Sunday, November 25, 2007
Strategic Planning Analogy #132: Always On
I enjoy reading stories about how musicians compose music. It is amazing to me how similar many of their stories are. Most are not sure where all of the musical ideas come from. There is a sense that it is coming from an outside source they cannot control. This is often referred to as a muse.
Some of the best songs tend to come into their mind quickly and are basically written in only a few minutes. The longer it takes for a song to gel, generally the less successful it is.
Although the best songs come quickly, for many of these composers there is always some sort of new music flowing through their mind at all times. Ted Nugent once said that he writes around 300 songs per day. That being the case, one might wonder why Ted Nugent recorded such songs as Cat Scratch Fever or Wango Tango if he had so many other songs to choose from. I think the point is that Ted could always sense songs going through his mind, but only a handful of it was worthy of recording.
My favorite comment came from the artist known as Seal. He once did a promotion for snowboarding. Seal claimed that the reason he loved snowboarding so much was that it was the only thing he had found that was so exhilarating that, for a brief moment, it blocked out all of that music which was constantly flowing through his head.
It is as if these musicians’ brains are tuned into a cosmic radio station and they are unable to find the “off” switch.
Successful musicians often times seem to have their minds constantly tuned into the world of sound. No matter what they are doing, a small part of their brain is always functioning at a musical level, pumping musical ideas into their head. Although the music may not always be in the foreground of their thinking, the switch always seems to be in the “on” position.
This is a good analogy for how strategic thinking should work in an organization. No matter what someone in the organization is doing, there should always be a part of their brain which is tuned into the corporate strategy. Turning off strategic planning should not be considered an option.
The principle here concerns the idea of burrowing strategy deep into everything a company does. Strategic planning should not be seen as a separate activity done only once or twice a year at some strategic planning retreat. What is more important than strategic planning is strategic thinking—getting our everyday thoughts tuned into our strategic radio in an “always on” position.
Strategy is the end result of the culmination of all of a company’s activities. Every little action adds up to create what the company is. And what a company is determines how well it competes in the marketplace.
If all of the small actions tend to be moving a company in a particular direction, then that—in reality—becomes the direction of one’s strategy. Even if the formal “official” strategy says something different, it is the result of our actions which create one’s true strategy. Therefore, it is important to get all of the small day-to-day activities in alignment with where we want our strategy to be.
Nobody can write a detailed enough strategic plan to prescribe what to do for every small day-to-day activity. First of all, one could never conceive of every possible day to day scenario. And even if one could, the document would then become so large and cumbersome that no one could comprehend the document.
Therefore, instead of trying to get every possible option in writing, one’s time is better spent trying to get the basic principles of the strategy burrowed so deep into the minds of employees that they can instinctively think at all times of what is the right thing to do. It is better to have everyone in the company thinking of how their actions impact the strategy then to have only a few people at the top thinking strategically.
Take, for example, Nordstrom’s. Their strategy is centered on giving superior customer service. Rather than writing up a huge document with every particular about how this should impact day to day operations, they instead focused on the large picture, to ensure that everyone knew what the end goal was. Then Nordstrom’s empowered the employee to use their own initiative to act in the direction of the end goal. For many years, the Nordstrom employee handbook consisted of only a single 5x8 inch gray card consisting of 75 words, as follows:
“WELCOME TO NORDSTROM
We're glad to have you with our Company. Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. Set both your personal and professional goals high. We have great confidence in your ability to achieve them.
Nordstrom Rules: Rule #1: Use your good judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.
Please feel free to ask your department manager, store manager, or division general manager any question at any time.”
The next step at Nordstom’s was to use storytelling to illustrate what great customer service looks like. My favorite story is about a Nordstrom’s store in Alaska which was in a location formerly held by a different retailer. A customer had purchased tires from the retailer who formerly occupied that space and wanted to return them. Even though Nordstrom’s had never sold tires, they accepted the return and gave the customer a refund. The strategy of outstanding customer service had been achieved.
Once a number of these stories filter through the organization, people are able to comprehend that:
1) Strategy should impact everyday activities; and
2) Certain types of activities represent that strategy more than others.
FedEx is another organization which follows this pattern. Their strategy revolves around dependable and reliable service. To help illustrate how important this is on an everday basis on everyday decisions, FedEx loves to disseminate stories of this practice in action in the company.
In one example, a FedEx driver forgot the keys to open one of the package deposit boxes. By the time the driver realized he had forgotten the key, it was too late to go back to the office to get it. If he had taken the time to go back to get the keys, he would not have been able to get the packages to the office and the airport in time. People who had put packages in the deposit box were depending on the famous dependability of having them shipped overnight. Therefore, the driver found some tools to unbolt the deposit box from the concrete and brought the entire box back to the office. By doing so, the FedEx driver was able to keep the strategic promise of dependable service.
In fact, FedEx has taken to the airwaves to air commercials showing a number of these examples of customers going out of their way to ensure that dependable service. Not only do the stories help employees comprehend the strategy, but they help reenforce the strategy with potential customers. These stories beat a fat strategy book any day of the week.
Just as musicians always tend to have music running through their heads, employees should always have the company strategy running through their heads. Usually, the best way to do this is by:
1) Not segregating strategy to a separate off-site exercise done once a year, but in making it a part of everyday discussions and everyday activities.
2) Keeping the communication about the strategy simple.
3) Using stories to show how strategy can impact day to day decisions in a remarkable way.
The problem with strategic thinking is that if a company is not used to doing this on a daily basis, it will not be missed. This is unlike thinking about eating. If one forgets to think about eating, one’s body will soon remind him or her. Our bodies need nourishment, and if we forget about it, our bodies will bring it back to our attention through hunger. This is good, because there are negative consequences if we stop eating.
Similarly, if a company ignores thinking about strategy, there will be negative long-term consequences. However, we need to proactively work to make strategic thinking a daily priority, because there tends not to be a natural “hunger” for strategy that kicks in.