Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Analogy #170: Night Light

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of nights in hotel rooms. After spending all of those nights in hotels, I’m convinced that the designers of hotel rooms intentionally try to hide the light switches. They are never, ever where I intuitively think they should be.

When I first enter a hotel room, it seems like the door immediately shuts behind me, leaving me in total darkness. I stick my arms out to feel for a wall. Once my hand touches a wall, I feel around for a switch for what seems like forever. Three thoughts cross my mind. First, why do hotel doors close so quickly, before I have a chance to find a light switch? Second, why isn’t there a light switch within arm’s reach of the door? Third, I sure hope those walls I’m feeling with my hands are clean.

Usually, I am forced to fumble around until I find the hotel room door again (hopefully I find the door with my hand, rather than my knee or my head). Then I prop my luggage in the doorway so that the door cannot slam shut. This allows a little of the hallway light to peek into the room. That hallway light is just enough to help me find the unusual place where the light switch is placed (often nowhere near the door).

The problem repeats itself if I wake up in the middle of the night and need a glass of water or the rest room. It is so dark that I end up stumbling all over the place—stubbing my toes and crashing me knees into furniture—all because I cannot find a light switch. By the time I finally feel my way to the rest room, my eyes are starting to get used to the dark. Therefore, when I finally find the light switch in the rest room, the brightness blinds me so that I still cannot see. So I crash and stumble some more.

One time I had the opposite problem. There was a nice painting over the top of the headboard of the bed. It had a bright light shining on the painting to show it off. Well, I found it impossible to sleep that night with that bright spotlight shining right over my head. It felt as if there was a huge semi truck coming my way all night with its headlight aimed over my head. It wasn’t until the next day that I found the switch to turn it off. It was near the ceiling on a wall nowhere near the painting or the light. I had to get on a chair to turn it off. Is that a logical place to put the switch?

Few things are more frustrating than being in an unfamiliar place and having no light to see what you are doing. As in the story of the hotel, one ends up fumbling around—getting bumps and bruises along the way. If only the hotels had made it easier to find some light, things would go a lot smoother.

Strategies often take your company to places which are unfamiliar as well. The process of innovation or repositioning can lead your people into unknown territory. Because strategies can often have a goal of being the first to own a particular position, you may be going to places where nobody has gone before. There are no maps. You can feel totally in the dark.

In the unknown in the dark, one can end up wandering aimlessly, hurting one’s self bumping into the furniture. Many strategic initiatives can also lose their way in the dark, as people get tired of bumping into unexpected obstacles and give up.

To succeed, one needs to give people handy access to a source of light. With light, the unknown becomes known, so that you can successfully navigate around the obstacles. Your roll, as a strategic leader, is to help people find that light switch.

The principle here is that strategic planning does not end when the journey begins. It must stick around for the entire journey, providing the light so that people can see into the unknown. It must illuminate by being both the long range beacon (the North Star) and the close range flashlight (the Illuminator).

1. The North Star (Beacon)
When sailors tried to navigate ships in the dark when on the ocean, there was very little to guide them. The ocean looked the same in all directions. To stay on course, they used the positioning of the distant stars. By knowing that the North Star is always to the north, they could navigate by positioning themselves relative to that known northerly light.

Similarly, when the slaves in the southern US wanted to escape to the north to find freedom, they relied on the phrase “follow the drinking gourd.” The Big Dipper constellation looks like a drinking gourd. As long as one is traveling in the direction of the constellation, one is heading north, because it is always in the northern sky.

This same principle applies to strategies. If properly designed a strategy should have a beacon which—like the North Star—can always be seen and help orient people in the proper direction.

For example, everyone at the Four Seasons hotel group understands that excellence in personal service is a strategic beacon for their company. Therefore, whenever a Four Seasons employee is confronted with an unknown situation and feels a bit lost, all they have to do is look for that beacon (excellence in personal service) and they can quickly reorient themselves to sail through the unknown. Just sail towards the light of providing that excellent service, and you will help move the company towards its strategic goal.

At Wal-Mart, the beacon is “low prices.” When Wal-Mart is confronting the unknown, it just needs to find the light of low prices and the proper path will become apparent. The problems at Wal-Mart during 2007 were due in large part to drifting away from that low price beacon and moving too far into the choppy waters of upscale and fashion.

At Google, the beacon is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. Thus far, that beacon has helped them find many great new opportunities in the unknown without getting lost or without losing time stumbling around in the dark.

As a strategic leader, one must continually point out to everyone and remind them where your particular North Star is, so that people can intuitively find it when the unknown occurs.

2. The Illuminator (Flashlight)
The beacon provides the long range light. Looking up to that light, you see the big picture. But sometimes one also needs some short range light so one can look down to make sure that one’s knee is not about to bump into something. That requires a flashlight.

Flashlights illuminate a small area in front of you so that you can know what is directly ahead. In strategy, this is done via knowledge gathering. The more you know, the more you understand what is right in front of you. That allows you to avoid those near-term bumps on the way to your strategic goal.

It is quite common for companies to spend a lot of time and money on research prior to embarking on a strategy. This includes research on the consumer, the competition, the environment, and so on. However, it is not that uncommon for firms to significantly cut back on strategic research once the journey begins.

Once you move down the path of your strategy, changes will occur. Your new actions will cause competitive reactions. Consumers may react to your strategy in a different way than you expected. If you stop the research once the journey begins, your knowledge of the environment will quickly become obsolete. That would be like driving with outdated data in your GPS navigational system. It may have been correct at one time, but if you rely on it now, you may end up crashing into a ditch.

Before Tesco entered the United States with its Fresh & Easy retail concept, it spent considerable time researching the marketplace. It spent months with families, going grocery shopping with them, watching them prepare meals, and taking inventory of their refrigerator contents. This research provided the illumination behind developing the Fresh & Easy strategy.

However, after getting a handful of these stores up and running long enough to have impacted the consumers and the marketplace, Tesco had a preplanned breather in their growth strategy to reassess the marketplace. They wanted to gather new knowledge so that they could illuminate the path in front of them and make the proper adjustments.

There will always be a need for strategic adjustments. Therefore, there will always be a need for strategic research.

Being in an unknown environment in the dark can be unproductive. Like a dark hotel room, all you end up doing is bumping into things. To be productive, one needs light. Strategic planning can provide two kinds of illumination. First is the long term directional illumination from a simple, universally understood vision statement. As long as that major goal is known, it can act like the North Star to orient your actions in the proper direction, even when in unknown territory.

Second is the near term directional illumination which comes from research and data gathering. All along the journey, strategic information can help update people on what the environment right in front of them looks like. This is like the flashlight that you can point at your feet to make adjustments along the way to avoid obstacles. Flashlights are not just needed in the beginning. They are necessary for the entire journey.

Some hotels have gotten smart and incorporated a night light into their light switches. That way, you can see the light switch in the dark. Don’t forget to put night lights into your strategic journey.

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