Thursday, August 2, 2007

Old News

When I was a freshman in college, I wanted to be a journalism major. I started reading a lot of newspapers to help learn the business. One time, I was away from school on break for a week or so. When I came back to campus, I had a stack of newspapers to read from when I was gone.

I started reading the newspapers and noticed that they were not very interesting. The front page articles which seemed so important a week ago, when the newspaper was published, now seemed old and stale. Either I had read of updates to the story or the story no longer seemed that relevant because of subsequent activity.

I breezed through those papers very quickly once I started ignoring all the stale and no longer relevant articles.

Then I started thinking about how “news” was defined in my journalism textbooks. Although they didn’t exactly use these words, they all seemed to define news as a “perishable” commodity. In other words, the value in the news was based on the fact that it was new information. As soon as the information was no longer new, it was no longer newsworthy. Day old news ceases to be news and is replaced by what is new in the current day.

News was described in a way that reminded me of a banana. When yellow, it is delicious, but soon it will turn brown, black and worthless. If it is enduring information that is always relevant and useful, then it is not “news.”

This got me thinking. If it were anything else, people would say it was a waste of time to fret over something that becomes obsolete within 24 hours. However, we fret all the time over “news.” There are 24 hour cable news channels, news web sites and all manner of other media keeping up with on a constant basis.

Did I want to spend the rest of my life slaving every day to produce something that would be obsolete almost the instant after I completed it? I decided not, and eventually changed my college major.

Businesses tend to fret over a lot of issues which are about as perishable as the daily news. A great deal of time and effort is spent at businesses doing things which may seem vital at the moment, but when reflecting on in a short time later, seem a lot less important. I remember one time early in my career having the chance to experience a group of ad agencies pitching to get the company’s business. That sounded like a wonderful learning opportunity, to get a deeper understanding of how the ad business works.

However, I had an important rush project I needed to complete, so I passed up the opportunity. I stayed alone in the office slaving away on the project. The next day, nobody seemed to care too much about the rush project, and it ended up going nowhere.

When businesses devote effort to these daily activities which quickly become obsolete, there is no time left for more enduring activities. Perishable “news”-type items clog the day while enduring information-type activities are not considered newsworthy enough to get any attention.

Strategic planning is often more like enduring information, and less like news. Its timeframe is long, and it is easy to come up with excuses to delay it. Yet, if “news”-type work clogs everyday, we never get around to spending the proper time on strategy.

The principle here is “the Tyranny of the Immediate.” Focusing on putting out the fires of today holds us captive prisoners to today. We are never free to focus on tomorrow. The irony is that many of the immediate pressures will not endure and have little consequence in the greater scheme of things. Yet time spent in strategy can radically improve the level of business success for many years to come.

A modern parallel to may story on newspapers would be email. Have you ever just let your email go for a few days without paying attention to it? When you go back to it a few days later, did you notice how many “crisis” emails no longer seemed relevant? You were able to erase a good share of the emails, because after a few days, they were no longer worth reading.

Well, if a couple of days can make the emails fairly worthless, why do we put so much worth on them in the first place? Being held prisoner to the tyranny of “You’ve Got Mail” keeps us from tasks which have much more enduring impact on success.

The folks at McKinsey and company took a survey of executives in June 2007 to get their opinion on strategic planning at the business unit level. They asked the executives how relevant or important various activities were to forming business unit strategy. Of the 11 items in the survey, eight of the items were seen as very relevant by over two thirds of the executives surveyed. This included items like:

- Examining the Business Unit’s Strengths and Weaknesses
- Identifying the top relevant trends and how they will affect the business
- Identifying top economic drivers of the Business Unit’s performance
- Defining the role of the unit in the corporate portfolio
- Assess the risks to the strategy
- Look at multiple strategic options
- Taking into account expected competitor reactions to strategy

Although items such as these were viewed as being very important by these executives, these same executives were not acting as if they were as important as they said they were. When asked how frequently these executives used these activities, the frequency fell far below the scores for importance. In general, the percentage who said they frequently practiced these activities was about 20 percentage points lower than the percent who said they were very important.

There is a disconnect here. The activities are viewed as important, but they were not being done. Worse yet, the McKinsey research determined that “there is a strong and consistent correlation between satisfaction levels [with their outcomes of their strategic process] and the frequency of using best practices in strategy formulation [items like the ones listed above].” So not only did the executives think these items were important, they actually appear in reality to be very important. Yet they were not being done.

What is getting in the way? Although there are many factors, I believe the tyranny of the immediate is one of the big factors. We let the highly perishable frettings of today keep us from activities of more lasting value.

Sometimes we need to get a little perspective. Try an experiment. Step away from those newspapers and emails for a few days. Hide your Blackberry. Step aside from other activities which may be holding you captive to today. Then, when you go back to these activities, notice how many of them no longer seem so relevant anymore.

If you are always trying to put out fires, you will never be able to determine how many fires go out all on their own. If you never look beyond today, how will you ever discover tomorrow? Prioritize your time around those things which have lasting value.

Things that seem like a crisis today are often forgotten tomorrow. How’s this for a crisis—ignoring the tasks of strategy, causing the business to not survive long-term. What is the point of winning today if you lose all of your tomorrows?

Strategic activities are very important. Those who use best practices in strategy and actually perform all of those tasks of analysis, discussion, reflection and rigor, end up with better strategies. Deep in our hearts, we know these are important activities. Yet the tyranny of the immediate gets in the way. Stop being a prisoner to today. Break the shackles and march out of your cell. There’s a bright and wonderful world out there to discover.

When it comes time to retire from the business world, how do you want to be remembered? Do you want to be remembered as the one who always seemed very busy getting the work of the day done, but nobody quite remembers what it was? Do you want to be remembered as the one with the fastest Blackberry thumbs? Or would you like to be remembered as the one who took a moment to ponder the bigger picture and as a result created a remarkable transformation of the company into a greatness it would not have otherwise achieved?

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