Monday, February 26, 2007

Henry the Hammer

Once there was a hammer named Henry. Henry the Hammer loved to fix things around the house. There was nothing he didn’t feel capable of fixing.

Today, Henry the Hammer was looking around the house for something to fix when he heard a squeek. “Aha,” said Henry. “One of the floorboards is loose. I can fix that.” So Henry took a nail to the floorboard and BAM! BAM! BAM! He nailed the floorboard back down so it would not squeek.

Then Henry the Hammer saw a picture which needed to be hung. Resourceful Henry found a stud in the wall, took a nail, and BAM! BAM! BAM! He made a hook out of the nail so that the picture could be hung.

Then Henry noticed that the television set was not working. Henry examined the situation and said, “I can fix that.” So BAM! BAM! BAM! CRASH! After examining the debris from hammering the TV, Henry said, “Hmmm…it’s still not working. It looks like this problem is going to need additional hammering.” But before he could get to it, he noticed that all of the windows were dirty.

“I’d better get to those windows right away,” thought Henry. “The TV can wait.” As a result, Henry went to all of the windows around the house with a BAM! BAM! CRASH! BAM! BAM! CRASH! BAM! BAM! CRASH!

Moral of the Story: To a Hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Strategy is about solving problems. Great strategy is about getting in front of a situation and making it better before the problem has a chance to get too large.

Just like strategists, Henry the Hammer liked to solve problems, too. Unfortunately, Henry—being a hammer—knew of only one way to solve problems: He would hammer them like a nail. BAM! BAM! BAM! Sometimes that was a very appropriate action, as in the case of the floorboard and the picture. Sometimes, it was a very inappropriate action, as in the case of the television and the windows.

But since Henry knew only one way to solve problems, he used that method to try to solve every problem. Even when it didn’t work, as in the case of the Television, he did not blame his methods. Instead, he felt that maybe he just didn’t hammer enough.

We can sometimes be like Henry the Hammer. We know a way to fix some problems, so we think this method is appropriate to fix every problem. And it may work often enough to make us believe that when it doesn’t work, the problem lies somewhere else. Unfortunately, along the way we break a lot of windows, causing more harm than good.

The principle here is to embrace diversity. It is general human nature to want to surround ourselves with people who are similar to us. However, to quote former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, “If you surround yourself with people who think like you, then some of you are redundant.” We need to surround ourselves with people of different backgrounds and perspectives, so that we have more options on how to solve a problem. Having diversity is like having an entire toolkit rather than just a hammer. With an entire toolkit, you can find the right tool for each problem.

For example, people with a financial background tend to see problems from a financial perspective and, if working alone, will try to find a financial solution. Marketers tend to see problems from a marketing perspective and, if unchecked, will tend to look for a marketing solution. People from an operations perspective look for a solution via changing the operations. And so on…

Sometimes the problem actually is a financial one best served with a financial solution. Sometimes the problem really is about marketing. However, never are all problems just financial or all just marketing or all just operations. One approach cannot effectively solve every problem. In fact, quite often the problems are larger and more complex than any one discipline and require a multi-discipline solution. This requires getting people of diverse backgrounds working together.

From my experience, if you always take the same narrow focus to all problems, the result is like breaking windows. Even good individual solutions, if narrowly repeated too often in the same direction, can have unintended negative consequences from the cumulative impact. For example, one-dimensional financial approaches tend to avoid risk, hoard cash, minimize reinvestment and over the long haul can starve a company to death. One-dimensional marketing approaches try to buy their way out of a problem—which may be the right approach sometimes—but if done all the time tends to overspend a company to death.

One dimensional operational approaches look at trying to find a better way to do what works today. Eventually, however what works today may not work tomorrow, so the operators eventually end up working at trying to make an obsolete approach more efficient, causing death through becoming irrelevant. One dimensional technology approaches place the company in a perpetual cycle of waiting too long for something that costs too much and is too cumbersome, while someone else more nimble gets to the future sooner.

A glass of water is refreshing. A tsunami of water is destructive. Too much of one thing—although good in small doses—can destroy a company. Multiple approaches can help keep a better balance.

Even though we are smart and successful, we all have blind spots. The very disciplines that have helped us become successful cause those blind spots. Left to ourselves, those blind spots can start taking us down some of these paths of death before we realize what is going on.

Effective strategies are built upon a broad analysis of the situation. A broad analysis requires looking at the problem through different lenses—the lens of finance, the lens of the consumer, the lens of production, the lens of suppliers, the lens of human capacity, the international lens, the regulatory lens, and so on. Some people have better eyes to see through some of these lenses than others. Get the best eyes on your team.

Solving the mess in front of you is important. But wouldn’t it be better to get out in front of a situation and prepare a path to avoid future problems? Or even better, instead of getting bogged down in problem avoidance, work on how to take your company to the next great business opportunity before others get there? Then, instead of always trying to get out of a mess, you are moving towards greater success. This is where strategy is most effective, and diversity is important here as well.

When seeking the best future, one not only needs functional diversity, but also perspective diversity. Strategist Gary Hamel referred to this as “listening to new voices.” You need people on your team who are more in tune with leading edge thinking. These people tend to be younger, and also tend not to always look or act the part of a corporate executive. They may make you a bit uncomfortable, but they have a perspective you may need to hear.

Don’t surround yourself with just hammers. Get a whole toolkit.

Past successes can give a false sense of security. It can get us to believe that because we have had he right answers in the past, we will always have the right answers in the future. Unfortunately, not all problems are the same. Different problems may require different answers. To ensure that we make the right decisions, it is a good idea to get multiple perspectives on the problem from a diverse group of individuals. If one is looking towards finding future strategies, it is often even more critical to bring into the discussion a diversity of new voices that may be more in tune with the leading edge.

Otherwise, you may end up like Henry the Hammer, whose intentions are good and who has a good solution for some problems, but can cause a mess if left alone to do what he is comfortable doing. Remember, not all problems are a nail, even if they sometimes look like it to a hammer.

Even the idea of embracing diversity, if taken to an extreme, can cause problems. It can lead to endless discussions which go nowhere, because the diverse group cannot reach a consensus. Just because you bring in a diversity of ideas, does not mean that the diverse group has to make the decision. At the end of the day, a leader needs to lead by making a timely decision.

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