Friday, March 14, 2008
Analogy #164: Secure this Building!
The following is a story from AhaJokes.com.
One reason the Military Services have trouble operating jointly is that they don't speak the same language.
For example, if you told Navy personnel to "secure a building," they would turn off the lights and lock the doors.
Army personnel would occupy the building so no one could enter.
Marines would assault the building, capture it, and defend it with suppressive fire and close combat.
The Air Force, on the other hand, would take out a three-year lease with an option to buy.
As the story above illustrates, a simple three word command like “secure this building” can be interpreted many different ways. Depending on a person’s interpretation of those words, they will do something entirely different—anything from military assault to signing a lease.
Clearly, clarity in communication is important. You wouldn’t want to go to war knowing that all of your orders would be misinterpreted in a variety of different ways. To ensure unity in action, one needs unity in understanding.
The same thing is true in the business world. If you want a business strategy executed properly, then you’d better make sure that everyone has the same understanding of what that strategy really is. Just getting someone to memorize a vision statement is not enough. You have to make sure that their understanding of what that statement means is similar to your interpretation. Otherwise, you may as well be speaking a different language.
In the last blog (“Challenge Your Assumptions”), we talked about the importance of challenging the underlying assumptions regarding why businesses and their customers act the way they do. In this blog, we will take this a step further and talk about the importance of getting unity around the assumptions implied in what we say.
Don’t assume that everyone has the same assumptions. Left alone, people will come up with different interpretations. Therefore, you may think you’ve communicated one type of strategy, whereas the group moves in a different direction.
Let’s take a look at a handful of terms to show how this might occur.
First, let’s look at the word “marketing.” Perhaps your strategy process pinpoints marketing as a problem or recommends a new marketing program. What does that mean?
To some, marketing = advertising, so they would interpret this as a call for a new advertising campaign (or maybe a new ad agency). To others, marketing = sales, so they may see this as a call to revamp the sales team or create a sales contest. For another group, marketing = brand management, and they may see this as a call to reposition the brand or change the product mix under the brand.
Or how about the term “Business Development”? If you were to tell people that the key focus of the strategy is business development, how would that be interpreted?
Well, to some, business development = increasing sales, so they would again look at revamping the sales team or creating a sales contest. To others, business development has to do with customer relationships, either to gain more loyalty from current customers, or to prospect for new customers. This might call for investment in a CRM (customer relationship management) program. For others, business development has more to do with product innovation, or maybe diversification into new business ventures. This could lead to more investments in R&D, or merger/acquisition activity.
And then there is the word “productivity.” If the strategy is focused around becoming more productive, how will this be interpreted?
Some people assume productivity = cost cutting. Therefore, they would want to slash costs across the board and look at downsizing the staff. Others may associate productivity with improving economies of scale. To increase scale, you need to increase sales (and we already know what that implies). For others, productivity is associated with efficiency or fewer defects. These people would look to adding a TQM or six-sigma type of program.
Another group might see a call for productivity as a call for reengineering all of the internal processes. Yet another group might assume this to be a call to invest in the latest technology in order to improve efficiency and lower operating costs over the long-term. As you can see, productivity can imply either spending less or spending more, depending on your assumptions.
Finally, let’s look at the term “positioning.” Perhaps your strategic emphasis is around repositioning the company. How would that be interpreted?
Some, with more of a marketing focus, may see a position as the slogan or catch phase tagged onto the end of your advertising. Hence, the solution to repositioning is to create a new slogan. Others may have more of a product focus and see repositioning as an attempt to change the product attributes, such as lowering the price or raising the quality.
Another group could have more of a competitive focus. They would see repositioning as an attempt to find a unique place for the product/brand in the marketplace where it can best win against competitive offerings/positions. Someone with a customer focus might see repositioning as a call to seeking a solution which they can own in the mind of the customer.
As you can see, depending on the assumptions, simple little directives can lead people in a wide variety of directions. Now some of this is desirable. You want people to internalize the strategy and look for ways to apply it to their piece of the puzzle.
However, at the same time, you don’t want chaos or randomness. The purpose of strategy is to provide direction in where you want to move the company. If there is not enough clarity in the words you use to create a common understanding, then your words have failed.
As a result, do not assume that your message is received as intended. Ask for feedback to see how the message is being interpreted. If there is confusion, take the time to clarify.
Strategies are primarily communicated via words. Based on one’s assumptions, words can have different strategic interpretations. Therefore, do not assume that everyone is on the same page, just because they have the same words. Take the time to ensure that there is unity in interpretation.
They say that about 75% of the population learns best visually (with pictures). Don’t be afraid to use charts and pictures to help get your point across. After all, you are building a roadmap to the future. Just think how difficult it would be to get somewhere new in your car if all your roadmaps were nothing but words.