Thursday, July 26, 2007

Medicating Cats

There are certain things in life which just seem like an exercise in futility. For example, try feeding baby food to a baby when they are not interested in eating. You may succeed in getting all of the food out of the baby food jar, but it is doubtful that much got into the baby’s tummy. Instead, you will find the food all over the baby’s body, all over you, all over the floor, all over the walls and so on.

About the only way to get the baby to eat the food is to fool them by making it into a game. In other words, trickery and deceit is introduced to babies at an early age.

Even worse, try feeding a pill to a cat. They will bite you, claw you, run away and hide in places you cannot get to. Even if you are successful in getting the pill into the cat’s mouth, they have a remarkable way of never swallowing it. They will spit it out at an inopportune time in an inapropriate place (like maybe your face). I’ve tried hiding it in their food, but they will eat all around it and leave the pill bits behind.

My wife finally came up with a way to give a cat a pill—and it only requires two people. First, wrap the cat up as tightly as you possibly can in a towel, sort of like a cocoon, with only the head sticking out. In a cocoon, a cat cannot scratch you or claw its way away from you. All it can do is squirm. So one person’s job is to wrap their arms around the cocoon (sort of like a second cocoon) to stop the squirming.

While the first person is doing this, the second person pries open the cat’s mouth, shoves in the pill, and hold’s the cat’s mouth shut, while stroking its neck to get the swallow reflex to work. And this works two out of three times. (for a link to a humorous story on how to give a pill to a cat, click here.)

Just as babies and cats may resist their food and medication, top business executives may resist doing any serious strategic planning. Yes, the food is good for the baby and the pill is good for the cat, but they still resist. In the same way, strategic planning is good for the business, but the executives still resist.

If you are not careful in how you try to instill planning into your company, you can have a real mess on your hands. Your career could be ripped to shreds. And I do not think you can get away with wrapping an executive into a cocoon in order to get them cooperate.

This is the third in an occasional series of blogs on how to get strategic planning done in organizations which resist the idea. I call it “stealth strategy.” (For the other two blogs, see “Minutes Last Forever” and “Talk it Up.) Just as you sometimes have to trick a baby into eating their nutritious food, sometimes you have to use tricks to get executives to agree to do any strategic planning.

One of the big issues is trying to convince some that the effort is beneficial. This is particularly true for executives who only plan on sticking around for a few years. Their logic usually is as follows: the pain is near-term (mine), but the benefit is long-term (someone else’s). In other words, they have to give up near-term quarterly profitability during their time as leaders in order to invest in a long-term future that will not reap benefits until the next generation of leaders takes over.

Well, with the baby, if they do not want to eat, you substitute something they want to do, such as play. You make the eating into a game. The same is true with top executives. Find out what they would rather do and make strategy a means to that end.

Let’s say, for example, that they are highly motivated by greed. You can pull out studies showing that even if the payback on a strategy is well into the future, if the market believes you can pull it off, they will reward you in the stock price TODAY. You can make those stock options worth plenty more during your watch if you develop a strategic plan that the market buys into, even if it doesn’t come into being until after you are gone. High stock multiples are given to stocks seen as having high potential. A reputation for solid strategic planning increases the likelihood that the market will have confidence in your future potential. Hence, strategic planning = more money to satisfy your greed.

What if the top executive is motivated by things which stroke his or her massive ego? Well, if you want to get on the cover of the business magazines and be seen as a business genius, you have to do some bold moves. Sticking with the same ol’ thing everyone else is doing will not get you any attention. Bold moves into new territories require strategic planning. Not only that, it makes you sound more intelligent when talking to the press or writing your memoirs.

A similar approach is the “legacy” angle. Tell the executive that if they make bold strategic moves, they will be leaving a great legacy which will be talked about for years and years. They can leave behind something to be proud of. Their name will be associated with a great movement, like Henry Ford is associated with automation and the industrial revolution.

The legacy angle also can work on executives who have already made their money and now want to do something meaningful with their lives. What can be more meaningful than leaving a great legacy?

If paranoia and fear tend to motivate the executive (like Larry Ellison of Oracle), then you can use the “Chicken Little” approach. Convince them that “the sky is falling” for their company. In other words, show them how the current strategy is doomed and will not survive until their retirement date. Unless they do strategic planning right now, the demise of the firm will occur under their watch. This is sometimes referred to as the burning platform approach. If you burn the current platform the executive is standing on, they have no choice but to jump. If you convince them the strategic underpinnings to the current business platform are on fire, they will want to do strategic planning in order to know where to jump.

If power is what gets them excited, then you can show how strategic planning can help find ways to create a bigger company to preside over. The bigger the company, the bigger the power base. Strategic planning can also provide a tool to strengthen their leadership. Like the power of Moses leading the children of Israel through the wilderness to the promised land, you can become the powerful leader taking your company to the promised land. It is easier to be a powerful leader when you have somewhere to lead people to.

And then, as in the case of feeding the baby, you can try to make planning fun and entertaining. It can be portrayed as being like a giant chess game. You can make moves against your enemies and win the game better if you think long term (several moves out). Sometimes your top executive has an arch-enemy or rival in the business that they would like to humiliate or get the better of. Strategic planning can help you keep a step ahead of the rival and become more successful than them.

Or, similar to the idea of the cocoon wrap, you can isolate the executive by holding a strategic planning retreat in a remote location. Just as the cocoon makes it hard for the cat to run away and do something else, the remote location makes it hard for the executive to run back to the tyranny of the immediate day to day work and ignore the bigger picture. You can lure them into the remote location with promises of a golf game and then not let them go back until the planning work is done.

Finally, if the executive is lazy, then you can position yourself as the hero. Tell them that if they leave you alone and endorse the strategic planning effort, then you will come up with a plan that can make them look good, even if they had nothing to do with it. you can take the stress out of being a top executive by pointing out the way for them.

Many executives do not see the benefit to spending a lot of time (or any time) doing strategy work. In order to get them to take their strategic medicine, you sometimes have to take an indirect approach. Instead of just pushing the strategic agenda for its own merits, find out what truly motivates the leaders. Then explain how strategic planning will enhance their personal motivations and agendas. In other words, instead of pushing strategic planning as a noble end in and of itself, show that it is a great means to whatever ends are more meaningful to the top executives.

When I was younger, I was talking to the head of Human Resources at the company where I was employed. He was not a big fan of planning. He knew the current strategy would not last much longer. What he told me was, “What does it matter? We’ll all be out of here long before the company falls apart.” Then he realized that I was much younger than him and that the company could indeed fall apart before my career was over. He wished he could take back what he said. As a human resource executive, he should have realized that even if he was content with the current situation, the younger employees might not be. If the next generation is not motivated to stay they will leave, creating a mess for the older executives.

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