Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Strategic Planning Analogy #238: Anchor Your Boat


Every month I have to change a bunch of passwords at work for email, voicemail, access to data, etc., because they expire.  And I can't change them to something easy to remember.  The passwords have to contain letters, numbers and symbols, and I cannot repeat a password I've used in the past year.  It's maddening!


Just imagine how much worse it would be if your other forms of identification also expired every month.  What if each month you had to come up with a new first name, last name, home address, email address and phone number?  You'd probably be spending half the month setting up your new residence, getting new government paperwork for your new name, setting up new phone service, and so on.  Then, for the rest of the month, you'd be trying to contact all of your friends to let them know your new name, where you live, and how to contact you. 


Of course, if all of your friends are also changing identities every month, you wouldn't know how to contact them to tell them about your new identities. 


All of your time would be spent trying to establish your life, leaving no time to live your life.  After awhile, all the names and numbers would blur together in your brain. You wouldn't even remember your own name, because it no longer has any special meaning to you…it's just another in a long line of names.  Here today, gone tomorrow.


My parents had it easy.  They lived in the same house together for about 50 years and had the same phone number over that length of time.  Their identities were solid and easy to remember.



Stability and continuity in one's personal identity can be a good thing.  First, it is easier to remember (for yourself and for the people you want to stay in contact with).  Second, your identity becomes stronger and more special, because its power hasn't been diluted through constant change.   Third, it allows you to spend less time on creating your identity and more time on living out who you are.


Although we can easily see the benefits to keeping our personal identity factors constant, I have seen many companies abandon this idea when it comes to the identity of their brand, company or selling proposition.  On a regular basis, they change their logos, their advertising slogan, their market position, their CEO and all manner of things relevant to their identity.


Maybe it's due to boredom.  Maybe it is out of the desperate hope that a change in identity can be a catalyst for improved performance.  Regardless of the reason, the result of constant change in business tends to be disappointing.  People get confused (both inside and outside the company), the power of the brand is diluted, and corporate resources are diverted to identity change rather than serving the customer.



The principle here is about strategic anchoring.  If you do not anchor a boat it will drift away and you will lose it.  However, if you anchor your boat in a known location, you can find it when you need it.  Just as boats need anchoring, so do strategies, or you company will drift away.


It's hard to get people's attention.  And when you do get it, you only get enough time for a soundbite or a Twitter "tweet."  Complex or subtle message find it hard to get through.  This applies not only to your customers, but to your employees. 


Therefore, when trying to communicate strategy, don't keep changing the context or the jargon.  Anchor it to something already embedded in the brain.  Look at the Balanced Scorecard.  Robert Kaplan and David Norton came up with the concept back in 1992.  Over time, Kaplan and Norton have come up with lots of new ideas and concepts for business beyond the original Balanced Scorecard idea.  Yet, they have not abandoned the identity they gained with the Balanced Scorecard. 


All of their new ideas are put inside the context of the Balanced Scorecard.  Why?  It is the identity already embedded in the mind of their audience.  It is a reference point understood by the audience.  It makes it easier to get their new concepts across in soundbites.


It looks like a similar situation is occurring with the Blue Ocean strategy.  W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne came up with this concept back in 2004, but they are not letting it die a quick death.  They now have the Blue Ocean Institute.  All their current ideas and writings are put into the Blue Ocean context.  It is becoming the solid identity foundation to build upon.  It is their version of a Balanced Scorecard.


If Kaplan and Norton kept redefining their jargon and context every time they had a new idea, they'd be like the person in the story who keeps changing his location and name.  You'd be spending so much time just trying to connect to your audience, that you will not have time to persuade.


Worse yet, abandoning the old jargon gives the impression that the old ideas and concepts should be abandoned.  And if the author is abandoning the ideas, why should I pay attention to them?  Won't those new concepts be eventually abandoned just like the old?  If the ideas become obsolete quickly, then why pay such close attention to them?   Your audience will start saying, "These, too, will pass soon, so I can get away with ignoring this latest management fad."



Don't marginalize your ideas by turning them into the "fad of the month."  Make a stand.  Keep the identity solid over a long period of time…long enough that people no longer feel they can ignore it.


Just because your company has strategic planning meetings every year does not mean that your strategy should change every year.  A good strategy should last quite a long time with only minor modifications.  Continuity is a good thing.


The same applies to the jargon and concepts used to describe the strategy.  Continuity of terminology reinforces the position in the mind of the audience.  Employees are more willing to go out on a limb and fight for your strategy if they know it is going to be around for a long time.


Now this does not mean that strategies are cast in concrete, never to change.  Tweaks and modifications are part of the game.  But just because one has to adapt their identity does not mean you throw the old identity away.  Rather than moving to a new house every month, like in the story, just redecorate the familiar old house.  If you look at the Balanced Scorecard "house" today, it has been vastly redecorated from what it looked like back in the early 1990s.  But it is the same, familiar house.  The boat is still well anchored.


Sure, the professional strategist can easily get bored with the old languages and concepts.  To spice things up and look like you are contributing, a strategist can get excited by using the latest jargon and newest tools at each strategy session.  Just remember, you audience doesn't think about this stuff as much as you do.  At the point where you are getting bored with it all, it may just be sinking in and getting comfortable with them.  And they will not spend as much time as you do keeping up with all these new approaches.  You can easily lose them in the churn of changing approaches.


Now, in this blog I have done just the opposite.  Rather than pound on the same analogy, week after week, month after month, year after year, I've done a new analogy with every blog entry.  This blog is analogy #238.  That's a lot of change.


I recently tried to remember all of those analogies and I couldn't do it.  They all started to blur.  If I, the author, cannot remember them, then the audience hasn't a chance.  If I wanted to make a big splash, perhaps I should have stayed with my favorite analogy—Strategic Planning is Like Barbecue Sauce—and just kept pounding on it week after week, like my version of the Blue Ocean.


One analogy can be an important metaphor for use in planning.  But 238 analogies are more than anyone can fully absorb into their daily living.  Perhaps it is time for a new approach.



Anchoring your strategy around a continuity of terminology has advantages.  It makes it easier to get your ideas across (common language).  It also keeps your ideas from being ignored as just a passing fad.  And besides, a good long term strategy shouldn't be changing all that often, anyway.  So why keep changing the jargon which talks about it?



Joseph Stalin used to say, "One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic."  Even something as monumentally tragic as death becomes just a meaningless number when it occurs countless times.  If you want to have a monumental impact on your people, don't change your strategic language countless times.  That degrades it to a mere statistic.

No comments:

Post a Comment