Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Rich Soil

Many years ago, my wife thought I needed a hobby, so she chose one for me—gardening. At the time, I was living in the perfect place for a garden.

1) The home was originally built prior to indoor plumbing, so the area where the outhouse used to be was very fertile.

2) There was a large aquifer of water just under the surface. It was so close to the surface that the house couldn’t have a basement. When a truck drove in front of the house, you could hear the echo through the hollowness above the aquifer.

3) The garden had a nice sunny southern exposure.

4) At the time, my children were small and we had a kiddie pool for them. When the water got a little slimy, I would put a submersible pump in the pool and use the water to keep the garden moist.

The garden was very successful. The tomato plants grew over 6 feet tall and were full of tomatoes the size of softballs. All the other produce was equally as plentiful.

When I moved to a new location and tried gardening again, I had different results. This new house was built on a drained lake bed. The ground was virtually solid hard clay. There were so many trees that the garden got little sunlight. The area was full of rabbits who would eat the young sprouts when they came out of the ground. The growing season was so short that by the time I replanted the seeds after the rabbits got the first batch, frost would come before the produce was ready to pick.

The results of this second garden were so bad that I quickly gave up gardening as a hobby. So now, about the only thing I am good at growing is my waistline, eating food from the supermarket.

Businesses want to grow and be very productive, producing abundance like my first garden. However, the results that businesses have can often be closer to my paltry experiences with the second garden.

In both gardens, I was using similar seeds and plants, purchased at similar types of stores. But even though I was starting with the same “beginnings,” I was having different “endings.” Why? The different results were due to the fact that I was planting my seeds into different environments. One environment was far more conducive to growth than the other.

Seeds are like strategies. One can have great strategies, just as one can have great seeds. But if you plant those strategic seeds into a bad corporate environment, one can end up with awful results.

The strategic process should not end with the creation of great strategies. This is only half the battle. The other half of the battle is making sure that you have created the proper environment for those strategies to grow in.

Sometimes a strategy which is great for another company may be bad for your company because of a difference in the corporate environment. For example, one time I tried to grow okra in my second garden. Okra thrives in long, hot, sunny summer environments. I planted them in cold, shady short-summer Minnesota. It was an utter disaster because the plant was inappropriate for the environment (which makes me wonder why someone would sell okra seeds in Minnesota).

Not only does the strategy need to be appropriate for the strengths and weaknesses of the firm, but the strategy must include a clear path for how to make it succeed within he unique culture of the organization. Perhaps the strategy will even need to include steps on how to change the culture.

Successful implementation is not automatic just because the strategy is “great.” The implementation path needs to be strategized as well. Otherwise, your great strategic seeds will lead to nothing but frustration.

The principle here is that a good strategic process must plan for the entire process, including the building of the proper internal implementation environment. The McKinsey organization recently conducted a survey with over 100,000 business people to try to determine which soil is best for planting strategic seeds. What they discovered was the following:

1) There is not one factor which creates a successful environment. One cannot rely on a single “trick” to turns a company into a strategic powerhouse.

2) Instead, companies need to be performing fairly well across a number of factors. This is like my first garden, which had many different good attributes going for it.

3) Once gaining competency across many basic management skills, the highest likelihood for success came from companies which excelled in three areas:

a) Accountability—People knew exactly who was responsible for accomplishing each aspect of the strategy. Clear roles make it easier to accomplish great things.

b) Direction—People had a good sense about the big picture of what was trying to be accomplished. Giving direction is not the same as giving orders. People were given freedom in making choices of how to get the work done. But there was no confusion about ultimate goals and objectives. There was a greater context surrounding all the activities.

c) Performance Culture—The winning organizations had found a way to break down silos and work as a team. There was openness and trust, which made cooperation much easier to accomplish.

So here is the question strategists must wrestle with…

When designing strategy, are you stopping at the point of the “great idea” or are you helping create the right soil for the strategy by focusing on ways create greater accountability, greater direction, and a trusting performance culture?

Strategy without such a context is like a seed planted in a dried lake bed made of hard clay. It will not be successful. I have personally experienced trying to create strategy in an environment like this—little to no accountability, vague direction, and lack of trust. It is a difficult struggle…not very fruitful.

The handoff from idea to implementation is a tricky task. Unless the soil is properly prepared, the handoff will most likely be disappointing. Just as it took years of outhouse usage to create my great garden soil, it may take considerable time to create an environment conducive to accountability, direction and trust. Time spent by leaders going to the field organizations to explain the context around the direction is important. Time spent linking strategy to tactics to the proper individuals via clear accountability is time well spent. Time spent building trust will pay back large dividends.

Don’t assume that implementation will magically occur. Make implementation as important as ideation.

If you want your strategy to produce great results, it is essential to design it in conjunction with designing an organizational environment capable of putting the ideas into practice. Although many elements are necessary to create this environment, three of the most important are Accountability (knowing who’s responsible for what), Direction (understanding the big picture and how you fit in), and Performance Culture (an environment of trust and openness, where people can cross-functionally work together).

Without this environment, your ideas will most likely wither away.

It is interesting to me that the same chemicals used to make fertilizer can also be used to make bombs. They can either help produce life or destroy life. Be careful how you fertilize your strategy. If you use the concepts mentioned above, you will create life and growth. However, if you fertilize your implementation with mindless platitudes and “happy talk” B.S., then you will most likely bomb.

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