Sunday, January 11, 2009

Analogy #232: Breaking the Ice

Growing up in Michigan, I heard stories every year of how ice was affecting the shipping of goods through the Great Lakes. Each winter, portions of the Great Lakes waterway would freeze, making it impossible for the cargo ships to operate.

The Great Lakes shipping industry is vital to the economies of communities throughout North America and beyond. During the winter months, about 17 million tons of cargo flow through this waterway. Key cargos include coal for electricity and heat, iron ore for manufacturing, salt to keep roads open in the winter, and grain for food.

To keep the cargo moving, the US Coast Guard uses icebreaking ships. These ships do not carry cargo. Instead, they are specifically designed to break down ice, in order to create shipping lanes for the cargo ships. Without these icebreaker ships, many weeks of shipping would be lost each year.

Although both types of ships are different, both the icebreaker ships and the cargo ships are necessary to accomplish the task. In fact, it is their differences which make each one valuable. No cargo ships could get through without the icebreaker ship creating the shipping lanes. And those shipping lanes would be worthless if there weren’t cargo ships to use them. They functions are both vitally important.

Both of these ships are specifically designed for their purpose. If you tried to use a cargo ship to break the ice, you would destroy the ship. And the icebreaker ships are not designed to carry much and would be highly inefficient as a cargo carrier.

There is a similar situation in business between “Leadership” and “Management.” Both are vitally important to get business accomplished, but they are different and cannot be a substitute for each other.

Leadership is like the icebreaker ship. Leadership looks ahead and creates the path to the future, like building a shipping lane through ice. Leaders (the icebreakers) provide guidance to show the followers (the cargo ships) where to go. Leaders need to innovate—break through the rigid ice of conventional thinking to achieve the next “breakthrough” idea. Leadership is mostly externally focused, scanning the environment to find a proper path.

Management is like the cargo ships. Management makes sure the details of the business get done—the cargo is loaded, shipped and delivered on time and under budget. Management is mostly internally focused on the specific task at hand.

Focusing on management alone can lead to two problems. First, management skills are good at making sure the task gets done, but not well suited for determining which task to do. Without leadership, one can end up becoming very good at managing a task that is no longer relevant.

Second, management alone can become so internally focused on improving the process that they fail to see the changing external conditions which can make all that effort for naught. The ice comes in and freezes that cargo ship of management so that it cannot move. Leaders are needed to detect the coming ice and find the proper path through it.

I have seen too many companies get all wrapped up into managing the tasks at hand to the exclusion of any leadership looks into the larger picture. The company just focuses on trying to do everything “just a little bit better.” The idea is that if we keep doing the same thing (only a little better) everything will work out all right.

In times of economic turmoil, like the current situation, it can become even more intense of a focus on managing the execution. Unfortunately, the economic turmoil has changed the environment. The old ways may no longer be appropriate. The leadership role is needed to find the new path in the icy storm.

Of course, as important as leadership is, it alone is not enough, either. Many great ideas from visionary leaders fail because of insufficient follow through on managing the process to bring the idea to light.

In addition, leaders are only great if they have followers. Just as shipping lanes in the ice are only useful if there is someone who follows behind and uses the lane, leaders need followers to create any value from the vision.

The principle is that strategic planners need to recognize the existence of two essential, but different functions here—leading and managing. Each aspect needs a different kind of strategic plan.

The strategic questions which need to be answered for “leading” are as something like this:

1) What does the environment look like?
2) Where is the ideal place in this environment for our business to go?
3) What should our position be in the marketplace?
4) What does winning look like?
5) How do we need to change in order to win?

This tends to look like conventional strategic planning.

But we shouldn’t stop here. We need to plan the management of the vision as well. This second type of planning is often referred to as Project Management. This is how one coordinates all the little things that have to happen to make the plan come to life. The questions for planning at the management level look something like this:

1) What are all the tasks which need to be accomplished?
2) How do the tasks interact? Do they have to be done in a particular order? Where do tasks need to coordinate together?
3) Who will be responsible for getting each task done? What are the incentives/punishments associated with getting it done?
4) What are the timetables (due dates) for when each task needs to be completed?
5) How are we going to monitor all of this activity, to make sure it gets done properly?

To a professional strategist, this may look more like a tactic than a strategy. However, to the one who has to get the job done, this is his/her strategy. And getting this planned out properly is just a critical as getting the big picture correct.

Now, just as you use two different kinds of ships at sea (cargo and icebreaker), you probably need two different types of people to do these tasks (leading and managing), because the skill sets tend to be very different. But just because they are different tasks done by different people doesn’t mean they can act independently of each other. Tight coordination is needed.

The tasks being managed need to be moving the company in the direction of where the leader is trying to lead it. And the leadership cannot properly lead if it does not keep the managers in the communications loop. They are really just two aspects of the same process.

Therefore, when setting up your strategic planning process, make sure time is given to planning the plan (leadership) and planning the execution of the plan (management). Although they may take place at different times with different people, they need to coordinated on your calendar and be working towards the same agreed upon goals.

For a company to succeed, it needs two things: the proper path into the future (Leadership), and a process to get there (Management). Both are essential and need to be a part of the overall strategic planning process. Leadership alone is just a dream with no way to fulfill it. Management alone will get a job done, but it may be absolutely the wrong job to be doing, because it is out of touch with the evolving environment.

A common term thrown about these days is “visualization.” The idea is that if we can just visualize hard enough the goal we want, the goal will somehow be miraculously be obtained. I’m not willing to just rely on thinking hard (leadership alone). I want to work hard as well (management).


  1. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  2. Joyce,

    Thank you for the positive feedback. It's nice to hear when this blog is connecting with someone.