Friday, February 13, 2009

Strategic Planning Analogy #239: Holy Fire

I suspect that at some time in your life you’ve heard the story of Moses and the burning bush. Moses was minding his business as a shepherd in the wilderness. He came across a bush that was on fire. Interestingly, although on fire, the bush was not being consumed by the fire. Even more amazing, the burning bush started talking to Moses—with the spiritual authority of God.

God’s voice from the bush told Moses to take of his sandals, because he was standing on holy ground. Then the voice from the bush told Moses about the holy mission he needed to undertake—the freeing of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt and getting them from the desert to the Holy Land.

The job of freeing the Hebrews from the Egyptians and getting them to the Promised Land was a very difficult task. The powerful Egyptian Pharaoh did not want to let them go. The Hebrew people were not the most cooperative people to lead, either. The forty years of wandering in the desert prior to reaching the Promised Land was very discouraging. I doubt that Moses would have followed through on the plan if he did not believe that there was holy direction behind the task.

Your business has some difficult tasks in front of it as well. It may be easier to lead your business through the desert times if you can imbue some “holy purpose” to the task.

What do I mean by “holy purpose”? This is the elevation of mere work into a noble endeavor. It is taking a strategy from being merely a list of chores to being like a divine inspiration, something that sets you apart for accomplishing greatness.

This could be seen back in 1983, when Steve Jobs was trying to lure John Sculley from Pepsi to join Apple. Steve’s approach was to position working at Apple as a holy purpose, while working a Pepsi was just a job. To quote Jobs’ plea to Sculley, “Do you want to sell fizzy water for the rest of your life or do you want a chance to change the world?”

Can people see the holy purpose in your strategy, or does it just look like fizzy water?

The principle here has to do with the active management of holy purpose as part of your strategy. The amazing thing about the burning bush was not that it was on fire, but that it was on fire, yet not consumed by it. Fire is a powerful thing. Inside a fireplace, it can be very useful in heating your house. Outside a fireplace, the fire can consume your house and destroy it. Similarly, we want to use holy purpose to “fire up” your employees to achieve greatness. However, if holy purpose is uncontrolled, it can consume your business and burn it up into nothing. Holy purpose cannot be allowed to run wild. It must be managed.

Active management of holy purpose means building up two characteristics and tearing down two activities. The two characteristics to be built up are the strengths of Purpose and Passion. The two activities to be torn down are Idol Worship and Pharisaism.

1. Build Strength of Purpose
One of the main roles of strategy is to provide direction to a company. The enemy of strategy is randomness. Pure randomness leads to nowhere. When holy purpose is given to a strategy, the power of that direction becomes stronger. The path is now a noble, holy path. People are less likely to deviate from a holy path, as this can be portrayed as akin to sin. As a result, you are more likely to get the strategy accomplished.

Petty bickering is also diminished, because “you are standing on holy ground.” The greater good of the strong purpose makes all that other stuff seem so trivial. Cooperation goes up…actions become more powerful.

The noble purpose at Wal-Mart is to help customers save money so that they can live better. Everyone within the entire Wal-Mart organization understands that this noble purpose requires Wal-Mart to be a low-cost organization. This universal strength in direction means that people instinctively act in conformance with this direction. Everyone is on the same page—do what it takes to keep costs low. It is burned into the fiber of the organization. In many ways, the strategy becomes self-regulating and self-reinforcing, taking care of itself.

People are drawn to companies with a strong sense of purpose, both as consumers and as employees. People want to work at Google because they believe in its purpose, “to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.” This is not just data crunching—this is revolutionizing the world by empowering the individual.

2. Build Strength of Passion
As I’ve mentioned in the past (here and here), dedicated, passionate advocates for the cause are far more productive than mercenaries, who are only in it for the money. Passion turns a war into a crusade and employees into missionaries looking for converts.

By giving holy purpose to your business cause, you can better tap into the emotional and other higher level motivators within a person. This seems to be especially true among Gen X-ers, who are more likely to choose what they buy, where they shop, and where they work based on higher level purpose. If your brand is not associated with a higher purpose, you are missing out on potential with this group.

In the race to the future, having passion on your side can be the difference between success and failure. Cultivate passion with a holy purpose.

3. Tear Down Idol Worship
As good as holy purpose can be, there is a down side if improperly managed. One of these downsides can be “idol worship.” When Walt Disney ran his company, people at Disney almost worshipped the man. When Walt died, the Disney company went into a downward slide for years. People were afraid to take a bold move because the guiding force was no longer there. They had been trained to do whatever Walt said, rather than trained to run a great company.

When the leader becomes idolized, creativity and innovation in the rest of the organization can wither. Everyone expects the great oracle at the top to lead the way. Employees can become mindless drones to carry out the will of the worshipped leader. Responsibility is abdicated and replaced with worship.

Some worry that Steve Jobs and Apple may be falling into this trap. That is why the Apple stock price plummets whenever rumors surface about the health problems of Steve Jobs, the worshipped leader. Some fear that Apple’s great innovation and sense of purpose will die with Steve.

The trick is to focus the holy purpose around ideals, rather than leaders. Then management needs to ensure that the entire organization feels responsible for maintaining the holy purpose.

Leaders come and go. They can make mistakes. That is why the holy purpose needs to transcend any one individual and belong to everyone.

4. Tear Down Pharisaism
Another potential downside is Pharisaism. In the Jewish faith during the time of Jesus was a group of religious leaders called the Pharisees. They took the simple laws handed down from Moses and turned them into complex legalism. The noble holy purpose was replaced with cold (almost blind) rigid obedience.

The same thing can happen to your business. Over time, the noble purpose can just become a bunch of rules to obey. Unfortunately, the marketplace changes over time, eventually making these rules obsolete. Blind following of obsolete rules leads to destruction.

Strategist Gary Hamel talks about this principle a lot. He refers to it as “orthodoxy.” Every industry has its set of orthodoxies—the generally accepted way to do things. Nearly all great innovations come about by changing the rules, i.e. ignoring the orthodoxies.

In a recent blog, we talked about Revol Wireless, who ignored the orthodoxies of their industry. The orthodoxy was to get an expensive new mobile phone into the hands of customers when they sign up for a wireless plan (the lure). The phone is sold at a discount and subsidized by higher usage rates tied to a contract (to ensure people stick around long enough to pay off the subsidy). Revol ignored the orthodoxies and did not subsidize the phone. This allowed Revol to charge lower usage rates (the new lure) and abandon the contract.

Harvard professor Clayton Christensen has written extensively on the idea of disruptive innovation. Christensen’s point is that true innovation traditionally comes from outside an industry rather than inside, because the insiders are too wedded to the old orthodoxies. The insiders don’t want to disrupt their rules because they have too much at stake in the old ways.

This is like those Pharisees who rejected Jesus because they had too much at stake in the legalism of the old ways. However, just as the Pharisees’ rejection could not stop the rise of Christianity, industry insiders cannot stop innovation through adherence to the old orthodoxies.

Every once in awhile, strategists need to sit back and question the orthodoxies around them. Is it time to change the rules? How should the rules be changed?

Adherence to principles, rather than rules, allows you to adapt and innovate. Wal-Mart was an early leader to get on the “green” bandwagon. Why? Their holy purpose was to lower prices so people could live better. As it turns out, the green movement eliminates a lot of costly waste. By going green, Wal-Mart can further its holy purpose and cut costs out of the system. Wal-Mart changed its rules/orthodoxies, but stayed true to its purpose.

Providing a nobler purpose to a strategy can be a powerful tool to improve the likelihood of success. It strengthens the power of strategic direction and allows you to tap into the passion of people. However, there can also be downsides if this holy purpose degenerates in to idol worship (abdication of responsibility) or Pharisaism (blind legalism). As a result, holy purpose needs to be actively managed to cultivate the good without achieving the bad.

In the Bible book of Acts, the author Luke praised the citizens of Berea, because they did not blindly follow the teachings of St. Paul (Acts 17:10-12). Instead, they took their passion and carefully studied the doctrine against scripture—to make an informed decision. He referred to these Bereans as “noble.” Blind followers are never as good as those who continue to make informed decisions. Passion needs to be linked to knowledge. A good strategy taps into both.

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