suzuki

So many people "drink the Kool-Aid" around strategic planning methodology that I have to request a "beginner's mind."

In the beginner's mind, everything is new. When we look at things with a beginner's mind, it means we look at them as if we've never seen them before.

If you're a veteran strategic planning consultant, forget what you know -- just for now. If after you've read what I have to say using a "beginner's mind," you still believe you're on the right path, feel free to reject my notions.

The conversation I began in my last post, will continue with this one and several following, is about a different way of approaching strategic leadership.

My initial posts won't give much meat about the "how to's" of the new way. Shifting mindset is a prerequisite. Opening the mind takes time.

So, let's get started.

Something obvious that's overlooked is people naturally execute on vision.

If you decided at some point in life "what you wanted to be when you grew up" -- and I'm not talking about the 6-year-old child ideas, but the real ones arrived at with mature clarity -- it's unlikely you drew up a detailed plan and executed on it step-by-step (I realize some may have done exactly this. But most didn't.). You simply took aligned action with your dream.

Planning may have played a role to help you focus at certain points, but overall, you intuitively knew the things you needed to do and what you didn't know, you asked others for help.

So that's the first point. Taking aligned action toward a desired outcome (vision/strategy) is innate and natural.

How do we naturally do it? We think about what actions might get us where we want to go and make some decisions. Yes, we may do some structured written planning if it helps us focus -- or we may not. We start taking actions, some planned, some not, and learn along the way what works for us and what doesn't. Sometimes we encounter and act on unexpected opportunities that bring us toward the goal. When we hit roadblocks, we may ask others for help, a "new set of eyes" if we can't figure out the next move, or just go around the roadblock. Sometimes when we're not even actively pursuing our vision, we'll hear someone say something that gives us an "a-hah" moment, even though the discussion had nothing to do with our vision.

In short, the vision is always running in the back of our mind and we take persistent, aligned action toward achieving it.

How each of us reaches our vision is different. Some of us are structured, others free-spirited. Some of us are analytical, others intuitive. Some of us innovate, others use tried-and-true best practices. But it's safe to say that you've probably met people that match each description who you would describe as "successful."

The problem arises when we place value judgments on personalities. Structured people see free-spirited people as undisiciplined and erratic. Innovators see the tried-and-truers as small minded. Analyticals think intuitive people do everything by the seat of their pants. And so on.

So what does this have to do with strategic planning methodology?

You already may be connecting the dots. It's not the natural or only approach many take to achieve vision. Although detailed point-by-point planning may be embraced by some, usually the analyticals, operations directors, project managers, engineers, military folks, etc., it's not the preferred approach by others.

And, just as you can point to successful individuals that run the gamut from structured to free-spirited, innovative to tried-and-true, you can also point to successful organizations of each "personality type."

What every successful organization has in common, whether they have a strategic plan (that they look at or don't) or no plan at all is that they take persistent actions aligned with a vision.

Forcing an organization to adopt a single approach not aligned to its personality --commonly referred to as organizational culture -- is like asking someone who doesn't like brussel sprouts to "learn to love them." Not gonna happen.

I hate to do it, but I'll throw in another platitude I heard that's true from my own experience: "Culture eats strategy for breakfast."

So the first Beginner's Mind thought exercise I'll offer you is to think about the connection between human personality types and organizational personality types (culture), and how they affect strategy execution. Recall some points from my previous posts that tactical planning is a management tool, not a leadership tool, and just one of many tactical tools that can be used in strategic execution.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Developing Intuitive Alignment

Here I’ll describe an element of strategic execution that as far as I know isn’t addressed in traditional strategic management. I call it “intuitive alignment.”

What intuitive alignment means is that a vision is internalized to the degree that a person takes aligned action intuitively. We practice it all the time, but we don’t tend to think of it as something special or an area to consider in strategic leadership/management because it’s not planned or measurable.

I gave an example of an action arising from intuitive alignment in a previous post. I described how, even though I had developed a structured plan for my career path, when an unexpected opportunity arose that I could immediately see aligned with my vision, I literally “dropped everything” and acted on the opportunity. As a result, I achieved the vision much sooner than I had written in my plan. Had I not had clarity of vision deeply internalized, I would not have been able to recognize that this was THE opportunity to realize the vision and taken the appropriate aligned actions to seize the opportunity.

In short, because I had an internalized “higher calling,” not just a plan for getting there, I was able to take aligned action that required throwing the plan aside. It meant inventing a whole new path without any past experience or reference points to go by.

This behavior – intuitively taking aligned actions – is inherent in leadership. Leaders naturally practice intuitive alignment because having an internalized vision is what makes them a leader in the first place. They know what they’re after and they act on it; they don’t need to refer to a plan or have someone tell them they should act. They just know. It’s their vision; that’s why others follow them. But those who didn’t create the vision may not inherently act with intuitive alignment.

Many times we as leaders don’t effectively communicate the vision to those who are helping us implement it. In fact, we may ask them to do things for us and they do them because they respect us and want to please, but not because they truly know why they’re doing it. And because they don’t know what we really want, they just do what they’re asked to do, not taking actions that might better serve the vision because they know the “higher purpose” we’re trying to accomplish.

Define the Higher Calling of Each Role

Even though I’m by no means a sports fanatic or a student of football, I’m going to use a football analogy only because it helps illustrate a concept. (And my apologies to any non-USA readers, whose football is a different sport. I don’t know enough about the sport the rest of the world calls football to use an analogy from it. Either way, you don’t have to understand American football to understand the analogy.)

My ultimate role as wide receiver is to clear myself of defenders, to get open so that the quarterback can throw the ball to me. Regardless of what the official play is, I know that I’ve got to get open, which may mean I’ll have to try a different running pattern if the one called doesn’t work or the defender has anticipated the play call. This is clarity of vision around my position. While I know we have a specific play planned and I intend to follow it, I also know my higher calling is to “get open” and I’ll take whatever aligned actions I need to take to make that happen.

Creating intuitive alignment in those who are responsible for just a part of the big picture requires clarifying the “higher calling” of their position. Internalizing the big vision of the organization may not be intuitively actionable for everyone, but internalizing the higher calling of their role in service to the vision is.

To continue with the football analogy, running backs know they need to find a hole to run through in the defensive line. If the offense fails to open a hole for the running back in the planned spot in the defensive line, but the running back sees another hole somewhere else, he’ll run through it. “Finding a hole” is the higher calling in his role.

When players execute on their role-based “higher calling” beyond the planned plays, the team has a much greater chance of winning the game, which is the desired outcome.

To bring the analogy back to business, if a customer service representative knows that the “higher calling” in his or her role is to “solve the customer’s problem,” then specific company procedures, while generally followed, may be ignored to serve the higher calling.

Therefore, defining the higher calling (in service to the vision) of various roles in the organization is a way for followers to internalize a role-based vision upon which they can intuitively take aligned action.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Let's Shift the Paradigm on Strategic Execution

I expected strong reactions, as well as a few snide dismissals of my recent posts, and wasn't disappointed. Attacking a paradigm is risky. Still, I’ll do my best to deconstruct the paradigm around traditional strategic planning methodology and start to describe what a new paradigm of strategic execution methodology might look like.

If strategy making is about determining desired outcomes, what is the desired outcome of developing a strategy?

To produce the desired outcome, correct?

So, if as leadership, we know that our goal in creating a strategy is to produce the desired outcome, where should we invest our time? In bringing about the desired outcome, right?

And how do leaders bring about desired outcomes? By influencing others to take actions aligned with the desired outcomes.

On a daily basis, how do effective leaders get others to take actions aligned with desired outcomes? Let’s look at a possible scenario.

  1. Ask them for their help. “Can I get your help, John?”
  2. Tell them what the desired outcome is. “We’ve got a great opportunity to make a big deal with a new client.”
  3. Explain why it should matter to them. “This could be a big turning point for the company, which would allow us expand and provide more opportunities and better benefits for you.”
  4. Let them know how important their role is. “Your role is critical to making this a success.”
  5. Explain how they influence the desired outcome. “Here is what you can do to make this a success.”
  6. Ask if they’re in. “Can you give this 100%?”
  7. Explain outcomes specific to their role. “The presentation you’re putting together needs to address the following needs identified by the customer. . . “
  8. If they are aligned, offer your support. “Is there anything I can do to help you be successful in getting this accomplished?”
  9. Provide tools, if requested. “Here’s a style guide we developed for projects like this. Also, Joanne did a project just like this last year; maybe she can give you some ideas, too.”
  10. Explain the parameters. “The presentation is next Thursday, so we’ll need to have a draft to review by noon on Monday.”
  11. Provide feedback, recognition, appreciation, etc.
Out of the two people involved in this interaction, who will be the one developing a plan of action? The follower. Who was the one focused on influencing behavior to achieve the desired outcome? The leader. At what point in this scenario was the leader engaged in developing a plan? If you say, “never,” you are correct. Followers develop action plans, leaders develop vision. Leaders tell the story.

The desired outcome in this example could just as easily be the overall organizational vision, and the two characters involved could be top leadership as a group and the stakeholders that follow them.

Tactical planning, which is what most “strategic” planning really is, wastes a leader’s time. Followers are better equipped to develop tactical plans. Instead, leaders should focus on creating the “architecture,” or support structure in which followers take aligned actions. Aligned actions are more likely to occur consistently when followers “own” the vision, not just follow a plan handed to them by leadership.

In this context, creating strategic architecture means instead of devising tactical plans, leaders focus on developing a conducive environment, an organizational culture, and an “ownership mindset” around strategic execution, which I’ll simply define as developing followers capable of intuitively taking aligned action – with or without direct leadership intervention, with or without a structured plan.

Am I saying planning is bad? No. Am I saying plans shouldn't be used as a tool in strategic execution? Absolutely not. What I'm saying is, in the realm of strategy, the focus of leadership should change from being on producing plans to producing aligned action. Can plans help produce aligned actions? Sure. But plans are a tactical tool, a management tool -- in most cases best as a personal management tool -- not a leadership tool. Creating aligned action is a leadership function.

In my next post, I'll focus on the process of creating intuitive alignment.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

I Still Say Strategic Planning is a Flawed Concept

I received some reader pushback from my previous post where I stated that strategic planning is a flawed concept. Upon further reflection, strategic planning is absolutely a flawed concept. Here's why.

Vision can be accomplished without a plan. In fact, it happens quite often. But it cannot be accomplished without aligned action.

The methodology around creating strategy lies in making choices and setting parameters. The methodology around planning lies in outlining specific actions or tactics that we believe will accomplish a strategy, goal or objective. However, a plan is not the only tactic one can use to take aligned action.

A personal example. I had a vision when I started graduate school almost twenty years ago that someday I would own my own association management company, which I have for the past 10 years. I planned an education and career path to align with that vision. However, I was suddenly offered a completely unexpected opportunity that I was able to recognize aligned with my vision.

Within 24 hours I acted on the opportunity, without a plan, and literally spent the next year or two making it up as I went along. I had no time for market research, environmental scanning or a business plan -- all the stuff business schools say you're supposed to do to be successful. The opportunity came November 25. My day job ended on December 15 and by January 1, the doors to my business were open with customers knocking (note the additional factor of the Holiday time-frame). Due to the nature of the opportunity, I had no choice but to do it this way.

In the process of running the business, I learned everything they say you're supposed to study before you start a business. Nevertheless, I don't believe I would have been any more successful with the startup had I had more time to plan. (My pre-designed career plan, incidentally, had me accomplishing my vision five years later than it actually happened.)

In short, a plan is just one tool in the tactical toolbox. Tethering strategy to a plan is like choosing to use only a hammer to build your house. There are other tactical tools, such as:

  • NO plan, just aligned action -- a tool that is particularly effective when many paths are equally viable. Just choose a path aligned with the vision and learn along the way whether you need to change course.
  • Innovation -- a tool that oddly gets short-shrift, where a structured plan may be difficult, if not impossible to construct, due to a lack of known precedent. In other words, you're blazing a new path by trial and error.
  • Appropriate response when blindsided. It happens, plan or no plan.
  • Appropriate response when not blindsided but given no time to plan (e.g., my business opportunity).
  • Market responsive in real time, based on customer feedback/collaboration, but acting within the parameters of the organizational vision/strategic focus.

Again, all that's necessary for successful strategic execution is vision and aligned action. For strategic vision to be successful, leadership should serve as the strategic steward, followers the tactical stewards. (Of note, leadership and followership doesn't necessarily relate to job position in this context; at times, top leadership must engage in tactical activities and line-level personnel must serve as strategy stewards -- they need to "own" the vision independently of top management.)

This leads me to reiterate a previous point: strategy making and tactical execution should remain separate disciplines, though supportive of one another, the first being an exercise of leadership, the second an exercise of followership.

Earlier in this article I said that strategy making revolves around making choices and setting parameters. With this in mind, in upcoming posts, I'll be focusing on the structure for making strategic choices.

And I'll introduce the alternative to strategic planning, which I'll call "Strategic Architecture." I like the Merriam Webster dictionary definition of "architecture" which I'll apply figuratively to this concept: "the art or science of building; specifically: the art or practice of designing and building structures and especially habitable ones." Strategic Architecture involves creating the habitable structure (which is a mindset, not a plan) in which aligned action can thrive.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

I'm Jeff and I'm a Planaholic - The First Step in Recovery

I've seen a number of articles on why strategic plans fail. Any number of reasons are given:

  • No follow up
  • No one takes ownership for implementation
  • Organizational culture kills the plan
  • The plan is too complicated or too rigid
  • Only top leadership knows the strategy
  • The plan hasn't been communicated

I'm sure if you've been through a strategic planning process more than once, you can add to the list.

When alcoholics or addicts are said to be "in denial," they believe that other people and circumstances are the source of their problem. "If you had my boss, you'd drink, too. . ." I believe organizational leaders are "in denial" about strategic planning. They blame plan failure on "the culture" or "the plan hasn't been well communicated," etc.

The elephant in the room not being addressed is whether the concept of having such a plan in and of itself is the root of the problem, not the various circumstances that lead to its failure.

Strategic planning is fundamentally flawed concept. Think about it. Shouldn't it be a red flag that in order to "make a plan work" you've got to change an organizational culture, realign resources, communicate the plan ad nauseum, restructure, get top leadership buy in, make it flow through the organizational structure, overcome resistance, engage in "change management," and so on?

If the plan is truly disruptive, my experience is an organization ends up losing its "soul" and employees become disillusioned or leave. But more often, the plan isn't executed with enthusiasm and stakeholders just ignore it and wait for this latest management push to "blow over." Even executive leadership eventually gets bored with the plan, goes on autopilot, and does what it's been doing all along.

Occasionally, though, a plan is executed effectively. What I've rarely observed is an organizational transformation occurring as a result of this. More often, the plan's goals are achieved, that's all. We did that, check. And that, check. And that, check. Now let's come up with a new list of things to check off and say we did them.

So if strategic planning is a flawed concept, what's the alternative? Let's reconsider where plans fail: culture, communication, alignment, and execution. As leaders, that's where we should spend our time. Forget a structured plan. Focus instead on the culture and structure that facilitates acting on the BIG IDEA (vision).

Our efforts should center around designing strategic focus, not a strategic plan.

When a group of people walking downtown decides they want to have Chinese food, they don't need to stop, analyze and draw up a detailed action plan. Once the decision is made, one person gets on their smart phone and figures out where the nearest Chinese restaurants are. Another person says "Oh, I've heard about that one on Main Street. It's supposed to be great." Someone else calls the restaurant to check if reservations are needed or if there's a long wait. When they pick the restaurant they want, they all head for it and have a great time.

If the goal is clear and simple, people will create their own action plans naturally. Individuals will choose their roles and their paths in fulfilling the vision. Leadership's role is simply to facilitate the big choice -- Chinese or Italian?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Don't Let What If's Kill a Big Idea

Beginning with this article, I'm going to lay out new concepts in strategic planning/thinking, which go contrary to prevailing wisdom about strategic planning methodology. Then I'm going to explain a new process called Zen Strategy.

I'll begin by addressing the ubiquitous SWOT Analysis. Most strategic planning sessions begin with a SWOT (Strengths / Weaknesses / Opportunities / Threats) analysis.

Stupid waste of time.

Yep, stupid waste of time. Why?

Innovations happen because a person with a BIG IDEA doesn't know it can't work. It was a great idea and they acted on it. If obstacles came along, they figured out how to overcome them. Simple.

Why would you want to begin a process of coming up with a BIG IDEA by first thinking of all the obstacles and reasons it can't work? Furthermore, most obstacles we try to predict 1) never happen or 2) don't happen the way we envisioned. It's a futile exercise in fantasy to begin strategy planning by doing an environmental scan, trying to predict what we might encounter, in order not to be "blindsided." Guess what? At some point you'll be blindsided anyway. Get over it.

And that leads me to a second point that goes against prevailing wisdom. Studying the competition has no place in the strategic planning process. Another stupid waste of time. There is only one competitor, you. This can be a collective "you" as the leaders of an organization, as well as just you, the individual.

Am I saying you should never scan your environment or study your competition? Absolutely not. Of course you should. Not doing so could be fatal.

Confused? Here is what I'm saying: environmental scanning and studying your competition are TACTICAL activities that should take place in REAL TIME, not as part of a planning or visioning process.

When you come up with a BIG IDEA, you don't want any "what if" thoughts to creep in. The last thing you want to do is kill a big idea before it ever gets a chance to breathe. If it's a good idea, your only focus should be on how to act on it. Pay attention to real threats in real time and defend your idea against them in real time.

An illustration. I have a goal to cross a river in my kayak and land at a specific point on the opposite shore. I happen to know there are changing currents, unseen debris and crocodiles hidden in the river, but I'll deal with them when and if I encounter them. I set a course for the other side, and making my estimate of the best course based on what I can actually see in front of me, I begin paddling. As I paddle and encounter ACTUAL obstacles, I make adjustments. Frequently, I glance up to see where I am in relation to where I want to land. I continue paddling, dealing with obstacles and adjusting until I reach the point I'm headed for.

There are only three important steps in this process. Pick a destination, paddle towards it, and adjust course when obstacles are encountered. Most importantly, the course is driven only by the landing point (big idea), not real or imagined threats.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Love the Questions

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart
And try to love the questions themselves.
-- Rainer Maria Rilke

To effectively lead, knowing the answers shouldn't be a necessary prerequisite for action. In fact, many questions can only be answered by first taking action in the face of ambiguity.

Acting on an educated guess can provide far more useful data than waiting for all the research to come in first. While I am by no means suggesting all decisions ought to be made without any research or forethought, what I am saying is advance analysis is largely a theoretical exercise. Observing the results that come from our actions is reality-based. While scenario planning can be useful for strategy-making and preparing for "what-if's," the best way to answer the question "what if we do (fill in the blank)?" is to do it. Actual results eliminate the need for hypotheticals.

Of course, the level of risk involved, particularly regarding questions of health and safety, may require more careful forethought. But for most decisions, acting -- whether we take the best action or not -- will provide more and better data than extensive research can provide.

From experience, we all know that we learn as much or more from our "failures" as we do from our "successes." I became a more effective public speaker, for example, after I embarrassed myself in front of a group when I failed to prepare for a presentation. I had taken hours of speech classes and read books on public speaking that had emphasized the importance of preparation, but they were not nearly as effective in teaching me as this single twenty-minute direct experience was.

Before there were any trails, early explorers had to just begin pushing their way through the forest until the path began to present itself. When we lead, there won't always be a trail blazed for us; in fact, if we are truly leading, then we are the trailblazer. When that's the case, we need to walk into the forest, trying different routes until the way through presents itself.

In the end, it's the question "what's on the other side of this forest?" that drives us forward, not knowing the answer.